Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #181: Diversity in Tech

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life podcast this week, we discuss diversity in the world of tech, and the cultural, economic and societal factors that contribute to the oftentimes difficult landscape of inclusion in the industry.

Jon: Welcome to Episode 181 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings listeners.

Jon: For our podcast this week, we’re going to dig into the problem of the future of diversity in the tech industry. This is a hot topic that has been getting, I think, a little bit more attention over the past months of 2016, and I think that, as we examine the tech industry generally, we can begin to see that the diversity patterns aren’t as good as maybe we would have liked them to be. What that means, ultimately is that there are certain types of people, usually white or Asian males who dominate the software industries to, I wouldn’t say to the detriment of, but to the exclusion of females and minorities.

There’s been a bit more attention paid lately with large companies sinking some money into increasing their diversity, and at least on the outside, appearances trying to make more of an effort. We know that there are various organizations to encourage girls to code, for instance. I know our friend, Bobbi Carlton has an innovation women initiative to get more technical women on panels at conferences. As you know, when you go to a conference and see who the speakers are, it’s more likely than not that those people are going to be white or Asian males, and not too many women either.

As we start to look into this topic, Dirk, I know that this is one that is pretty important to you and that you’ve thought a lot about. What’s your initial salvo at this effort to make tech more inclusive, both from the current state of the industry and maybe things that we can all do to make it more inclusive, generally speaking?

Dirk: I want us to be clear, when we talk about diversity and inclusivity, both of which are important to me, what exactly are we talking about? I wryly noted that you mentioned minorities, after mentioning that Asian men were very present in the tech community. The community that I came from, a little suburb called Sylvania, Ohio, which has a very highly-rated public school that I attended, and the non-white people could be counted on my hands in the school of over a thousand people, more or less, at that time. It’s become more diverse since then. From my perspective, being an Asian male within in a culture that was historically white males is a part of diversity. Asian males in our culture, certainly in the sub-culture that I grew up in, that was very white and sheltered, would have been considered a minority. You excluded that group from being a minority. I’m interested in your framing, and let’s be really clear on what we’re talking about when we say diversity and inclusivity.

Jon: I think the tech industry does have a good number of Asian males as part of it.

Dirk: Asian males, let’s make that even more specific. You mean far-eastern Asian males? Is that what you mean?

Jon: Yeah, I would even include myself in that category, or at least partly in that category. I can think of Asian males who are tech leaders. It’s I think when we’re talking about minorities in technology, certainly that would fall under the minority umbrella, although, well represented, I think, as far as that goes. Then, inclusivity would definitely include people from all walks of life and all races as well. That’s how I draw those circles.

Dirk: Okay, fair enough. I lived in Silicone Valley from 2004 or 2005 until about 2008 or 2009, so about four or five years that I was there. What struck me when I was in Silicon Valley, was from a racial and ethnic perspective, it was certainly the most diverse place I had ever been. As a white person, this may or may not be true, but my impression was that a Caucasian was the fourth most common ethnicity.

Jon: Interesting.

Dirk: That’s present around me, in the spaces that I worked with knowledge workers were far-east Asian individuals. I don’t know if that’s the right term, so I’m certainly trying to be inclusive in using that. I apologize if it’s not the politically correct term. Also, Indian individuals. People of Indian decent, which I definitely distinguish from far east Asian, were very common. Then the other, which was not within the knowledge work, but in the community at large, was hispanic. That culture as well.

I went to Silicon Valley, and I felt like I was in the most diverse environment that I’d ever been in. What was missing from that picture were women. Certainly on engineering teams at that time, the men were predominant, well over 90% men, but of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. As you would get into other parts of the company, say marketing, then you would start to see more women. With a little bit of a background in marketing, I would say, still somewhat less than maybe I had seen in other industries or other parts of the country before I went to Silicon valley. It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s incorrect because there are diversity and inclusivity issues with regard to Silicon Valley, particular around gender. Another facet of that is that Silicon Valley is also an amazingly diverse place in terms of the racial and ethnic persuasion of the people there.

Jon: Yeah, no doubt there’s a lot to be said for the diversity of Silicon valley and San Francisco and the Bay Area, generally. I think it is notable that Automatic recently hired John Maida to be, among other things, their inclusion executive. He’s responsible for other aspects of the design of the Automatic organization. That is part of his mandate is to make tech more inclusive. It’s interesting that there’s this aspect of it that you rightly pointed out where the cultural diversity is there, and you wonder how that all breaks down once you start looking at the numbers within companies.

