#KelseyProject: Becoming the Beyonce of Engineering

Level 6 Engineering Kit

In June, I wrote about how systemic racism exists in companies without racists — companies with good people trying to do the right thing (and sell good products). In the context of the tragedies of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, how do we achieve real change in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Nurturing a Culture Committed to Diversity

As the Director of Human Resources at Gravitational, I made commitments on behalf of myself and our company, including going beyond platitudes to make some profound and tangible changes in the areas of diversity at all levels of the company. These include addressing issues of diversity in recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion; a comprehensive approach to equity training and education; community outreach; and mental health support. I also promised to ensure that robust data systems are transparent about diversity metrics, to develop a shared vision and buy-in for the work, and to track our accountability.

Towards these efforts, our CEO, Ev Kontsevoy, and I had a conversation about diversity in hiring. In the conversation, we resolved to do something that would actually have lasting change — not just cursory and symbolic attempts at diversity. Part of the culture of Gravitational is being thoughtful and intentional about decisions — almost academic in our approach to moving forward including gathering information, documenting our process, taking calculated risks and continuously reflecting on our process. What does it take to make a profound impact on diversity as well as create an inclusive climate to support retention of a diverse workforce?

In our conversation, we both agreed that we didn’t want to just compete in the same pool as everyone else. We’re committed to growing the pool size.

Right now the pool is limited, but it doesn’t have to be. While Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) occupations have outpaced overall job growth, the percentage of women in computer occupations has actually decreased (32% to 25%) and Black and Hispanic workers in STEM continue to be significantly underrepresented as well. Those numbers don’t make a difference to us because our goal is to create paths for all Gravitational team members regardless of how they enter.

Given that tech giants with seemingly unlimited money, headcount and resources have not moved the needle even a little bit in this arena, the task is daunting but exciting. As a startup, our edge is in innovation and agility, so when it comes to making changes that truly make a difference in diversity, there are no excuses.

Developing Talent and Creating Pathways

Making a dent in diversity is not about competing for minority talent. It’s about developing talent. What does this mean? It means creating opportunities for those willing to work hard and grow into increasingly challenging roles. It means developing a learning-focused culture and a mentoring culture that nurtures, challenges and develops talent.

The first question we had to tackle is: How do we build gigantic pools of great engineers? Our current approach includes partnership and mentorship, but we wanted to go a step further. Given the types of engineering expertise we need to succeed as a company, we considered how to backwards-map those requirements to the most basic level and set up programs to support access while creating pathways and positions that support company goals.

So how would we create pathways for Black engineers? As a Black woman interested in talent development and tech, I volunteered to be the first pilot student.

Introducing the #KelseyProject

I believe that mastering technology will increase my effectiveness as Head of HR. I know nothing about engineering, but if it’s possible to learn it, I should be able to learn it, right?

We called it the #KelseyProject after Kelsey Hightower. Kelsey Hightower has reached a point of incredible prestige. He’s exceptional, but his path feels relatable to me. He’s like the Beyonce of Engineering (my description, but I think it’s appropriate). They have a few things in common: work ethic, charisma, popularity and flair. I don’t want to just be an engineer. I want to be the Beyonce of Engineering.

So how does one become Kelsey? And can “normal people” like me become Kelsey Hightowers?

There is a preconception in our culture that people who go into science and technology fields are not “normal” — they’re exceptionally smart. Regular people like me might be able to use computers to check our email and create spreadsheets, but the kinds of people that do things like “write code” and “fix bugs” are like gods among us…or are they?

The belief that “those” people who excel at programming are different, exceptional and require access and opportunities at an abnormally young age in order to excel may be part of the reason why we have few engineers.

Ev assured me that “normal people” could do great work in engineering, and Ev and I started our journey.

The learning was and continues to be bi-directional. I’m learning to code, but Ev is also learning how to teach, and together, we are extrapolating from the experience to learn how one goes from good to great in engineering.

Things that are simple and intuitive to Ev are abstract and confusing to me. The “basics” don’t seem basic at all. It’s challenging to put into context binary and hexadecimals. Why is this important? When do I use this to do cool stuff? Where does this fit into the larger context of coding? Apparently, it’s helpful to understand the fundamental ways that computers work, but as someone that’s never been curious about how machines work — not about my car, coffee maker or laptop — it was a stretch to feel connected to something that was tangible but also felt very abstract. I struggled to find analogies that made sense to me. Was computer storage like a closet full of clothes, a library of books, shot glasses of tequila or something entirely different?

Guided by Adult Learning Principles

With my background in education and adult learning and my experience in talent development, this is an interesting experience as a learner, but also as an observer of the learning process. This observation is necessary to create a future learning system for others that ensures success. How do we take the big ideas about adult learning and use them to create a no-brainer approach to success?

In terms of adult learning, we looked to Malcolm Knowle’s framework on Adult Learning, including six principles:

  1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed. Choice is key.
  2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. Connecting learning experiences to past experiences increases learning.
  3. Adults are goal-oriented. Clarity of learning outcomes is important.
  4. Adults are relevancy-oriented. Tasks need to be related to learning goals.
  5. Adults are practical. Theoretical learning should be related to practical activities.
  6. Adult learners like to be respected. Collaborative relationships are where adult learners thrive.

These aren’t just abstract theories. As the test case in this ambitious experiment, I found myself anxious for Ev to understand that I wasn’t an idiot because I didn’t easily understand a concept that seemed foundational and basic to him. When Ev described understanding how computers operated as basic as understanding how other machines worked, I realized how little I cared about how machines worked. I’m not the kid that was curious about how a toaster operated. To this day, fax machines are magical, and I’m comfortable leaving it at that. I wondered if this learning required me to be a new kind of person that was interested in how atoms moved around in a CPU. If that was the case, becoming the Beyonce of Engineering might be more tedious than I imagined. Once we started doing things, I became much more excited and engaged. Typing something into the terminal and thereby making something happen made me feel like a real programmer. My screen looked like a screen on Mr. Robot or CSI, and I like that.

Becoming the Beyonce of Engineering is a lesson in how we nurture, develop and retain talent. At Gravitational, we’re not waiting for Kelseys to show up on our doorstep. Sometimes, future Beyonces and Kelseys show up at your doorstep and you have to see “the Beyonce” and “the Kelsey” in them even before they see it themselves. We want to create paths for our team members to be their best — to learn, grow and develop in exceptional ways.

Harvesting the power of technology is a superpower. That power is available to all of us and gives us the potential to be much more valuable in the workplace. Wherever and however you start at Gravitational, we see “the Beyonce” in you and we’re committed to helping you grow.

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