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How diversity spurs creativity in software development

Diversity of all kinds – gender and ethnicity, but also intellectual diversity and neuro-diversity – can boost creativity in software development

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It is not news that IT has a diversity problem. Just over half of the 6.5 million Britons working in professional occupations are women, but among the 998,000 working in IT and telecommunications, the ratio falls to just one in six, according to 2018 data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). And just one in eight of the UK’s 338,000 programmers and software development professionals are women.

There appears to be less of a problem with ethnic diversity. Recently published ONS data covering the 1.84 million professionals who work in science, engineering and technology found that 85.1% are white, compared with 87.6% across the UK’s workforce. Some minority ethnic groups are strongly represented, with 6.7% from an Indian background compared with 2.7% across the workforce, although those from black ethnic groups have just 1.5% of jobs in the sector, compared with 3.1% of the overall workforce.

But there are other kinds of diversity that affect how people approach software development. “We focus a lot on gender, race and things like that,” says Rakhi Rajani, an associate partner at UK-based analytics consultancy QuantumBlack, but skills from outside technology also matter. “If we don’t bring that range of disciplines to the table from the get-go, we often end up looking at and developing the wrong solutions,” she adds.

As well as computer science, Rajani has a background in psychology and design, which helps in understanding the ways in which people use software. This particularly applies in unusual work environments, such as healthcare, she says. “Spending time in a hospital setting or a home setting means you can understand the context in which they make decisions, which is really important for giving them the right tools.”

Developing software that supports people’s work can benefit from anthropological skills, says Rajani. “Ultimately, you’re looking for people who are inquisitive, who can listen and who can observe without necessarily intervening.”

But this doesn’t mean everyone in a software development team needs to be a people-watcher, and Rajani says she aims to build teams with a diversity of disciplines. “It can sometimes be difficult to bring all those folks together,” she says, because members have to learn about the approaches others are using.

Rajani says focusing on the problem to be solved is vital, adding: “That’s the thing for me that diffuses the disciplinary tensions.”

Daniela Aramu uses her psychology degree in her work as head of user experience for UK-based employee engagement software company Thomson Online Benefits, having held similar roles at Hibu and Vodafone. “User experience is all about people’s behaviour and perception,” she says. “It was just a perfect fit.”

Aramu says psychological research shows that we associate proximity with similarity, which is useful when designing layouts. Our ability to manipulate three to five elements in our short-term memory justifies “progressive disclosure” processes, with multiple screens that cover a few elements while summarising what we have already decided, rather than asking for lots of information in one go. Differences in how younger and older people think, with the latter preferring patterns they have used before, can also be useful, she says.

Aramu generally ignores people’s backgrounds when hiring. “What I look at in recruiting is the way people approach problems and what makes them happy,” she says, wanting people who like to create products that make users happy. “To do that, they have to have an intense curiosity for human behaviour,” she says. Such empathy has to coexist with a logical mind, however.

Aramu’s team of seven includes people with backgrounds in nursing, border control work and interior design, with the last able to see how one thing can flow into the next, like moving from one room to another. She agrees that a diverse team can mean members have to put more time into explaining their concepts, but that has its own benefits. “People learn and grow more,” she says.

The music of programming

Some external interests may have particular value, and Katrina Novakovic, a business architect at US-based open source specialist Red Hat, has noticed that many of her company’s programmers were involved in music. “Musicians are generally logical and they follow reasoning – a skill coders have to have,” she says.

There are similar requirements in pattern recognition, planning ahead and methods of creation, she adds. “When you’re writing algorithms or coding, you can do this in different ways to fit your individual style, which is like music.”

The same can apply to artists more generally, with photographers using a blend of creativity and technology. One Red Hat interaction designer also works as a painter and gallery owner. Novakovic sees particularly good fits with agile software development, which requires innovation and flexibility, and open source, which requires collaboration. “It’s easier to teach someone how to code than how to be creative,” she says.

