233: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter with Jess Szmajda

May 5th, 2021 · 47 mins 24 secs

About this Episode

01:22 - Jess’s Superpower: Playing ANY Instrument

  • Music & Technology
  • Cultural Expoloration

06:03 - Language Community Ethos (MINASWAN)

13:24 - Inclusive Language: Language Matters

17:19 - Active Listening and Expressing Point-of-View, and Using Loudness

  • Vocally For
  • Vocally Against
  • Quiet For
  • Quiet Against

21:51 - Shining Light on Marginalized People & Voices

  • BULQ
  • Metacognition: Asking ourselves, “What are we not thinking about?”
  • Leadership
  • Changing Mental Patterns; Take a Different Path

31:30 - Benefits of Having Diverse Teams (Resources) & Risks of Homogeneity

37:29 - Storytelling

  • Representation Matters
  • Normalization


Jess: We are feeling beings that rationalize.

Damien: How technology impacts culture.

Casey: Taking loudness for diversity, equity, and inclusion with people who don’t always talk about it. Who is more open to it or not?

This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode

To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at paypal.me/devreps. You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well.


DAMIEN: Welcome to Episode 233 of Greater Than Code. I’m Damien Burke and I’m joined here with Casey Watts.

CASEY: Hi, I’m Casey! And I’m here with our guest today, Jess Szmajda.

Jess is currently a senior leader at AWS in the EC2 Networking organization. Previously, she was the first female CTO of a major media organization, Axios, and before that, the co-founder and CTO at Optoro, which helps top tier retailers nationwide handle their returned and excess goods.

Jess got her start in tech in the 90s writing Perl to configure Solaris machines. Over the years, she’s contributed to Open Source and organized a number of communities. These days, focusing on the DC Tech Slack and the DC-based Joy of Programming Meetup.

Outside of the tech world, Jess is a singer-songwriter, an improviser, a gamer, a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, and a Mom to the most wonderful, Minecraft-obsessed 6-year-old imaginable.

Welcome Jess.

DAMIEN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Jess.

JESS: Thank you! It's nice to be here.

DAMIEN: So I know someone has prepped you with our first question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

JESS: My superpower is that I can play any instrument you hand me and I –


JESS: [laughs] I acquired it by being a giant nerd. [laughs] I went to a special music high school here in the DC area called Suitland High School and I played all kinds of different instruments. I was the principal bassoonist of the DC Youth Orchestra for a while. Music's always been a lifelong love of mine and it's been a mission to find every strange instrument I can find to figure out how it works. So it's challenge [chuckles] to find something that I can't play. [laughs]

DAMIEN: Oh, I'm so tempted and of course, the first thing I would have gone with is the double reed bassoon and oboe, but that's too easy.

JESS: That’s right.

DAMIEN: Banjo, of course, you’ve got steel drum.

JESS: Steel drum and plate, yeah.

DAMIEN: Cajon.

JESS: Cajon. Oh, I have heard of it.


JESS: I haven't actually touched one. I'll figure it out. [laughs]

DAMIEN: It's particularly easy.

JESS: Nice. [laughs]

CASEY: I don't know very many people who play more than just an instrument, or two. I think it might be like you and I are the two that come to mind for me, honestly.


I have an instrument in every color, by the way. That's the way I collect them.


JESS: Nice.

CASEY: I’ve got a white accordion. How do you feel like this breadth of instrument ability has affected your life in other ways?

JESS: I don't know. That's an interesting question. How has it affected my life in other ways? I mean, there's the obvious tie into music and technology. There's such an incredible confluence of musicians who are engineers and vice versa.

I was actually talking to someone at the office earlier about that and she was theorizing it's because all of the patterns and rhythms that we think about and how that ties into a regular patterns and systems that we think about as engineers and I think it's a really interesting way to think about it, for sure.

I do think that there's a certain element of cross-culturalism that you get from learning other cultures instruments. Certainly, the berimbau, the Brazilian martial art? [laughs]

DAMIEN: Capoeira?

JESS: Capoeira, yeah. The capoeira, the berimbau instrument that has the long string and you have the little – I think you learn a lot about what led to developing an instrument so relatively simple, but creating such an incredible art form in the culture where people just wanted to dance and share their heritage with each other and picked up whatever they could find that would make interesting and fun sounds and created an entire culture around that.

So for me, it's as much cultural exploration and understanding as it is anything. I think it's wonderful.

