Hiring (and Retaining) a Diverse Engineering Team
Stories from six engineering leaders who succeeded in building and growing diverse teams
👋 Hi, this is Gergely with this month’s free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover challenges at big tech and high-growth startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers.
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Q: I’m a hiring manager with headcount to grow my team. What hiring approaches will help me hire and build a more diverse team?
Such an important question, and one that more hiring managers should ask. Gender, race, educational background and other forms of diversity are important. The experience of several leaders I talked with – as well as several studies – show that diverse teams perform better and innovate more. Diverse workplaces, in my observation, also tend to be more inclusive and equitable; nicer places to work at, of which you can be proud and where you feel a strong sense of belonging, whatever your background.
So how do you hire more diverse teams? In this issue, I hand it over to managers in tech who have done this successfully, to hear it straight from them.
Building a diverse team at the Financial Times
Sarah Wells started at the Financial Times (FT) engineering department in 2011, as a developer. Ten years later, she is a Tech Director. The Financial Times is a success story for how they improved diversity over time. As I was looking to learn more about this issue, almost everyone suggested I talk with Sarah, who was in the middle of the effort. Here’s her story in her own words:
‘When I joined as a Senior Developer, I was one of 4 or 5 women in the development team. The CIO was a woman, but everyone else more senior than me was a man, including all director-level roles and all of our architects. I didn't have any role models for senior women in engineering, I had never worked with any woman engineer more senior than me.
‘Now, across permanent engineers in London we are around 35% women and non-binary, and that is pretty evenly spread at all levels. And for our CTO's direct reports, the Tech Leadership Group, it is men who are in the minority.
‘I'm talking about gender diversity here because it's the only aspect I can say much about from that period; we didn't have data about the less obvious aspects of diversity. That doesn't mean it's the most important, although gender diversity is perhaps the one we've made most progress in improving.
‘There are two aspects that I think matter if you want a diverse team. The first is whether you can hire people. The second is whether you can keep them.
1. Hiring. ‘Can you hire people from underrepresented groups? Here’s how we at the FT approached this.
Visible diversity. ‘It's a risk to join any new company. I am more likely to believe your company is inclusive and that I will like the culture, if I can see people who look like me in leadership positions. That might be because those people are speaking, or on Twitter/LinkedIn. It could also be because all your public presence as a department makes sure they are visible. Forget pictures of ten white men and a dog on the ‘About’ page for the company.
Job specs, make sure they are inclusive. ‘Don't ask for a long list of technologies. Don't talk about beer pong. Focus on collaboration and learning, rather than ‘crushing it’. Run job descriptions past a range of people. Ask them, "is there anything here that would spook you?" Personally, I applied for Principal Engineer at the FT, despite a job spec that talked about being a software engineering ‘rockstar.’ I hope we wouldn’t use that terminology now!
Networking. ‘Ask people to use their social media – Twitter, Linkedin – to share job postings. Be aware that people's networks can look a lot like them. Be prepared to say you want to see applications from underrepresented groups.
Don't assume everyone has lots of free time to spend completing a coding project. ‘People from underrepresented groups often have more caring commitments that take up their time. Be clear about the process, so people know the timescale and the commitment needed from them. Let them know what they can expect in return.
Make sure interviewers aren't all white men. ‘But be aware, when you don't have many people from an underrepresented group, ensure they don’t spend all their time interviewing. You also want to avoid the few underrepresented people being 'the token interviewers' in an interview. I still remember the first time I was invited to help out at an interview for a different team, where the person made it clear they invited me for my knowledge of Java and not because they needed a woman there. This was super refreshing!
Partner with organizations offering non-standard routes into coding. ‘We have had a lot of success recruiting through organisations like Code Your Future (training refugees) and Makers Academy (coding bootcamp). Many of the people who came through these routes have stuck with the FT. We have at least one Principal Engineer who came through one of these programs.
2. Retaining. ‘Once you have hired diverse candidates, can you hold on to them? Here are areas we focused on:
Stay inclusive and give opportunities to underrepresented people. ‘You keep people by being an inclusive place, and one where historically underrepresented people get opportunities and promotions. This is essential, because if you're starting from a pretty non-diverse team, you will probably find it easier to recruit at the junior level; fixing a lack of diversity can be a long term project.
Data is crucial. ‘You need to know how you are doing, and to see the trends. Gender diversity was the first thing we were able to track, because this was where we had some data. We have since amended our HR systems to track other aspects of diversity. Make sure the options you offer make sense to people, get advice on the language to use. Explain why you are collecting this information because people will be suspicious.
