A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity

For decades we’ve been complaining about the lack of diversity in the technology industry. We’ve worked on the pipeline problem. We’ve worked on reducing bias. We’ve worked on the sourcing problem. We’ve worked on the retention problem. The net result thus far is that we’ve barely moved the needle.

Most of the companies that are investing in diversity programs are the larger companies. For them, their continuing lack of diversity is a public embarrassment.

At scale though, it is a far greater challenge for a company like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to get to any percentage of tech workforce that mirrors their customer base. The numbers are too large to move the needle. It’s far easier for startups.

A critical part of building an inclusive culture that supports diversity is reducing the “otherness.” Inclusiveness is also much harder to do in a large company. If Google hired 1000 developers of color across all their offices, those individuals might never encounter another person like themselves on a daily or weekly basis. They may still be the only person of color that their peers see at work. They will be spread too thinly across the population.

Large technology companies should still work consistently to improve their diversity, but startups are much better suited to solve the diversity problem for the industry as a whole.

A startup with a development team of ten, four of them being women, has a ratio of 40% female developers. Any woman who interviews with the company will see that they are welcome. Any man that interviews will understand that they would be joining a company that takes diversity seriously and will be expected to conduct themselves appropriately. This would be the same for any other underrepresented group. If the company is serious about building a diverse workforce, they will find it easier to continue to be diverse as they grow.

Bringing in a diverse workforce at the early stages of a company will also mean leadership opportunities for those employees as the company grows. It will help address the lack of diversity in industry leadership, which further helps build minority representation. It will also eventually mean more startups started by underrepresented industry groups, which will continue to fuel diversity in the industry. Some of these startups may be acquired, putting their leadership into the leadership of other companies and increasing diversity in those companies as well.

According to most surveys, startup founders’ biggest challenge is hiring development talent. Meanwhile, there are ever-larger numbers of coding schools and boot camps graduating eager junior developers, willing to work hard, and coming from largely underrepresented populations in the industry. There are also many experienced minority developers at the larger companies who would be interested in being in an environment that lets them feel free to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most startups neglect the critical cultural aspects of building their company as they chase product/market fit, funding or customers. What many of them haven’t considered is that building a diverse company will help them find the right product for mainstream audiences, that sources of capital are increasingly valuing diversity in their funding decisions, and that diverse teams build better products that attract more customers.

So, I call on my fellow startup CTOs and CEOs to take on this challenge. If we succeed, we will not only build a better industry; we will also create better companies for our shareholders, our employees, and ourselves.

Leaving Spotify

MP hoodie

Today is my third anniversary at Spotify. It has been an amazing adventure and a time that I will treasure, but it is time for me to move on.

Why does someone leave a job? When I talk about this with people I’m mentoring, we’ll talk about a bad manager, a lack of challenge or a lack of opportunity.  These are a failure of the manager and the company, a symptom of a larger issue to be addressed.

Sometimes though, it is just time for the person to move on to a new challenge or a new environment to continue their growth towards their own professional goals. Three years ago, I left Adobe for this reason. In a couple weeks, I will leave Spotify for this reason as well.

I was originally attracted to Spotify because of the product and the space, but I was far more excited about the culture and the way deep way Spotify approached building an engineering organization.

I came to learn more than to lead; and I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my time at Spotify. I’ve learned about being thoughtful around your company’s culture. I’ve learned about preserving and protecting that culture during rapid growth. I’ve learned about how to build a fail-safe organization. I’ve learned new ways creating a culture of autonomy and accountability.  I’ve learned how to lead in a multi-cultural organization when you are not part of the dominant culture. I’ve learned how true data-driven and lean product development can work. I’ve seen what a true continuous improvement culture is like. My time at Spotify has been like an MBA course in technical leadership, and for that I will always be grateful.

That isn’t to say Spotify is perfect in all these regards. It isn’t. Helping the company overcome its challenges and continue to improve in these and other areas has been also a valuable learning experience.

