The need for diversity and collaboration in coding and design

I saw my first intranet in 1997. It was not a pretty sight. I will never forget its “Feedback” icon. It was in the shape of a letterbox, from which suddenly a grabbing hand burst forth.

Being allowed to view the intranets and internal systems felt like being an investigator on Silence of the Lambs. ‘Ah, so this is where he tortures his victims.’ Because that’s what intranets and internal systems were, rubbish dumps and torture chambers. Many still are.

For years, I wondered why there was such a yawning divide between software designed for employees (enterprise software) and software designed for consumers. Why was so much enterprise software so utterly unusable, so incredibly badly designed?

A lack of commitment to delivering a quality employee experience by senior management is certainly the most important factor.

However, over the years, I noticed a pattern in the intranets that were striving to improve. There was nearly always a woman driving the change. Most often, this woman came from the Communications Department. She was tech-savvy and worked hard to build relationships with the IT Department.

Whenever I saw intranets that were delivering business value they were always collaborative efforts. It was IT working closely with Communications and HR and Support and Marketing and Sales. Working across divisions and boundaries and silos.

Traditional internal IT departments have been almost exclusively male dominated. Not simply male, but a very particular type of male. These hermetically sealed monocultures were like they were some sort of monastery where men could code in solitude, while sharing the occasional in-joke with their brothers. These monasteries of code delivered some of the worst software I have ever come across.

It is not wishful thinking but rather my constant experience that diverse teams deliver better software, deliver better customer and employee experiences. It is thus important to see the debate in Silicon Valley about the need for diversity as a critical one. The release of an internal document from a Google engineer challenging approaches to diversity within Google allows us to continue that debate.

The author of the Google piece makes the groundbreaking statement that there are undeniable differences between men and women. It is the differences we should celebrate, integrate and learn from. If we want software to work for the widest possible groups we must involve the widest possible groups in software development. A team with different genders, cultures and backgrounds delivers more usable, useful software.

One thing I noticed about the female champions of the employee experience is that they were often seen as troublemakers. Their desire to build bridges, encourage collaboration, put the employee first and help develop enterprise systems that actually worked, did not sit well with macho senior management culture. Men don’t like their monasteries being disturbed.

The old male world was: Listen to this leadership insight explaining how wonderful it is to work for us and how much we’d like your feedback telling us how great it is to work for us. And, by the way, we’ve just bought and installed a new sales management system. Pease learn how to use it by Monday latest.

Exclusive: Here’s The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google

8 thoughts on “The need for diversity and collaboration in coding and design

  1. Mamie Peers

    As one of the troublemakers, thank you, thank you, thank you. I have had men curse me out, tell me to stay in my lane; one Director of IT Systems even threw over a bookcase when I discovered he had specifically undermined a project by secretly telling his employees not to cooperate by providing server information and support.

    1. Gerry McGovern. Post author

      Well done! Well done! These cave men are all over the place, unfortunately. You are far from alone. But the tide of history is against them. Keep up the great work. It’s so essential.

  2. Aidan Dunphy

    Nailed it; made me laugh and think. Do you mind if I use this in a training session with my (nascent) team of Product Managers?

  3. Laurel Hale

    So spot on, Gerry. I was just discussing the Google memo with some former colleagues a day or two ago and raised this very point. They were chatting about how science does support a distinct difference between male and female brains. I brought up that I have worked as a technical writer on enterprise systems for over 25 years and these system development teams are mostly a certain type of MIT or UCBerkeley-trained male engineers. All brilliant, mind you, but all very monolithic in their thinking and quite incapable of putting themselves in the customers’ shoes, so to speak. The enterprise software they develop is still as complex and confusing as it ever was. Women in their ranks are few and I have seen many fine female engineers driven away from these teams. Hope this can change. Your blog post is helpful. Thank you.

    1. Gerry McGovern. Post author

      Thanks, Laurel. Yes, brilliant men but monolihic. We need diverse teams and thinking because the quality that comes out of these environments with the exact same minds and cultures is really, really poor. For years, IT men have stared blankly at me when I talked about usability. It was a nice to have, but not really that important. And it was easy to use as far as they were concerned anyway. But I do see positive change, and people like you have helped that change along.


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