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RailsConf 2019 - Mentoring the way to a more diverse and inclusive workplace by Alexandra Millatmal

Alexandra Millatmal
Web Application Developer at Newsela
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RailsConf 2019
May 1, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
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About speaker

Alexandra Millatmal
Web Application Developer at Newsela

Alexandra is a software engineer with a passion for projects that change the way we consume and engage with information. She currently builds product at Newsela, a company focused on fostering literacy by tailoring real-world content to students' individual reading levels.Ever-learning new programming techniques and technologies (right now, she's contributing to an open-source project that uses Gatsby.js and GraphQL), Alex prides herself on the usefulness and philosophical integrity of her work. In the past four years, she's worked on a variety of modern web stacks, from an open-source design system in React to a greenfield Rails application to help code schools better track student outcomes.When she's not thinking about refactoring her Ruby or the perfect JavaScript function, Alex spends a lot of time thinking about secular space/discourse, access to information, ethics in journalism, and communicating "othered" experiences.

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RailsConf 2019 - Mentoring the way to a more diverse and inclusive workplace by Alexandra Millatmal


Often, the endeavors of hiring and mentoring junior engineers and of bolstering diversity and inclusion efforts are seen as “nice to haves” at best and “extraneous” (or even “impossible”!) at worst. But in reality, building diversity and inclusivity and fostering the ability to incorporate junior engineers go hand-in-hand. Engineering teams should approach each of these efforts in service of the other.

Together, we'll articulate the value of investing in mentorship efforts in terms of their impact on the ability to attract and retain diversity. You will walk away with a clearer understanding of the connection between the two efforts, and ideas for incorporating mentorship and D&I processes at your place of work.

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Welcome to mentoring the way to a diverse and inclusive workplace. I'm really grateful that you decided to be here today, and I'm excited to have this conversation with you. My name is Alex malotte mall. I'm a developer at Newsela in New York City. We are an ed-tech company that is focused on promoting literacy and also making differentiated lesson planning easier for educators in the K through 12 education space. You can find me at the garbled string of characters that actually says half gun in Nebraska Twitter or GitHub or just kind of generally on

the internet. So what are we talking about today? And why? I'd like to make the argument to you that the tenants of good mentorship look a lot like the tenants of truly inclusive companies and that it could really serve us to think about these efforts mentorship and diversity and inclusion and service of one another. First I'd like to set up some expectations. Let's briefly talked about who this talk is for the stock can be for anyone. I really hope to show managers and team lead small actions that can help make a big

difference in the happiness and inclusivity of your team Junior engineer's especially those from underrepresented groups will get an idea from this talk about what kinds of supports they might look for in a company and for executives who are ready to move Beyond diversity and inclusion 101. I'd like to present some ideas of initiatives that you can sponsor at your place of work. We'll talk now about mentorship and the issues and inclusion belonging and retention for marginalized folks. But there are some things that we specifically will not cover. This talk is not going to

delve into the minutiae about who is marginalized and Tech. We also won't be talking about the benefits of diversity inclusion directly through any kind of physical lens. We won't really even touch on the need for these efforts in general. This need is going to be taken as a given. Okay, be cleared that up. So what are we talkin about? We'll start with the why why am I the person up here talking to you and why this company combination of mentorship and diversity and inclusion. Then we'll discuss what efforts work for each of these initiatives and service of

seeing how they intersect. Next we'll talk about how you might Implement a mentorship that serves diversity and inclusion efforts include in a conversation about what not to do. And finally, we'll discuss how you can convince your company to adopt such a program. So why am I talking to you about this? I'd like to start with a story. I'd like to tell you about two different kinds of companies that I encountered during my first couple of years in Tech when I started out in web

development, I graduated from a code School in Omaha, and then I was fortunate to go on to work at that very code School in a lot of ways. It was a company that seems a little bit impossible at one point my former boss and I had a conversation and realize that we were the brownest tech company in Omaha, Nebraska We were really tiny but 80% of our technical employees were people of color and 50% of our employees overall were women. It was something that we were really proud of and frankly it took effort to craft. There's another thing that this company did that made the

