Engineering Managers Say Great Teams Need Diversity, Regular Retraining

A panel of engineering leaders speaking at the 2017 @Scale conference
Photo: Tekla Perry
Engineering leaders speaking at the 2017 @Scale conference included (left to right): Facebook's Ryan Bergauer, Atlassian's Sri Viswanath, Nest's Julie Pearl, Madrona's S. Soma Somasegar, Facebook's Nam Nguyen, and Slack's Julia Grace

Silicon Valley’s companies aren’t just trying to add diversity to their workforces to make themselves look good. They are pursuing diverse workforces because diverse teams do better at solving big technical challenges.

That was the message delivered by a group of engineering managers speaking to attendees at @Scale 2017, a technical conference for engineers who work with large-scale systems.

Julie Pearl, senior director of e-commerce and security & privacy at Nest, said her company is, “dealing with consumer hardware, which is designed to be used by everyone around the world. So it helps people building products to have different backgrounds.”

But there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem endemic to building a diverse workforce, the engineering managers indicated. “Imagine you are going on a job interview,” said Pearl. “You check in, you are nervous, you are waiting in the lobby for a person to come take you back. You see people walking by, coming into work. What happens if you never see anyone who looks like you? From day one, you will be asking yourself if you belong there.”

“Not only do we need to hire from different schools, backgrounds, and genders,” she said, “but people need to be promoted and rewarded in the same proportion. If people come out and see people like themselves whose careers stall out, it shows they won’t be successful there.”

Julia Grace, head of infrastructure engineering for Slack, added: “As a leader, it is important to become self-aware. We say diversity is important to success, but often we build teams that are mirror images of ourselves.”

The managers also stressed that when hiring they aren’t, for the most part, looking for specific skill sets, rather, they are looking for software engineering generalists who are excited about learning new things.

“At Facebook,” said Nam Nguyen, vice president of services engineering, “Eighty to 90 percent of engineers are hired as generalists. We put them through a six-week program and train them in everything from the lower part of the stack to the product part of the stack, and we let them figure out which part of our organization they would like to join. Almost all of our candidates have a choice.”

That used to be the case at Slack as well, said Grace. “At the beginning, we did pool hiring. Now we have started to shift to a more specialized model. For my team, for example, we need people with low-level systems and networking experience, other teams need front-end engineers. But I see us going back to pool hiring when we reach the next threshold in our growth.”

Providing regular opportunities for retraining is also important. Facebook has “introduced our academy, a two to three-month training program to allow any engineers at the company to redirect into new areas.”

Nest’s Pearl pointed out that it’s not just formal training opportunities that are important. “Formal training works for some individuals,” she said, “but others like to work things out on their own. As leaders, we need to provide space for people to figure things out.”

S. Soma Somasegar, managing director of the Madrona Venture Group, noted that, “Things change so fast,” a passion for learning and keeping pace is more important than any one particular skill.

Sri Viswanath, chief technology officer for Atlassian, pointed out that companies with good training opportunities can offer good mobility between teams, and that can be essential for retention.

“People leave managers, not companies,” Facebook’s Nguyen said.

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