Use the data, but do so intelligently. ‘On our promotion boards, we look at the data to make sure we aren't biased in who gets a promotion or a pay rise. We compare the minimum, average and maximum for each grade. We have been doing this for nearly four years now. It takes time to fix things like this, but I am confident we have been moving in the right direction.
Measure what matters to you as an organisation. ‘If you don't have any OKRs relating to culture, diversity and inclusion, you are sending a message to your teams that those things aren't important. Our recently departed CPIO, Cait O'Riordan deserves a lot of credit here. Several years ago, she set a clear, ambitious and public goal: "Gender parity in our Product & Tech department by 2023". Our OKRs reflect this at an annual and quarterly level. For example, we might have something like: "50% of the people we hire this quarter will be women, trans or non-binary".
Show diversity with everything you share. ‘Look at the diversity of people writing for your tech blog and pictured on your blog posts. If it is overwhelmingly men displayed on all these channels, then you have to be intentional on your public image and reflect more diversity.
Training. ‘Offer people training, for example on neurodiversity and mental health. Make sure white men and your leadership team attend. It’s easy for senior people with packed calendars not to prioritise this, but it sends the message that these topics are not a priority.
Stand up for people. ‘If someone gets spoken over, make space for them. For example, by saying “I think Clare has a point that I’d like to hear.”
Set up employee support groups. ‘We have several of these, such as:
FT Embrace: to inform and educate individuals about Black, Asian and minority ethnic experiences and create and maintain a supportive environment for all.
FT Access: to improve attitudes and provide a positive working environment for people with disabilities.
ProudFT: to help build a workplace where LGBT+ individuals can truly be themselves.
FT Families: to support families, carers and parents-to-be, across the FT Group.
FT Women: to connect, support and empower women across the Financial Times with the goal of promoting gender parity.
FT Mental Health: to promote awareness of mental health issues, establish mental health support within all departments and provide clear information and resources for FT staff.
‘Sponsor these groups at the highest level, for example people from the board. Recognise the work of running groups takes up time, so make that time available. And consult groups about things that have an impact on people from that group. For example, ProudFT was consulted on our trans-inclusion policy.
‘Be prepared for friction and difficult conversations as you go from a monolithic culture, to a more diverse one,’ Sarah says. She closes with this advice:
“Realise that when you are striving to make things more equal, a white man might feel his opportunities have shrunk. So you need to explain why this is a positive change, repeatedly. You are not lowering the bar, you are fixing the things that stopped you from being able to attract some great candidates.”
Increasing diversity at Charlotte Tilbury
Samuel Adjei is currently a Software Development Manager at Amazon. He joined Charlotte Tilbury in 2020, right as the UK went into lockdown. After joining, he increased the diversity across his engineering team by 26%. 80% of new hires were women, the rest non-white men, hiring a mix of frontend and backend engineers. Here’s the approach that worked for him:
‘Increasing our pool of diverse candidates was the first step. I was straightforward with our internal recruitment team and external agencies on this goal and challenged them to only present a balanced mixture of candidates. I made it clear that I did not want any “box ticking”. This means that I wasn’t going to interview a female candidate or a black candidate just because of that reason.
‘My Head of Engineering was supportive, which was important. Ensuring that both recruitment and my management chain were both in, was key.
‘It’s easier to attract diverse talent if an organisation invests in seeking out “diverse” leaders. I’m speaking as a black man in technology, who is an EM and currently at a FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) company.
‘I’m a minority in this space for sure, and it attracts a more balanced talent pool. I understand the hurdles of the industry. This means my interview style and approach to hiring is probably different to my white male counterpart. By no means does that mean that it’s easier, though. It’s just different, and that difference resonates with candidates within this “diverse” pool.
‘These are things I would recommend for leaders who are serious about hiring a more diverse team:
1. Be flexible. ‘Try to understand what the candidate could be facing, or has faced at interviews. Leave your bias at the door. You need to adapt your “pitch” to ensure it resonates with the candidate based on their own experiences, as opposed to your assumptions.
Leaving your bias at the door is easier said than done. Here’s a few approaches Samuel outlined that you can take to do so:
Know that they will be less experienced at interviewing. ‘Understand that as a minority or woman, they’ve likely had less interviews than peers from non-underrepresented groups. Know that they have likely had more bad interview experiences such as micro-aggressions or women being ‘mansplained’ to.