mentorship that happens there look really easy. So it was a consultancy that was attached to the development coding school and they had a practice of retaining both code school graduates to work as consultant Dev and having members of the consultancy cheats at the code school. So there really was this, you know, the natural kind of sense of learning and teaching that was baked into the DNA of the company. Having teachers as bosses with a really huge Advantage for me because it meant that I as a junior Dev was constantly getting tossed that were appropriately-sized for me. I didn't stay at

that company for my entire time in Omaha though. And when I was on the search for my first fully technical gig I encountered the other kind of company that I want to talk to you about and that's the company that doesn't have to challenge the status quo. When I was searching in a small Tech market like Omaha, I was really shocked at both the lack of the diversity of the kinds of jobs that I was looking at. So many of those jobs looked the same and the diversity of the teams themselves. So often the engineering teams are almost entirely homogeneous.

And at the same time when I did interview with a few of these companies that we're working on technical problems that I found interesting. I would hear this refrain of we don't have the capacity to support your learning right now. And I look around me and I'd see the classmates when I graduated code school with and I see the students my tot. And I would see Workforce. It looks really different than the engineering manager is here making me hiring decisions and I would see a larger representation of marginalized races genders and sexualities and is Junior engineers then the

Omaha tech industry as a whole. I wonder how it's possible for industry to grow and to change if all of the different that I was seeing was among these newbies and if the companies that could have any of their pic of new hires weren't making room for them and their learning. I wondered what would happen to this Workforce. If you star companies the ones with the shiniest offices, yes, but also the most current Tech and the best benefits we're leaving this work force behind. Through this back-to-back exposure to companies with really different relationships to skill-building and

learning on the one hand and diversity inclusion on the other. I really started thinking to myself maybe these two things have some kind of relationship to one another. And so I'd like to pose the question to you. What if strong mentorship at an organization begets diversity and inclusion? When serving what office Place initiatives are effective in terms of both mentorship and diversity inclusion in the retention will see major areas of overlap. How can we start thinking about building a good culture of one in service of the other? What would it look like to

endorse mentorship that is designed from the offset to be supportive for under-represented employees and what if connecting an advancing those workers with a key component of our corporate d&i strategy? How might this framing of mentorship and dni being hand-in-hand Service couldn't drive more empathetic mentorship more effective mentorship. Could the business case for solid diversity and inclusion strategy be made more tangible by rapping that work under the banner of mentorship and skill-building. These are the core ideas. I want to think about with all of you

today. So let's start by breaking down what practices constitute good mentorship and good diversity and inclusion efforts with the goal of seeing how they intersect. How do you start off by talking about techniques that will help you support and retain employees from under-represented identities? First of all, we can start off by thinking about recruiting process used. It's important to be thinking about where you're posting what networks you're leveraging and what kind of language you're using in your post. Both attracts the kinds of candidates you want of

course, but also be welcoming to candidates that you might have overlooked there even tools that can help you audit the kind of language that you use in your job posting to make sure it's inclusive and doesn't alienate great candidates by using overly gendered language, for example One place that I really really really like to recommend for job postings is a site called key values to post a roll companies have to fill out a profile about their values. There's things like actively practices inclusion and good for juniors lifted there. But there's also phrases like high-quality codebase

flexible work arrangements and Engineering Urban culture. Cannabis vent inserts for the companies that align with our highest priorities values. I really love this site because it helped us hiring decision-makers begin to think of these positions and the candidates holistically and can really help lead us to a practice of values-based interviewing I like to think a little bit here to the idea of recommendation doesn't mean a means of recruitment. I recently had a really compelling conversation with one of our executive team leads at is Ella where I'd asked how we might think

of Fairly compensating people from underrepresented backgrounds. When we bring people from our networks into the company and dismembered mention the tool of referral bonuses for employees to boast incentivize and compensate them to reach out to their Network. And I agree. I think it's going to be one really good tool but the strategy kind of cuts both ways. If your company is already made up of people with a lot of overlapping identities relying too much on recommendations can compounds that homogeneity. Next let's talk about the technique of having a finity group at the company