DAMIEN: Yeah. That's really amazing. I had a tiny insight on this recently. I saw an amazing video about a Jimmy Hendrix song with the basic premise being, what key is this song in? It's a really difficult question because—and I'm going to go a little bit music nerd here—the tonic is e, but the chord progressions and the melodic signature doesn't really fit that. Amazing 20-minute video, but the end conclusion is that using Western art music tonality to describe blues music, American blues music, it's a different tonality. So it doesn't really make sense to say what major key is this in, or what minor key is this in.

JESS: Yeah, totally.

My partner and I, this morning, we were watching a video about Coltrane's classic—my favorite thing is interpretation in the 60s—and how he's basically playing between these major and minor tonalities constantly. It's not necessarily tonal from the Western sense, but it’s certainly beautiful and I think it's certainly approachable and understandable to any ear regardless of how you decompose it. Anyway, giant music nerd, sorry. [laughs]

DAMIEN: Yeah, but it ties so closely to what you were talking about as an instrument being cultural. The guitar, the five-string guitar, is tuned for American music, which is a slightly different tonality from Western European music. So when you think about “Okay, well, that's very slightly different. Now, what is it like in Africa, in Australia, in Asia?” Then it gets all, it's got to be very, very different.

JESS: Oh, yeah. I saw this guy in Turkey, he's modified a guitar to add quarter tones to it because a lot of Turkish music uses quarter tones and so, it's just like the fretboard is wild. It has all of these extra frets on it and he plays it. It's absolutely incredible, but it's wild. It's amazing.

DAMIEN: So I want to tie this into different cultures, frameworks, and technology. How about that?

JESS: Yeah, you bet, let's do it. [laughs]

CASEY: Good segue.

JESS: So actually, that's something that's been on my mind is this Ruby community diaspora in a way. I know Greater Than Code has a lot of Ruby folks on it and I'm not sure about the latest incarnation, but definitely a lot of Ruby roots. I think that we've seen this incredible mixing of culture in the Ruby community that I haven't seen in other places that drives this – well, I think [inaudible], it's a really fantastic way to sum it up like, math is nice and so we are nice.

As much as that might be a justification to be nice, be nice anyway, but it's still this ethos of we are nice to each other, we care, and that is baked into the community and my journeys and other language communities, I think haven't shared that perspective that it is good to be nice in general and some of them even are, I think are focused on it's good to fight. [laughs]

So I've been really curious about this movement, Rubius’s movement into other language areas, like Go, Rust, and Alexa, et cetera, et cetera, how much of that carries forward and what really can we do to drive that?

DAMIEN: Yeah. So my question is how does a technological community, what is it about the community? What is about the technology? Why is it different? You and I both wrote Pearl in the 90s and so, that is a very different community. I look at Ruby and I write mostly Ruby now and I go, “Why is it different? What's different about it?”

JESS: Yeah, no, it's a good question. A lot of the early conversation that I remember in the Ruby community was—and just contextually, I've been using Ruby since 2006, or so, so that era. A lot of the early conversation I remember was about develop the language to optimize for developer happiness. I think that's a really unique take and I haven't heard of that in any other place. So I'm wondering how much that might've been the beginnings of this. I don't know.

DAMIEN: Something came up in a Twitter conversation, I saw a while back where they compared Ruby and Pearl, I'm pretty sure it was Pearl and well, one of the defining features of Pearl was that there's more than one way to do it and Ruby has that same ethos. Literally, in the standard lib, there’s a lot of aliases and synonyms. It's like, you can call pop, or drop and I can't keep it straight. [chuckles]

But anyway, then I thought to myself, “Well, in Pearl, that's an absolute disaster.” I pull up a profile and I'm like, “I don't know what this is because I don't know what's going on.” Whereas, in Ruby, I've loved it so much and so, what's the difference and the difference pointed out to me was that in Ruby, it was for expressiveness. Things have different names so that they can properly express, or better express the intention and in Pearl, that wasn't the case.

JESS: Yeah, no, totally. I think actually looking at Ruby and Python, I think were both heavily influenced by Pearl and I think Python definitely took the path of well, all of this nonsense is just nonsense. Let's just have one way to do it. [laughs]

Having worked with some Python developers, I think that perspective on there is one correct path really drives that community in a lot of ways. I think some people find that releasing really simplifying for them because they're like, “I got it. I know the answer.” Like it's a math problem almost.

As a Rubyist going into the Python community, I was like, “Oh, I'm so stifled.” [laughs] Where is my expressiveness?! I want to write inject, or oh, I can't even think of the opposite of inject. Collect. [laughs] Those are two different words for me. I want to be able to write both, depending on what I'm doing so.

