The Lack of Thought Diversity in Software

Think Different – I’ve always loved this classic Apple tagline.  Beyond the dig at Windows market share there is a lesson that could be applied to most of the software industry as I’ve seen it over the last 9 years.  This statement should challenge you to think creatively, hire differently, and expand the breadth of thought diversity in the world of software. 

Let’s say that you have a team of 10 people made up of different race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.  There are some people, including many governments, which would say you’ve created a diverse workforce.  But what if everyone on your team thinks the same way?  What if they all have the same communication style?  What if their brains are all wired the same way and they share the same set of natural talents?  Is the team diverse in thought?

I spent all day yesterday in a mandatory class entitled “Men and Women Working Together: Bridging Gender Differences”.  We spent the majority of the day learning about the different thinking styles supposedly possessed by men and women.  The instructors were good (as is the case with most training I’ve taken at Microsoft) but there was something lacking in the material.  When asked I’ll have to say that the class in its current form is too costly (in terms of lost day of productivity) for what it offered.

In the class the instructors spent the day literally telling the women to “Learn how to use sports analogies.” and telling the men to “use less crude sexual humor”.  Other pearls included teaching us that “women shouldn’t let men interrupt them”, “men are only taught to show anger as an emotion”, “women cry when they are angry”, “women aren’t direct in their communication styles”, “men talk to report and women talk for rapport”, and “men see men as the authority and women see men as the authority”.  My wife loved the last one. 

By the end of the day these colloquialisms (written on the slides!) had so badly colored the class I detected a good deal of sarcasm toward the instructors during the last couple of exercises that I believe caused them to end the class 40 minutes early. 

Part of the problem was that out of the ~20 people in the class there were only two women.  The second part of the problem is that even the two women didn’t contain the thought diversity the class had been telling us existed between men and women all day.  The third problem is that no case was made for real diversity other than “as Microsoft grows you’ll need to work with more women”. 

But that’s not what I would consider good diversity.  It’s possible to filter out any women (or men for that matter) that don’t think differently with a sticky corporate culture and an interview process designed to admit only similar thinking styles.  No case was made to change this.  One person in the class went so far as to say “This is the thinking style of the software industry.  The industry and Microsoft in general, has been successful to date.  Why change unless it affects the bottom line for shareholders?”

If there are going to be required classes like this there should be an explanation of the benefits to applying the learning.  How about explaining that a thought diverse workforce will result in software that appeals to a broader set of customers? The way the material was presented most people in the room could have left thinking “I work great with women”.  But, as one member of my table put it “I haven’t worked with a woman (as they defined the thinking style) in the software industry on a regular basis for over 9 years.”

This class won’t change anything because no one will have to apply the learning in their day to day job on a team primarily made up of men + a couple of women that think the same way.  It’s a waste to spend an entire day exploring the differences between men and women without exploring the root of the problem and teaching what could be done about it. Maybe it’s a chicken/egg thing, but I don’t believe this class will change anything. 

If Microsoft, and any other software company, wants to get more diverse they are going to have to start changing the interview process to hire people who think differently.  Do this to create products that have a broader appeal. Do this to hire people that know how to work in a team. Do this to make sure your company hires people that have customer empathy. 

In Microsoft’s case it shouldn’t take long to figure out that judging people by how well they get up to a whiteboard, code, and talk with confidence under this high pressure situation will lead to hiring only one type of person (on average) and lead to a lack of thought diversity no matter how many people of different race, gender, age, etc we hire and retain. 

At the end of the class they asked us what we were going to do to make our workplace a better place for women to work.  I struggled to write down anything other than try and make sure we hire people with different thought styles by continuing to adjust how I interview people myself to make sure we hire people that will expand our diversity of thought. We could have been taught that in half the time.  I wrote that I want to hire and work with people that think different.