Ensuring Cultural and Gender Diversity in Tech, with Nicole Sanchez

By M. David Green , Tim Evko
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Nicole Sanchez on the Versioning Show

In this episode of the Versioning Show, David and Tim are joined by Nicole Sanchez, the Vice President of Social Impact at GitHub. They discuss the challenges of ensuring cultural and gender diversity in technology, the economic benefits of diverse communities … and David’s private room in Slack for doing politically incorrect things with the new /giphy plugin.

Show Notes

Conversation Highlights

there is so much genius that we just have never harnessed in technology. There is so much creativity. There is so much aptitude. There is so much desire and curiosity. Because of human-made barriers to access to technology or access to higher education, we’ve lost all of that talent. We’ve lost generations and generations of talent. — [7:00]


My father had a brilliant math mind, and his classmates were people who went on to develop programming languages and hardware that we continue to use today. Something having nothing to do with how smart he was caused him to fall off or be pushed off that track. — [7:30]


if your company is run predominantly by white men, and you added white women, you outpace your competitors in revenue by 10%. If you add racial and ethnic diversity on top of that — and we’re talking about at all levels across all functional areas — you increase it by 35%. — [12:10]


there are a lot of folks who think, Oh, okay, so I’ll just have to go find black and brown people and bring them into my company, and magically they help me turn profit, and that’s not at all what happens. That’s not at all how it works. — [12:50]


I’ll say — from where I sit as a hiring manager — Show me the computer science student who got a 3.0 and worked two jobs and was involved in stuff on their campus and is the first in their family to go to college and persisted. I will hire that person over the perfect 4.0 who had no friction in their college experience every single time. — [14:53]


When people say, You have a degree from Stanford, Nicole, and I say, I do. All you know is that I went to Stanford for four years and I did all the things they told me to do to get that piece of paper. That’s it. That’s all you know about my Stanford degree. There is not a merit there that is transferable necessarily to me being successful in tech. — [16:08]


I have worked so many companies who thought it was going to be sufficient to just put jobs up on their website and say, Now, people, come to me and bring us the most talented folks that are out there. Gosh, why aren’t they more diverse? It doesn’t work that way. You need to know what the reputation is of your company in communities of color or whatever it is that you’re trying to recruit for, because we talk to each other. — [18:42]

Nicole Sanchez on the Versioning Show

Transcript

David:

Hey, what’s up, everybody. This is M. David Green …

Tim:

… and this is Tim Evko …

David:

… and you’re listening to episode 14 of the Versioning podcast.

Tim:

This is a place where we get together to discuss the industry of the web, from development to design, with some of the people making it happen today, and planning where it’s headed in the next version.

David:

Today, we’re talking with Nicole Sanchez, who is the Vice President of Social Impact at GitHub. Why don’t we get this version started?

Nicole, how are you doing today?

Nicole:

I’m great. Thanks for having me on.

David:

Since this is the Versioning show, we always ask our guest a philosophical question, and your philosophical question today is this: in your current career, what version are you, and why?

Nicole:

I love this question. All right, I had a similar conversation with a theater geek friend of mine the other day, and I told her that I was in my third act of life. And she got really upset, because in her world, there are only three acts, but I didn’t think about that. In my mind, there are 5 or 7 or 20, I don’t know, but she finally agreed to let me call myself version 3.0, because I had childhood, and that was one, with lots of different iterations, and then at some point as an adult and a mom, that became two, with many different iterations.

As my children are now teenagers, and I’m able to — and quite honestly — think more about work now than I have in the last 16 years. Like I said, I have a 16-year-old and I have a 13-year-old. This is definitely the beginning of version 3 for me, because I am able to iterate more quickly, like I think I’m releasing updates in a much more regular pace. I feel much more confident in the stability of me at 3.0 than I ever did prior to now.

This is where I get to put the creative work in version 1, and all those iterations too, and all those iterations really bringing it together in version 3, but it doesn’t mean I’m done at the end of 3. There might be 25, I don’t know. We’ll see.

[Laughter]

Tim:

Absolutely not, but I always feel more confident investing in version 3 of something.

Nicole:

Well, there you go, right? Exactly. Then, whoever is not ready to be an earlyish adopter, you can wait until version 4 of Nicole and invest in me.

David:

Looking forward to it.

Nicole:

Thank you!

David:

I’m really interested in your title. It’s not something that you see at every company but there are a few companies who have implemented programs like yours.