It's also interesting, like I see a lot more DSL development in Ruby than I see in any other language and maybe Alexa also. But I think that also comes from the same perspective of there is not one right way to do it. There's the best way for this problem and there's the best way for this kind of communication you're trying to drive.

It's interesting, as I'm talking myself into a corner here a bit, Ruby almost emphasizes the communication of code more than the solving of the problem and I think that might actually help drive this community where we care about the other humans we're working with, because we're always thinking about how we communicate with them in a way.

CASEY: I think about the term human-centered design a lot lately and that's becoming more and more popular term, a way to describe this thing. Ruby totally did that. Ruby looked at how can we make this easy for humans to use and work with and I think that's beautiful.

I keep thinking about a paper I read a long time ago that a professor made-up programming language and varied features of it like, white space matters, or not, and a whole bunch of those and measured which ones were easier for new people to learn and which ones were harder for new people to learn. As a teacher, I want to use whatever is easy for the students to learn so they can get their feet wet, so they can start learning and building and doing things and get excited about it, not get hung up on the syntax.

So human-centered design baked into Ruby is, I think partly why the community is so human-centered. I think you're exactly right.

JESS: Yeah. That's really interesting. That's a large part of why the Joy of Programming Meetup, I think has been really fun is we get to learn from how different language communities build things. I think it was founded on that kind of thinking is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis for better, or worse theorizes language shapes thought and I think that that is to some degree, at least true in how we think about writing code and solving problems.

So the kinds of solutions that you see from different language communities, I think very incredibly. I don't know, even just as simple as from like J2EE, which is the ivory tower of purity in XML [laughs] to obviously, I don't want to pick on Rails, but Rails is an open system. [laughs] An interpretive dance, perhaps. I think it's really interesting, the web frameworks even I see in Haskell almost feel like I'm solving a math problem more than I'm creating an API, or delivering content into somebody.

So it's hard for me to separate, is this a community of thought of people who are attracted to a certain way of solving problems? Is this driven by the structure and format of the language? I don't know.

DAMIEN: I know you mentioned the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and their research has been shown to be problematic.

JESS: Yeah, for sure.

DAMIEN: [laughs] But I will say that the hypothesis is that language shapes thought and I would say that the correct state – correct [chuckles] a better description for me is that language is thoughts and so, the language you use is the sort of things you're thinking about. So if you say inject when you mean collect, those are different things, you're going to get different things out of them. This is why we use get annotate instead of get playing.

JESS: For sure. Exactly. So at AWS, this is big drive and I'm not speaking for AWS on this, I'm just speaking for me. But I'm noticing this drive for inclusive language and I think it's really beautiful.

Connecting that drive, frankly, in the broader tech community to everything that's been going on in this last year in how we interact with each other as humans from different backgrounds, et cetera. It's like, what kinds of dominant culture paradigms have we baked into our code beyond even the very obviously problematic statements, but just the way that we think about, I don't know. Part of me is like, “Well, is object-oriented design driven by certain cultural expectations that we have, or functional?” I don't know. What paradigms would we get if we'd have had a different dominant culture developing technology? I don't know. It's fascinating.

DAMIEN: Yeah, and [inaudible] is an excellent example of that. It's a punishment. This is wrong. I did a whole talk several years ago about specifications versus tests. I don't want you to write tests for your code; tests are something you do afterwards to see if something is suitable. Write a specification and then if the code and specifications don't match, well, one of them needs to change. [laughs]

JESS: That's right. I love that. That's also kind of like the Pact Contract Testing space. It's like, I like this framework because it allows a consumer of an API to say, “This is what I expect you to do,” and then the API almost has to comply. Whenever I've talked about Pact, I think with a lot of developers, they're like, “Wait, what? That doesn't make any sense at all.” I'm like, “Well, no.” In a way, it's like the API’s prerogative to deliver what the customer expects and to be always right. The customer is right here, in this case and I think it's a really great way to look at this differently.

CASEY: That should totally be the tagline for Pact: the consumer is always right.

JESS: I love it. [laughs]

CASEY: Another way language shapes things, I noticed lately is Valheim is a super popular game where you're a Viking and building houses. There's a command you can type called “imacheater” that lets you spawn in equipment and building materials. On all the forums online, people are harassing each other for doing their own creative mode for spawning stuff in because of that language, I suspect. So in a recent patch, they changed it from imacheater to devtools, or something like that and the forums have rebranded. There's a new moderator is posting things and the culture is completely changing because the devs changed that one word in the changelog and it's just so cool to see language matters.

