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Tech industry stereotyping risks scaring off junior engineering talent, it is claimed

Slack software engineer, Carly Robinson, says technology firms need to build empathetic and inclusive working environments to retain junior talent

Enterprises need to do a better job of building empathetic IT departments to improve the diversity of their teams, according to Slack software engineer Carly Robinson.

Speaking at the Lead Developer conference in central London on 9 June 2017, Robinson said horror stories about how the IT industry treats people who do not look like the “stereotypical software engineer” are off-putting, and technology firms must do more to combat this.

“These stories are in the heads of junior engineers, whether they’re just out of college or transitioning from another career,” she said.

“There are so many people with potential to be great engineers that are being scared away from the industry, so we really need to work on building culture of empathy and inclusion so we don’t lose talent.”

Robinson is an ex-musical theatre actress who retrained as a software engineer by following 12-week training courses at both Codeacademy Labs and female-only software engineering training provider Hackbright Academy.

The meaning of good mentorship

Coming from non-technical background, Robinson said she knew mentorship would play an important role in her ongoing professional development as a software engineer. Many recruiters offer it, but the experiences can vary from placement to placement, she said.

“When I was looking for jobs and interviews, most companies promised me mentorship, [and] they promised my friends mentorship. But, in reality, it is not always easy to follow through on those promises if you’re a small startup,” she said.

“There are other priorities that you need your senior engineers to work on, [rather than] teaching someone, [but] your engineering culture is going to play a big part in how fast your engineers are going to ramp up, and their ability to feel safe enough to make mistakes.”

Robinson joined real-time messaging platform, Slack, in October 2015 in a junior role as associate software engineer, and credits the company’s empathetic culture, as well as its approach to recruitment and mentorships as being a big draw.

She name-checked “intellectual arrogance” as being a characteristic the company is keen not to encourage, so it focuses on hiring people who want to learn, rather than simply hiring people with CVs littered with “elite degrees”.

“Arrogance can be mistaken for intelligence and – too often – individuals with privileged education confuse intelligence for aggressive arrogance,” she said.

“Oftentimes, it is all of us overcompensating for weaknesses or insecurities, and those actions can directly or indirectly make your co-workers think you’re making them feel stupid.”

This, in turn, can undermine morale and contribute towards the development of a toxic working environment.  

“In a lot of interviews, if someone comes off as intellectually arrogant, they may have tonnes of experience and be a great fit, but if they’re going to be toxic to the people around them, no-one wants to work with them,” she said.                                                                   

Developing the next

For junior engineers, this approach to hiring has many benefits when it when it comes to taking part in the organisation’s mentoring scheme, but it is important to lay down some ground rules first to ensure both parties get the most out of the arrangement.

For example, it is important for both the mentee and mentor to establish an understanding of their communication styles, in terms of what their preferred learning and communication styles are.

“Maybe you’re a shy person or outgoing. What feedback have you been given about your communication style before? Have you been told you are shy and maybe came off aloof?

“That is something you might want to communicate to your mentee so they don’t misinterpret your actions [as though] they’re doing a bad job,” she said.

“I tried to be very direct with my mentor and manager, [and said] ‘please don’t sugar-coat my feedback. I want to be better and I wanted to be an engineer able to contribute independently and to be the best I could be’.”

These types of conversations should not be limited to the “starting-out phase” of a mentorship, said Robinson, as doubts about their performance and progress can begin to ramp up a few months into any placement.

“When you’re not new anymore and the expectations are higher, this is generally when imposter syndrome really creeps in. I know it did for me,” she said.

Holding regular code reviews and feedback sessions can really help junior staff overcome these issues, as well as giving them responsibility for a project that will stretch their skills.

An ideal project is one that has relatively high visibility in the organisation and has the potential to fail, but will allow them to experience autonomy and accountability, she added.

It is all part and parcel, she continued, of creating an workplace where culture that encourages engineers to strive for continuous personal improvement and development in an environment that does not punish them for mistakes, but allows them to learn from them.

“Make sure you’re building an engineering culture where intellectual humility is a core value, and that you’re building each other up. By encouraging a growth mindset, you can accelerate your junior engineers’ output and effectiveness in a great way,” she said.

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