Techn leader and one of the good guys (not to mention my former recruiting client) Rian Schmidt has written some great articles on LinkedIn – also posted here on his blog. He has killer insights and the career street cred to back it up, so I asked if he’d share with me his perspective as a man in the tech world having experienced both the Silicon Valley and up here in the Silicon Forest. For a long time I've seen not only women turning away from tech careers, but also men who don’t fit in the stereotypical "brogrammer“persona. Hiring managers are turning down amazing candidates and the trends have become clear: the concept of “fit” is all too often being used to avoid diversity and create cultures where it’s less about creating a truly great product and more similar to fitting into a clique. Yikes. Here are Rian’s thoughts on where things have gone off course and what's needed to fix it…
I’m not your bro, bro.
I was at a company recently where, for fun, they had “Brogrammer Day”. The problem was that, if you’d just walked in, you’d have had a hard time noticing anything different from any other day. Sure, there were more popped collars (who does that anymore?), but otherwise, the same muscle shirts, loud voices, and Nerf battles filled the room.
The computer world has changed a lot in the past decade. When I was a young geek, our focus on technology was seen by the general public as associated with physical weakness and a predisposition to nose-picking. No one knew what a computer could do that would be of any interest to a normal person. We had to have some kind of psychological issue that led us to shy away from sexual activity and to tape, rather than replace, our glasses. We were lumped into a group called geeks.
In truth, I got into computer technology as a kid because my brother did, and we connected via our shared interest. When you found someone else interested in the field, you had a genuinely unique connection to another person. Working with this emerging field challenged me and gave me a thrill with the possibilities that I could see from the start. There were nothing but bugs and limited resources. Every beeping, flashing accomplishment was an act of creativity and imagination.
Now, decades later, the tide has turned. Tech is mainstream, and advances in technology and education have made it accessible to many more people. What once was the domain of people so entranced with the possibilities that we snuck into computer labs, coded on punch cards, and built our computers out of parts is now so common as to blow entire city real estate markets out of rationality.
Today, if you’re cool, you’re an tech entrepreneur. You say things like “kick ass”, “gotta be hungry”, and “do whatever it takes.” You make six figures out of college and spend that money on designer sunglasses and protein supplements. The spikey-haired jocks are now the engineers, and they’re not going to put up with soft, squishy babies on the field.
There are millions of developers, and my mom knows how to retouch her pictures in Photoshop. The pre-existing gender disparity and bias in STEM education has been continued into the computer science and engineering fields as the absolute numbers have increased dramatically. Demand has increased to the point where even college degrees are no longer necessary, and a decent github portfolio or 12-week cram course can get you a high-paying job without the pesky necessity of a university education. Why just eliminate liberal arts education when you can eliminate college completely?
The result has been a flood of (sometimes, very) young males info the field and growing into positions of leadership. Still testosterone-charged, in their early 20s, making more money than they know what to do with, they swagger into the workplace and set the tone of an entire industry.
So where does that leave the introverted, women, or others of more diverse temperaments and backgrounds? Unfortunately, it has the self-perpetuating effect of excluding those who don’t care to feel like they’re going to work at a frat house— walk into a typical software development office, and there are kegs, ping-pong tables, and push-up contests. The Alpha Betas have taken over the office. You know who that leads to? More bros.
Without the maturity and understanding of history that a more diverse workforce brings, there is often a pervasive attitude that the racism, sexism, and ageism that’s overtly joked about at the office is a cute caricature from a by-gone era. But it’s not.
Put these guys in suits and give them cigarettes, and this would be Mad Men. Women have to fight to be taken seriously. Soft-spoken employees are trampled by the bros and their opinions ignored. Older employees are marginalized, even when they are more experienced and better positioned to make prudent decisions. And should you ask for respect or equitable treatment, you’re seen as whining or wielding political correctness to get your way. You have to go along to get along.
The answer, I think, is to actively defend the promotion of diversity in the workplace.
Companies must accept the responsibility of distinguishing a “fun workplace” from a frat house. Change the perception of diversity from an obligation to a business-enhancing strategy because that’s what it is. Good business decisions require the input of multiple viewpoints, and winning in the market requires good decisions.
Stand back and take a look at your team. Are the bros dominating the discussion? Do they confuse passion with aggression? Does your company stress working long hours without providing childcare? Is the physical space welcoming to all employees or is it littered with sports, alcohol, and Star Trek. Does your company make an effort to recruit through channels that might reach people of different backgrounds or just stick with the mainstream. Do your benefits appeal to young single people more than older families?
Real change will not be easy, but it’s good business to preserve the differences in our teams rather than even hiring for diversity and then forcing everyone to act like a bro to succeed. Only then can we benefit from the various perspectives of the people on our team as well as allowing us to retain them because they appreciate being able to contribute as themselves.