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Diversity in Recruiting: Road to Inclusion in Tech - Interview with Ola Sitarska (Engineering Lead, Onfido)

Diversity in recruiting is a hard issue to tackle, especially in the software industry.

To build an inclusive and diverse workplace, you need to create an inclusive recruitment process. But the talent pool is usually limited, so how do you get started?

Why is it in your best interest to build a diverse workforce?

How do you balance diversity hiring with getting the best candidates?

What are realistic goals to set when it comes to diversity in recruiting in the tech world?

You get answers to all this and more from Ola Sitarska, Engineering Lead at Onfido. She went into great detail about her diversity recruitment strategies in episode 28 of the Level-up Engineering podcast with our lovely host, Karolina Toth.

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About Ola Sitarska

Ola Sitarska started her career in tech at the age of 12, when she got into online games. Later she became a freelance software developer, launched her own product, and moved through different companies, taking on different software engineer and engineering leadership roles. For the past five years, she has been building engineering teams in London.

She’s currently Engineering Lead at Onfido.

Since diversity is an important issue for Ola, she is set on supporting the careers of people from any underrepresented group in tech. This is why she’s taken interest in non-profit organizations like Django Girls.

What's the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Ola 01

Diversity

Diversity is about getting as many different people with diverse backgrounds, genders, viewpoints and perspectives into one room as possible. The more different viewpoints you consider, the better your decisions will be, and the more accessible your product will be to diverse individuals.

Better decisions make you more money, make you more successful, and make your impact bigger. This is how I see diversity, but it’s not the same as inclusion.

Software Development Trends Report

Inclusion

You can’t achieve long-term sustainable diversity with any group of people without inclusion. It’s a set of actions, processes and systems that make diversity possible.

Inclusion is basically the way to diversity. It’s about making sure everyone's experience is equal, and every viewpoint is treated as equally important. It helps everyone feel accepted and like they are part of the group.

The best description I’ve seen of this comparison is that diversity is getting invited to a meeting. Inclusion is being a part of that meeting and having some sway in it.

How do you reconcile hiring diversely and hiring the best candidates?

Ola 02

When you’re running a business, you always want to hire the best candidates. Increasing diversity and inclusion broadens the pool of qualified candidates applying to work at your company.

If the pool is limited, then your ability to hire the best is limited as well. You always want to work towards broadening the pool of exceptional people who may have gone through a non-traditional path in their career.

My story is an example of this: I’ve never studied computer science, but I’ve been programming since I was 12 years old. Broadening your perspective on who you are open to hire can get diverse talent on your team who you would have missed out on otherwise.

What makes a hiring process inclusive?

Ola 03

You have to consider your hiring process from the beginning to the end. Inclusive hiring processes highlight the best candidates across the entire pool of your applicants.

Create an inclusive employer brand

You have to create an engineering brand that brings diverse talent into your recruitment pipeline.

Get rid of bias

Make sure that your developer recruitment process is fair and objective to give everyone an equal chance, with diverse backgrounds. You have to be careful with unconscious bias. You may be biased based on your perceptions of what a good engineer or a good CV looks like.

Focus on making hiring decisions based on the information you have. Keep improving the ways you gather information from your applicants.

Examples for bias in software development

Most job ads for software engineers require six years of experience or even more with a programming language. This has little to do with what they will be doing on your team.

You hire developers to build a product, build a strong team and make an impact on your customers. Whether they’ve used a language for three years or five years won’t make a big difference in the results.

Some engineers have only been working professionally for three years, but they have ten years of experience coding in that language. Others have only been coding for two years, but spend all their evenings doing it as well. Their relevant skills are sharper than their CV suggests.

Many think if someone has only been a developer for two years, they can’t be great. You need to measure their skills and objectively assess what they can bring to your team, instead of focusing on what they look like on paper.

Be aware of your own biases

People tend to look for others who look like them, who work like them, and who have similar stories to them. It’s important to stay open to different people having different approaches to learning, growing, and advancement.

