Is Technical Education Enough?

There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.

We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:

  1. Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
  2. More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.

But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.

So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:

  • History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
  • Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully.
  • Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
  • Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent.

Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.

 

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Design and Inclusion

I love this short interview about design and inclusion with Head of Computational Design & Inclusion at Automattic, John Maeda. I like this quote especially:

Creative people are inherently inclusive because they love to learn new things. They love to be motivated, shocked, moved, be taken to a place that they aren’t used to. They’re okay being uncomfortable…with the intent of serving more people–people who aren’t like themselves.

I appreciate what he’s saying here because it’s something that I too believe about creative people. Creatives are wired toward curiosity and that often takes them to places of discomfort. But it’s not just for the sake of experiencing something new. This movement toward discomfort is an act of empathy. And it’s an understanding of a social contract that you enter as a designer: not everyone is the same and while that’s challenging for a designer to navigate, it’s also something to be celebrated.

I like this quote too. His wording and delivery are appropriately curious and playful and honest:

I’m excited that we’re all coming together as designers in tech to [ask and] understand: What is this exclusion stuff? It’s kind of icky. What is this inclusion stuff? It’s pretty hard!

Designers lean into what’s challenging about diversity and inclusion. Because it’s not only the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Several years of “Design in Tech Reports”  by Maeda and his team

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech

One Question at a Time

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’m reading The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. The author lays out 7 questions that coaches can use to effectively communicate with the people they manage. In addition to the 7 questions, another important point that the author makes is this: Ask one question at a time.

Even if you think you know the next five questions that need to be asked, the act of slowing down and asking one at a time is an act of awareness and empathy and generosity. It allows you and your employees time to get on the same page, to articulate problems and to find solutions together.

How to Explore UX at a High Level

UX is commonly understood as the web or app piece of your product or service. Also thought of as interface design. Most often it’s handled by the token designer on a team and understood in terms of cool visuals and animations. But this understanding of UX is too small.

Then there is UX, the entire user experience that your customers have with your product. That experience may start with an ad, a sales call, a word of mouth recommendation. Then, if you are lucky, that’s followed by customer buy-in and a registration or setup process. After that is the experience your customer has with your product over time. Does your product get to know your customer and adapt its behavior to better meet their needs? Does it give your customer the kind of feedback that they need? Does it inspire your customer to level up if leveling up is part of your business model?

These questions help us understand UX at a high level. It’s rare that the lone junior designer on your team will even know to ask these questions. But if you examine these questions with a small team on a regular basis, then your designer is well positioned to give you a range of potential solutions.

On Developing New Habits (for managers)

As I mentioned the other day, I’m reading The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. It’s a great read that combines high-level management concepts with clear guidelines on how to transition from old habits to new, more effective ones.

The author names some common bad habits such as, “The Advice Monster.” That’s the monster that takes over when your urge to give advice is triggered. The argument for resisting the advice monster is that your direct reports are more likely to feel empowered and to grow if you coach them to navigate problems on their own rather than teach them to depend on you for all of the answers.

Stanier offers a set of seven questions that help you coach your direct reports:

  1. The Kickstart Question: What’s on your mind?
  2. The AWE Question: And What Else?
  3. The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. The Foundation Question: What do you want?
  5. The Lazy Question: How can I help?
  6. The Strategic Question: If you’re saying “yes” to this, what are you saying “no” to?
  7. The Learning Question: What was most useful for you?

The rationale for the exact wording of each question is explained beautifully in the book. I highly recommend it.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

 

Creative Communities

I’m fascinated with theater and improv groups like Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Steppenwolf. I’m especially interested in their founding stories: a bunch of young people wanting to do something new gather a bunch of friends and start a thing. I guess rock bands form that way too. And avant-garde musical ensembles.

Writers and painters? They don’t have to practice for performances so they are less likely to be in groups that get together like a rock band or theater group might.  But they do have people that they get feedback from. My partner is a writer. The writing part is solo but he meets regularly two different groups to give and get feedback on work in progress.

Then there were the great design movements and schools like the Bauhaus, Arts & Crafts, and Black Mountain College. They all had physical spaces in which they met and worked and gave each other feedback. Spaces with workshops and tools! They believed so much in the change that they were trying to make that they wrote and published manifestos!

