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Building Inclusive Engineering Teams

Mekka Okereke
Engineering Director
Google Play

Mekka has built inclusive engineering teams both at start-ups, and major tech companies like Google. In this talk, Mekka shares practical, effective tips for building inclusive teams.

So who doesn't like shoddy, everyone likes that age.

I, you know, I was hearing this, this floor creak a little earlier. I think I'm a little bigger than your average presenter. I might, I might be going through if I come through Jared, you got to come pull me out. All right. So hi everyone. My name is Mecca on the engineering director for growth for Google. And today I'm going to be talking a little bit about building inclusive teams which is a question that I know a lot of people have.

And before we get started setting a little context I am not an expert. No one is an expert. There is no team anywhere in tech that is inclusive on all of the dimensions. But some teams have found some things that work, and I believe that we should share those things that work. Right. So in tech, a lot of times we compete as companies, right?

So Amazon wants to make a video streaming service. Netflix wants to make a video streaming service. The industry is best served when they compete, but in some things it's best when we collaborate. Right. Security. Open standards. The industry is best served when we work together as the same thing with people, right company a might want to hire someone company B wants to hire the same person.

The industry is best served when we compete, but in certain other things like building inclusive teams, the industry is best served when we work together. Now, the fact that my team we discovered, and I should say rediscovered, because a lot of what I'm going to say here, Right. The fact that we've rediscovered some of the things that work is a competitive advantage.

It is a recruiting advantage for my team, but I don't want to benefit from the at-scale suffering of women and underrepresented people in other companies. So is the type of thing that I think that we should share. Right. So my team is all engineers, right? 10% black, 10% Latin. Yeah. Half the managers are women and it's actually up from 30th closer to 38% of all the engineers are women.

So in some cases, thank you. Okay.

In some cases, this is 10 times industry average. Now the good news about. Is that it's much easier than we think a lot of times when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we talk about the bad actors, right? The 2% of us that are just terrible people right now, not saying that that isn't bad and that we shouldn't focus on those people.

But most of the harm that we do is done actually by the other 98%, it's completely unintentional and it's harm that people like the people in this room we do to each other every day. That good news about that. The good news is because the intent to do harm is not there. All that needs to happen is we just need to be told what are these small tweaks that we could change to make our teams more inclusive?

And we just make those changes. Now, something else some of the context that's important to set before we get into the meat of it is what is the goal we're trying to solve? So I rattled off some numbers about, you know, percentage of black percentage of, of women, et cetera. But that is not the goal. In fact, that's even the wrong question to ask.

Right? Solving childhood leukemia is a great and worthy goal. It is a different goal than eradicating all cancer, right? The goal that we want to achieve is nothing more than this. We want to make our team a place where hardworking, collaborative, smart people. All backgrounds can succeed and thrive.

That's it? That's the goal. Now, the reason that's cool is because that goal scales, right? So what percentage of engineers that we opened an office in Zurich? What percentage of the Zurich office should be black? Why all wait, store throw out the number? What should it be? Right. I mean, there's some right number.

I have no clue what that is. Right. Also it scales the statement that I said that we want our teams to be a place that people from all backgrounds can succeed and thrive. It's scales temporarily. Right? If you work in London as a software engineer, are you discriminated against if you're from Poland?

Well, it depends 10 years ago. I would've said no this year, I would say yes, post-Brexit. Right. It's something we have to keep an eye open for. Right. So this is why, what the goal is, is just making the team a place that people from all backgrounds can succeed and thrive. And before we get into recruiting or any of this, everyone's always interested in recruiting and okay, where are all the women, where are all the black people?

Do you have binders? Like, like it doesn't, it doesn't work that way. Right? The first thing is you want to create an inclusive culture. So what is an inclusive culture? What is culture? Culture is nothing more than the set of behaviors that are rewarded and punished. That's it? It's not your mission statement.

It's not what your CEO thinks. It's the set of behaviors that are rewarded and punished. Now, these aren't necessarily positive or negative things, but if you think about, let's just say, I don't know, you are for a giant company that makes money off of ads, right? How do you reward technical complexity versus revenue engineer?

Hey, wrote this awesome thing. We use deep learning. We parse natural lands would probably rewrite the text of the ads. And did it make any money? No, but it was really cool. I presented many talks and many papers is someone else. I bolded the word in the search term that appeared in the ad $2 billion.