Nicole:

Yeah. Social Impact is meant to be broader than just being the head of diversity and inclusion. What it covers is diversity inclusion, but also our community partnerships. So that means inside the tech community, as well as in our local communities around things that don’t have anything necessarily to do with tech. The third thing it means is really trying to work with our engineering team and others on the GitHub staff, making sure that people can come onto GitHub and leverage their knowledge for good — for positive social impact — whether that’s building something cool that solves a real social issue, or that’s contributing to something that somebody else is building. We really want to start making that easier for people to leverage open source for positive impact. That’s what the social impact team covers.

David:

That’s interesting. So your role, it covers both internal candidates and people who work inside the company as well as the people who are using your service.

Nicole:

That’s right. One of the primary things we started working on was the diversity of our own staff, which I will say and we are very clear prior to about a year ago was abysmal and not even close to where the industry standards are. We’ve met industry standards, but the industry overall has some abysmal statistics in terms of demographics. Now, our job is to exceed that.

In addition, we’re working on initiatives to diversify the community of open-source users and contributors, because without both of those things at work, we aren’t going to get the level of innovation that we really know we need in open source and in software overall, and in technology overall. So, I really enjoy working on that, and that’s what we’re doing here at GitHub.

David [4:24]:

When you say standards of diversity, I’m curious. A lot of people might not have a clear understanding of that, or they may have an image in their mind of what that means but not really see it from the perspective that you’re bringing to it. I’m curious if you could share with this what you mean by that.

Nicole:

Sure. I think the tried and true two things that people always look at are race ethnicity and gender. Those are very important demographic factors when you’re thinking about diversifying your workforce because unfortunately, we’re still at a time where those two things alone can predict a lot about your career, success, your academic achievement, your overall earning, your lifespan — not just in an American context, but globally as well. Those two things are very important to us.

In addition, we care about things like gender identity beyond the binary. We care very much about sexual orientation, religion, age, physical abilities, veteran status, the list could really go on and on. What we are primarily concerned with is folks who are underrepresented in tech currently but that their demographic background overly predicts their career success or lack thereof in technology, in higher education, et cetera.

It’s all of those things none of us really asked to be born as, but they have this disproportionate impact due to prejudices, due to bias, due to racism, due to misogyny — those things that have a disproportionate impact on how well you’re going to do in life. We actively seek people from underrepresented backgrounds to work on and act for GitHub, because that’s what’s going to allow us to bring about the next level of innovation and a better platform for a wider range of users. That’s what we’re talking about. Does that answer your question?

David:

Yeah. That’s helpful. I suppose you yourself identify as having a background that is underrepresented in certain ways.

Nicole:

That’s absolutely right. I’m a Mexican-American woman who is over 40. I’m a mom. There are a lot of ways that you can slice that up, and what I have found in my career, my first job working on diversity and tech was in 1999. The amount of misunderstanding about what it would mean for the industry to bring people from unlikely, underrepresented backgrounds in the tech was alarming. We think it’s alarming now, but let me tell you in 1999, the kinds of things that I was hearing!

What I consistently said, and still consistently say today, is there is so much genius that we just have never harnessed in technology. There is so much creativity. There is so much aptitude. There is so much desire and curiosity. Because of human-made barriers to access to technology or access to higher education, we’ve lost all of that talent. We’ve lost generations and generations of talent.

I wrote a piece that I put up on Medium about my dad and him attempting to go to UC Berkeley in the early 60s, and being forced out due to some really horrific but racist actions of others. My father had a brilliant math mind, and his classmates were people who went on to develop programming languages and hardware that we continue to use today. Something having nothing to do with how smart he was caused him to fall off or be pushed off that track.

I tell his story not because his is unique, but because it is everywhere, every day, because we’ve lost thousands and thousands — at this point, millions — of people who could have contributed to very important scientific discoveries, and because we don’t invest in them and because we’ve let our own prejudices get in the way, they don’t have access. That’s what I fundamentally care about. I personally identify as somebody who is underrepresented in tech.

Tim [8:12]:

Speaking about 1999 — which I don’t think is a question you’re going to hear in tech conversations a lot — but speaking about 1999, you said that was when you first got started with diversity in tech. How did you come to that role?

Nicole:

I graduated from college in 1994, and my very first job was working on diversity in community service, specifically in Boston. I joined the staff of one of the first AmeriCorps programs, and it was the first year that AmeriCorps really had expanded to be a national program.

I had spent almost five years working on building diverse teams that were doing good things in the community — in elementary schools, in hospitals, building playgrounds, really interesting things — and we were proving, day in and day out, how a diverse group of people could make great things happen together. That was better because we were diverse, not in spite of our diversity but because of our diversity.

There was an entrepreneur out in Boston whose path I came across, and he said, I want you to do that at my startup. Now, I will not say the name of the startup, and I will not ever disclose that, because ultimately what happened is I got pregnant and had a baby and was fired for having a baby, and was told that my priorities now should be my children — my child — and that they were going to need people who could sleep in sleeping bags under their desks, and I wasn’t up for the challenge of startup life.