importantly. These groups should not just be about getting together to talk about being a blank employee of the company. So not just your experience with a trans employee or a Latin next engineer. There should be space for that. But also just for social interactions and relationship-building especially across teams and departments as well as some kind of pathway for Action within the organization. The most effective Affinity groups act like caucuses and having a representative who is responsible for bringing the concerns of the group to upper management and Consulting with them

on Solutions is really the best way to form these groups. In order for the caucus model to work there needs to be dedicated and regularly occurring time for leadership 10 by the feedback. Clear definition around performance evaluation and advancement helps remove unspoken by a c's or completely unrecognized bias. He's come review time. Examples when researchers at Stanford consulted with various companies on their review procedures. They found that when managers we can consistently applying instead of previously agreed-upon criteria.

There was a reduction in the gender gaps in ratings previously men have been over-represented in the top performance tier and women were over-represented in the middle tier, but that Gap was completely in the limited once they started using the previously agreed-upon criteria. Additionally who defines that evaluation criteria and where and when it's made accessible to your employees are all key parts of the equation for crafting something agreed upon and transparent. Even just having these clear definitions of roles and responsibilities. Austin gets named as a key

concern among workers with under-represented identities. How do you mute codified helps an employee who has been historically disenfranchised point to clear language around their Authority and their contribution at work? Are they being looked at is having a scope of ownership and responsibilities are they in the meetings that they're supposed to be in literally are these employees getting a seat at the table where business decisions are being made? Representation in leadership is consistently ranked as important by workers with under-represented identities. I know that I am not the only one who

goes through the list of executive team members and board members at a company before I apply to a job. And when I do that, I'm looking for something specific are there people there who are steering the ship who look like me or who look like my monsters and my role models. Reasons for this include ensuring that there is a clear model for advancement within the organization and also making sure there's at least a chance of having a demonstrated Ally leadership, but also against seeing that embodiment of the value alignment we talked about earlier.

Lastly I'd like to mention investment in internal and external. Advocacy. This can look like a lot of different things. For example, Newsela puts company money towards issues facing our affinity group, but we're also developing a field trip model 200 students from underrepresented backgrounds so that we can learn more about the company and the technology behind our product. You can also consider the willingness to invest in professional development of these groups as part of this category. This could look like a flexible learning budget for employees or sponsorship of professional

development conferences that are aimed specifically at these underrepresented groups. All of these efforts from youth education all the way to the pipeline to professional development and retention are proof of a company putting their money where their mouth is and are one way of being accountable and measurable for strategic d&i initiatives. So at this point we are room of people who care about the tissue. This is why we are here and you might be thinking to yourself. These are these kinds of supporter obvious.

But unfortunately, they're not. Research by the Boston Consulting Group a multinational management consulting consulting firm found Stark differences in the importances of various workplace practices when they are ranked by members of an underrepresented group versus a dominant group in question. First let's talk about formal sponsorship. I like to think about sponsorship is kind of like super mentorship sponsors are people who work as accomplices in your advancement and ultimately are accountable themselves for your growth at a company

XIV out of 31 inclusion initiatives by people of color. And 28 by white men. representation in leadership with Frank V out of 31 initiatives by women and 17th by men. Having a bias free day today the idea that you might want a nine-to-five free of jokes about your identity or to see that who participates in meetings is fair. This was ranked fifth of 31 initiatives by lgbtq workers. And 17th or 15th sees me by straight men. not only are these numerical Gap Stark, but the real world application of this misunderstanding is really devastating to It might look like request

from an affinity group representative going unheard by HR or an executive leadership team investing in initiatives that they think are really good for their company, but are totally out of line with what employees actually want. So we just talked about methods of ensuring success and happiness of under-represented folks at your company and we just uncovered that those supports aren't obvious to all people especially not people who have historically been in positions of power and authority. Keeping me points in mind. I'd like to talk about how we can

help support and level up Junior engineers. Here again. We see recruitment process these but the issues that we think about when we think specifically through the lens of supporting Junior Engineers look a little bit different. First of all is your company being transparent about the needs that they have their particular job posting and are they accurately detailing the ask of the engineer? Later on in the process is your interview structure reflecting in addressing those needs. Are they catered in any specific way to this position? Did the process manage to remain friendly and

human? I'm an advocate for a radical and admittedly not easy Endeavor. I think that every step of the process the candidates should receive feedback on their interview performance. If the company decides not to move forward with a candidate H iron hiring managers should work together to craft actionable feedback. The candidate has tangible ways that they can improve for jobs like this in the future or at least has more information to analyze why this role or this company wasn't the right fit for them. The company should also consider the role itself. If you're

hiring a junior engineer is the roll design for them like an apprenticeship or a clearly defined entry-level position. In the position is the structure of their work or the expectation is our output meaningfully different than that of a mid-level engineer. Another clear expectations and plays about how they move from this role to mid-level and grow within the company. Megan Sue did a fantastic job of outlining how she designed and Tyler did an apprenticeship program and accounted for some of these concerns and her talk at last year's rails conference, and I've links that the

resources at the end of his life. 1 sets component of the program that I'd like to talk about is onboarding clear and structured on-boarding is essential for any engineer, but especially for juniors. Crucially, please don't make your own boarding Point person someone that they have to report to. Having an idea about who to go to for information that's free from any kind of office politics is key for these Junior Engineers, who are you focus on leveling up their skills not to mention the difficulty of learning new processes and personalities. Consider the way that you were on board

at your company. Was the information transparent where they reflectives of a reflective of institutional knowledge is knowledge that your company was it widely accessible. Would have looked drastically different if another colleague had been responsible for your onboarding. If so, you might consider revising the process starting with the finding standard onboarding materials. Went to Junior engineer starting to settle into their role and responsibilities at the company learning group to be a really great source of support these give Junior engineer space to ask

questions and demonstrate leadership. Especially the groups are for peer-to-peer learning. Even better is if other levels of employees are modeling this behavior in public areas for department-wide questions and answers like slack Channel. Remember that seemingly impossible codeschool from the beginning of this talk. They had a rule that no Tech question to go in a private channel in slack. All of those learning opportunities had to happen out in the open. Apart from the kinds of informal relationship that can blossom naturally between an engineer and their colleagues having a

formulas mentorship in please help to ensure that compensated time is being spent on measurable goals for the engineer this time might look like mentorship advice-giving and knowledge-sharing or coaching a more experienced engineer could guide the junior to set a table in the context of work and maybe even set aside time to work on those goals with the engineer or it can look like that buffed up sponsorship that we talked about earlier where a manager helps lead the junior to set these goals recommend some for opportunities and ultimately is also accountable for their

progress. Clear expectations around growth are particularly helpful for empowering Juniors to identify their skills gaps Done Right a standardized review process can help reframe Junior Nets into opportunities for growth rather than any kind of deficit and they also help Linda framework to the formalized mentorship. We just discussed. So far, we've covered individual techniques that can support Junior engineers and techniques that can support employees with under-represented identities. I like to quickly talk about the intersection between the two. As it turns

out many great diversity and inclusion initiatives also are great mentorship initiatives and vice-versa things like thoughtful and transparent recruiting process. He's having groups of peers that have some kind of accountability to one another and the company as a whole having standard and clear review process these heading definition over one's role knowing exactly what they are accountable for what their responsibilities are and what other employees should come to them for. And also having some kind of formalized mentorship having a pathway to folks in decision-making positions

that happens on company time. Thinking about that overlap, then what would a mentorship program look like with diversity and inclusion in mind? In the snack section will discuss how mentorship can and should embody the overlapping tenants? We just discussed. It smells make a business case for this kind of mentorship. The first I want to take some time to talk about the fact that the building this culture of mentorship is hard work and it's easy to fall into a pattern of saying that we're doing things are good for juniors or good for March lights folks Without Really measuring if that's

true. Right. Now you might have some defense mechanisms coming up. You might be thinking not at my place of work know we are intentional. But inside is only half of the picture and we all make mistakes. To build an example of that. I'd like to paint a picture for you of a company that thinks that they have it, right. It's almost kind of the opposite of the problem that I had in Omaha. It's the company that mastered how to talk the talk, but not a lot else. You might know this company.

It's the kind of company that host by his trainings for their employees or has a code of conduct posted on their walls for their events. But where despite operating in a market like New York or San Francisco. There are somehow no women Engineers to be seen or Engineers of color in the office, but there are white women in leadership and the average retention of an employee something like six or seven years much better than the industry average. So if all of them can be happy there maybe maybe you can be too. It's the kind of place with totally unstructured learning or

you might be sent to go do a task. Like learn angular on your own you might have no clear path to advance from one roll to the neck or even worse received conflicting advice about what to do to level up. And you might be put under the wing of members who are not receiving support and training of Their Own. Working at this kind of company you might notice other Trends over time. Somehow all of the Juniors across hundreds of employees are women somehow. It's only these Junior women Engineers who are left out of conversations around Tech hiring.

Did any of you hear your company or a company that you know in that description? I know I can see parts of companies that I really love in that picture. So what do we do about it? If intent is only half of the equation then the other is sacrifice. Intention is good, but it is sacrificed to redesign and chains practices to take time to survey and measure outcomes and to make real Investments and employees that gets into building this truly special implementation of the combined mentorship and support

for March lights workers. Let's talk about what such as programs should be starting from the very first introduction that a worker has with a company. Mentorship that prioritises and marginalized people in our industry really should begin during the interview process. I was surprised when I interviewed at Newsela that I received feedback at every step of the way and not only was I receiving feedback from the specific employees who interviewed me as also being asked to give my thoughts on the process. Sacrifices had to be made here, right the company

had to give up some level of opacity and protection around their process in order to share that feedback out and they also had to show vulnerability and humility in order to accept my comments in return. It made clear to me that Newsela had a strong culture of respect and knowledge-sharing and I was impressed that the company value the perspectives all these employees in order to share them out on behalf of the company under their name. I think it shows that exemplifying good mentorship can happen early on his initial conversations with potential candidates. Depends on mentorship

should also really play Sirius focus on developing Dementors in the equation. Being a mentee paired with an untrained Mentor is a special kind of hell. It puts the mentee in the situation of having to manage up which is work that the likely to go unnoticed come Review Time worst. It's a mentee hasn't had good mentorship before they might not even recognize the ways in which the mentorship isn't serving them. We can really be confusing if some of their gross benchmarks aren't being met. At the end of the day mentorship is a two-way street and being a good Mentor. It's a

learned skill. My former boss to meet Jane has a talk where he just got his actionable tactics for leveling up Junior engineers. Artspace this is the talk about bringing Juniors up to speed but looked at another way. It's a discussion about how to develop mentorship as a practice in your workplace by sacrificing the time and space for forming good habits. We talked already about the advantages of clear growth past and accountability both for juniors and employees with Mark lights identities, but I'd like to invite you to think about the person with the power in this

equation the mentor for a moment. Have you ever seen a colleague become a better collaborator after working with a junior engineer? Maybe their commit messages are more descriptive or they do more work to Define technical requirements height of starting development. Mentorship is leadership. And it's learned work being done on both sides should be considered and evaluated along clear growth objectives for both the mentor and the mentee and be taken into account is a facet of each employee's gross and advancement. This was at the taste the sacrifice of taking time and attention to

outline and standardize what these objective should be at your place of work. I'd also like to shut out that this mentorship should be happening on compensated time. Now I'm not advocating for only mentorship under a corporate umbrella. Some of my most meaningful relationships with other Engineers have happened importantly in vocally individualistic nonprofit and even anti-corporate spaces, but there's a need for and a benefit from having these supports in the context of artwork and the scope of that mentorship shouldn't be happening at happy