Right. How does your company think about rewarding one versus the other collaboration versus just getting it done and pissing off everyone in the whole organization? Right? How does your company think about that? Right. So each of these things define culture. Now culture is learned how the CEO treats their executive team is how they're going to treat senior managers, how they're going to treat their directs, et cetera.

That doesn't abdicate responsibility, right? Culture goes in both ways, but you think about the culture of your team. Now, the goal is to try and create an inclusive culture on your team. You can do this by many ways, but the tip that I want to kind of share today is something that we're going to get into called the critical moment.

It is what to do when there's a microaggression by show of hands who knows what a microgrid. That's very, very good. Okay. So the people, we, we know why there are fewer underrepresented people in tech. We know why we act like, oh, pipeline problems. There are no pipeline problems. It's not a real thing. I use the same pipeline as everyone else on my team looks how it looks.

There are fewer women and underrepresented people in tech because they leave because of slower perceived rates of advancement. Slower lower performance reviews for the same work and microaggressions. So the hypothesis is what if we address each of those three things? What if you find a black woman who works at a major tech company or a startup, and you ask her, do you feel like you're fairly evaluated?

And she says, yeah, I think I am. Do you feel like you're promoted on pace with your peers, for the work that you do? Yeah, I think. Do you deal with microaggressions? No, they never have, well, they kind of do, but my team handles that I'll show you someone who has better retention rates than most of the women in the industry and better retention rates does something awesome.

It gives you umbrella coverage because you don't have to ask that woman. If she's in a room where people are being evaluated to watch out for other women being evaluated unfairly, it just happened. Right. So something else that I want to set context before we get into talking about the critical moment is I want to talk about privilege.

Now. That's such a loaded word. The minute you say that is where it all the white dudes are like, oh God, here we go. Here we go. All right. So privilege. Isn't what we think it is. Right? So we're all multi-dimensional beings. Think of it this way. There's a preferred category. For each of the things that make up, you know, who we are.

So in America, for most situations, it's better to be white than the other races. Now it's contextual, but in most situations, white is preferred. I don't know if y'all noticed I'm black, right gender, right. It's better to be male spider to be tall. In America, for some unknown reason, we like our leaders to look like they played sports ball.

Right. I'm sorry. All I can speak with a mic and you know, I'm from Nigeria and actually it was, it was, it was a friend friend of Jared's. He told me that I didn't know about this thing. It's called up Arctic. Where large black men change their voice and make it higher. I was born in Nigeria. I'm a very big man.

I'm physically larger than most people that play in the NFL. And if I decide to get angry and I talk like this, people are going to listen, but I don't talk like that. I talk like this. Okay. And a friend of mine was like, damn bro. You up Octa, more than anyone I've ever met in my life. Right. So this is this command presence in some contexts that helps me.

Right. There's li there's job ladder privilege it at Google. It's great to be an engineer, right? An Amazon MBAs are on the roost at apple designers run the show, right? There's level. I'm a director at Google. So having an integer next to my name, be relatively high. Helps I create weeks of work for some poor team just by being in a meeting and going well, that doesn't sound right.

Right. Scary, scary, scary, scary, scary. Right. So all of this privilege is contextual. I get pulled over a lot. Now when I get pulled over, if someone that looks similar to me, like Jared comes along and gets out of his car and is like, Hey officer, what'd he. I'm like dark shut up. You're going to get w you're going to get the bull shot, like, but on the, on the same token, if a small white woman stops and says, officer, what did he do, man, get back in your car.

No, you're on YouTube right now. Right. But help she's lending her privilege to me in that situation, I can lend my privilege in certain situations as well to make my team feel. More inclusive. So a couple of things in a meeting situation, if a woman is interrupted while she's speaking, this is a trap. She has two choices and they're both bad choice.

Number one, she can speak up and try and interrupt back. Damn, what's wrong with Karen? Right? The reason that that happens is in a meeting where men and women speak equal time. Women perceive them as speaking equal time, men perceive that the women spoke 80% of the time, right? Choice number two, she can just wait for her moment to get her point across that moment's never going to come.

Then she's not perceived as a leader. You know, this, that and the other, right? Every performance review cycle. I have someone come up to me and say about one of my tech leads. Oh, she's not very helpful. Why not? Well, we want it to do this thing and she wouldn't. That thing is objective really bad. I think you mean she disagreed with you?

No. Okay. Help me out. How could she have disagreed with you and been helpful? Right. And it's really, it's really difficult to do, right. So maybe they should go and rewrite that feedback. So I, so I give that suggestion, right? I'm talking about privilege and privilege sliders, and here's something that I talk about at Google a lot.