Spotify still has exciting challenges and interesting work, but I’ve realized that the lessons I would learn if I stayed aren’t the most valuable ones for me to learn for the next stage of my career.

I will be joining Avvo, as it’s new Chief Technical Officer, in June. It’s a very different business and product in some ways than Spotify, but what I really liked about the company is that many of the core values are similar. I’ve also been impressed by the leadership team, the opportunity, and by the developers I’ve met.

It will be hard to leave Spotify and Sweden. I have loved my time here. I do look forward now to my new role and new challenges. I will continue to write and talk about them as I can.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to join me on this new adventure, Avvo is hiring! If you are more interested in replacing me at Spotify, that job is posted here.

I’ve included my goodbye mail to Spotify below:

Three years ago, I joined Spotify. I didn’t join because I was excited about the product. I joined because I was excited about Spotify’s culture and the deliberate way that the company approached it. Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive music fan and have been all my life. Back then though streaming music as a subscription business was still relatively nascent, especially in the US; and Spotify was not yet a clear leader even amongst the streaming companies that existed.

 I came to Spotify because I was tired of trying to create environments that supported true agile development, team autonomy and lean practices where I worked. I wanted to just live in that world instead of being the agent of change. I thought I had found my paradise, and I had.

If you’ve ever heard me give a talk about Spotify, it may sound like I’m talking more about the ideal than the reality. This is true; Spotify doesn’t uniformly live up to its ideals of how it should work. What I love about Spotify though is that it never stops striving to become a better version of itself. That comes not just from Daniel, or Oskar, but also from everywhere in the organization. I’ve never seen an environment where people are so empowered to improve the way that they work.

While I have done my best to use my experience to support and to teach, I came just as much to learn; and you have all taught me a great deal. For that, I am incredibly appreciative to each and every one of you. Especially those that have challenged me, questioned me, or even just asked me to explain what the heck I meant when I said something.

For all this learning and improving, we have done some amazing things together in this time. Spotify is now the undisputed leader in streaming music. We have long passed the Deezers, the RDIOs (RIP), and the Pandoras. We are credible leaders and fending off three of the largest companies in the world. I have been so lucky to have been able to contribute, in any way, to Spotify’s success. For that I will always be proud and grateful.

Now it is time for me to move on to new challenges, to learn new lessons. I hope that I can take what I have learned and apply it in a new place. If I can create something half as special as Spotify, I will consider myself incredibly successful. 

For those of you I’ve been lucky enough to interact with, again, I thank you, and I will miss spending my days working with you. For those of you I haven’t had a chance to work with, it will always be my loss. For all of you, take advantage of the wonderful gift you have been given. Give as much as you can to each other, and learn as much from each other as you can. You will work other places someday, but you will always treasure this time, in this place. Above all, protect the culture and environment that you have created. Nurture it, adapt it, develop it, and keep it strong as the organization grows. 

My last day at Spotify will be June 3rd, after which I’ll be returning to Seattle to take on the CTO role at Avvo. If you visit Seattle, ping me. I’ll always be up for a Fika; and can show you what a real coffee-driven society is like 🙂


Great Moonbot/Chipotle trailer

Outstanding work by Moonbot for Chipotle. Love the art direction (and the message) here. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Chipotle a bastion for quality food against corporate food; this is definitely a bit of a greenwashing attempt. That said, it is nice for them to come out publicly for real food.

Unit Circle Magazine Archive re-launched

In 1993, I decided that I wanted to create a magazine. I don’t remember the exact reasons why. Zine culture was on the rise at the time and I was living in San Francisco, which was one of the epicenters, so it was definitely in the air. The first few issues were xeroxed and distributed around San Francisco, but were also posted at Postscript files on sgi.com’s FTP site and word was spread on the early internet newsgroups and mailing lists. The first issues were put together by myself, Jane Underwood and Derek Chung.