Prior to that happening, though, we had some amazing success. We had an engineering team that was predominantly Native American, and it was the first time that I ever saw the power of the cohort model, where if you hired one really talented person from the underrepresented background and then they said, I know three other people to whom I’m very close who would be great for this team, and because we will travel in groups that are safe, and in groups, this person who is Native American brought three friends who were also Native American, and they formed the core of our engineering team. And they looked out for each other’s success.

The power of the cohort model as a way to hire for diversity was evident at that moment, so we got to see some really interesting things. We also made sure we had a staff that was half women, half men. Of course, this was at a time before we started talking really openly about challenging the gender binary, but at the time we were about half men, half women. We saw some really cool things happen. Now, when the pressure of money and the pressure from investors came, it was one of the first things to get thrown out — which was very dejecting to me. I was very dejected and just said, This is not an industry that actually cares about this, and I left tech for quite a while. That’s how I came into it and I left with a very bad taste in my mouth on that first round.

Tim:

No, I can definitely understand. We don’t show video but I had a very horrified look on my face at the story.

Nicole:

You did. You had a really horrified look on your face! You had an appropriately horrified look on your face. [Laughs]

Tim:

Speaking about money for a second, we often hear in the community from — I’ll give others the benefit of the doubt — people who may be suspicious that diversity efforts do cost money. Do you want to speak to how you feel about that?

Nicole [11:32]:

Sure. I have very strong feelings about that, I’m sure you can understand. Diversity efforts cost money. They do. Up front, they are expensive, and I likened it to a flywheel. Once you get that flywheel revolving a few revolutions, a lot of it starts to run on its own. Getting it off the ground is the very … It’s just like any startup. That’s an incredibly expensive time.

Now, on the returns end is where we recently just in the last two years got data that people are willing to accept, I think, overall, and it came from McKinsey. It basically said this (this is across sector): if your company is run predominantly by white men, and you added white women, you outpace your competitors in revenue by 10%. If you add racial and ethnic diversity on top of that — and we’re talking about at all levels across all functional areas — you increase it by 35%.

So, as expensive as it might be to get up and running, you start to reap returns pretty quickly if you’re doing it well. The problem is that if you’re doing it well is where so many people fail. On the one hand on the front end, it absolutely costs money. On the back end, you will reap the rewards. In the middle is hard work, and there are a lot of folks who think, Oh, okay, so I’ll just have to go find black and brown people and bring them into my company, and magically they help me turn profit, and that’s not at all what happens. That’s not at all how it works.

That’s where I think companies fall down. It’s not even so much these days on the desire to do it. It’s the, Okay, we don’t even know where to start. That’s what I’ve seen more than anything.

David:

Understanding where to start — in some ways, I think it flies in the face of this concept of the meritocracy that people see in high tech. I believe you might have a few opinions on the concept of meritocracy.

Nicole:

I do. Well, for those who don’t know the origin of meritocracy, it was actually first written as a joke. The idea that you could decide who was meritorious, or whatever the word is, who is objectively more deserving of something than someone else. It’s not a concept that has roots in any sort of social science — nothing that you can prove.

People in tech and in other sectors went to what they thought would be objective measures. What’s your GPA? What school did you go to? What college did you go to? — because I’m going to use all of the biased information that society has told me is important and decide to give that more meaning than anything else.

The problem is in every single one of those systems, the same bias is built in. You’re just lumping your bias on top of other people’s bias. If you say, Oh, you went to Stanford and you got a 4.0 in computer science, and there’s no analysis of how women from all backgrounds and people of color had been pushed out of that computer science experience, of course, you’re going to have a very homogeneous group of people who are able to attain a 4.0 in computer science at Stanford, having nothing to do with how smart people objectively are.

If you say it’s merits, and I’ve put it on numbers, or I’ve said, That person completed that coding challenge faster than anyone else, you put meaning into things that seem objective, but they’re not. None of those things are objective. So I’ll say — from where I sit as a hiring manager — Show me the computer science student who got a 3.0 and worked two jobs and was involved in stuff on their campus and is the first in their family to go to college and persisted. I will hire that person over the perfect 4.0 who had no friction in their college experience every single time.

The thing I love about GitHub is that we specifically do not have a higher education requirement on any job. It’s really important for us — and I see you all talk a lot about open source — it’s really important for us to keep that as one of our pillars of hiring, because so many people learn open source not through school but because a friend showed them, then they dabbled, then they got really excited about it, then they spent a lot of time on GitHub or something else working on an open-source project. None of that was attached to school.