You can also read up on biases; there’s plenty of literature out there. Once you’re aware how your unconscious bias may affect you, you become more perceptive of it and get better at keeping it in check.

What are the common obstacles to overcome when implementing a diverse recruiting process?

Ola 04

It takes a lot of work

You have to put more work into creating an inclusive hiring process than you’d think. That may be the biggest obstacle.

Getting buy-in from leadership

Another possible obstacle may be if leadership doesn’t fully buy into the idea that diverse teams lead to better results.

If I have to sell inclusive hiring to leadership, I support my points with data. There is a ton of research out there to prove how effective a diverse team can be. I used to be more forceful about trying to convince others, because equal treatment for everyone should be a given; demanding it in 2020 feels silly.

The common decency argument is a tough sell. When you bring it up, everyone says they have no bias, and they treat everyone equally. They tend to mean it too, because everyone feels like they're a good person, and they hold no biases.

You need to show that the lack of discrimination isn’t enough; the company should take action to improve the situation. This makes the world a better place, and it makes your business better as well.

It’s not just about diversity and inclusion; it’s about making the entire hiring process better.

What are the signs of a well-working inclusive hiring process?

Ola 05

Diverse team

The obvious sign of a working inclusive hiring process is that your team is diverse.

You can measure this in multiple ways:

  • Check your team’s daily behaviors.
  • Check general statistics about workforce diversity in gender, race, sexuality, etc.
  • Check how representative your team is.

Representative candidate pool

In the early stages, you can check the statistics of your hiring pipeline. For example, you can find statistics about the ratio of female and male software developers in your area. Compare your candidate pool to that, and see how closely your applicants represent your industry.

Taking it to the next level would be trying to attract a candidate pool that represents the population of your region. You should aim to at least hit the numbers of the industry in your area, or to be better.

Feedback from diverse candidates/employees

It’s a good sign if diverse candidates or employees recommend you to their friends. Normally you only find out whether a place is supportive and cares about inclusion when you're there. So if your friends tell you they’re working at a great place, it’s a good sign.

You should also gather feedback to figure out whether you're doing something wrong. Ask every candidate about their experience with your engineer recruitment process and about what you could do to make it better.

What are the first steps to make your hiring process more diverse?

Ola 06

Write unbiased job ads

Start with the simplest thing: look at your job ad. Check if the description of the role is written in a way that includes everyone or just a certain type of people.

There is a lot of research on how a job ad can be incredibly exclusive. Making a university degree a hard requirement, or a set number in years of experience with a programming language. Research shows that men are likely to apply for a job if they meet about 50% of the criteria, while women tend to apply if they meet at least 80%.

You need to start with writing the job ad well. When writing job descriptions, I describe what you’ll be doing after you join. That allows people to filter based on if they know how to do the job, and if they want to do it.

Ask yourself these questions when writing a job ad:

  • What are you trying to achieve with this hire?
  • What is their day-to-day work going to look like?
  • What do they need to bring to the table?

Starting with this is more effective than a list of criteria, because at the end of the day, it’s about getting the job done, not about past experience.

Create a vision of success

Define what success would look like for that person in the first six months on the job. This gives you a different perspective on the process and shifts your focus to the outcome. Maybe the job for the software engineer you’re looking for is to build a new billing system, and success is deploying that system.

Define your expectations for the new employee, and what you need them to do on a daily basis. Design the job ad around that.

Once you’ve got the first steps down, start figuring out ways to find out from the interview process which candidate is likely to be successful.

How do you make your interview process inclusive?

Ola 07

Interviewing is a two-way street

When I’m being interviewed, I like to have the opportunity to get to know the company and the people in it. Both the company needs to decide to hire me, and I need to decide to work there, especially at a time when software engineers get their pick of jobs.

Eliminate stress from interviews

When you’re hiring software engineers, you want to find great people to work for you. Minimizing stress in your interview process is a good strategy, because you’re looking for the best people for the job, not the best interviewers.