In multinational organisations, the international blend of people builds in some diversity, but it can need work to get the most out of everyone. Paolo Guglielmini, chief executive of US-based simulation specialist MSC Software, used to work at particle acceleration laboratory Cern, which has 23 member states and users from 110 countries. “Decision-making becomes interesting,” says Guglielmini, given different national styles of doing business, although working with an international group helps to improve decision-making skills.

MSC Software draws on this in the way it uses its software development bases in China, India, Europe and the US, he says. “A lot of products I see being successful in one geography and not another have been conceived by one group.”

To encourage joint working, the company has some staff working hours that fit with those in other time zones and sends managers to work for periods in other development bases. “It’s a way of building virtual teams that is very hard to do otherwise,” says Guglielmini.

Workplace diversity in South Africa

South Africa has moved from apartheid racism to “rainbow nation” integration in less than three decades. Lenore Kerrigan, the country’s sales manager for US-based automation software specialist UiPath, says this has resulted in a great deal of workplace diversity. “You’ve got people with different mindsets, different backgrounds and different terms of reference,” she says.

This helps in anticipating how different groups of people are likely to use products, but also means that employers have to work harder to gather everyone’s contributions, given differing cultural norms says Kerrigan.

Sales techniques and technology provide an answer, she says. “Part of selling is understanding how the other person wants to communicate. It’s the same in your own team.”

Kerrigan uses a wide range of communications channels, including face-to-face meetings, phone, messaging, Slack’s collaboration platform and email, to talk to colleagues depending on what they are comfortable with.

She says the company has connected with a broad range of people in southern Africa by offering a free community edition. This resulted in a young Muslim woman working for a bank in Mauritius trying the software and solving a problem, which led to her presenting the work to managers and developing her career while UiPath gained the bank as a paying customer.

Kerrigan says recent increases in bandwidth in several African countries are giving people access to new opportunities and education online, which can help them and companies alike.

Disability, like sex and race, is a protected characteristic under UK law on which it is illegal for employers to discriminate. But people with specific conditions can also help to improve software in ways that help many others. “By considering the needs of people living with various disabilities through user stories at the start of each project, the end product is more likely to be accessible to as many people as possible,” says Suzie Miller, a solutions architect for Amazon Web Services (AWS) and chair of the company’s People with Disabilities group.

For example, subtitles and audio descriptions were initially developed for people with hearing impairments, but now also enable people to watch videos on smartphones.

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Miller says adding assistive technologies to existing products can be expensive, so it makes sense to use “inclusive design” in the initial development process. Amazon took this approach with text-to-speech service Polly and speech recognition product Transcribe, she says. “Those products were designed to benefit everybody by considering accessibility from the outset.”

But although software developers with experience of disability may be well placed to offer advice and guidance, Miller says they should not be defined by this. “You will struggle to retain employees if your one staff member with low vision becomes a de facto tester for screen reader functionality,” she says. “That isn’t why you recruited them in the first place and it reduces their expertise to a narrow niche.”

Joe Drumgoole, director of developer relations at US-based database provider MongoDB, has dyscalculia, which means he cannot do mental arithmetic. He keeps a calculator handy, but is also particularly aware of how easy or hard it is to use software. “How do I reduce the cognitive burden on users of our software so it makes life easier?” he says. “It has definitely informed how I think about software development. Whatever you do to make life accessible for those more challenged invariably yields benefits for the population at large.”

On improving diversity more generally, Drumgoole says standardised interviews used by companies and recruitment agencies make recruitment fairer. “You don’t allow individual interviewers to go into their own unconscious biases,” he says, given people’s tendency to recruit others like themselves.

Some employers say it is too difficult to find a wide range of candidates, to which Drumgoole reckons the answer is to work harder, with MongoDB benefiting from having set up a large work experience programme that has attracted a diverse range of people.

Drumgoole has no doubts that a broad range of experiences and perspectives is valuable in software development. “You’ve got to have rocks in your head the size of Gibraltar not to understand how a diverse population is going to help you solve diverse problems,” he says.

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