We have engineers here who actually haven’t even graduated from high school and they are some of our top engineers, because it had nothing to do with how smart they were. In some cases, it was socioeconomic factors. In some cases, it was because of a learning difference. College, in and of itself, does not confirm much other than you went to college. When people say, You have a degree from Stanford, Nicole, and I say, I do. All you know is that I went to Stanford for four years and I did all the things they told me to do to get that piece of paper. That’s it. That’s all you know about my Stanford degree. There is not a merit there that is transferable necessarily to me being successful in tech.

In fact, several companies have found diminishing returns over time as they did pattern recognition and they tried to repeat, Oh, people who went to this school and were this major and they got these grades must be good in our company. It ceases to be true the longer you use that as a pattern.

Tim [16:48]:

Let’s say I am someone who is responsible for looking through resumes and making hiring decisions at a company. What would your advice be if I am looking to objectively and without bias evaluate the competencies of someone for a role? What would your advice be to someone in that position?

Nicole:

I would say, first and foremost, it depends on where you are in the hiring pipeline. If your job is resume review, then the number one thing I would ask you to do is redact a ton of information from resumes. But if you’re not going to be doing the interviewing necessarily and you didn’t do the recruiting beforehand, what you should be doing is not looking at name, name of college, address. There are a whole bunch of things that trigger biases for any of us. It would trigger biases for me. It’s not like people of color are exempt. Names, addresses, schools, all that stuff triggers biases where I start to tell a story to myself about a candidate that may or may not be true.

If you look to my resume and you said, Oh, she graduated from college in 1994, you start doing the math and you say, She’s probably in her mid 40s — not you necessarily, but somebody reviewing resumes might go, Oh, is she going to really be able to keep up with our fast-paced startup environment? She’s in her mid 40s. That’s a ding on me. You have no idea: I could be the most energetic 44-year-old you’ve ever met. I could be, whatever. I could just be one of those people who doesn’t sleep. Whatever it is, you don’t know, but it has triggered biases that make you think you know — those lazy shortcuts. There’s tons of research on what names do, and black-sounding names, Latino-sounding names and what those do to people who are reviewing resumes. If you’re reviewing resumes, that’s the number one thing I would say, is redact a ton of information.

If you’re earlier in the pipeline and you’re recruiting, you got to start looking somewhere else. I have worked so many companies who thought it was going to be sufficient to just put jobs up on their website and say, Now, people, come to me and bring us the most talented folks that are out there. Gosh, why aren’t they more diverse? It doesn’t work that way. You need to know what the reputation is of your company in communities of color or whatever it is that you’re trying to recruit for, because we talk to each other. We absolutely talk to each other. We know which companies our friends have had bad experiences at, and we know which companies our friends have good experiences at.

It takes a while, and a lot of the outbound effort. This where the cost comes in — the outbound effort to go to places like the conference for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Some of the costs upfront is the outbound recruitment, where you show up for people and it’s not the first time you show up at a career fair that’s for diverse candidates. It’s the third time, the fourth time, the fifth time they see that you actually show up, put your money where your mouth is, put your people hours where your mouth is. Your reputation has to be built. Then, you’re going to start to see a more inbound traffic from overlooked communities and from underrepresented communities. That part takes a lot of work.

If you’re in that part of the pipeline, I would say that’s what you have to do. And then there are other things you have to do all along the hiring pipeline that work against the biases that we all hold, so that you can actually yield a diverse group of candidate finalists so you can feel really good about your top three or five finalists. And you go, Wow, that’s a really nice mix of people. I can’t choose poorly now.

David [20:20]:

In the formal environment — the hiring environment inside of an organization — I can see that advice. But it’s interesting as you’re working for GitHub, and of course, GitHub is big on the open-source community. Ideally, the open-source environment should be a very democratizing environment where anybody can contribute, but it hasn’t actually worked out that way.

Nicole:

No, it hasn’t.

David:

I’m curious if you can share a little bit of your exposure to that, and what you’re doing about that from inside of GitHub.

Nicole:

One of the things that we found in the last couple of years around hiring technical talent and being part of GitHub is that folks assumed that your GitHub contributions, your contribution graph, whatever your repos say, would be a huge part of how we hire, and it’s just not. It’s not. I think other companies do it a lot more than we do.

What we discovered is that in order to build GitHub, we needed things that weren’t connected to open-source experience, because open-source experience, as it has existed, truly favors people who come in with a lot of confidence and disproportionately favors our own demographic user base which is honestly, white guys in North America and Europe. That’s the core of our user base.