I saw a figure that women in leadership roles was something like 29%. I saw that in Forbes. That may not be the most recent numbers. Just that when we look at knowledge work, the fields of science, these are growing fields, these are important fields. These are fields that frankly are going to have a lot of economic leverage in the future. They’re going to become increasingly important. I think paying attention to these issues now as science and technology because increasingly more important. Now is the time to try and fix these things.

Dirk: Jon, I never know what to do with statistics like the 29% that you threw out there, because superficially, you know, we say, everything should be equal. Equal translates to 50/50. We get 29%, and we’re like, “Oh my God, it’s a horrible statistic.” It may be a horrible statistic, but I think in our rush to equality, we’re going for equality of outcome, when really what we want is equality of opportunity. Whether or not a similar proportion of women want the same specific job or title or role that men would want in different cases, who knows?

Anecdotally, from living with people of different genders, and doing different things, I know that there’s certain types of people that like to do these things in more proportion, certain types of people that like to do that thing in more proportion, so I think if we’re looking for 50% in outcomes across the board, I think that’s short-sighted. I think it’s sort of well-meaning liberalism going overboard. I think really, what’s important that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone. If a woman is interested in the same role or job or company as a man, that the opportunity should be there equally.

I would even argue that because diversity and inclusion are so powerful and important to the benefit of the company and the other employees there, even allowing a minority group, whether it be ethnic or gender, advantages to get things closer to par is a good thing. The diversity inclusion in and of itself is beneficial for all. I think we need to be a little bit more nuanced in making sure people are paid properly, people have equality of opportunity, but that doesn’t translate into a world were necessarily every company is 50/50, every role is 50/50. I think that’s really, really short sighted. I’m liberal, but that’s where the liberal agenda tends to happen.

Before I forget, I want to make a couple of other comments about Silicon Valley culture. As much as I loved the diversity there, I will say that there was never once, and I worked as a consultant. I worked with over 50 different companies, some of them quite large. I worked with, I would say thousands of people, actually, in ways large or small. There was not a single African-American person who I worked with in Silicon Valley in these great companies, in knowledge working roles of importance. That’s certainly, on the ethnic cultural side, a glaring omission. The other thing I will say is that there’s very few older people working in Silicon Valley.

Jon: Interesting.

Dirk: When I was in Ohio, where is where I was before I started Involution with Andre, I was always the youngest person in the room. It was like, there’s Dirk, and there’s a lot of executives who were 40, 50. One of my bosses called me the boy wonder. That was my reality. As soon as I started in Invo, moved to Silicon Valley, how old was I? I was 30, and I was they oldest person in the room. Almost immediately. Now I’m working with these CEOs who are younger than me. I’m the design bitch. In the beginning, certainly that was the role that I was playing.

That was weird, and it really spoke to the the culture of youth that permeates, particular the start-up culture in Silicon Valley, but it certainly matriculates into the large corporations which are born of start-ups as well. Anyway, that was winding from a different place, but before I forgot, I wanted to, with more crispness, talk about issues of diversity in Silicon Valley as I lived them for five years.

Jon: The ageism or the lack of diversity when it comes to older workers, I think is an interesting problem as our life spans are increasing. People are working for longer periods of time. You would almost expect that there would be more older workers. In fact, as I’m in my 40s now, I can only think about, hey, what other things that I’m going to want to do, enjoy doing as I get older? I can tell you I like working, so at some point I don’t want to be in a scenario where I can’t work, or it’s not as easy to work because I’m too old for the job. That’s probably something that we’ll all have to face someday.

That’s an interesting aspect of it, just because you know that with our longer lifespans, people need income that extends beyond what was expected when these initial retirement ages were dreamt up. I don’t know that I see 65 as a retirement age, which, I’m sure my father thought that way. He retired a little earlier than that, in fact. I don’t know that I’d do it that way. That is another lurking aspect to this inclusion discussion that I think is worth going over, especially as we’re talking about, these are the industries of the future. This is where the good jobs are. If we’re not including certain groups in that, as you said, there’s not that equality of opportunity across the board.

Dirk: You know, there’s another way to look at it too, coming back to Silicon Valley. Most of the people there, and again this doesn’t speak for everyone by any means, but, a majority for the people that I dealt with came from wealthy families and many of them had Ivy League or top-level educations. One of the things I took from my time in Silicon Valley is it’s really a culture of wealth begetting wealth begetting wealth over generations.