If you're a born in the Midwest, people assume you're a conservative. If you're a conservative people, assume you're Republican, you're a public. I think people assume you voted for Trump. You voted for Trump. Oh my God. You're racist or xenophobic, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And you're like, all I said was I was born in Cleveland.

How did, how did we, how did we get here right now? I can make that point with my privilege. Are there any volunteers for white men in this room who would like to come up and try and make that the same point? I don't think so. Right. I can go to Morehouse college, raise your hand if you know what Morehouse is.

Okay. So historically black college and university, and I can tell them you're failing and your students, excuse me. I said, you're failing your students. Your CS curriculum is not rigorous enough.

Put the real material in front of the students and watch them surprise you. Right? As much easier for me to say with my privilege sliders now with privilege comes a certain responsibility, right? Anytime you're on the power. End of a privileged slider, you have a responsibility to have defense against fragility, right?

I'm social economically privileged. I can be walking in the Tenderloin. And some homeless person could say, oh, you tech people, you're ruining the city and you're making everything horrible. I'm going to be like, hold on guys, man, at the bait, this guy and the rest of you would be like, oh my God, this is not a good luck.

Don't do that. Right. That's ignoring my privilege. Right. The cool thing about receiving criticism about inclusion is we're all used to it. Any product we launch the press will say 10 bad things about it. Nine of which are not true. And one of which will go, Hey, you know what? They have a point. We should totally fix that.

We don't cry about the nine things that we didn't think were true. We focus on the one thing that's really. Right. So again, focusing on making our culture feel inclusive because the culture that we experience is always different than the culture as experienced by anyone who's not on the privileged lighter.

So I'm going to give you one example here, and I'm going to play a mean trick on everyone in the room. I'm going to inoculate everyone in this room. Against something that happens who here reviews code as part of their job. Okay. If you receive a code review and the author of the code review is a woman, you will leave more comments on it than if the author is a man.

A lot of people think, oh, I don't think that's true. It's true. Everywhere. This has been tested. It's been true to the point where there are women that are the open source maintainers. Entire projects who have fake men's names just to land tricky seashells on their own projects, Joe Dodson, right now, the reason this is why the mean trick I've played on you all is again, going back to what I said before.

This is unintentional and this is not men who do this to women. All of us do this to women. Okay. But just simply knowing this. And knowing that the way to address that is to think like whoever the, the, the, the superstar engineer at your company is at our company is Jeff Dean. Right? If Jeff Dean had written this same code review, would I be leaving this comment?

And if the answer is, yes, Jeff, get it together. Right. Leave the comment at the answer is not. Just me telling you this. If you go and you run whatever internal tool, you have to check code reviews, statistics, and you were to look at everyone in this room a year from now, the Delta between men and women, in terms of number of comments with dissipate, just from knowing this right now, getting to the critical it was getting to the critical moment.

The critical moment is the exact point in time. When you witnessed a microaggression. You've seen something happen and it's outside the culture of what you want to be acceptable for you. Right. It is not to the level of HR. It is not to the level of of being illegal. It's just outside the culture of what you want for your team.

What do you do in that situation? So I'll give you an example. I was at a meeting and someone said we had to, you know, make a mistake. We made a mistake, which happens sometimes. So we needed to send an email to, you know, 2 billion of our closest friends. And someone said, This, this is really important.

This has to look like Google Senate, not like Nigerian Senate.

And so a lot of people in the room made that sound and some people just went

And so I waited to see what was going to happen. Now, anytime you have something like this happen. People's perception of the culture of your team cannot stay the same either. It will go down or it will go up depending on how you act. People say, oh, Amazon great. They never make a mistake with shipping.

That everything's always awesome. They never made no, everything's always great. But when they make a mistake, they handle it really well. It was like, which is it? Do they never make a mistake or do they have good customer service? Cause they're two different things, right? If you go to a restaurant and order a steak and the steak is.

You might think this place is no good and never come back. But if the maitre D notices and he's like, oh, I'm sorry, you didn't eat the steak. Yeah. And I was like, no, no, no, sir. Yes. The doctors are specialty. Please take the duck. Right. We're not going to charge you for the steak or the doc. Both of them compliments of the house.

Now you're like, Ooh, I like this place. Right. They've turned a negative. They served you a bad food. And they've increased your perception of the restaurant. It's crazy. Right? So if you think about it, I'm in this situation, this thing has just happened. Someone has said this, I'm sitting there waiting to see what people will say.

