“It’s just a gut feeling — I don’t think he’s technical enough.”
That’s what one of my white male coworkers (let’s call him “Dave”) said in an interview debrief meeting about a Black male engineering candidate (let’s call him “Steve”) whom we had just interviewed.
There I was, surrounded by the three other white males who had interviewed this candidate, and then the white male VP of Engineering. I don’t know why I even expected anyone else to speak up at the above comment, but when they didn’t, I had to jump in to challenge Dave’s “gut.”
I pointed out that in my interview with the candidate, we had had a solid discussion about the architectural details of the system he’d built at his current company. I also reminded them of the stellar code samples we had received from him, not to mention the fact that he was Head of Engineering at his current company.
After detailing his unquestionable technical qualifications, I pointed out that he also had great communication and leadership abilities that we sorely needed on this team.
The VP of Engineering then said, “April, communication skills are great and all, but we just need someone who can code.”
He ignored my protests, even when I specifically called out the fact that “gut” feelings often mask unconscious bias (I was also a leader in the Diversity & Inclusion team, so I knew about terms like this). He then declared that the candidate would need to go through yet another coding interview round.
Aside: I’m not sure why I didn’t quit on the spot, but the time to quit came a little later when I was told I spoke up too much about diversity issues and it was making all of the other white male tech leads uncomfortable.
So the company did indeed unfairly put Steve through an extraneous interview round, and we did end up making him an offer. I’m glad for his sake that he turned it down, and I have no doubt he’s thriving wherever he ended up. It was our well-deserved loss.
Do I think Dave or the other white males in this story are racist? Not exactly. My assessment is that Dave was acting out of unconscious bias*, but that unconscious bias is part of the systemic racism present in our industry and our society, and we are responsible for addressing it.
* When I raised the issue, of course, one could argue it became “conscious” bias.
Unconscious Bias and System 1 Thinking
Most people don’t want to admit they’re biased. Especially in Silicon Valley, we cling to our “meritocracy” like it’s a religion. The best “ninjas” and “rockstars” — even writing those words makes me cringe — will bubble up to the top because the system is perfectly fair.
That’s a woefully inaccurate picture of what actually happens in our industry and the world in general. Let’s go a little deeper to understand why.
As Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, we can think of two systems at work in our brain (yes, it’s just a model, but it’s a useful model). System 1 is automatic, emotional, and unconscious. Our “gut” responses originate from this system of the brain. System 2 is more methodical, reflective, and logical. When we consider a decision carefully, System 2 is at work.
System 1 can be very useful, and in fact, we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species without it. System 1 quickly tells you to run away when a lion is attacking you, without any internal deliberation required. However, it’s also the source of stereotype-based decisions. If you’ve never known a female software engineer, for example, System 1 might use automatic pattern-matching to decide that any females you encounter at tech conferences must work in marketing or sales.
When you quickly build trust and rapport with people who are similar to you, System 1 is also at work. Your experiences have taught you that interactions with people similar to you tend to be easy and pleasant. So, you’ll quickly make positive assessments of people who are like you.
We are all biased. Unconscious bias comes from that System 1 thinking. It’s the knee-jerk reaction — positive or negative — you have about new people or experiences. Unfortunately, it’s shaped in part by unhealthy and unfair stereotypes embedded in our society. It also means you’ll be more likely to hire people who are like you rather than the most qualified candidate.
So what we really end up with in Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy at all, but what Kara Swisher cleverly called a “mirrortocracy” last week at the Women Transforming Technology conference. It’s an environment where rampant bias leads people to hire others like them.
Aside: It’s worth noting that Swisher has argued elsewhere that calling bias “unconscious” absolves people from the responsibility of addressing it, and while I see her point, I believe that from a psychological perspective, it is at least initially unconscious in most cases. I also believe we absolutely have the responsibility to address it regardless.
I’ve got another story about good ol’ Dave that perfectly exemplifies the mirrortocracy. He and I were interviewing a fairly junior white male engineer who had worked on internal tools at everyone’s favorite spy tech company. He was very self-assured and said several disparaging things about certain technologies and his former coworkers — two of Dave’s favorite activities. He also mentioned that he loved playing one of Dave’s favorite boardgames.
After the interview, Dave said, “We need to lock him down today!”
I had reservations, mostly about his ability to collaborate given the negative and borderline passive-aggressive comments he’d made about former coworkers. Dave was sold, though. I’m sure he had a “gut” feeling about this one, too.
Is it any surprise that Dave wanted to hire this candidate? He was essentially a mini-Dave.
This is how the mirrortocracy works.
What can we do?
Bias affects all of us. I know that I likely have a bias toward people who look and talk like me. But I don’t just throw up my arms and give into it.
Awareness is the first step. Awareness lets us make the unconscious bias conscious, so we can start to tackle it.
Admitting you have a problem — that we all do—requires suspending the concerns of your ego. No one’s calling you a bad person. We’re all just doing the best we can — I truly believe that.
But look at the toxic, nearly homogeneous tech culture — what we’re doing isn’t working. We need for our “best” to get better. The way to do that is to apply the growth mindset. Recognize that we have limitations in our ability to evaluate candidates and decide to improve.
The overarching requirement, though, is that we switch to System 2 thinking when it comes to hiring and promoting. Stick to facts and evidence, and quiet your “gut.”
Stop Promoting Dave
It’s worth noting that Dave and I sat through the same “diversity training.” I came close to tears as the instructor talked about microaggressions — something I experienced and observed every single day at this company. Meanwhile, Dave was sitting in the back heckling with the SVP of Engineering.
Ultimately, after these and other incidents, Dave was promoted to a manager of people. As I mentioned earlier, I left soon afterward, when I was told by an untrained and immature manager that the other tech leads (all white men) were “afraid” of me since I’d often bring up diversity issues.
Not only should you leave your “gut” out of hiring decisions, but you should not tolerate unchecked bias from anyone else on your team. Try, of course, to mentor the Daves of the world to help them to improve, but if they refuse, it’s time to cut them loose if you’re in a position of organizational power, and plan your escape if you’re not. I know that’s not always easy, but it’s a better use of your mental and emotional energy than dealing with Daves.
These human issues matter, and it’s only when we start giving them the attention they deserve that we have any hope of detoxifying the tech industry.