The Importance of Diversity

If we look to nature, it’s easy to see that biodiversity has helped various species survive and adapt on Earth: from the variance of genetic code within a given species to prevent inbreeding, to the different ranges of ecosystems that require complex webs of interconnected species, life thrives on diversity. “One of the most important aspects of biodiversity is the inextricable interrelatedness of all the parts, be they genes, species, or populations,” writes a PhD researcher at the University of Montana, who studied the importance of biodiversity at Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. In short, her findings show that biodiversity boosts the productivity of ecosystems, wherein each species has an important role to play.

What does this have to do with development? Everything! We can apply the same principles from above to how we put teams together, and who we make products for.

Of course, you can find diversity in all sorts of shapes and sizes: ethnic background, gender, socio-economical, cultural, educational, work experience, etc. I’ve worked at a number of companies that claimed they had or wanted diversity in their teams. But, more often than not, managers fell under the Implicit Egotism trap, and ended up hiring the same types of people over and over again.

The notion of Implicit Egotism essentially means people have an unconscious preference for things they associate with themselves. At a previous employer of mine, for instance, the VP gravitated towards people that graduated from his university, while another colleague consistently hired staff that he shared personality traits with. It’s natural for people to gravitate towards familiarity, but what ends up happening—particularly in the tech industry, as we all know—is a largely homogeneous workplace.

This is problematic on many levels, of course, and this is something we’re grappling with as a (racist, classist, patriarchal) culture. But even on purely performative terms, I find that working with a diverse group of people actually helps with imagining new ideas, and fosters a better community for the product you’re working on. People from the same backgrounds may take narrow approaches to solving issues or build upon familiar/safe ideas instead of creating from scratch; in my experience, these teams like to stay “within the box”. This is problematic in both developing a product, as well as communicating and sharing that product with society at large.

The VP I mentioned earlier? His team consisted of people from different cultural backgrounds, but they all came from the same educational and socio-economic structure. When it came time to discuss pricing for our customers, the whole team tended towards a higher price because of their own personal experience with money. It wasn’t until later that the conversation changed—when a more diverse team came back with data about the customers that would use the product, explaining that they wouldn’t pay that much and suggested a lower pricing strategy.

After talking to the latter team, it was discovered that they had a completely different socio-economic background than the VP’s, and had a different educational history: some went to college, others finished high school and went into the workforce early. Ultimately, they could in many ways better relate to the customer. Unsurprisingly, this ended up being the right decision, and the product performed extremely well.

Another anecdote: When I worked at Unity, I met up with a group of LGBTQ developers at GDC. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience: I needed to make sure that I was marketing Unity to be more inclusive to its diverse user-base. It was something I’d always pushed when I marketed games: How can we break through the typical 15-30 year-old male demographic? How can we market games to women? And, of course, the same goes for tech: How can we build thriving, diverse communities? Inclusiveness is the key.

My advice is to consider diversity as an absolutely essential ingredient for the long-term success of your company. Lots of different perspectives can be gained by bringing a diverse range of people to your team, so keep an eye on how you’re interviewing and selecting people. Consider these ideas when you’re interviewing people, and account for your own implicit bias to prefer those you can most easily identify with. Your gender, ethnicity, and background have shaped your worldview, certainly, but don’t let those things define who you surround yourself with. If you love hip hop but there’s a person qualified for the job that’s really into metal, don’t be shy to hire him or her and learn new things!

(If they like Nickelback, though, all bets are off.)

Wanted to find a non-cheesy photo of diversity, but couldn’t. If you have a good photo showing diversity tweet @ourmachinery.