When we realized that that’s fine but it’s insufficient, we realized we needed to hire differently. One of the things that we did in the last year was we have no community and safety team for a really long time, for the first seven years of GitHub’s existence. It wasn’t until we started really diversifying our user base that users said, Hey, if I’m going to come on and I’m from underrepresented background, I need to know what tools are in place for my safety online. If this is going to truly be a social coding experience, I want to know who I’m being social with, and if somebody turns nasty, I want to know what tools I have at my disposal to keep those folks away from me.

We implemented our first community and safety team, which is disproportionately staffed by people from underrepresented backgrounds — for the very purpose of those people being fluent in what their experiences have been in online social communities and how vulnerable they have felt, so that we can use their experience and leverage it to build the tools they would have like to have seen and experienced three years ago, four years ago, five years ago.

We hired a leader for that team. She’s amazing and she’s a trans woman of color. She is phenomenal at her job, and she can see things from a lot of different perspectives, and points things out all the time that, I think, our more traditional users and builders of GitHub just couldn’t see. They haven’t experienced it. Our CEO had said this himself: I didn’t have a community and safety team because I didn’t know how nasty people could be online, because I’m a cis white guy who didn’t experience these things.

David:

I’m not sure if everybody out there knows the term cis.

Nicole:

Cis. Cisgender means that you identify with the gender assigned at birth, as opposed to being gender queer or trans or something like that. Somebody who says, Oh, you’re a white man. Yes, I’m a white man, and that’s it in his case. Having a transgender woman lead the team that talks about community and safety is a really powerful thing.

We also hired the woman who wrote Contributor Covenant to be on that team — Coraline Ada Ehmke, another transgender woman — and she is well known in the community as somebody who has advocated for codes of conduct online. She wrote what we considered to be the platinum standard in Contributor Covenant, and we hired her. She’s on the Community and Safety team because she is very well versed in how things can go sideways for vulnerable people online.

We’re really proud of this, because we have a specific viewpoint on this that we’ve asserted around how you should feel when you’re on GitHub. One of them is safe, and that for us is a big step forward in the last year around deciding that we were going to have a specific viewpoint as opposed to say, Well, everything is OK; just stay away from each other. Like we actually don’t behave that way, and we got a lot of pushback for it. But you know what? This is the community we’re trying to build. If you’re going to really open the doors to new developers from underrepresented backgrounds, you better make sure they have a great experience when they come along.

Tim [24:46]:

Yeah, excellent. I want to talk about pushback for a second. I think there are some people who are new to this because they have never experienced any of this in their lives. But I know there are others who, coming from that same perspective, tend to push back against diversity efforts, and they cite — from what I’ve seen — two main things. I was wondering if you had an answer to them. The first thing being that when there are efforts to make a community safer, there can sometimes be identification of a false positive, wherein someone is identified as being a harasser when they truly had no intent.

Nicole:

Yeah. Well, we have a really very vigorous Terms of Service team — that comes out of our support team — that is incredibly thoughtful about these things. They’ll pull me in, and they’ll pull others in all the time, if they think this is something that isn’t cut and dry. They’ll get a lot of opinions before moving forward, because at the end of the day, you’re really just trying to get as much data as you can about What am I looking at? Did this person mean harm? It doesn’t matter if they meant harm; the other person felt harm. What can we do?

We have really robust Terms of Service team that goes through these kinds of cases regularly. What we found is, at the end of the day, the more communication we can have with the user who has accused another person and those who have been accused, the better our outcomes. Because if we say to a user, Hey, Tim has said you’ve used some really offensive language. We went through the issue in this repo, and what we have found is that we see a few times you’ve used these words. It’s starting to rub people the wrong way. It’s not exactly against our terms of service, but …"

We’re very open with our users, and nine times out of ten, the user says, Oh, my gosh, I didn’t even know that I was doing that. Thank you for telling me. Then we go back to the accuser and we say, Look, we’ve talked to them. They’ve agreed not to use that phrase anymore. They’ve agreed not to do that anymore, and the person says, Thank you, I really appreciate it.

So sometimes, we’re just like community managers and mediators that way. The one time out of 10 — and maybe that’s too high — that it really spins out of control, we actually don’t have any problem shutting someone down on our site. It’s our site. We’re a privately held company. It’s our site. If we look and we’re like, man, this person has a real pattern of abuse, we need to explain why we’re shutting them down and shut it down — because we don’t want this on our platform. Those egregious kinds of situations are very few and far between, and then it’s a lot of making sure we have very smart people in a very diverse team looking through the gray-area ones a lot. They spend a ton of time poring over details.

I’ll give you a very clear example of something that happened. We had a user who said that he was being harassed online. We had a team of three looking into the pattern of harassment. He was a teenager, the guy who reported. He was a teenager, 16 years old, and we started looking at the pattern of harassment, and wondering if it was one of his friends trolling him — like the patterns and the IP addresses started to look like they were local. We did some real forensic work on this, and then I ended up getting on a Google Hangout with him to talk to this kid face to face to say, What’s up? Like, Are you OK? Can I talk to your parents?

Our users are humans. Our users are people who are having feelings, and we want them to have these great experiences, and so that went on for quite a while with me checking in with him regularly, because he’s also a kid who’s trying to get into tech. We wanted to make sure we were doing right by him. I spent a lot of time with that kid and the harassment died down. We engaged him in a lot of Q&A about what he wanted to have happen. We asked him if he’s getting bullied at school, and we really went above and beyond with this kid. I can’t imagine — I think above and beyond what other tech companies would do — but I can’t imagine GitHub not doing that, because our users are everything to us.

Whether you’re a professional coder who’s like in the middle of doing some stuff at NASA, or you’re a 16-year-old kid who’s really trying to get their foot in the door of coding, I hope that what you feel is that on the other end of this GitHub experience, there are a lot of humans recognizing your humanity in the code. We’re just working hard on scaling that, as it is tricky, but our VP of support is someone who’s completely committed to this notion that even though you’re dealing in code, it doesn’t mean that your humanity stops.

Tim [29:24]:

I think it’s definitely clear and it’s definitely a heart-warming story and it just makes me proud to be a GitHub user to be completely honest with you. Thank you for that.

Nicole:

Thank you. I appreciate it. I’m really proud of this company, and we’ve certainly come a long way just in the last two years.

David:

It’s remarkable to see what GitHub is doing. I’m curious if you see the kind of efforts that you’re doing reflected at other companies. Who’s doing it well? Who’s really accomplishing something these days?

Nicole:

I have a few favorite companies who I think are making great strides. I think Slack, Twilio, Pandora — and partially that’s because I can vouch for the people who are doing the work in those companies, and I see what they’re trying to do. All of those companies are trying to build communities and these are all companies that are very technical, but they don’t forget that at the root is the user experience.

Pandora is a place where you go and people are delighting in music, and it’s a great place to recruit and harness the talent of diverse individuals, because music is as diverse as humanity. When you go to their office, you can really feel that. Twilio has done an amazing job of making human an API experience — like, yeah, you’re working in APIs, but there’s this real human desire for knowledge and human desire for information and interesting data that comes out of Twilio.

Slack, I think, has been very vocal about their need for a diverse set of people building their products. They’re entirely about people collaborating and communicating with each other, but where I really saw the rubber hit the road with Slack was when they did their Giphy install — their Giphy plugin. I don’t know if you all use it. In Slack, you can just slash giphy and then put a sentiment. I can do /giphy happy dance and it will generate an appropriate GIF for me to send to somebody. I don’t have to go searching through GIFs online.

When they rolled that out, my team — the Social Impact team — got very nervous, and we said, OK, look. If Slack didn’t curate these GIFs well, this could be really ugly. My team quietly did a whole bunch of things that could be misconstrued. We put, not epithets, because those are always nasty, but if you just put, like in my case, /giphy Latina, I was like,Oh, what’s it going to be?“ Every single time a GIF came up, you can tell that somebody hand curated these GIFs to remove abuse from the curated set of GIFs.

Now, it sounds like a small, silly esoteric thing, but when you’re on the receiving end of harassing imagery, when you’re on the receiving end of racialized tropes from media, the fact that you can not abuse somebody even accidentally on Slack using that Giphy command, to me was a huge piece of evidence that the right people are building this product. There’s a diverse team of people thinking through their plugins. That, to me, is the kind of thing that, while a small win, for people who do the work that I do is not that small, because there’s tons of politics behind it. They’re also having to auto-generate things, so they must have come up with rules that they knew would prevent people from getting hurt.

I think I wrote a long Twitter rant about that — not rant; rant is negative — Twitter praise to the Slack engineering team, and whoever else was involved in that, because it was very, very real.

Tim [32:42]:

I feel like there can sometimes be, the pushback that diversity efforts lead to a type of censorship in the general community. I was wondering if you had an answer to that, because while there are plenty of answers, I really just wanted to see what yours was, and if you’ve run into that and how you combat or answer that general idea.

Nicole:

Sure. It’s so interesting. The insult in tech for people who care about building an inclusive field is social justice warrior. In a vacuum, think about how awesome that sounds, social justice warrior without the context. To be somebody who really wants to bring about social justice on a technology platform sounds awesome. I think that while that is hurled as an insult, the other insult is You’re shutting me down, you’re censoring me. In the United States, to violate the First Amendment is to basically violate the most fundamental truth of our country.

The difference is that harassment is not protected. Hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment. We often say yelling Fire! in a crowded building, not protected. To say on our platform that we control, you can’t go and recruit a bunch of people to gang up on somebody and harass them off our platform is not censorship. It’s us deciding that our desire for a truly inclusive, open-source community trumps your desire to gang up on somebody. Yeah, we’ve made that decision.

That is not censorship. Censorship is the government saying, You cannot say that anymore. That’s not what happens. We are a private company that says, You can’t say that on our platform. Go somewhere else. You can’t do that on our platform. Go somewhere else. That’s not censorship. You don’t run GitHub. You don’t own GitHub. If you were out in the public square saying, We hate Nicole Sanchez and we think what she’s doing to GitHub is wrong, and you’re going to picket my company in front of my building, you have a right to do that. If the government came and shut you down, that’s censorship and that’s a violation of your First Amendment right. That is different than, Come into my house and harass my children, I will kick you out.

It’s a very sophomoric answer to, How dare you not let me be hateful? I’m saying, Be hateful, just go do it on someone else’s platform. Let them deal with you. We’ve got lots of competitors. If they want to have you, have fun. Not in my house, not on my watch, because we have bigger things to accomplish here. That’s what I say about censorship, and I feel the same way about conferences that decide they don’t want people there. You get to control the space and make it what you want.

Now, if you go into a public space and you want to say these things and you want to shout from the corner of 2nd and Brannan that you think GitHub is an evil corporation, I will protect that right every day. It will make me uncomfortable and I will still protect it, and I will still defend your right to do that. That’s what I say about that.

David [36]:

It’s a very clear and well-expressed distinction — not one that I think a lot of people have thought through when they have that gut reaction.

Nicole:

Thank you. I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve had a lot of arguments about this.

David:

It’s very clear, and we really appreciate you’re coming on to the show today and sharing your thoughts and your background on this with us. Because I think there are a lot of people out there who haven’t heard a lot of these arguments before, and they may just be getting the effects and not really understanding the context. I wanted to thank you again for coming on to the show. It’s been really great having you here.

Nicole:

I’m so happy. Thank you so much for having me. I really welcome open conversation about this, so however you engage with your listeners, I’d love to be a part of that.

Tim:

Definitely.

David:

Cool. Is there a way people can reach you online?

Nicole:

Sure. I’m on Twitter @nmsanchez. That’s probably the best way to do it, because I like to have these conversations open and in the public so we can all engage.

David:

Cool. Thank you very much.

Nicole:

Thank you. I really appreciate you guys.

[Musical interlude]

Tim:

I definitely learned a ton during that interview. First off, the study that was mentioned, McKinsey, I’m surprised because I had never seen that, and I feel like I should have seen that somewhere floating around Twitter or going viral in some sort of community, but I hadn’t seen it at all. I want to make sure that it gets in our show notes so our listeners can see that and read that, because it sounds very interesting. I’m definitely going to look at it as soon as I can.

David:

Yeah, there’s a lot of information out there like that, and I have a feeling that if we had asked, Nicole could have listed a ton for resources that we could refer people to.

Tim:

Yes, what we should have done. Yes, definitely.

David:

It’s really impressive to see somebody who’s come at this from such a thoughtful background, and given it such consideration and demonstrated the actual practicalities. When she was talking about her own personal experiences and the things that motivated her to look into this issue and start working, and what originally attracted her to tech and what ultimately drew her back to tech, and the fact that she’s willing to put the time and effort into making this happen. It’s very impressive.

Tim:

Yeah, it was motivating to hear her story, in that she had just an absolutely terrible experience, but she came back and managed to just conquer it and improve things for other people. Not only is it an admirable thing to do, but it’s selfless, really. It would be so easy for so many of us to have a bad experience like that and throw up our hands and say, You know what? I’m done with this industry. I’m going to go do something else. They can burn in the fire that they’re destined for.

But instead, going back and sludging through that mess again to try and fix things, that’s an incredible effort. You really have to applaud someone who spends all of their time really, fixing something that burned them.

David:

Mm-hm. You can see that the inspiration of her own father’s story was definitely part of what brought her to that, and it’s really amazing that she ended up bringing that to GitHub. GitHub had been, as she said, up until a year or so ago, there had been some real issues with the diversity inside of that company, and she’s brought it to her own perspective not only of improving the employment issues but also from the user-base issues in GitHub.

Tim:

It was really nice to see how analytical Nicole is about all of these different ideas. From those who — I don’t want to say people who are against diversity, because I don’t think anyone thinking intelligently about the subject is going to be against diversity. I would say those who are sometimes confused about how diversity efforts work tend to say that these efforts are more emotionally based than fact and numbers and money based, but the way that Nicole explained all of the things that she does and how they work was such a precise and analytical way.