Digital work has changed the dynamic of creative communities. These groups are more dispersed. Sometimes this works out really well. People who have a hard time finding a group of like-minded people in their own town or city can find like-minds on the web. But other times distributed groups feel, well, distributed. I’m not saying that creative communities in the olden days were better than the communities we have today. But there was a focus and a presence in those communities that’s getting lost. And we need to get it back.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Laurie Metcalf on the founding of Steppenwolf

Amy Poehler on founding Upright Citizens Brigade

Asking “WHY?” Gives Teams Direction

If your team is addressing a wicked problem by creating a long list of solutions, well that’s great. A long list of solutions is a fine place to start. But after you generate this list, it can be hard to figure out which solutions are the best to move forward with. So what you need to do is take a step back.

Yes, taking a step back seems counter-intuitive when what you are trying to do is move forward. But I encourage you to take a step back and ask each person on the team to state WHY they are here – either organizationally, personally, or both. You should go first. Tell a personal story that demonstrates how meaningful the problem that you are working on is to you. Sharing these stories will help your team members connect with the mission. And it will then give your team clarity about decision making.

Valuing and Managing Diversity

Yesterday I went to a kick-off meeting with a new group that I’m working with. I was excited as we went around the room and introduced ourselves because it was clear that the project organizers had put significant effort into gathering a diverse set of people for this group. Yet as we started to dig into the work at hand, I quickly saw how challenging it is to have that range of voices in the room.

The meeting organizer impressed me when he paused the group to say, ‘We’ve gathered this team with this wide range of perspectives because we want push-back. We want reality checks. We want debate. Radical honesty and transparency is necessary for the success of this complex project that we are taking on.’

I agree with my whole heart. Yet, I recognize how challenging it will be to mediate that diversity. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work. Thankfully there are many models that help us navigate complexity. Roger Martin’s Creating Great Choices is one model that works well (when faced with a seemingly either/or decision, explore alternative solutions that challenge and resolve that false dichotomy).

So this diverse group is in good hands. I appreciate how the meeting organizer explicitly stated the importance of diversity to the project. This transparency, along with the clear project scope and deadline that we have been tasked with, positions us to explore a wide range of solutions and equips us with tools for making smart decisions.

On Luck

I used to think that the phrase “The harder I work, the luckier I get” was a clever thing to say. Or “Luck favors the prepared mind.” But now I’m not so sure.

I understand the sentiment of these quotes. You increase your chances of getting lucky the more you put yourself out there. “You’ve got to be in it to win it” is another popular saying (and advertising slogan for NY lotto).

But even so, there are other forces that help determine who gets lucky and who doesn’t. What you look like is a big one. If the people who are doling out awards, contracts, or bonuses look like you, then they will find you relatable and be more likely to share their luck with you than with someone who seems more difficult to relate to. It’s the easy path and there’s little motivation to choose the more difficult one.  It’s more work and it’s risky.

The reality is, if you don’t look like other people, you probably have to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” I pulled that quote from Shonda Rhimes‘s book, a phrase her father repeated to her growing up. It’s a phrase that doesn’t make it on to coffee mugs or t-shirts. But it’s a reality for the underdogs, the ones for whom the stars aren’t aligned. The “F.O.D.s — First, Only, Different” people in the room who are just as smart but have to put in extra work just to be heard or seen or respected. Add on top of that work the emotional labor involved and you’ve got your formula, “work twice as hard to get half as much.”

So, if you’ve been lucky, be grateful for it and humble about it. Reflect on what forces helped you achieve your position. Yes, you worked hard. But like President Obama says, lots of people work hard. Yes, you were smart, but lots of people are smart.

And if you haven’t been lucky, let me be clear. This post isn’t meant to deter you from trying. It’s just to say that if you haven’t been lucky, don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself. And do keep trying. Future generations need to you to do that work to pave the way.

 

From Customer Insights to Product Features

There’s a gap in the process that companies use to do product development. Strategic product development emerges from good customer research. The gap occurs because, in many companies, customer research is done by the marketing team. This seems like a great fit because the marketing team has excellent people skills. But there’s a problem with outsourcing this research to the marketing team because they are motivated to sell or validate a company’s current offerings. This kind of research isn’t oriented toward wicked problems and long-term strategic vision.

The kind of customer research that’s needed for strategic product development doesn’t emerge from validating your current offerings or solutions. It emerges from understanding the problems that your customers have, then designing future products and systems that address and anticipate those problems. This is a different kind of market research. It’s more exploratory than confirmatory. It’s more vulnerable than confident. And it doesn’t belong in marketing. They could and should be involved, but this research is best lead by designers and engineers, the ones who are on the hook for turning customer insights into product features and solutions.