At one point, Invo was doing quite well, quite well, and I talked to my accountant out here who lived there for his entire life, and I said, I can’t even dream of owning a big house here. How the hell does anybody afford it? He said, Dirk, the dirty secret of Silicon Valley is these young people, their parents buy them the house in Silicon Valley, and then they get the job and they throw them money, and it’s generation over generation over generation. I do want to also speak to a lack of diversity from the standpoint of socioeconomic status. From that perspective. I think that’s a really important one. I think a lot of people who would be valuable to Silicon Valley, would be valuable to technology are just shut out.

If they want to live a comfortable life style, and they don’t have the Daddy Warbucks parent or hit the one in the thousand shot on being with the right start-up, or some other existing money or super unusual circumstance, you can’t have the same quality of life there as you can have in the Midwest or even here by comparison. When we talk diversity, inclusion, that tends to go very quickly go to racial, ethnic, or gender, but I think there’s other ways to look at it. I think socioeconomic status is a big one. It’s also one that in part speaks to why there is an absence of certain racial and ethnic background of individuals in the knowledge work in Silicon Valley too.

Jon: That makes a lot of sense and I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s pivot a little bit and talk about, we talked about some of the issues regarding diversity in technology. I wanted to change directions slightly and talk about how we potentially change that. We have the example of John Maida over at Automatic, with his new position there. Does it make sense for there to be a Chief Inclusion Officer as part of … I mean, in the orbit of human resources, but looking at the design of the organization to benefit, whether that be the design or engineering, or executive, to make sure that there’s representation there? Or, it that taking it too far? Is it something that should just be baked into policy, but it’s not really someone’s separate line to take care of? What’s your take on that?

Dirk: I think it’s totally a question of maturity. I think for now, today, it’s absolutely appropriate. It’s valuable, it’s not just that that person can be empowered to make things happen, the very presence of it is a signifier of the seriousness, of the investment that the company is taking. Now, in 20 years, I don’t know there should be anybody with a title like that because we should have in the culture of business generally, in our society from a more over-arching perspective, has moved beyond this uncomfortable moment. It will be over by the time that this is published, but we’re right on the doorstep of this election with the death rattle of the conservative white male here embodied in Donald J. Trump. Hopefully in 20 years that death rattle has turned into death, and we buried some of that backward, undeveloped thinking, culturally speaking. We’ll be to the point we don’t need to have an inclusion officer. It’s just more a part of how we function, but for today, I think it makes perfect sense.

Jon: It’s something to take on and grapple with because we have had obviously eight years of President Obama, and the issues of diversity in the country have certainly been brought bubbling to the surface, but as for whether we have really good ways of dealing with these issues, I don’t know that we do. I think we struggle with it here in the United States, probably like anywhere else. We are the melting pot of the world. We take people from everywhere who come here to find a better way of life and entrepreneurial opportunities.

You think at the core of entrepreneurial opportunity, which is in Silicon Valley, there’s this promise there that you can, if you have a good idea, then you can build it into something. That’s an interesting interplay of our society’s highest ideals with the reality of what it means to try to make that work. By no means, do I think that this is going to get solved overnight. The question is being asked, is it worth having this diversity of viewpoints? As you pointed out, there’s a lot of people who maybe think that diversity of viewpoints is not so great, and would rather have one viewpoint, or one viewpoint that dominates, and other viewpoints that follow along meekly. We have that problem as well. There’s all sorts of clashes going on there.

Dirk: I don’t know how to respond to stupidity, so I’m not going to even try. Single viewpoint, I feel sad for those people and I hope they’re lifted from ignorance at some point. Listen, how much longer this country is going to be the leading world power, how long this country is going to be a leading world power, how long this country is going to be a country in the form that we understand it now, are total unknowns. Years, decades, centuries, but at some point it will end. It will decline. It will cease to be the that way we know it now.

The greatness that will be remembered from the United States, from this experiment, as it’s often called, is diversity and openness. It’s not the Constitution. The Constitution is not nearly one of the best Democratic Constitutions written. It has slavery, it has a lot of f-ing problems. That document is not what people think it is. The flag, the national anthem, all that nationalistic rubbish, not at all. In the United States the openness and the diversity, the spirit of that, that has been among the leaders in the 20th century and the 21st century of openness and inclusivity, bringing everyone in, and benefiting from the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic vibrance, participation of a lot of different people, that’s what’s going to really matter.

That’s what one of the positive legacies. I fear most of the legacies are going to be negative for the United States, but I think on the side of positive legacies it is these issues of social liberalism in practice. There’s things I’m proud of, and things I’m certainly happy to see the business world at large and the tech community more specifically taking more seriously and investing in because it will be to it’s best benefit as well.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 181 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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