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Advocating IT diversity drives software engineer's career

Software engineer February Keeney talks about her passion for promoting IT diversity. She shares hiring advice and her experiences in software engineering and project management.

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Software engineer February Keeney took a diverse career path -- with stops at Compaq, Lockheed and One Medical...

Group -- to reach her current position as GitHub's engineering manager of trust and community. IT diversity is also the theme of her avocation, educating tech employers about the benefits of hiring women and minorities. In that role, she's speaking on "how to fight patriarchy in hiring" at the 2016 Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco today.

At the LWT Summit, Keeney will discuss hiring techniques and processes that can help the tech industry diversify workforces. She's also co-hosting the Trans Meetup with Angelica Ross, CEO of TransTech, an IT diversity advocacy group based in Chicago. In a pre-conference Q&A interview, she shared some of that hiring advice, and her experiences in software engineering and project management.

What are some best practices you've learned for reducing gender and other types of bias in hiring?

February Keeney: Here are just a few. One, make sure that your hiring process is standardized. Use the same questions for all your candidates. Create a list of expected answers and evaluate how well the candidates do relative to that. Because if you are asking the same questions, and you're using the same criteria, then you're going to be getting an objective view of who's the best candidate for the job.

Also, do extensive note taking to cut down subconscious biases, and to keep them out of the evaluation process. That's been proven demonstratively to improve the objectivity of the evaluations.

Build out support networks internally for new hires to support a culture that's diverse and inclusive. If you don't build [in support], you'll end up with people leaving the company and even the field. And that's what we've seen over the last 20 years ... we've seen that, even when we get these big hiring efforts to pull in more women or people of color, they don't stay very long. And there are lots of studies that have shown this, because, often, we pull them into these toxic, unwelcoming environments.

What motivated you to be a speaker for and attendee of this LWT Summit?

Keeney: I want to share what I've learned about gender and other biases in hiring in IT. I want to share what the data shows about how we can do better with this. You have those opportunities both as an attendee and as a speaker. It's important in tech to have strong networks, in general, to share expertise. If you are part of a disenfranchised group, networking is important both for getting a more diverse hiring pipeline, and for building more supportive and inclusive cultures. That network expands your options [when recruiting or looking for] a position.

An event like this is a great opportunity to build out your network of other people who aren't just the same as the giant existing sort of homogenous structure that is most of tech. It's also an opportunity for those early in their career to find good mentors.

How has your IT diversity advocacy impacted your work at GitHub?

Keeney: One thing I work very hard on in my current position is to keep building out diversity support structures within the company. I want to ensure that when we bring in a really great candidate from a disenfranchised background, that the company and the culture is something that's inclusive and supportive. I think I've helped us make it clear that they are wanted, and it's not a culture that's trying to push them out.

Why did you decide to become a software engineer in the first place?

Keeney: I fell in love with computers when I first saw an Apple 2 at my friend's house when I was three and a half. That's still one of my favorite memories. Even so, I wasn't sure how that was going to play out in my career. Being a developer wasn't my first choice, but it's worked out for me pretty darn well. I'm good at it. Computers can be frustrating at times, but I still love them.

What moved you to create such a diverse career, in terms of technologies? At GitHub, you work on software projects focused on eliminating online harassment using technology. Your development projects have ranged from creating software for medical record keeping, high-performance storage devices and even, at Lockheed, the LM900c spacecraft bus. Was it a matter of seeking different skill sets?

Keeney: I've always viewed software development as solving an abstract problem with writing code. It doesn't really matter to me if it's a toaster or a spaceship, because the problems themselves are what are interesting, not necessarily the application domain.

I love the perspective that I've gained by working in all these different organizations of different sizes and different shapes, with very different economic motivations and very different end-user applications. It's been an absolutely fascinating journey to see all these different sides of what software development can be.

At GitHub, you're an engineering manager, and in a previous job you led a large team -- 22 engineers -- on converting an OnSite.com legacy application to a service-oriented architecture. What led to your evolution from software development to project management and leadership?

Keeney: At this point in my career, I find the more satisfying problems are the ones that involve people. I still love to code, but the problems I run into in coding usually make me think, 'Oh, I've done this before.' In my career, I found I like and have an affinity for solving various interpersonal, interdepartmental problems, as well as solving process problems.

Software managers have to be both very good with people and very good with technology. We've struggled within the industry, because it was common to put people into management who were either technically good or good with people. I have experience with and enjoy both.

I find it really satisfying when I can be more productive and help others get more satisfaction out of their job. When you're able to line up what people like working on with what their actual assignments are, it's really powerful. Being able to diffuse a caustic situation between two engineers or between engineering and one of the other departments, for me, it's personally satisfying.

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What kind of IT diversity challenges have you come across?
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I think part of the problem is getting people not to assume that someone would not be interested in a position, before even asking them a single interview question.  After that it probably has as much to do with finding people who have different backgrounds as much as their Title specific differences.  

Its far too easy for some teams to gravitate towards people that are like themselves and build echo chambers also.
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Interesting, the article itself creates an impression of gender bias focalism. Diversity is much more than gender and race. Include age, ethnicity, and don't forget people with disabilities. Don't rush to conclusions based on the labels. There are rock star blind programmers, you know.
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Hi Albert,
Yes! Thanks for your great advice on expanding one's view of diversity in hiring. The term, diversity, can be expanded to so many people who experience discrimination or feel separated from others in some way. It's a fascinating topic. As a senior myself, I noted that age was not a diversity point in TechCrunch reporter Megan Rose Dickey’s parody of the Kinsey Scale for Diversity, which I mention in my LWT Summit coverage. She did add disabilities, which I should have included in my blog post. This particular article referred to sessions at that conference, which did address challenges other diversity issues.

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Veretax, I completely agree with the points you made. Too often, employers throw out resumes of and don't interview people due to unconscious bias or handed-down practices. The latter includes dismissing people who are "overqualified" and "not a good fit." And, yes, you're right on the money about creating a cookie-cutter employee base. That's a sure path to crushing innovation. Thanks for commenting!
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