Transparency is a great way to do this.

Set clear expectations about what your interview process is like and what success looks like in it. Don’t hide any details. Let people know about what’s going to happen, so they get to prepare.

There are two things candidates should always know about a job interview:

  1. Who are they going to interview with?
  2. What do you hope to achieve with the interview?

This lets them get into the right mindset and show their best self. I let candidates come as prepared as possible, and I try to treat them well throughout the interview process. I give them useful feedback at every stage they can use in the next interview.

We don't put them in situations that will never happen on the job, like whiteboard interviews. We want to see how they would perform if they were actually working for us. Rather than turn it into a puzzle, someone has to win in order to work with us.

Measure drop-off

You can start measuring how many diverse candidates drop off at each interview stage. This helps you identify if there’s something off in the process. This helps you make decisions based on hard data.

Use the same standard for applicants and employees

I believe that you should hold employees within the company to the same standard you hold potential hires to.

This way you avoid problems like hiring a senior engineer, who is nothing like the other senior engineers in your company. Setting clear expectations is essential, so you need to apply the same standard for everybody across the board. This sets up new hires for success.

How do you encourage an engineering team to become more inclusive?

Ola 08

Hire a diverse team in the first place

Hiring diverse talent to your engineering team from the beginning helps a lot. Obviously, it’s not possible for everyone. But it’s a lot easier than trying to make an existing team more inclusive.

I was hired as only the second engineer at my previous company, Pollen. The CTO aimed to build an inclusive team from the beginning, so it all worked naturally.

Make every layer of the company diverse

Representation and diversity on each layer of your organization is also important.

I’ve seen many women start in tech recently. This makes it easier to hire female junior engineers. I’ve seen this create a weird organization where senior engineers and leadership consists of men, while a lot of junior employees are women.

This strengthens the perception that women are less capable in technology, because this is what the structure of the organization shows. Bringing diverse representation to the layers of leadership is important to create evidence that a diverse team builds a better product. You can do this by bringing senior women and diverse candidates into your team.

How to Scale Your Engineering Team

Inclusivity training

Beyond laying down the foundations, your best bet to encourage inclusivity is training and education. Show people its benefits, what it means, and why you’re working on it.

A common reaction may be that people suddenly start feeling discriminated against. They see other people become important, and they don't look like them. They often start to be afraid that they aren’t going to get promoted, or won’t get a raise.

You want to avoid this.

Inclusivity training helps you establish the idea that everyone is going to be fairly evaluated, and everyone is under the same criteria. No matter their gender, race, or sexuality. This is key to making everyone be at peace, because when people feel the game isn’t fair, everything goes downhill quickly.

Inclusive processes

Create inclusive processes in your company with equal pay and an objective evaluation of performance. Measure how fast you promote women and men in your company; do the same for different skin colors, and so on. Everyone cares about fairness and representing their needs, so you have to make sure that everyone feels like they’re treated well.

Inclusive processes make your organization better for everyone.

Diversity isn’t all about race and gender. Shy people may be less likely to get promoted, or they may be paid less for the same job. Once you establish a fair and objective criteria across the board, everyone will feel that the company cares about them.

Bonus advice for creating a diverse recruiting process

Ola 09

Start small

Diversity can seem like a huge issue to tackle, which may be scary. But you don’t need to invest a month of work before you see results. You can start with some small things tomorrow; no need to convince anyone.

Here’s an example:

You can remove bias from your code reviews. Anonymizing it is the simplest way to remove bias in this case. The reviewer doesn’t know who submitted the code, and the developer doesn’t know who will review it.

Standardize your interviews

When it comes to interviewing, we come up with a list of six questions. We ask them from every candidate, and we write down the answers to objectively compare them, rather than hold a subjective opinion like, “This person is great.” We want to know what they said about their experiences, and work from there.

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About the author:

Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.