JESS: That's amazing. That's so cool. Actually, I'm totally hooked on Valheim also along with probably everybody else. I have my own little server with some friends. Anyway, we noticed on the Valheim server that there was somebody who sort of redid the loading screen and they really hypersexualized the female character in the painting and actually got a surprising amount of feedback like saying, “Please don't do that. We love Valheim because it's not clearly gendered, or particularly one way, or the other,” and the artist actually took that feedback to heart and put together a much better version of the thing where the woman was very well armored and looked ready for battle and it was really cool.

I've been thinking about the whole tech community and there's so many connections to the gamer community as well. Ever since Gamergate, I think we've been putting a really hard light on this whole world. It's just so heartwarming and incredible to know that like this Viking destroying trolls game has people who actually care enough to say, “No, let's pay attention to what that woman's wearing. Make sure she wears something that's actually reasonable.” That's cool. We've come a long way. I mean, not perfect, but it's a long way.

CASEY: Yeah, a long way. I always think about progress in terms of people in four groups. There's like people who are vocally for something like they would speak up in this case, people who are vocally against it, and then quiet people who are for, or against it. We can see the vocal people who are supporting this now and I love to think about how many people are moving in that direction who are quiet; we can't see. That's the big cultural shift under the covers.

JESS: Yeah. That's a big question. That makes me think about when I was at Optoro, we were trying to understand our employee engagement and so, we used this tool, Culture Amp, which I imagine a lot of people have seen. We did a survey and we got all this data and it's like, “Hey, everybody's really engaged. Maybe there's a couple of minor things we can fix.”

But then we were talking to some of our Black employees—those of you who can't see me, I'm white—and there was just a lot of like, “Wow, this doesn't represent us.” Like, “What are you doing? We actually aren't don't feel like this is a really great representation.” We're like, “Well, the data says everything's fine.”

So what we actually did, the next survey we ran, we included demographic data in the dataset and then we were able to distribute the data across racial demographics and we saw, oh no, our Black employees are pretty much all pissed off. [laughs] We've done a really bad job of including them for a lot of reasons. For example, we had a warehouse and most of our Black employees worked in the warehouse and it turns out that we had a very corporate-based culture and we didn't pay enough attention and we didn't really engage everybody. The fact that they were basically all in the warehouse is kind of also a problem, too.

So there was a lot of really great eye-opening things that we got to see by paying attention to that and looking not just at our Black employees, but all our different demographics. We learned a lot and I think we had a real humbling moment and got to listen, but it's really this quiet – either people who don't use their voice, or can't use their voice, or maybe don't know how to use their voice in a lot of different ways. These people, I think make such an incredible impact on the true feeling of a place, of a community, of a company and really sitting down and listening to those people, I think can be really hard in any position.

So I was really happy we were able to do that, but I think you're totally right, Casey, that it's not just moving the vocal people to really change the Overton window, I suppose on what's acceptable in a community. But it's fundamentally, how do you change the people who you aren't hearing from? How do you frankly even know?

CASEY: Yeah, it's a big question. There's no easy answer. There's a lot of approaches. I'm glad people are talking about that in the meta sense, that's huge. We want to do this as a community, but there's work to be done and then even once people are comfortable expressing their point of view, there are then further tiers we're going to have to go through like that other people around them understand. They're actively listening and they internalize it. And then beyond that, actually acting on it.

I've had experiences at work where I'm usually very confident, I'll say my point of view regardless of the context. I like being outspoken like that and represent quieter people, but often leadership and other people around me don't understand, or even if they do, they don't incorporate that into the plan and then everybody is still very frustrated, maybe even more so in a way, because a light is shining on this problem. And that's the same for marginalized voices. If they can just be heard, that's great, but we have to go farther than that, too.

JESS: I couldn't agree more. This is the thing that I struggle with sometimes. I love people. I'm very extroverted. I'm very gregarious, [laughs] as I imagine you can tell, and I like to engage with people and I try to listen, but I find that sometimes I have a big personality and that can be tough, [laughs] I think sometimes. So I super value people you Casey, for example, who I think are much better listeners [laughs] and are willing to represent that. So that's huge.

I also, though on the flip side, I know that I can use that loudness to help represent at least one aspect of marginalized people. I'm trans and I'm super loud about that and I'm very happy to make all kinds of noise and say, “Don't forget about trans rights!” [laughs] Frankly, I think it's kind of a wedge into I'm one kind of marginalized community, I represent one kind of marginalized community, but there's a lot more and let's talk about that, too. Not to toot my horn, but like I think those of us who are allowed to have a responsibility to use our loudness in a way that I think supports people and also, to listen when we can.

