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Human Skills 014 - Thriving with Diversity
with Kristen Spencer
Kristen Spencer took a nontraditional path to tech. She taught herself to code during maternity leave, then got involved with bootcamps, teaching, and eventually got fully into the tech industry. From there, her bent towards teaching and human skills quickly led her into management, and today she is Director of Engineering at League, a leading Canadian healthcare platform.
This conversation focused around diversity. Diversity of race, diversity of culture, neurodiversity... there are a multitude of different ways that who we are, how we show up, and how we are treated vary in this world. We talked about the ways that those difference can lead to challenges, and ways that we as individuals and leaders can work to overcome those challenges for ourselves and for our teams so that we can all thrive.
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NOTE: Next Tuesday is the July 4th holiday, so there will not be an issue of Human Skills published. During the week I will still be publishing smaller clips from past interviews on the Youtube Channel, so if you don't want to miss any go subscribe there. :) The next interview will go up on July 11th.
How do you set yourself up to thrive if you are different than others in your organization?
That is very dependent, first of all, on how psychologically safe you feel in your role in your organization. This can vary greatly.
So you might be in the situation where you feel quite comfortable disclosing something about yourself that might be different or specific accommodations that you might need, but you might not.
So assuming that maybe you're not so lucky and you're not feeling like... this is a place where you want to have that type of conversation... my perspective is that what everybody can do, no matter whether you identify as neurodiverse or what have you, is have a conversation with your team members, with your manager, about expectation setting. Ways of engaging with each other.
This is a really important thing to do for any new relationship, I think. And it's often something that we skip over. We make a lot of assumptions about what good work looks like, what an engaged employee acts like and how they interact with others.
So having an early conversation with the people that you're working with, particularly your manager. How do you like to receive feedback? How do you like to set deadlines? Do you like to... come up with your own prioritization, or would you prefer a little bit more coaching as to what is the most important thing to be working on?
These types of things can help everybody be more successful at work, no matter who you are. And it's really worth taking the time at the beginning of the relationship, if you can, to have those kinds of conversations.
What types of challenges happen when you have a multi-cultural workforce, and how do you address them?
I think a broad example is when we're breaking down engineering work and we're writing tickets for tasks, do you expect as the engineer that absolutely everything expected of you is documented in this task? And if you have a thought, "hey, this is maybe not gonna be the best approach to solve this problem and I have another idea," what do you do with that?
Do you keep quiet and execute on the task as it's been described by your lead or your manager? Or do you take a moment to have a conversation, pull in some people say, "hey, I'm thinking that this might be a better approach."
Our culture, our workplace culture very much favors the second, right? We want our team to be coming to us with new ideas, helping us see things from a different angle. This is the beauty of having a diverse team - people think differently and then they can call out things that we might not have noticed.
But if you're coming from a previous employer or a culture where things are a lot more hierarchical, it might look like insubordination to be saying, "hey, I don't think this is the right way to be building this feature and I think we should be doing something else."
So making sure that people know that it is safe to raise questions, to have a conversation. To challenge maybe an approach, even if it's somebody more senior than you that has suggested this approach, it is gonna make us build a better product and have better results overall.
But if people aren't feeling safe to do that and that might make them look like they're, I've already used the word insubordinate, it seems like such an extreme word, but yeah...
You have to create that safe container for people to say, no, we want our engineers to be coming with new ideas and challenging our assumptions, rather than simply executing on tasks.
How do you suss out cultural expectations when joining a company?
Yeah, it's a great question. It can be really hard and kind of scary sometimes to be the one that has to bring that conversation to the forefront.
Clearly stating your expectations for the conversation, saying, "hey, I wanna do great work and I want to be comfortable contributing to this company. So I'd love to have a conversation about what good looks like."
I think... from Brene Brown's work, Dare to Lead, there's a kind of a phrase in there, "paint what done looks like", or set clear expectations for what a project done well looks like. So if you have a project that's been assigned to you, defining success criteria for that project, that is a conversation I would love for my team members to come to me and say, "hey, can we talk about, if, X, Y, and Z is accomplished, do we both consider this project to be a success?" Having those kinds of alignment conversations is really great.
In general, if there isn't any sort of documentation on engineering cultural norms, asking about what is our code review process and what are the expectations around that? Do we do code reviews? Do we require two approvers? If somebody has a change request and I make it, can I merge it or do I have to wait for another approval? All of these little things are really, really important to know going into your role.
And they're not always well documented depending on what stage your company's at. I think that any engineering manager would be happy to have their new report look for clarity around these expectations, because it's often a factor sometimes of not having the time, depending on what's going on. Maybe nobody's written that documentation yet, so it doesn't exist.
And then treating every new person joining your team as an opportunity to reflect on "are we setting up our new employees for success and how much of this conversation that we're having or issues that are coming up could be resolved by creating some clear documentation, adding some content to an onboarding session, things like this."
We can be iterative about getting better and better at creating these safe containers where people understand the unspoken rules of operating successfully in the company.
How can you design processes to work well for a variety of people?
