Rich Armstrong

@richarmstrong

For an Inclusive Culture, Try Working Less

My first software engineering job was writing C++ for the enterprise software company, J. D. Edwards, now part of Oracle. I was there from 1996 to 2000. It was so totally different from all my jobs since, in so many ways, that I’ve always sort of relegated it to a short “pre-internet” phase of my career. But here’s the thing: to this day, the team I was on there remains the most diverse I’ve ever been on, or even encountered, in the tech industry.

Why? I think I have an answer…

J.D. Edwards’ culture and workplace standards came straight from IBM. Jacket and tie were required (for men). Every day. You could get away with leaving a decoy jacket hanging in your cubicle all week, and commuting in shirtsleeves, but if you didn’t take that jacket home over the weekend, and switch it out every week, it might be mentioned to you. If you started showing up at 9 instead of 8:30, it would definitely be mentioned to you. Their marquee perk? Free soda. Casual Fridays were grudgingly introduced as the internet boom made recruiting harder. I loved my job, and hated that dress code and schedule.

My hipster friends were getting jobs in internet startups and wearing jeans and sneakers and ironic T-shirts to work. Their offices were in the new hip downtown district, had ping-pong and foosball tables. (Free lunch was as yet in the future.) They were friends with all their coworkers, showed up at 10:00 and usually hit the bars together right after work. I was so jealous… but I didn’t see past the difference in dress code to the difference in diversity.

As I said, to this day, my team at J.D. Edwards was the most diverse I’ve ever worked on. My first boss was an African immigrant, second boss was a forty-something mom. Our team measured high on nearly every dimension of diversity — gender, race, religion, age, parental status, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, veteran status. They were a talented and hardworking bunch. I hadn’t known any other kind of team, so it didn’t seem exceptional to me.

Still, I just couldn’t get over that damned tie. The internet boom was happening all around me, and I was stuck with a bunch of (incredibly nice and generous) non-hip people. On Fridays, they maybe snuck a Coors Light behind their monitor at 4:00, knocking off an hour later, driving from the office park to their suburban homes, their exasperating teenagers, their televisions.

I finally got out in 2000. I was giddy. I found a job at a hip software company. Their offices were downtown. My new coworkers were so cool. They wore ironic T-shirts. They showed up at 10 or later, worked crazy hours. On Fridays, and on many other days, they went to drink microbrews together after work, went home to cool lofts, or went straight to indie rock shows.

And they were all white, all young, all childless, mostly male. The women were in HR, or QA, or content creation. The dev managers were slightly older white males. The QA managers were slightly older white females.

Ugh.

My new company looked, in short, like the tech industry we’re all so frustrated with, and that we’re starting to make progress on, today.

I wasn’t at that particular job long before the tech bust scattered everyone to the winds. My “real” career in tech started after the bust, so J.D. Edwards and this other company have always been this prelude that I hadn’t examined very much. That changed yesterday.

Yesterday, I had a wide-ranging Slack conversation with some very nice people who patiently allowed this privileged white male to repeatedly touch the third rail of diversity and inclusion. That conversation led me to the realizations in this post. I’ll thank them by not naming them, and by promising never to bring this up in their Slack channel again.

See, here’s the thing: there are many ways to build an inclusive environment, and to enjoy the diversity that often follows from it. One great way, that I think might’ve been overlooked, is to keep things professional. When our office culture is focused on business rather than socializing, we reduce the number of ways in which we all have to be the same. When we do that, we allow diversity to flourish. If your culture expects people to work long hours or hang out off-hours, the strain on the people who are different, in whatever way, is increased, and your ability to retain a diverse work force is reduced.

I saw the benefits of “strictly business” over the course of seven years at Fog Creek Software and its spin-off company, Trello.

I joined Fog Creek in 2008 from Google New York, where I’d been for five years. Google NY was a hybrid sales culture and tech culture, where the expectation was to show up at 10, work until 8, then hit a bar with your co-workers. It was exhilarating to be at such a talked-about company, fun to feel like we were part of something big. I worked crazy hours sometimes, traveled all over the world. It was great. I still have many dear friends from that time in my life. I’m not saying that Google NY was not diverse like the internet company above, but that the lifestyle of working there was as all-consuming. We were Googlers first and foremost.

When I went to Fog Creek, we were just over a dozen people. I had some culture shock. There was some pair programming, but not much water cooler conversation. The devs all emerged for lunch at noon, then went back into their offices and closed the doors. When 5:00 came around, everyone just got up and left. I was totally nonplussed. I had been in this all-consuming environment for so long that I was a little let down by the constrained role work suddenly had in my life.

I was also still used to a different schedule, and was very excited about my new job, so I stayed late a few nights just to get up to speed. After a week of this, the most senior engineer on the team appeared behind me at the end of his day.

“You know what we call people who work past 5:00pm?” he said.

“What?”

“Chumps.”

I got a laugh out if it, but he was serious. He didn’t want someone putting in unnecessary face time, because suddenly everyone would be sticking around. I got the picture, settled into a 9-to-5 schedule, and stayed in it.

At that time, Fog Creek was small and not very diverse. Over coming years, we grew and created products and spun off companies, always keeping a reasonable schedule, always keeping it professional.

In about 2011, it was clear that change was in the air. People across the industry were getting frustrated with the lack of diversity. A post on our company blog, “Girls Go Geek, Again”, became the most-read and most-shared in our history. (It’s still in the top three, to my knowledge.) We got serious about building diversity in our pipeline, starting with our much-copied internship program (our #1 pipeline to full-time employment). No, we didn’t just become more diverse naturally; a lot of people had to work very hard on expanding our pipeline and we had to get creative about bootstrapping diversity into our office.

But, that article I just linked to is a good example. When we wanted to “get more diverse” by bringing in and mentoring newly graduated female developers from the Flatiron School, we could just make it happen, because we didn’t have to “get inclusive” first.

That’s because the culture was mostly about the business of software, how you build it, how you sell it, how you support it. If you were excited about that, you automatically belonged. You didn’t need to stay late, or drink alcohol, or play Rock Band, or play board games, or not have kids to pick up, or go to church, or not go to church, or do anything except show up 9-to-5 and care a lot about good software.

The social activities that did form (beer brewing, dumpling hunters, board games, joggers) were naturally separate from work. Nobody’s career depended on participating.

Now, I’m not advocating a return to IBM-style formality. But I do think that something was lost when we as an industry took off the tie and put on the T-shirt.

I don’t know how useful this will be to anyone else, but the lesson I’m taking for myself going forward is this: if you want to build an inclusive culture, build a minimum culture. Build it around professionalism, boundaries, and work-life balance. Make sure your senior staff walks the walk, and spreads the word.

I’m reminded here of the idea behind “Getting to Yes”, that classic work on negotiation. The idea is that, in negotiation, if you work to constrain the number of things the involved parties have to agree on, you increase your chances of coming to agreement. You set aside your desires and, in service of coming to agreement, just focus on your needs. Seems obvious in retrospect, but was actually revolutionary in the business world.

For me, despite twenty years of evidence about minimal, professional culture, I didn’t connect the dots. It’s really the exact same thing. We all see the attraction of being part of something big and exciting and all-encompassing. It’s so comfortable and nice to lead an integrated life where your colleagues are your friends and vice versa, where your conversations over beers solve problems encountered over keyboards.

But maybe that comes at a cost. If we set aside that desire and focus on what we’re really trying to do here — make good software — then maybe we’ll open up some different possibilities. By constraining the number of things we have to agree on, and the number of hours we have to spend agreeing on them, we naturally open ourselves to a diverse world of talented people.

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