Create an interview environment that allows them to showcase their skills. ‘Ask questions in ways that resonates with the candidate. No two candidates are the same. Use your emotional intelligence, as a leader.
Evaluate each candidate as an individual over comparing. ‘Avoid comparing what company they worked at, what education they had, or what bootcamp they came from. Focus on the only question that matters: all things being equal, does this person meet requirements for the job?
Be conscious of the language you use. ‘Even small things like referring to groups of people as “guys” can rub people the wrong way.
‘Talk to women in your organisation, black team members, disabled colleagues. Try to understand their journeys. What has worked for them? Use this understanding to shape your interview style and build trust with candidates. Many candidates who accepted offers cited my interview style as a major reason for accepting. In fact, at my last role, all but one candidate accepted offers where I was the hiring manager and interviewed them.
2. Track what is working and what isn’t, but don’t put a number on it. ‘I never set out to increase our diversity by a set percentage. I set out to increase our diversity, period.
'Look at what is working and what is not. Tweak your approaches based on your level of success. This tweaking applies to your recruitment team and recruiters as well. Have frank conversations with them about approaches that are bringing results, and ones that are not. Deep-dive into the data where possible, and make changes based on this information.
3. Understand that improving diversity is a journey. ‘There is no value in spending all the time and effort trying to increase the diversity in your team, just to fail at onboarding or providing career support to a newly hired engineer.
‘Where do you need to make changes to your onboarding? How can you improve your team culture? How do you make these changes to create an environment where people from all walks of life can thrive? If your current employees are happy, they will gladly refer their peers to work here. Diverse candidates typically know more diverse candidates, and therefore your current employees will help create a more diverse pipeline.’
Closing the gender diversity gap at SAP Signavio
Franziska Hauck is a People Lead at SAP, in Berlin. She improved the diversity ratio from 20% up to 40% on her teams in her first year, as they embarked on a growth phase. She shared how the team bought into the idea of balancing gender diversity from when she started:
‘I started to lead a team with members from several countries that later split into two teams. When I took on this team, they shared how proud they were of this diversity; a great stepping stone! They were motivated to continue on this path. However, this team was one with only one woman, everyone else men. The team expressed how they wanted to see a more equalized gender ratio, especially with a hiring phrase coming up.
‘Most the team were involved in the interview process and it was imperative to me that they reflect on their conscious and unconscious biases. All interviewers participated in interview training. I also gave workshops on positive communication and providing feedback. In 1:1 coachings, I positively challenged and encouraged team members.
‘In my hiring, I make it a practice to consistently challenge my bias. Our talent acquisition team does the same and they are motivated to increase diversity. This combination of both the hiring manager and the talent acquisition team being bias-aware reduced the proportion of already overrepresented groups in most of our pipeline.
‘Still, it’s hard to escape the reality of the market. The more senior a position, the harder it can be to directly interest candidates from underrepresented groups. Hiring women candidates of a higher seniority, in my case, has mainly worked via referrals from my own and team members’ networks.
‘The actual work begins after the hiring. Ensuring psychological safety on the team. Making sure that everyone, regardless of background and perceived markers, feels comfortable giving feedback and positing challenging ideas.’
I asked Franziska which approaches worked in this setup, and why she thought they were efficient.
‘To change an existing system, one single approach is not enough. Instead you need to take a combination of various approaches,’ she said.
1. Have a strategy. ‘We introduced a department-wide hiring and people strategy, where we defined what we mean by diversity, and set our high-level goals. With the strategy set, all objectives and measures can be derived from that.
2. Unconscious bias. ‘Every person from an underrepresented group has experienced some aspect of unconscious bias and every person has unconscious biases. What can we do about it?
‘Recognize and question your own biases, consistently, at every opportunity. A good example is “meditating” about known biases before you enter the interview as a hiring manager. For example, ask yourself:
“Am I hiring this person because I like them or because they’re qualified, or both? Why do I ascribe a lower technical acumen to women than to men?”
‘Bias can, to a certain degree, be quantified. Run a salary survey: are people of overrepresented groups paid more? Assess the outcome of hiring processes by gender: are men, on average, assessed better?
3. Retain women and minorities in tech. ‘It is sad but true that highly-educated women leave tech sooner. I wrote more on how to get women in tech and keep them there, collecting strategies and frameworks to retain women in tech.
4. Invest in allyship. ‘If a team ends up hiring a woman and then her voice isn’t heard, it won't be long before she moves to another company with better conditions. For context, there are about 2,000 senior engineers in Berlin who use she/her pronouns. Companies simply cannot afford to not set them up for success.’
