True Story

Through Their Eyes: Real Stories About Diversity in Tech

“I don’t even want to hear what you have to say.” Through their eyes: real stories about diversity in tech.

“I don’t even want to hear what you have to say.”

Estimations are that companies in the USA lose $64 billion a year — the cost of employees leaving their workplace — due to diversity and inclusion issues (not to mention discrimination). Of that figure, $16 billion is attributed to the tech industry alone (if you want to read more, download the full report by Kapor Center).

But these are numbers. Statistics. Behind them are real people, who have experienced actual events — and their feelings about it are very real. Part of solving the current situation is truly understanding it. We need to get down from our high horse, 1,000 feet above the surface, and feel what it feels like.

So, we decided to let them tell their stories.

The stories aren’t the goal. The goal isn’t getting support from people, either. The goal is to make those who don’t understand — to understand. And how do you do that? You’ll be surprised, but by using unconscious bias. If unconscious bias makes a person find solidarity and take a preference based on similarities (for example, a manager with an employee or a recruiter with a candidate), why not use it for good?

So, we removed all clues about the person’s identity from these stories. We kept only the story, so that people will use their own imagination, personal connections, and relationships to decide who is behind the story. You won’t know who they are, if it’s a woman, or a man, an Afro-American or a Hispanic, but they are real. So real, in fact, that they can be your spouse, your best friend from college or even the person sitting next to you at work right now.

This is the first story.

My story is one of disillusionment. When people ask me, I say that it’s one of the many stories I have (unfortunately), but that it is without a doubt the most defining story of my career.

Somewhere back in 2011, I took on the role of Director of Engineering for a tech company with 80+ employees, with only the CTO above me. I got into it quite quickly, thanks in part to my previous experience, but mainly because that same CTO left a few months later.

I successfully played the roles of CTO and VP of Engineering simultaneously while holding only the Director of Engineering title. I had experience in building and managing teams, but never to such extent. I grew the engineering team from 3 to 23, while hiring and matching the right people to the right positions. We launched several major initiatives, had the highest employee satisfaction rating in the company and always completed 100%+ of the features scoped at quarterly planning, in addition to new features that came in during the quarter.

This was the peak of my professional career. I felt e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t*

Yes, excellent with an asterisk. During the two years and change in this role (more like 3 roles), there was something that bothered me. The more we succeeded, the bigger the clients. Seeing as I had experience with such large clients, I wanted the company to make use of me and to help make the right decisions — especially when handling contracts that I thought weren’t as good for us.

But, every time I tried expressing my opinion, the burden grew stronger;

“I don’t even want to hear what you have to say,”

was the CEO’s favorite sentence whenever I talked to him. He liked it so much, in fact, that it’s all I ever heard. I didn’t make much of it at the time and just continued working. This went on for over two years, during which I continued to do successful work (and I say successful not because I’m one to toot their own horn, but because this is what all of the company’s executives told me).

At some point

I noticed that all of my colleagues, in other companies, are VPs and CTOs and I thought to myself, “Hey, I do exactly the same work as my colleagues, I have the same responsibilities and even more — why can’t I be a VP?” Those same executives who I’ve mentioned agreed with me. Everyone thought I deserved that title. Everyone except for one person. Care to guess who?

I decided to (finally) see the CEO, encouraged from the support I received and the confidence I had in myself and what I had achieved over the past two years. Let me start off by saying that this was one of the first times he didn’t say “I don’t even want to hear what you have to say.” On the other hand, he said

“You’re right, we need a VP of Engineering. I will open the position to candidates and I will *let* you apply for the job.”

Remember that this is a story of disillusionment? We’re not there yet. The only thing that went through my head was ‘OK, I’ll apply.’

Several candidates, including myself, applied for the position. Since I led the development team in previous years, I was asked to interview the candidates for the job. I interviewed my competition. Sounds absurd? Not to me, not at the time anyway. I interviewed all the candidates, and they all had their pros and cons. Nearly all of them lacked a methodology or plan to keep momentum going or maintain cooperation with the team. One of the candidates even bragged about that time he fired half a department during his first week on the job — just to start with a clean slate.

I was feeling confident. I had support throughout the company, I was commended by all of the executives who interviewed me (some of them even BCC’ed me in the summary email they sent the CEO). When it was my turn to interview with the CEO, I was tasked with devising an entirely new strategic plan for how the department will be run under my new/old authority. Being the model employee that I am, I made one. I was feeling confident and worthy of the job when entering the CEO’s office and excited about going over and explaining my plan.

That didn’t happen.

That didn't happen.Instead, he pulled out a piece of paper — literally, a piece of paper — listing all of the bad things I had done over the last two and a half years on the job. My “interview” with the CEO consisted of a list of every mistake I had ever made and I had to justify each of them. No mention was made of any of the major successes I ever had in the role.

And what was on the list? That I didn’t say the right thing at the right time. Or that I wasn’t nice in one case and how he especially didn’t like how I talked to one of the employees (that employee and I weren’t on good terms. To tell you the truth, he wasn’t on good terms with anyone). I’m not perfect, far from it, but there was not one strategic thing on this list.

At the end of the recruitment process, the CEO (contrary to the advice given by all of the other executives) decided to hire another candidate. I only found out about it incidentally through HR. I could understand the advantages he had

over me — he had much more experience managing big teams of employees — but at the same time, I knew him and I knew that he had been fired, twice, from similar positions in the past.

3 weeks later, on a Friday, the CEO and the new VP asked me to work on a huge project during the weekend, saying it was needed for a new prospect by Sunday evening. I did it. I worked on it for two days straight, did the research, crunched the numbers and made it happen.

On Monday morning, I come into the office, after a very rough weekend, and an HR representative and the new VP are waiting for me next to my desk:

“You’re no longer needed in the company.”

When I asked why they said the CEO was “doing me a favor” because “clearly, I wouldn’t want to stay.”

I was confused. I never said anything like that. Quite the opposite, I spent the new VP’s first three weeks on the job supporting, helping and guiding him so that his transition would be as smooth as possible. I worked in several successful startups and tech companies, I was never fired, I never failed. I still remember the shock on everyone’s face as I walked out of the office.

Karma is a bitch.

50% of my team quit within a few months. The CEO was fired a year later. The company is still not profitable. I went on to get a great VP role only 3 weeks later, helped that company become very successful and recently founded my own company. That’s the moment of my disillusionment.

When I was going through it, I took responsibility for it. I was the one to blame — I was at fault. I was the blind spot. I know that others like me, who I’ve talked to, have this in common. We all took on the role of the ‘bad guy’ in the story.

No more.

Source: “I don’t even want to hear what you have to say.” Real stories about diversity in tech. — Joonko Blog