DAMIEN: Can we explore a bit into the into the metal problem of hearing from marginalized voices? I'm an engineer at heart, first and foremost, and so, how do we solve this meta problem? You gave a good example with the survey separated by demographics knowing that racial and gender demographics, or well, finding out that [chuckles] racial and gender demographics were important factors than you think, but how do we solve this on a broader issue? I don't know.

JESS: No, that's a great question. I think we have so much calcified thinking that at every organization and every place in the world, there's so much like, “Well, this is the way we've done things,” and frankly, it's not even, “This is the way we've done things.” It's just, “This is the way it works and this is what we do,” and just thinking outside the box, I think it's hard. Finding these areas that we are being blind to in the first place, I think it takes a certain amount of just metacognition and patience and self-reflection, and that's very difficult to do, I think for any human.

But driving that shows like this, for example, making sure that people care and think about these kinds of problems and maybe take a second. You as a listener, I'm going to challenge you for a second, take a minute at the end of this podcast and think about what am I not thinking about? I don't know, it's a really freaking hard question, but maybe you might find something.

But it's politicians, it's media, it's our leaders in every aspect making sure that we shine a light on something that is different, something that is marginalized, I think is incredibly valuable. That's a first step. But then playing that through everything else we do, that's hard. I think it falls on leaders in every realm that we have like, community leaders, conference organizers, people who lead major open source projects. Making sure that people say, “I believe that Black Lives Matter.” “I believe that we should stand against violence against the Asian community.” Those, I think are powerful statements and saying, “Hey, have we heard from somebody that doesn't look like us lately, who doesn't come from our same socioeconomic educational background?” It's tough.

I had food, but I grew up relatively poor, and I think even that is such a huge difference of experience and background to a lot of people that I end up working with and I've been able to talk about like, “How are we setting prices?” Well, who are we actually thinking about? We're not thinking about ourselves here. We're thinking about a different market. Let's make sure we talk to those people. Let's make sure we talk to our customers and make sure that this actually works for them.

I was really proud. At Optoro, we built a new brand called BULQ where we took – so 2 seconds on Optoro. We took returns and excess goods from major retailers and helped them get more value out of it and a a lot of the time, we built great classification systems to say, “Oh, well this is a belt and I know how to price belts because I can look on eBay and Amazon and determine, et cetera.” But a lot of the times we couldn't build these kinds of models, like auto parts, for example, were notoriously difficult for us. So we could say, “Oh, this is an auto part. But I don’t know, carburetor, manifold? Who knows?” [laughs]

So we were able to classify them as auto parts and then we put them into these cases, maybe like 3-foot square large boxes, and then we were able to sell those in lots to basically individual people who had time to learn what they were and then could resell them.

The story that I love to tell here is they're a laid-off auto factory worker, knows a ton about auto parts, and can probably scrounge up enough money to afford this $200 to $300 box, brings it to their house, knows exactly what these parts are and knows exactly what the value is and then can resell them for like 3x to 5x on what this person bought them for.

I was so proud to be able to have created this kind of entrepreneurial opportunity for people that we would otherwise often forget about because so much of tech, I think is focused on us. So, it's an interesting thing kind of being at AWS, which is very much a tech for tech company. I love it, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I think these opportunities to listen to the rest of the world, we miss out on.

DAMIEN: Yeah. You challenged us to ask ourselves the question, what are we not thinking about and that level of metacognition sounds impossible. It might be impossible. It's close to impossible, if it's not. So I can't help to think the only way to really get that knowledge, that insight is to get people who are different from me, who have different backgrounds, who have different life experiences.

You got a great example of someone who knows a lot about car parts, bring them in, they have years of experience in car parts and they can do this stuff that you can't do. But then also, along every axis, if you look around. If you look around the leadership and go, “Oh, there's nobody in leadership here who has this type of experience,” that knowledge, that insight and people like that are not going to be served because it's impossible for them. They don't even know. They can't know.

JESS: Could not agree more and it is leadership. Absolutely. You're absolutely right. So many times I've seen, having been a leader, ultimately, you end up in a room with other leaders and you end up making decisions. And if you don't have other voices in there, if you don't have diverse voices, you don't get that benefit. Even if you've gone to the trouble of paying attention to diverse voices beforehand, there's always some data, some argument that comes up and it's like, “Oh, well, maybe, maybe not.” Yeah, I cannot agree enough.

This is the other flip side of that is that as a business leader, I have to think about prioritizing the outcomes of the business, it is a fact of my position and I like to think that I work in a lot more data to what that means than other business leaders perhaps. Like, impact on the community. [laughs] Impact on the people.