No one said anything. So what I said is I said, oh, sorry, Mecca. And just director of growth. I run all of our notifications, email machine learning, targeting promotion system. Too bad Nigerians are sending it anyway. Right. And the person who made the comment, they were like, oh my gosh, I'm the worst person in the world.

Right. Raise your hand if you honestly think that person is racist, raise your hand. If you think that person hates Nigerians. Right. I don't, I don't believe they do. What happens in that situation, if someone had called them racist, which is one of the ways that you shouldn't react is they would say, you know, you're racist and they would be like injured because we all have this identity of ourselves.

Even if I am racist, if you call me racist and I don't believe I'm racist, now I have to defend myself. And I have to tell you how many times I've voted for Obama. I have to tell you what, what my favorite Kendrick Lamar song is. Who I dated in college. It's just, it's, we'll spend the next hour talking about that and I'll hello guys.

Can we get back to, you know, and so that's not helpful. The other thing that's not helpful to saying, Ooh, I have a meeting with HR next week, or, you know, maybe I'll talk to the person after the meeting. Yeah. I'm going to wait. And the reason that's bad is because the person who's received the injury, they don't see your inner monologue in their mind.

They think, oh, here we go. Is that tech bro culture? Right. So the right thing to do in the critical moment is give feedback with kindness is to say I don't, I don't think that sounded how you meant it to sound. Now you're using people's notion of identity of self in your favor. They're saying, oh, you're right.

I'm not racist. No, I that's not how I meant it. Right. That's extremely powerful for a number of reasons. One, it shows everyone else in the room. That that is behavior that is outside the culture of your team. You stopped it from escalating, from a non-inclusive team and you've, you've, you've contained it to just a mistake that one person made.

And it's helpful for the person that made the mistake because they haven't been labeled racist or transphobic or homophobic, right. For the rest of their time at your company, it was, it's like kittens in a box, right? The kitten crawls out of the. You pick the kitten back up, put it back in the box. Right.

It's extremely, extremely powerful. Right. And I, I write code all the time. My code is perfect. I don't know about y'all, but for y'all who write bugs and stuff, it's terrifying. If you think that if I write a bug, it's going to get to production and it's going to hurt like hundreds of millions. Yeah. Like for you all, it's very, very gratifying to know we have monitoring that will tell us it'll roll stuff back.

If stuff's not working the way that it's supposed to culture will very gently let you know if you're saying something that's that's wrong. So you don't have to worry about, oh, I have to be PC. And I have to not say the wrong thing. You just know that if you do say the wrong thing, that the culture will help.

Now I know that a lot of people are thinking it can't be that easy. It can't be that easy. It is. It's these small things. And so I only have half an hour. So that's one of the examples. The other thing I just wanted to touch on is, so there was a question earlier about job applications who knows about gender and job applications and numbers of bullets.

Okay. Men will apply for a job if they feel that they qualify for a three out of bullets for any number of ed, I'd say. Got it. I'm in there. I'm the man for the job women tend to apply when they match 85% of the bullets. You are accidentally excluding qualified women applicants, just for listing too many bullets, even if they're nice to have.

Must know, you know, a C plus plus or Java of all of, all of the work on distributed systems. Okay. Sure. ML is nice to have Android, you know, flutters, you know? Yeah, yeah, yeah. You don't need those bullets. Take them out. Take them out. Another question I get a lot is how come a lot of black students that I've interviewed this is for entry level have never passed the Google interview.

And when I interview Stanford students, they tend to pass it on. You don't Stanford has a class in their course catalog called how to pass the technical interview. I was like, really? Is that, is that true? Yeah, it's right there. This is a course number. We downloaded the syllabus and we gave it to students at Howard black university three guesses.

What happened right. Also what we're interviewing for. We're not actually interviewing for what we think we're interviewing for we're interviewing for. Do you know who Gail Lachman McDowell is? Right. Not actually, how, how well can you perform when you get here? So one way to level that playing field is we just give away all of the interview prep materials.

You can sign up for mock interviews. Everyone can have it. We're just taking that away as an advantage. It eliminates the false negatives, but it also eliminates some of the false positives, people who aren't that amazing, but just happens to have all of this. Right. So I'm going to pause it there. I don't know if I have any time for questions.

Oh, we got to wrap it up. I'm getting the thing. Thank you very much. I know it was a short time, but if you have any questions, I'm happy to talk about this later. Thank you.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.