Using structure to drive diversity outcomes at Stripe and Render
Uma Chingunde is the VP of Engineering at Render, and previously headed up the Compute group at Stripe. When I asked about her approach to building diverse teams, Uma started by recalling the structured approaches of Stripe, which she applies in her current role. Render is currently ~20% women in engineering and ~33% company wide, which is above industry average for a Series A startup.
‘It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,’ Uma says. ‘To attract people of different backgrounds, you need to start with an inclusive and diverse team. How do you get here?
‘There are the tactics you can use that are fairly well-known. Inclusive job descriptions. Running a less biased hiring process. Onboarding people better. A fair performance management approach. Making space for people from different backgrounds and amplifying their voices.
‘You need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. There’s a lot of theory that you can apply, but are you actually doing so?
‘Implement structure to get the diversity outcomes you’re looking for. This was something I observed my former manager at Stripe, Will Larson do very well. (Gergely’s note: Will Larson is the author of An Elegant Puzzle, a book I reviewed and highly recommend for engineering managers.)
‘What does implementing the structure mean? For example, at Stripe, we noticed that while our university hiring pipeline was diverse, this was not true for our industry-recruiting one. So we put in a structural change, the whole team spent an hour per week in a room improving the diversity of this pipeline. This meant both sourcing, improving interview processes, and also brainstorming and trying out new approaches. By doing this every week as a conscious effort, we improved the outcome, one step at a time. Importantly, we also tracked the data and saw great results with team composition becoming broader over time. I continue to do this by actively building relationships with people from various backgrounds that I hope to work with some day.
‘A structured approach to internal promotions was key in retaining people from diverse backgrounds. At most companies, promotions are often done by offering the role to those who were already doing the role. While this process can feel like it makes sense, it doesn’t offer everyone the same chance. This was an extension of adding structure by surfacing all meaningful opportunities to a broad group of people. It’s something I have continued to use because it is an extremely valuable tool for any leader.
‘One example that applied to me personally was that Will introduced a structured process for defining the opportunity of a role change, to manager of managers. After defining the process, he encouraged various people to apply. As a result, multiple people would apply, including some people who in a previous setting might have not done so. It was also by design not a promotion, but a change in responsibility.
‘This process provided legitimacy to many people including myself. In most other organizations, I don’t think I would have gotten the manager of managers role, but with this process I applied and got the role via this structured approach.
‘A structured process also provides legitimacy for underrepresented people. Without a process, even if someone from an underrepresented background is promoted, there’s often a shadow of doubt among others. People think “did they get the role because of their skill, or was it only because of their background?” A transparent process with clear rules for everyone removed this kind of doubt.
‘Reflect on this, how do you go about surfacing opportunities in your team? This can be anything from deciding who interviews the next engineering manager, to who will lead the next project. Do you just tap someone on the shoulder and offer them the opportunity, or do you run a process where you invite people to apply? And even more importantly, once people take the opportunity, how do you make these people successful?
‘Many of these decisions might seem inconsequential, but over time, they add up. If you keep picking the same people you create a culture that can seem like playing favorites, or as developing a bias towards certain people.
Uma closed with this piece of advice:
‘The biggest pitfall of running structured processes is the friction it causes. Asking people to step up for an opportunity is time-consuming. It’s tempting to think “let me sidestep this process just this once, and pick David for this opportunity.” Whenever you find yourself in this position, take 15 minutes to be more conscious about picking people. Write down a list of candidates, why you’d pick them, and what they would gain from this opportunity. You won’t always be able to follow a structured approach, but aim to do this 90% of the time.’
Hiring a more diverse team at Prolific
Colin Howe is the former Head of Engineering at London-headquartered Prolific. Here, the team grew from 7 people to around 20, in just under a year. About 50% of the new hires were from underrepresented groups; women, LBGT+ and non-white people. Here’s what Colin shared on the approaches that helped hire more inclusively:
Sourcing from different backgrounds. Colin asked the sourcers not just for underrepresented candidates, but those coming from different backgrounds to those already on the team. If you want to hire a truly diverse team, you cannot just hire computer science graduates from top schools. You need to try harder.
Be more lenient at the screening stage for underrepresented people. As Colin put it, ‘the screening stage is about minimising the chance of interviewing candidates that fail the interview. I'd happily absorb more risk and have more failures, if it means we see more people with non-traditional profiles.’
