CXO

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@prevoyancegroup.com

About

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 ...

8 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I worked on an EEOC group and there is more requirements than meet the eye. If you get it wrong you will get visits from lawyers.

MUnruh23
MUnruh23

Basically, I liked and agreed with what most of what you wrote, but in the same way as 'commitments to diversity' in large companies means having percentage-based goals for people based on their skin color (quotas / tokens), your article has a 'token' (an unexamined and unsubstantiated) 'concession' of its own: ???Historically, IT has a bit of a chicken and egg problem with diversity???For whatever reason [IT and tech-based fields] have historically been heavily biased towards males...??? Maybe you???re right???but if so, how exactly were these programs 'biased toward males'? (Besides ???everyone knows??? or a disproportionate number of males who APPLIED for such jobs.) Do you know of an program that gave preferential treatment to males, thus limiting females who wanted to enter the IT arena ability to do so? How many individual instances of this practice can you cite? Using words like 'biased toward males' reinforces assumptions in many people's minds (and incites feelings of hostility in the minds of others who view themselves as acting honorably and with good will), and making such a statement simply because believing such a statement is currently fashionable is intrinsically unfair (biased). Hiring people on the basis of skill sets, talents, abilities, character attributes is the right thing to do, but I think that has been the prevalent view for quite some time. (And the biggest threat to that now comes from people hawking this new version of quota-based ???diversity???.) I hope for a day when people will be 'judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin,' but corporate America (after the government) is the place where this credo is most universally ignored, with its 'hiring goals,' etc. There is no way that giving an advantage to individual members of one group cannot disadvantage individual members of another group, and that is fundamentally unfair. That said, I agree with your thoughts about different backgrounds, etc., bringing different skill sets, etc., to the table (with your example of the history major, etc.). I just have to weigh in on your statement which to me is an ever-present concession to the perception that we as a culture are universally oppressive and/or biased. Let's work to hold the world's feet to the fire - diversity should mean respect for different backgrounds, experience, and perspectives ??? to the exclusion of taking the skin color or sex of the individual into account when making hiring decisions. To do otherwise would be to demonstrate an unfair bias.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

The comment in the post was made ???It???s easy to hire a new network admin based on his or her certifications.??? This statement sums up 99.9% of my frustration with the hiring process today for most IS departments. If we look at the evolution of the hiring process going back to the beginning of the industrial revolution that created the ???corporate environment,??? the process for hiring, firing and promoting was simple. If you had a position that you needed to fill, you first looked in house to see what you had to fill the position. If you didn???t find anyone that either could do the job or could learn to do the job, you would look externally. Now you might say that the process isn???t any different today which is partially true. The biggest variance is that fifty years ago, there were five hundred head hunters that could serve you the exact candidate that you wanted like ordering a Whopper with extra pickles, no mustard and add mayonnaise. This may seem like the process is better now because you get exactly the skill sets that you need, right? This process is wonderful for ordering your lunch but it doesn???t work for human resources management. What is the difference? The new process leaves out a very important aspect in the process. It ignores things like hard work and integrity, attributes that will get you farther than knowing how to write a SQL query to extract the average age range from a table. You can teach an employee how to write code or build an image or most other technical concepts. What you can not teach is things like perseverance or commitment or loyalty.

DakomaWhite
DakomaWhite

As a Twenty Three year old female high school graduate without a college credits; I can honestly say that a diverse work place is possible. I have had many jobs in my time and many more careers. I have been very fortunate to find places with open minds. Most people look at me like I am crazy when I tell them that I have never stepped foot in a class room for computers or anything even remotely IT related. I believe that a truly diverse work place is a benefit all around. With new ideas brought to the table and the expansion of one???s own idea of thinking and knowledge it is a win, win situation. I cannot count the times that I have relied on my experiences as a Theatre tech or Stage manager in other fields that I have worked. That of course doesn???t mean that a fortune five hundred company should just walk outside and find the next kid wearing an iPod and offer him an IT director position. It just means that companies should be willing and open minded to at least let some non degrees in the door. There have been many times in the hiring processes that I have helped with, that the person without five years in IT under their belt has been better suited for the position than someone else.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

When I was first starting out in IS/IT some few years ago my boss at the time characterised one of the most important issues as "5 years of experience or 1 year repeated 5 times". In short, it didn't take me very long to realize that if IS people were ever going to become professionals they needed to institute a "journeyman" process whereby new IS people were "encouraged" to take jobs in different industries on a frequent basis. (FYI the same concept that CAs/CPAs (student-in-accounts), Lawyers (articling) and Doctors (residency) use). One of IS/IT's greatest strengths and benefits is in its ability to cross fertilize ideas and knowledge from one industry into another. Unfortunately, in today's market, hiring groups seem to have forgotten that and consider only specific experience to have relevance. I've seen ads where knowledge of company internals is a hiring criteria! In short, the market is no longer respecting the disciplines which are core to information analysis and design. The market is saying "What do you mean the ability to discover and learn is central to your discipline? You have no discipline. If you haven't done this before you can't possibly do it." While I heartily endorse diversity in hiring (both my partner and I are disabled), I question the solution presented. Unfortunately, once a non-IS/IT professional becomes an IS/IT person they begin to shift into the same thought processes as anyone else with the same experience base. Unfortunately, while hiring groups continue to value "1 year repeated 5 times" over "5 years experience" true diversity will remain an illusion and solutions such as presented in this article will remain temporary whitewashes only.

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