hours or weekends hackathons or rock climbing gyms, but they should be happening in the confines of our typical work week. The employees doing work for the company and hopefully as we just discussed goals of the mentorship are being determined by leadership at the company. So getting that employee leveled up is the responsibility of the company must be allocated for it. Lastly this kind of mentorship should be making the space for reflection among peers, but I'd like to invite us to rethink the peer group. Peer groups within an

organization can be cut many different ways. The point that I really want to drive here is that new learnings get cemented when they're put into action through application and the group for this application happens aren't always the most obvious. For example, I once worked at a company that created a slack Channel for junior engineers and it was meant to be this kind of peer-to-peer learning space. But because we are spread out over all these different offices and projects. It wasn't actually in organic place for us to apply your knowledge or clarify questions.

They might have taken the time to think or better yet. Ask us to your engineer's about other ways to Define peer groups across the company. A black woman Junior engineer doesn't only have peers that are other geoengineers black employees or women employees. They could be other back-end developers members of her proud or product team stakeholders in the future that she's building employees that share her professional interest outside of the work that she's completing just for her team The more chances that she gets to share out her learnings and growth the more

that she gets to demonstrates and test those learning and the more that this mentorship pays dividends. All of it sounds good, but getting by in his hard. So how do we get management seal of approval? What's the value to the company? I thinking about supporting underrepresented groups through mentorship initiatives. We can sell programs that are good for diversity and inclusion to our companies through making the business case for mentorship with many C is having a clear physical value the d&i strategies alone. For each item that we talked about it being a

directive of this kind of mentorship. We'll talk about the potential value proposition to the company. So beginning with the idea that this kind of mentorship should start early we can see that this kind of mentorship can build brand Halo among candidates and reflect the company. Well outside of the business itself. We can also see that through development of strong mencheres. This kind of mentorship can help distribute management responsibilities. When you have lead engineer's or team leaves taking on some of the work of observing and nearest goals to make sure that there is a

sense of inclusivity and belonging on the team you free up higher level employees to look at bird's eye view concerns of your engineering team and think about how they intersect with other parts of the company. Because it's kind of mentorship focuses on the development of both the mentor and the mentee. It really can build its own Workforce. Mentorship is a learned skill and therefore strong disciplined and studied mentorship to get strong dedicated and practiced enters reinforcing your program for the next batch of new hires. Because

of mentorship is happening uncompensated hours. It can help distribute business knowledge because employees are learning on the job. You build stuff skills in the context of their actual work rather than in the abstract or on toy problems accomplishing real business problems helps ease employees gain Authority in their day-to-day work. And because it's mentorship incorporates a cross-functional notion of the peer group, it can foster relationship-building in belonging. When people are recognized for their expertise and given the opportunity to practice wielding that expertise in

collaboration with our colleagues. You've created the rare conditions for employees to bond over their work, which is a really really special thing. This has been a journey. We have talked about the real life experiences that spurred the thought experiment about the combination of mentorship and diversity and inclusion efforts. And we reviewed key areas of focus for each of these initiatives covering why these supports are obvious as they make team and how they intersect. We discussed how you might Implement a mentorship that disturbs diversity and inclusion efforts including a conversation

around the kind of thinking that can lead to pitfalls. And made a business case for such a framework. Altogether, I hope that this presentation has helped us start to think about what these efforts would look like. If we thought about them in service of one another and has given you some ideas about Aries and Improvement for both string your own membership and inclusivity efforts at your place of work. Thanks for listening to the ideas in the talk. Again, I'm Alex malotte mall, and then develop brantley's Ella and I am happy to talk to about any of the ideas

that I mentioned here about Newsela or about my experience in Engineering in general. You can find me at the info here or I'm at the conference for the rest of the time. I want to quickly thank some people for their help in developing the stock notably Jennifer to who is here. She helped make me feel really comfortable at railsconf last year and encouraged me to submit this talk as well as helps me practice it and my friend Shannon Jackson Who reviewed these flies while 8 months pregnant because she is a manager and a friend who does not quit and officially today is now

the best mom in the world. Credits are here as well as resources. These slides are not up yet, but I will treat them out and then they will be on my website. Thank you.

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