Inclusive job adverts. ‘We made sure our job ads and collateral weren't putting people off. We minimised the number of things that were "requirements" and removed additional requirements entirely. I think it's fairly well documented now that requirements put people off if they come from less advantaged backgrounds.’
Set up candidates to succeed in interviews. ‘For example, we’d give people topics to think about beforehand. So in the interview we’d talk to them about something they've thought about, rather than putting them on the spot. We aimed to judge candidates for their best, not for their mistakes.’
The importance of ‘belonging’ to retain diverse hires
Gabrielle Tang is Director of Community at SheSharp, an NGO in the Netherlands, fostering more diversity in the tech industry. SheSharp has a strong focus on gender and intersectional diversity, and provides opportunities and support for underrepresented demographics to explore and accelerate careers in tech. SheSharp’s community and mentorship initiatives target improving inclusivity and advocacy throughout the industry.
Gabrielle has grown, coached, and managed several diverse teams over the years in tech companies, including Booking.com and ASOS. I asked her what she’s learned about diversity over time and Gabi started by sharing her personal journey:
‘I have been in the minority since I began studying for my software engineering degree. The joke at the time was that if there were more than 5 women in there, we had the wrong room. Additionally, as an Asian woman, I always felt different and like I didn't fully belong, which led me to adapt to behave more like everyone else. I didn't recognise that I did this and that my experience wasn't the same for others, until much later in my career.
‘Improving the sense of belonging is key for hiring and retaining people from underrepresented backgrounds. Improve the pipeline with more diverse people; interests, education, background, abilities are all important. After those people join a company, it is a sense of belonging based on who they already are that keeps them there.
‘These are my main learnings from hiring and managing diverse teams for years:
1. Be clear on why you want to hire diverse teams. ‘More often than not, people cannot explain their motivation for building diverse teams, beyond they 'know diversity is good’. This argument is not strong or relatable enough to motivate people. Without motivation, all the talk about improving diversity does not turn into real action. Make it clear why diversity is important and why others should be motivated to help with this effort. Communicate what initiatives the company and the team are taking to achieve these outcomes.
2. Diverse teams attract underrepresented people. ‘People who are underrepresented want to see people similar to themselves, we don’t want to be the sole minority. Start by ensuring that you have a diverse hiring panel. Underrepresented people can have similarity (or affinity) biases toward other underrepresented people, relating to their own experiences. This in turn can counter biases other members of the panel have.
3. Be empathetic and curious. ‘I have never felt more seen than when a manager acknowledged that my path had been hard, being both female and Asian. Listen to people who are different from you to gain that understanding, even if that means going beyond your immediate circle. I have found mentorship relationships to be an effective way of doing this, based on feedback from mentorship programs that I have set up and been involved in.
4. Recognise the value that diversity brings. ‘Diverse teams may present more of a challenge when it comes to communication and collaboration. However, they make up for this with more creativity, better ideas and better outcomes. The challenge with diverse thinking is that this equals conflict, or disagreement. To benefit from diverse teams, it is important for leaders to cultivate an inclusive environment that supports differences and conflict, and is approached with curiosity. Otherwise, there is a risk of building a monoculture in which the team just adapts to thinking and behaving the same way.’
You can hire and you can retain diverse engineering teams. All the stories above are successful examples of this. Is it easy to do? No, it takes deliberate effort and time.
While every contributor’s story is different, a few themes repeat over and again. If you only take three things away from everyone’s experiences above, these are the ones I’d suggest:
Underrepresented leaders make a difference. If you don’t have managers from diverse backgrounds, you will have a much harder time attracting diverse candidates. Make it a priority to hire and to grow underrepresented people into leadership positions.
There are lots of tactical wins you can start using now. Inclusive job adverts, panels with underrepresented interviewers, setting up candidates to succeed on interviews, bias training, partnering with organizations, and many other things listed in this article. You can already choose approaches to put in place that make your hiring process more inclusive.
Use structure to drive diversity outcomes. Instead of only hoping that people do the right thing, create processes that make it easier to do so. Define hiring processes that result in more hires from underrepresented backgrounds and structured promotions processes and structuring of opportunities to retain them.
You need a strategy on diversity if you really mean it. Tactics only go so far, and underrepresented people will leave if they don’t feel supported. How can they feel supported if there’s no clear strategy or goals related to diversity? If you’re at a director or-above level, drive the effort to define and execute this strategy. If you’re a manager or engineer, push your leadership to do so. For example, forward them this article to show what’s possible!
Thank you to the leaders who contributed to this article. I recommend following them on LinkedIn and Twitter: