How to achieve real diversity in IT

While just hiring people who look different may satisfy internal mandates or passing fads, the truly beneficial form of diversity comes from a diversity of ideas and experience.

If you're ever feeling lonely, mention diversity in IT hiring. It's certainly likely to elicit some opinions, many of them likely quite passionate. IT historically sees itself as a diverse and non-traditional business function. You're likely to find different dress, styles of conversation, and different age groups in key positions in IT, versus, say, corporate finance. IT esteems the young genius slinging code, or the hardware guru who can revive a piece of equipment long written off as dysfunctional, rather than the well-groomed suit with the Ivy League pedicure. IT points to its position on the forefront of outsourcing as another source of diversity, as teams in Boise and Bangalore work together across time zones and cultural barriers.

Despite all this, there's still a clamor in IT for more diversity. Despite IT's role as a showpiece globalization, the transition has not been without laments from colleagues and acquaintances about "those people" on both sides of the various oceans across which IT works on a daily basis. HR pundits see this trend extending from academia, starting in white male dominated Computer Science and engineering programs, all the way to the cubicle village in the IT department. The IT rank and file bristle at this suggestion, as it seemingly implies quotas and superficial measures are more highly valued than raw talent. Diversity initiatives, at best, are seen as kumbya-singing, hand-holding nonsense, and at worst a subtle screen of subterfuge over everything from hiring to advancement. So is there a diversity problem in IT, and if so, should we care?

Does diversity matter?

An obvious, although rarely asked question in the diversity debate is whether it actually matters. To take a quip from one of the presidential candidates, the answer to this question on a grand social scale is "above my pay grade," but specifically in IT organizations this is a question that can and should be examined.

Diversity, when properly defined and utilized has a tremendous upside, especially for organizations like IT that cross a wide variety of business disciplines and markets. Even small and mid-sized companies are transacting business around the world, and expanding into diverse markets and limitless varieties of products and services. The IT shop that deals with this environment can only benefit from people with a breadth of experiences, be they academic, intellectual, cultural or physical.

Historically, IT has a bit of a chicken and egg problem with diversity. In the past, most IT talent came from a university or tech school's "usual suspects" of computer science and information systems-type programs. For whatever reason, these types of disciplines have historically been heavily biased towards males, and the IT industry at large has pointed to this trend as the source of IT's purported lack of diversity and sponsored myriad programs to encourage young women and girls to take a look at these types of programs.

This is all well and good; however looking at the superficial provides an easy exit from the diversity debate. Hire some people that look different and you're magically diverse. While this solution may satisfy internal mandates or passing fads, the truly beneficial form of diversity comes from a diversity of ideas and experience. Hiring a superficially diverse cadre of people that went to the same schools, come from the same background and had similar life experiences lets you check off the "diversity"" box, but provides no real benefit to your organization.

Look beyond the superficial

Engrained in the human existence is a tendency towards rapid decisions and assessments based on the superficial. From a survival standpoint, this is often highly effective and beneficial. If the building is on fire, we don't stop to ponder the nature of fire, its relative warmth compared to other fires; nor do we seek to understand its motivations, dreams and desires. Instead, we run in the opposite direction. In a less dramatic sense, this survival instinct serves as an easy way out of complex hiring decisions.

It's easy to hire a new network admin based on his or her certifications, just as it's easy to raise the diversity flag by hiring on some superficial trait. This wrongheaded approach misses the area where diversity can ignite the performance of an organization: a diversity of ideas. Instead of looking at superficial traits, and bemoaning the lack of diversity in computer science and engineering-inspired programs, companies need to look at diverse pools of talent. That history major may have the critical thinking skills, leadership abilities, and a different perspective on the world that will do far more for you organization than the most well-certified CS major could ever bring to the table. The same goes for experienced hires. In a rough economy, rather than bemoaning the lack of engineering talent explore the wealth of "down sized" talent from other fields that could benefit IT by providing a diversity of ideas. A displaced finance or marketing executive might have a track record of leadership that will energize your IT shop in ways you never thought of.

Not only does this expansive focus beyond traditional engineering-types engender a diverse pool of ideas, backgrounds and content knowledge, it also expands the talent pool for IT resources. Rather than lamenting diversity initiatives and bemoaning the lack of IT talent available, use diversity as a tool to gain both a broader pool of potential employees, and true diversity in your organization.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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