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Becoming Part of the Solution: How Auth0 Promotes Diversity in Tech from the Inside Out

Kristen Craft on April 4, 2018 · 11 minute read

From the Uber scandal to morally questionable parties to precipitously unbalanced diversity stats, the recent stories from Silicon Valley underscore the enormity of the diversity and inclusion problem in the tech industry.

What they also highlight, unfortunately, is that the solution to the problem is unlikely to come from some external agent when so many figureheads and companies are mired in the very issues plaguing us. Eradicating exclusivity in tech requires an inside-out approach that lies in the hands of all of us—if only we’d work together.

Kim Maida, a Technical Content Lead at Auth0, takes her role in finding a solution to this problem seriously. While not in HR or People Ops, Kim actively participates in Auth0’s efforts to cultivate diversity and inclusivity across the company. In an interview with Kim, we discussed the three key actions every company can take (and every employee can help the company take) to further diversity and inclusivity in tech from the inside out:
  • Cultivating inclusivity in your team before you pull diversity from the outside
  • Auditing your recruitment efforts to appeal to a diverse group of qualified candidates
  • Matching your actions to your diversity and inclusivity policy, even if doing so requires making difficult decisions

Taking Action Against the Diversity Problem

As a woman of color, Kim had firsthand experience with the diversity and inclusivity problem in tech. Before she applied to Auth0, Kim interviewed for an engineering position with a different company. When she arrived at that interview, she was surprised to realize that the team consisted of only men. Nevertheless, she decided to keep an open mind through the process, thinking the company might be embarking on the goal of building a more diverse team.

Instead of telling her, however, what efforts the company was making to become more inclusive, the hiring manager turned the responsibility of diversity onto Kim by asking her: “So, how can I hire more women?”

Asking such questions during the hiring process discriminates on two different levels. First, it puts the candidate in a difficult position by asking them to comment on a sensitive topic that lies beyond the scope of their work. Second, it shifts the burden of the diversity problem onto the excluded by implying there’s something about them that prevents companies from hiring them. No male engineer interviewing for the same position would be asked how the hiring manager could bring more women on the team.

The interview was an unwelcoming experience for Kim, to say the least. The culmination of Kim’s negative experience, however, came in the rejection phone call that informed her that she wasn’t a good fit for the engineering job, but would she “consider something in the future having to do with communications or marketing?”

Kim was furious. But instead of shifting the burden of finding a solution to the problem back to “them”—the people who are excluding all the rest—she committed herself to taking action in her future endeavors.

I want to be part of the solution. I don’t want to hear more stories like this one from others.

The harsh truth we all have to face is that those who have to act to solve this problem are not “them”—it’s all of us.

When Kim later applied at Auth0, she was delighted to experience a much different interview. The team welcomed her right away and made her feel like she truly belonged there. Everyone she interacted with was courteous and respectful. Kim had such a great experience, collaborating with them on her interview project, that she decided to join the team.

Because of both negative and positive experiences, Kim made solving the diversity and inclusivity problem in tech a “personal passion” of hers. And the only way to solve this problem, she’s realized, is if all of us work from the inside out.

Three Principles for Building Diversity and Inclusivity in Tech from the Inside out

The most important thing you can do for the diversity and inclusivity problem is deciding to take action. Your numbers and stats may not be where you’d like them to be right now, and they may not get there in the next month or even year, but what matters is making progress. “It’s definitely a work in progress,” Kim says.

The more you work on it, the more progress you will make.

1. WORKING INSIDE YOUR TEAM TO CULTIVATE INCLUSIVITY

To build true diversity on your team, you must first embrace inclusivity. Diversity without inclusivity only makes those who are different feel excluded or that they have to conform to the dominant culture. What’s more, with  statistics showing that most tech workers believe their companies to be more diverse than they actually are, we have a lot of work to do towards embracing true inclusivity.

At Auth0, a dedicated #diversity-and-inclusivity channel in Slack helps promote this issue through open dialogue.

Diversity of opinion is one of the biggest things that you need to have a healthy ecosystem in a company,  particularly in tech which is awfully homogeneous in a lot of cases.

Moving from conversation to action, the Auth0 team is currently working on building a library of diversity resources that they can easily share with anyone on the team. The idea behind this effort, explains Kim, is to facilitate taking action on diversity concerns.

If someone in front-end engineering, for example, wants to find ways to attract more diverse candidates, they could go to our resource library to look that up and see who they could contact both inside the team and outside the team to achieve that.

The goal for Auth0 is to make inclusivity more than a conversation that happens in Slack. When inclusivity becomes the primary mode of thinking and acting for your team, then you can move towards building diversity on strong foundations.

Cultivating inclusivity in your team: 

  • “What does inclusivity mean and how do we act on it?” That’s the most important question any team can explore together to move from thinking they’re diverse to becoming truly diverse. Consider with your team the ways in which you promote inclusivity and the ways in which you could do even better.
  • Open the channel for ongoing conversation. Whether you do it in a Slack channel, on a pinboard in your office, or some other way, the tool itself doesn’t matter so much. What matters is having a place where team members can discuss the topics and update one another with helpful resources.
  • Gather resources for action into a library. The point of opening up the conversation is so you and your team can take action. Create a system for filing and categorizing all the inclusivity and diversity ideas you encounter so you can act on them when the time is right.