That was definitely interesting to see, and again, like we said, learned a ton especially about how you can literally invest in diversity in your company and watch it pay off over time if done right.

David [39:58]:

The fact that it does pay off, I think, is something that might impress people. As you brought up, the expense is definitely an issue up front, and as she certainly agreed, it’s not something that’s free. It’s something that needs to be invested and it’s something that does cost money up front. It’s great to see that there are examples of ways focusing on these efforts inside of a company can have a positive impact and will have a positive impact on the bottom line if you look at the studies.

Tim:

It’s something that I have noticed personally. And I’m being completely honest here: this isn’t just because we’re doing a show on diversity. If you want to write better software, and just all around general be better at your job, work with someone who is different. That’s it. Start there. That’s happened to me time and time again, and every time, I come out learning something new, learning how to communicate better with people, or just learning to look at software or a piece of code I’m writing from a different lens. It is invaluable the amount of experience you gain from that.

David:

And fortunately, we live in a society where there are opportunities now globally to collaborate with people from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of little sets of perspectives and experiences. It’s not just about a bunch of people who share all of their same attributes but they have what they called diversity of thought. It’s actually people from — like, you and I, right now. We’re collaborating far across the country, and we’re working with a company that’s half way around the world for both of us.

Tim:

Yeah.

David:

This opportunity to collaborate in platforms like GitHub where the open-source community really does have a chance to make accessible the ability to work with people who are unlike yourself available. It’s a remarkable opportunity.

Tim:

I also like that we are able to touch on the fact that it’s interesting, almost a catch-22, hiring for an open-source company diverse people, many of which don’t really get the chance to work on a ton of open-source projects, because open source itself — I mean, for me, I get to work on open-source stuff when I have time. There are plenty of areas wherein people just don’t have time. Either you need to work a second job, or you don’t speak English very well, and all the code we write is written in English, those sorts of issues wherein you really don’t think — or it really becomes a difficult technical challenge: what do you look for when hiring for a diverse pool of engineers when your product is a coding application like GitHub is?

David:

It’s true, and you can’t rely on those arguably objective markers, because they’re not actually objectives. They have culture embedded in them, and even the notion that anybody can contribute to an open-source project, as Nicole was talking about, there are issues where people are bullied out of open-source projects by people who see them as other or who might want, for whatever reasons, for whatever their backgrounds lead them to. It’s easy to forget that that’s happening when you come from a background of privilege where you don’t see that happen to you personally.

Tim:

I think in every career path, there comes a time when you realize it’s more than just getting better at the technical skill. I think one of the things that has helped me most in this career field is patience and empathy, and the more you focus on those two qualities, the other ones definitely catch up, definitely, but the better off you are.

David:

I think a lot of our evolution as engineers really does come down to these communication skills that you’re talking about, because, ultimately, any form of engineering unless you are completely working independently of anybody else and you don’t care if anybody ever uses your product but you personally. Ultimately, it all comes down to diversity issues, because you want to work with other people who can bring their talents and their skills regardless of what background they bring and you want a customer base that has a diverse background, because not everybody who’s going to use your product is going to look and sound and talk and act exactly like you.

These communication issues are absolutely at the core of all the things that we’re working on. It’s wonderful to be reminded of that and to see these efforts really paying off.

Tim [44:05]:

Yeah, I think what I’ve learned most from this episode is really that diversity makes the world turn, and if you want to just get better as technical skill or as just a human being, it’s something that will benefit you to focus on, and it will benefit others, and that’s an excellent thing.

David:

Well, one thing I’m going to take away from this is that I’m going to go play on Slack with Giphy now, and see just how well curated those things are. I’ll have to do it in a private room, because it’s going to be politically incorrect for a little while, but I have to find out now.

Tim:

Yeah, you can message yourself. That’s how I tested it. Good luck, and make sure there’s no screen recording software on … and I’m just going to leave it at that!

David:

Good advice, good advice. I’m glad we had a chance to talk with Nicole today, because she’s really inspiring, and it makes me feel better about using GitHub for projects.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely — especially with the story she shared with the 16-year-old. They definitely went above and beyond, and it’s really nice to see something like that happen in this community.

David:

Absolutely.


Tim:

Well, thank you so much for listening, everybody. We always enjoy getting talk technology with all of you.

David:

We’d also like to thank SitePoint.com, and our producers, Adam Roberts and Ophelie Lechat, with production help from Ralph Mason. Please feel free to send us your comments on Twitter — @versioningshow — and give us a rating on iTunes and let us know how we’re doing.

Tim:

We’ll see you next time, and we hope you enjoyed this version.

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