Today’s SPMB Spotlight shines on Jessica Popp, CTO at Ada.cx. Jessica leads the technology strategy and execution for Ada’s product roadmap and is a former SPMB client who I’ve had the pleasure of working with. She has always impressed me as a leader and has built an exceptional engineering organization. I’m thrilled to share a window into Jessica’s experience and, importantly, her opinions and values around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).
In part one of this two-part interview, we discuss:
- Psychological safety
- What to listen for when interviewing line managers
- How to avoid a “leaky funnel” and the “at bat” concept
- Traditional education vs. bootcamps
- Agile and DEI
How did you get your start in tech?
I didn’t get my start in tech until college. I studied fine arts and realized it should probably be changed to a minor — I didn’t want to wait tables for the rest of my life. My love for art exceeds my skill level.
I’ve always enjoyed math and business, so I switched to information systems. The mix of engineering and enabling technology in business was a perfect fit to satisfy my curiosity, which tends to be more broad than deep.
What are the best ways to instill trust for new employees who are considered URM (underrepresented minority)? What actions need to be taken to put DEI methodologies/principles/frameworks into practice?
It starts with psychological safety. That means: I can be appreciated for who I am while I am doing my work. I don’t feel like people will judge me for who I am, both the attributes I can’t control and those I can. I’m not judged for my color, or my gender, or my sexual orientation, attributes I don’t control. Or even for my interest areas, hobbies or religion When these don’t come into play in the workplace I can show up as my whole self at work and feel like a strong team player.
As a leader you need to have constructs to make this happen. It starts with the managers that I’ve hired and I set this as an expectation. When we interview managers we should be asking “What is your DEI strategy?”. And if their answer is: “Well I just hire the best person who can get the job done”…to me that is a non answer in today’s world. An answer like that means you are highly likely to end up with a non-diverse team. You will focus on the fastest way to fill the position by talking to the most obvious and abundant candidates, which are often non-diverse folks and people in your network, and you are more likely to experience confirmation bias in hiring (hiring people similar to yourself) when you don’t have a strategy. The fastest way to hire is going after the largest population of talent which is typically white men. But speed is not everything when hiring.
When you are hiring a front line manager, what are the answers you want to hear with regard to DEI strategy?
Hiring for diversity takes a little bit longer and that should be accepted, not feared.
A sophisticated answer is “I want to set up a balance of diverse hiring with the needs of the business”. I can’t stop all hiring to hit a really high diversity goal. We all still have high business outcomes that we need to achieve. There is a balance between driving business outcomes and closing positions. Another good answer: “I partner with recruiting to get a solid mix of candidates. If I do not get a mix of diverse candidates to interview then I go back to the recruiter asking for more URM candidates.”
Leaders need to set ratios for the number of URM candidates that they talk with. You should not close an interview process until you have set a metric, let’s say, 20%-30% of the candidates you talk with need to be diverse. This is not always achievable but I am looking for managers who have a view into this — either they have done it before or if they are up and coming in their career that they show a major interest in this type of a hiring process.
In software engineering we love Agile — an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Just like we follow principles to get code delivered, teams should also have set internal Agile team principles. Teams should come up with their operating principles and they should call out how we treat each other. That is what psychological safety is all about. This all sounds obvious right? But the practice of sitting down and doing this is where I see leaders struggle. By actively doing this it helps you get to know people in your org and helps you define key operating agreements. Everyone generally agrees with this but the practice of actually doing it makes for turning concepts into practice and that is the hardest step for some.
The value of psychological safety is simple, you do your best work if you feel safe on your team. If you are not worried about retribution or being judged or mocked you are more comfortable, more confident and this will be demonstrated in your work. For me I saw those unconscious biases that happened to me earlier in my career, mostly around my gender. It is the classic ones that we all know: “She is pushy but he is assertive” or “She is aggressive but he is accomplished.” All of those reduce psychological safety because that makes me afraid to say something in a meeting, because I’m going to get judged or mocked for speaking up.
How does someone grow or promote their team members? The “at bat” concept.
Many of the DEI initiatives over the past few years in a lot of companies turn into a leaky funnel. You can get URM candidates in the door but that doesn’t mean they will stay. You can have all these great DEI initiatives in play to attract people but once that person gets in they might realize that they are not actually respected in the job for what they bring, then they leave. It is psychological safety and opportunity that keeps the person to stay on. Equal opportunity means you don’t promote based on liking people. You need to come up with rubrics and data that shows how people are promoted or how people can get new or special projects to try — and make sure those happen in an equivalent way. Lots of unconscious thinking can get in the way of making those promotions happen, even if you are a strong DEI leader those unconscious biases can sneak back in.
During the interview process, you need to have a consistent assessment process that applies to all candidates. First, set an interview panel that is consistent across all candidates for a role. Second, set a list of questions for each area of interview focus, determine what a good answer looks like and use those consistently across all interviewees. Consistency works to remove a source of bias from the process. With this in place, when you interview five candidates you can flip back and forth on each candidate and be able to compare apples to apples. If you don’t do this then unconscious bias starts to slip in and the questions you ask begin to deviate. Then, you can’t make a quantitative decision based on their answers and then you start to make a qualitative decision. With a qualitative assessment you are more likely to pick someone who you best “clicked with” and you are more likely to click with someone who is more like you.
When it comes to creating opportunities for growth within the team, leaders will give special projects away to team members they like or they already work closely within. Instead they should be looking at the data and applying discipline to determine who gets the next special project. Determine either a rotation opportunity or a rubric for needed skills. I prefer a rotation concept.. This gives everyone an “at bat” opportunity, because special or one-off projects are often key skills and relationship building opportunities.
Bringing it back to Agile
The team works together as a unit in an Agile environment. Let’s say you have 14 different stories to work through in a 2 week period. You can work on these projects in a silo format, with Agile you work on those projects together and pull it through the pipeline at the same time. Like the image of a mouse moving through a snake. The work should happen with each other. You are creating that environment to have newer people learning from senior folks. This is an opportunity for everyone to participate in and for others to gravitate towards mentors who have similar working styles to them. It sparks an environment for everyone to learn and perform with one another. Versus the other way of a siloed project based environment where individuals who are the best move quickest through their projects and go on to the next best project while others who might be newer or less skilled don’t get that experience.
Stay tuned for part two of our sit-down with Jessica in which we discuss: how to update your interview process; how to keep DEI top of mind in hyper growth mode; and qualities for a great leader.
At SPMB, we are committed to fostering and stimulating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership ecosystem across the industries, growth stages, and geographies in which we work to better serve our clients and their organizations.