2. ATTRACTING A DIVERSE POOL OF CANDIDATES FROM THE OUTSIDE

After her terrible interview experience, Kim took it upon herself to do the background research necessary for understanding which companies were truly diverse and inclusive. Her friends who already worked at Auth0 told her that the culture was amazing and inclusive and that the company was actively working on its diversity efforts. Trusting their opinion, Kim decided to apply and never regretted doing so.

Throughout the entire interview process, I was impressed with the level of respect from everyone and the promotion of the culture as being fun, welcoming, and inclusive.

 

Once Kim joined the team officially, she wanted to make sure that more candidates from diverse backgrounds knew what an amazing place Auth0 is—especially ones without the inside connections and information she had access to. Hiring for diversity, after all, isn’t about  lowering your standards—it’s about raising the bar of what makes for diverse and inclusive outreach efforts.

One of the steps the Auth0 team took was to audit their job postings for a neutral and widely-appealing language with Textio. Even a simple change from “thinking outside the box” to “creative thinker,” Kim explains, can have a huge impact on who applies for the position.

When job postings sound “masculine” or are in some other way geared to a specific audience, they can be a turnoff for qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds.

 

Another step Auth0 had implemented even before Kim joined was to ensure that the technical exercise included in their engineer hiring process was a pleasant experience for all candidates. Doing away with the traditional whiteboard session that can give rise to all sorts of judgments and biases, Auth0 built a collaborative interview project that closely mimics what it’s like to work with the Auth0 team.

As a candidate, you have the chance to do the job with the people you would be working with; that’s what matters.

What’s more, Kim says, candidates are encouraged to ask questions and raise concerns throughout the entire exercise process and the interview process in general. It’s as much an opportunity for them to see if it’s a good fit as it is for the company.

How to attract a more diverse group of candidates:

  • What message do you send to candidates about the diversity and inclusivity in your company? Your Careers and About pages are two places candidates would turn to for information. Consider how you can promote your diversity message there.
  • What do your job postings say about who you’re looking to bring on to your team? Don’t trust your (inevitably biased) judgment to make the call. Use a tool like Textio or Gender Decoder to audit your job postings and improve them for inclusivity.
  • What does your interview process say about working with your team? Make sure the experience is welcoming for everyone and that it tests for the right things—which may not be performing under “spotlight” pressure.

3. GETTING THE DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIVITY MESSAGE OUT

Despite all the work you do internally (for diversity and inclusivity, or any other issue), the “moment of truth” for the outside world comes in a moment of crisis and the way you handle it. If you don’t act in accordance with your principles in public, no amount of talking will help improve diversity and inclusivity in tech.

For Kim and Auth0 that moment of truth came when one of Kim’s team members tweeted something offensive against a specific segment of the population. The situation quickly escalated as another Twitter user brought it to the attention of Auth0 and the Twitter community, bringing up a number of questions: Was Auth0 responsible for employee opinions posted on their private accounts? If not responsible, would they be right or wrong to judge employees based on tweets? What decision was appropriate in a public situation like this and what message would it send?

The Auth0 team reached for its “trust and respect” value which specifies: “No matter how talented, assholes are never tolerated.”

Though the incident took place after hours and involved people in different time zones across the globe, Auth0 called for an immediate meeting to discuss the issues and implications directly with the person responsible. While those conversations were happening internally, Kim didn’t sit back and wait but took public action.

I conducted several conversations with associated people on Twitter who had brought the issues to our attention.

Her replies and attitude were celebrated on Twitter by people saying they didn’t know the company but were now fans of it because of her stance in this complicated matter.

Getting the positive message out about diversity and inclusivity in a moment of crisis is one of the most important things any company can do.

Auth0 ultimately decided that the action violated their code of conduct and let the person go. Auth0’s CEO Eugenio Pace publicly explained that the company did not tolerate such behavior. But not everyone agreed with taking action against the employee in this incident. Some expressed concerns that the decision would demoralize employees—seeing the company acting against their teammate. But Kim says that was far from the actual reaction of her team.

Mostly, we were shocked that it had happened. We couldn’t believe that something so inappropriate came out of somebody that we’d been working with.

 

What was important at that moment internally was speaking openly about what happened, why it wasn’t tolerated, and about possible ways to prevent similar behaviors in the future. At the end of the day, it all goes back to hiring and trying to make sure the people who you bring on the team are truly onboard with the idea of diversity and inclusivity.

Getting the diversity message out: 

  • You don’t have to wait for a moment of crisis to get the message of diversity and inclusivity on your team out to the world. And hopefully, you’ll never have to deal with a public scandal of that dimension. What’s important is acting on the issues, both internally and externally, by using your diversity values as a code of conduct.
  • When incidents do arise, whether internally or externally, treat them with the utmost seriousness. Don’t brush off comments from team members and language or behavior that excludes or stigmatizes team members.
  • Use public incidents from other teams as an opportunity to discuss actions and consequences with your team. What would you do in a moment of similar crisis? What would be the steps taken and the consequences considered?

We Have a Lot More Work Ahead of Us

Auth0 doesn’t pretend to have found the perfect solution or to have reached the end of the road on their diversity and inclusivity work:

We know our numbers still aren’t anywhere close to parity, but we’re working hard on it.

There’s a lot more work to be done, but the important thing is doing the work on a daily basis, starting with conversations inside the team and going all the way to the message communicated to the world at large.

If every company took small steps towards improving their own teams, then the tech industry as a whole would be much closer to reaching its diversity and inclusivity goals. The change isn’t going to come from some external source. The change depends on the little actions we all take to change things from the inside out.