A conversation that we've been having recently at work is we have an architecture review process and it's not always the most exciting meeting. It's often, you know, we're all quietly reading a document and then we're looking for feedback. Anybody have comments? No? Okay, I guess that was it.
We've been talking about how do we get people more engaged in the architecture review process, asking the right questions and so forth. And a lot of it, I think, comes down to thinking about how people like to think. Not everybody is great at thinking on the spot on the fly in a meeting. I'm certainly not. Often in a large zoom call, the more people there are, the more distractions there are for me. Being at home is really nice for a lot of people, but for me, it just adds to the things that might distract my attention away from the subject at hand that we're discussing in the meeting.
So kind of understanding that having all of the thinking and the workshopping and the solutioning done on the fly on a live Zoom call is only gonna work for a very specific subset of people who thrive in that kind of environment.
So what are some things that we can do to make our architecture reviews or solutioning meetings more accessible to everybody? Some really small things: sharing pre read information in advance. We're going to be going over this document, here it is 24 hours beforehand. So you can digest it. You can think of questions. You can add comments.
Also leveraging more tools for comment other than just putting your hand up in the meeting. Having somebody be the chat moderator. And if you don't feel comfortable vocalizing your question, you can put it in the chat and the moderator will ask the question for you. That go a long way in helping reduce barriers for people speaking up because they don't actually have to speak up themselves.
Another thing is thinking about how you want people to engage with the content being reviewed. This is something that I think about when it comes to code reviews as well. If you've got a huge multiple file PR, that can be a lot to digest and consume. And I love when people go through and add comments saying, "hey, I wasn't really sure about this decision. I'd love feedback on whether we think this is the right approach or we could do it this way." That gives people an in and a little bit of guidance on how they should be engaging or how they could be engaging in the conversation.
How do you as a manager suss out how people like to show up?
Yeah, so there's a lot of great resources online now that have suggestions for questions for first one-on-ones. One that comes to mind, Laura Hogan has a great template for both giving feedback, which is really useful, as well as great questions for your first one-on-one. And it goes through these types of things.
What I love about her questions is it asks questions in a very human way. So rather than it being like, "are you an introvert or an extrovert?" The question is, "how do I know when you're grumpy and what does that look like?" Like, what makes you grumpy about work?
And I love that, the way of using the word grumpy, which kind of makes me laugh. And it gets people a little bit outside of this very narrow way of thinking... People are introverted or extroverted. They are more technical or they have stronger soft skills. We're so much more complex than that. And so thinking about it like, "here's a scenario, what would you do in this scenario?" Or humanizing it a little bit with different types of language, like "what makes you grumpy?"
"What is the most important thing about work to you" is a really good question too. Understanding what is motivating people to show up every day and understanding that that's not going to be the same for everybody. Becoming a manager is like an immediate crash course in people are not all the same. Oh my goodness. People don't think like me.
And it's something that I think people know, but you don't really know until you start having these relationships with people and realizing, "Wow, we were in the same room and we heard the exact same thing. And we came away with two completely just different perspectives on what just happened there." You can't assume anything about anyone and you have to ask the questions.
So doing it in a format where it's more scenario based, it's more "What do you like to do? How do you like to spend your time? What types of tasks give you energy? What types of tasks are really draining?" That can help you have a more holistic and well-rounded picture of who this person is. And also what motivates them to work.
For some people, it's just a job and what motivates them is a paycheck. And you know what? That's totally fine. Now we know that we're optimizing for how do we grow your salary in the quickest way possible based on the constraints that we're working with in this organization and how we promote people.
For other people, they're very mission led, they want to be connected to the values of the organization. And so making sure that we're always thinking about that and pulling that into the story of why we're doing our work is going to be really much more impactful for that kind of person.
On the topic of building inclusive cultures and diverse teams, there's a ton of great resources. The first one that's popping into my mind is a newsletter called Better Allies. I think it's a weekly newsletter and it covers all sorts of topics around inclusivity and diversity in tech that I highly recommend.
And then the other recommendation I always like to make to people in leadership roles that are trying to learn more about how to be a more inclusive leader is to read more fiction, which is not always the first thing that comes to people's minds, but we only have the perspective that we have ourselves from our own lived experience. And as we're trying to learn more about the lived experiences of others, it can be really the natural inclination to just go ask a person. to educate you, right?
Especially if it's in the dynamic of a manager in a report, it's not your report's job to educate you about their lived experience. It's your job to support them no matter what. And so a great way to educate yourself is to look into reading fiction or non-fiction, but I think fiction is really valuable too, to read stories written by folks from diverse communities, different backgrounds than you. Because it's a really great way to be educated by somebody who's not on your team about some things that they might have experienced in their life that might resonate with them.
A few Fiction recs I've enjoyed lately(and I'll add some memoir / nonfic for good measure).
The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri
Detransition, Baby - Torrey Peters
Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir - Samra Habib
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversaiton - Mira Jacob
Know My Name - Chanel Miller
Unmasking Autism - Dr. Devon Price
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That A Movement Forgot - Mikki Kendall
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle - Emily Nagoski, Ph.D and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A.
Links to Kristen
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