But a lot of times, we'll be having these discussions about who to hire and maybe we'll have done a really great job—and this isn't specific to any particular company that I'm talking about, but I know that this kind of thing happens. Maybe we've done a really great job of getting a diverse pipeline and having talked to a bunch of different kinds of candidates, but when it comes down to it, we're trying to make often the lowest risk decision on who to hire and so often, we are too risk averse to somebody whose background doesn't quite line up to what we're expecting, or to what we think we need.

I like to think that I push hiring communities in conversations like that and say like, “Look, let's think beyond what's risky here and factor in more of these aspects to the conversation of getting diverse voices.” But too often, it's very easy, I think for leaders to think, “Well, we’re just going to hire the known quantity,” and I think that is again, on the meta, a major thing that we need to fix. There's so much more to being an effective leader than having the standard pedigree.

DAMIEN: Well, there's also, like you mentioned, the risk aversion to not want to hire somebody who's not like all the other people, but then what are the huge risks of having only people who are alike in certain aspects?

JESS: Exactly. Couldn't agree more. I think there's tons of examples. If we Google right now, we'd find like companies have made really dumb mistakes because they didn't have somebody in the room who could be like, “That?” The first one that comes to mind is the Chevy Nova, they tried to sell that in Spanish speaking countries, [laughter] “doesn't go,” “not going anywhere.” [laughs] I mean, like that could have been avoided, right? [laughs]

CASEY: Nova.

JESS: Nova. That might be a trivializing one, but there's been a lot worse and that's a major business risk and I think those arguments carry some weight. I love that so many organizations are prioritizing hiring more diverse leaders, especially, but this is deep pattern that we've gotten into.

So that actually comes to mind when you're thinking about how to change your mental patterns. I'm an improviser, I'm all about trying to change my mental patterns all the time so I can try to be creative. Obviously, there's plenty of silly improv games that you get into, but something that's simple, I think that anybody can do is go for a walk and take a different path. Just turn a different way than how you used to.

We, humans love to get into patterns, especially engineers, which I find to be highly ironic. Engineers are all about creating change, but don't like change themselves typically. [laughs] But do something a little different, turn left instead of right today, look up instead of down. Those, I think subtle physical changes really do influence our mental states and I think that can actually lead us to thinking in new ways.

CASEY: I love it. That's very actionable. I've been doing a lot of walks and hikes and I actually try to go to a different hiking location each time because of that. I think about that idea all the time, take a different path, and it is great. Every time I do it, I feel amazing. I don’t know, more flexible, I think differently. Yeah, try it, listeners. I dare you.

JESS: I love it.

CASEY: I'm sure there are papers written showing that having diverse teams have very measured effects, a whole bunch of them, more than I know more, than I've read. Well, I guess first of all, I don't know that the data has been collected in a single spot I can point people to and that would be pretty powerful. But then secondly, even if we had that, I'm not sure that's enough to change minds at companies in any widespread way. It might just help some people, who already care, say their message very clearly.

Do you know of anything like that Jess, or Damien, either of you? What's the one resource you would send to someone who wants to be equipped with diversity and inclusion data?

JESS: Yeah. This study McKinsey did a while ago that, I think gets a lot of traction here where they demonstrated the companies have better total performance with more diverse groups of people and went into some depth with data. I think it's a fantastic study. It's definitely one that I reference often. I've used it to change minds among people who were like, “Wow, what's it really matter?” No, I’ve got data. [laughs]

I know. I can see Casey here on video and Casey's mouth just went open [laughs] It's like, “Yes, no, it's, that's real.” No shade on the people I've worked with, I love them, but like, this is such a thing. There are cynics in corporate leadership who want to focus on profit and sometimes, you have to make a cynical argument in business and a cynical argument can come down to data and this data says, “No, look, if we get more people in here who look different from us, we're going to make more money and that's good for you and your bottom line.” So sometimes you have to walk the argument back to that, even if it feels gross and it does, it's like, “No, this actually matters to your bottom line.”

DAMIEN: That's a great argument and it's a positive argument. In my view of corporations, I feel like the larger they get, the more you have an agency problem where people aren't looking to take risks to get the positive benefits, they're going to do things to avoid backlash and negative things. So I think larger company, more middle management, more people you’re answerable to, especially on the short-term, the more people are better motivated by fear.

So for that, I want to pull out like, what are the risks of homogeneity? You mentioned the Nova. You mentioned like, oh, there was – [laughs] I pull this out far too often. There was an AI image classifier that classified Black people as gorillas. There was a store. Oh goodness, I think it was an Apple store. Beautiful, beautiful architecture, glass everywhere, including the stairs. These are all the harms that come from homogeneity. [laughs] What was the expensive fixing those stairs? It couldn't have been cheap.

JESS: Oh my gosh. [chuckles] I don't even wear skirts that often. [laughs]

DAMIEN: And I know that's a problem because when I heard that story, I was multiple paragraphs in before I realized the problem. I wear skirts less than you, I'm sure.


JESS: For sure. Oh, that's amazing.

Yeah, I think those stories are really important for us to be able to tell and to share with each other because diversity matters. I think it's easy to say that and especially among people who care, people who prioritize it. We almost take it as like a, “Well, of course,” but I think there is still, getting back to that quiet group of people who don't say what they actually think, there's a lot of people who are on the fence, or maybe frankly disagree. It's like, “Well, you can disagree and I respect your disagreement, but here's the data, here's the results, here's the impact. Let's talk about that. Do you have a better way to handle this? Because I don't.”

DAMIEN: So I think the risk is especially acute in tech companies and in tech for tech companies where things are far more homogeneous. Next week on how to pronounce these words. [laughs] So what can we do? Is there anything special that we can do in those sort of environments?

JESS: Yeah. Well, besides have the conversation, which I think is something we can all do. Not to fangirl too much about Amazon, but I really do like the company and I'm really enjoying my experience. A lot of it comes down to how we've expressed our leadership principles. We say this is our culture and our values and we actually apply it constantly like, if you ever come to talk to an Amazon person, I'm going to tell you about how I've disagreed and committed and what I'm doing to think big and how I'm customer obsessed. I'm going to talk about those things directly.

To this, we say one of our leadership principles is that leaders are right a lot and that feels weird, right? Leaders are right a lot? “Oh, I just happen to know everything.” No, that's not what that means. We actually go into it in more depth and it's like leaders look to disconfirm their beliefs and seek diverse perspectives and we bake that right into one of our core cultural values. I think that that is absolutely critical to our ability to serve the broader tech community effectively.

The fact that we hold leaders to being right through having gone through a crucible of finding out how they're wrong, I think is magical and I think that's actually something that a lot more companies could think to do. It's like, you as a tech person and you think, “Oh, I'm going to go sell this great new widget to all of my tech buddies.” Okay. You might be right. But how could you make that bigger? How could you make that better? Like go, try to find out how you're wrong. That should be something we value everywhere. It's like, “No, I'm probably wrong. I want to be right.” So the way to get right is to find out every way I'm wrong and that means talk to everybody you can and find out.

CASEY: From our conversation here, I'm picking up a couple of tools we have to help persuade people to get them to be louder, or more proactive at least. Data is one. Telling stories from other companies is another one. And then here, I'm picking up get your own stories that you can really tell from your point of view and that's maybe the strongest of the three, really. The change is you, too. I love that idea.

JESS: Yeah. We had a internal conference this week, the networking summit, and there was a great session last night from somebody talking about what customers love and what customers hate about our products. He was just telling story after story about customers saying, “Oh, I'm so frustrated with this.” “I would love to change that.”

Those stories, I think have so much more weight in our minds. Humans are evolved to tell the stories to each other. So if we have stories to tell, I think those are so much – they connect at a deeper level almost and they help us think about not just that top of brain logical, almost engineering, binary yes, no, but it's more this deeper heart level. “I understand the story that led to this position. I understand the human that feels this way.”

Personally, I think no matter how logical we think we are; [chuckles] we’re still walking bags of meat [laughs] and there's a lot to be said to respect that and to connect with that. So yeah, storytelling is huge.

DAMIEN: You brought up, earlier in our conversation, about how things might be different with a different cultural paradigm. This is an enormous example of this. White Western culture overvalues logic and objectivity. It's a by-product of the culture and there's a conflation between objectivity and rationality and rightness.

Weirdly enough, in my experience, that makes people less able to be rational and objective. It's quite amazing, ironic, and tragic. But if you follow the science, you follow the logic, you follow the rationality; what you'll discover is that humans are not naturally logical, rational beings. We are not rational beings that feel; we are feeling beings that rationalize.

From the beginning from the birth of humans as a species, stories and communication have been how we navigate the world, how we see the world, how our beliefs and behaviors change and you can see that throughout all of history and it's the narratives that change everything. So that's something that is super important to have, to know and especially if you want to be effective.

Having grown up in this culture, though, it amuses me to no end how little I use that knowledge. [laughs] I argue with logic and facts and wonder why don't people don't understand when I have all the logic and facts that tell me that that's not going to change what they do. [laughs]

JESS: Oh, yeah. Honestly, I think our political climate right now is representative of that because it's like, I don't know, I feel like it's so logical and factual, my political perspectives, and then I'll talk to somebody else and they feel the exact same way. Having been in media, I've seen like a lot of what we end up believing is how we sold it to ourselves and the stories that we've told around it and what we've paid attention to. We've listened to it. It's so easy to develop this cognitive filter on the stories that don't line up to your expectations. I don't know. This is, I think an area that engineers really overlook time and time again, is the power of media and the power of the stories that we tell.

Being a trans person, I didn't come out until I was in my late 30s because the stories, I grew up with of trans people were stories of serial killers, rapists, murderers, and people who were at the very edges of society and like, I'm like, “Well, I'm not that. I can't be trans.” [laughs] It wasn't until we had these news stories of love, or hate. Caitlyn Jenner, I think set a new story on the world and a lot of things changed around then where we were able to see ourselves in a light that wasn't just pain and I think that we've seen a lot more trans people come out because they're able to see themselves in these happier stories and better stories.

So we need more stories like that. Like Pose, I think is amazing and great stories of standing up in a hard place and owning your power, even under all this adversity, I think it's incredible. Those set of stories, I think are just so incredible for everybody and we just need so much more. I could rant for a while. [laughs]

CASEY: Yeah. I'm totally on board with this as a queer man, I wasn't comfortable for a lot of my life being that because of the representation. I'm not into drag, but that's not a requirement.


A friend of mine just shared a list of children's books that are incidentally queer and I just think that's so cool. The phrase, even. They're just regular storybooks, not about being queer as a topic, but just people doing normal stuff that happened to have including queer characters.

JESS: I love that.

CASEY: The world is changing.

JESS: Yes, and I think we have a responsibility to be a part of that storytelling. Let's tell stories and it doesn't have to be a big deal that the person you’re talking about is a female engineer. No, she just happens to be an engineer. Let's tell stories where he has a husband. Who cares? He has a husband, it's great. It's not the focus of the story. It's just a part of the whole, the melior that we're in. That's really important.

So, I think a lot of normalizing – a lot of acceptance comes through normalization and honestly, it's so complicated because there's this tendency to whitewash when you go into this normalizing place. It's like, “Oh, I don't see skin tone.” No, I think that's not the way to do it. I think it's like there are differences in us, in our backgrounds, in our cultures, in our experiences, and that is incredible and that is wonderful, and it's not the story, but it's a part of the story and that's an important part.

DAMIEN: Yeah, as a Black man, I've definitely seen this. I like to say Black Panther was the best thing that happened to African-Americans in the history of cinema. Get Out is another example. It's very much about the Black experience, but it's not the old story of what being Black in America is like and so, it's very different.

JESS: Definitely. Yeah.

CASEY: We're getting near the end of time we have today, let's shift gears into what we normally do at the end, our reflections. What's something that you're going to take away from this conversation? Jess, or Damien, who wants to go first?

JESS: I'll start because I already wrote it down here. Damien, you said, “We are feeling beings that rationalize.” That is going to stick with me. That was profound. I love that and it's so obvious, I think but I'd never thought to think of it that way, or to say it that way. So I’ve got to think about that one for a while, but that's, I think really going to stick with me. Thank you.

DAMIEN: Thank you, Jess. That's quite an honor. I can drag out like probably a half dozen off the top of my head, or a dozen probably store of scientific studies that show that. [laughs] I never get enough of them mostly because I've been rationalizing more.

Anyway, my reflection is really on how technology impacts culture, both within the technologists and how that relates to storytelling, communication, and language. All those things are creating culture and all those things exist in technology, in between technologists, and that's how we can make our culture. It's something that I want it to be, or more like something I want it to be. So thank you.

JESS: That's awesome.

CASEY: I think my takeaway is I'm noticing that I said I'm very loud and outspoken about a lot of stuff, and I care a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially when I’m groups of people talking about it, I talk about that all the time. But can I and how can I take that loudness for diversity, equity, and inclusion with people who don't always talk about it? Who can I approach and how can I tell who is more open to it or not? That's always a big open question for me. I guess, I'll be thinking about that especially this week.

JESS: Well, this was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

DAMIEN: This was great, Jess. Thank you so much for joining us.

JESS: Yeah, it was delightful.

DAMIEN: I suppose this might be a good time to plug our Slack community, which is available to all Patreon for the podcast and also, all of our guests. So Jess, if you want to join us there and we can nerd out some more. I’ll keep throwing you instruments to try and stump you.

JESS: Yes! Bring it on! [laughs]

Support Greater Than Code