I moved to Seattle in 1994 and continued to put out the zine. Now, Dan Appelquist (editor of early science fiction e-zine, Quanta) had hipped me to this amazing site created by Paul Southworth, etext.org. Etext.org was all about celebrating literature on-line. In the proto-internet days of 1994, getting a website up was no mean feat, and keeping it up at no cost to the people being hosted on it was frankly amazing. Issues 3-6 were printed on paper, but were also hosted on etext.org. As one of the early culture e-zines it got some noteriety (including a write-up in the book “webworks: e-zines” by Martha Gill). Now that early HTML looks laughably primitive, but for the time I was quite proud of it. Issues 3-6 of the magazine were put together by myself, Derek Chung and Nita Daniel with some contributions by an occasional other writer as well.

After issue #6, I got very busy with Unit Circle Rekkids, and it also seemed like zines (both on-line and off-line) were just exploding. I realized that the tools were now in the hands of the artists that we’d covered and that the zine itself was no longer necessary. We left the site up so that the content was available, but it became a historic archive. I have to admit that I didn’t even check it out often any more to make sure that it was still up. The last content was added in 1996, I think, although some minor changes were made to the site afterwards based on requests from contributors.

Eventually, etext.org had run its course and the site itself stopped hosting its content. Unit Circle zine is still available from the internet archive, but I wanted to bring it back home and host it here as well so that it could live on as a time capsule. I have cleaned it up slightly (fixed up some of the links, scrubbed some of the e-mail addresses), but it is pretty much the same as it was when it was last updated.

I want to thank everyone who contributed to The Unit Circle Magazine, especially Derek, Nita and Jane, and I really want to thank Paul Southworth for creating an early home for culture on the internet. I also want to thank all the artists, authors and musicians who allowed us to showcase their work. I hope that all are successful and continuing to create. Finally, I want to thank everyone who ever read an issue, on-line or on paper.

The Unit Circle Magazine archive is now at http://www.unitcircle.com/zine/

Creative Destruction in the Newspaper Industry

I saw two things today that somehow connected in my mind. The first was an advert for scholarships for computer programmers to Northwestern’s journalism school (link):
Are you a skilled programmer or Web developer? Are you interested in applying your talents to the challenge of creating a better-informed society? Do you want to learn how to find, analyze and present socially relevant information that engages media audiences? Do you see possibilities for applying technology as a way to connect people and information on the Web or new delivery platforms?

The second item was the announcement that one of Seattle’s two major daily newspapers is up for sale and that it will probably cease as a printed paper no matter what happens:
For sale: The P-I

There are a few things to think about here. A simple one is that the printed newspaper as a product is obviously headed for oblivion. The web is far superior at news delivery, especially extended coverage of breaking news (television isn’t good at the “extended” part). Even the bad part of electronically delivered news (reading off a computer screen) has solutions on the near term horizon (e-book readers). You could say that the journalism school is ahead of the game here, looking to turn programmers into journalists who “get” the future of journalism.

I wonder why anyone would be looking to journalism as a second career at this point though. I can understand that the current upheaval in the computer industry would make a career change attractive, but what we got going in IT ain’t nothin’ compared to the outright carnage happening in journalism.

There is an open question about what is the future of journalism: is it trained journalists researching stories or is it bloggers and “citizen journalists” doing it on their own? I’ve never been one to think that interested amateurs can completely replace experienced professional writers, and I still feel that way. The big stories require real journalists, sniffing out the stories over long periods of time and really getting to the bottom of the issues. However, 95% of professional journalism isn’t that. It’s coverage of city council meetings and the daily reportage that some people care a lot about, some people care a little about and the rest of the people care very little about. Those kinds of things are perfect for the interested and excited amateurs and it is that where the blogging community has been eating away at the journalism community. Without young reporters getting their start on that daily grind kind of stuff, however, I’m not sure how folks become the in-depth-extended-research kinds of reporters.

I honestly don’t think that the future of journalism is going to come from the programmers (even those with masters degrees in journalism). I think it is going to come from the thousands of laid-off reporters being released into the world. I hope that many will start to explore the possibilities and I expect at least one will end up changing what journalism is as we know it.