It’s a trope among managers and executives that making significant inroads on building a more representatively diverse workforce is almost impossible. Moving the needle by even a fraction of a percentage point in a normal year is considered a massive success worth celebrating.
That’s a cop-out. It’s not easy, but it isn’t impossible. And here’s my roadmap for doing so.
First the data, so you can see the success. I started doing detailed tracking way too late in my career, in the middle of 2017, when I realized that the information I wanted wasn’t accessible via our normal manager toolkits, and it was too much labor to pull through my HR business partner. I kept a spreadsheet (all good databases start as Excel!), and I recorded, for all of my staff, a few fields: Name, Pay Grade, Country, Startdate, Gender, and Race. For those last two fields, I used a very small number of buckets to more closely align with Akamai HR norms. The Gender summary includes Male, Female, and Non-Binary; trans staff were, for this summary, grouped with the gender they had publicly declared at that time. Note that all of the people who worked for me are individual humans that I know and care about, and I do them disservice with any bucketing strategy; but this summary is aligned with the metrics that Akamai tracked on an annual basis.
Every six months, I’d make a new version of the spreadsheet, with an updated snapshot of the organization. I’d then summarize the data, so that I could compare trends across time. I looked at non-white staff in the US population (“Minority”), Black/Hispanic staff in the US, female staff in the global population (“Women”), as well as non-binary staff globally. I looked at crosscuts by seniority; staff in pay grades at or above manager level (“Senior”) versus those below manager levels (“Junior”). Additionally, I tracked longevity, to look at those with less than one year of company tenure (“New”), one to five years (“Mid”), and those with more than five years (“Long”). I used company tenure rather than team tenure intentionally, because I want to look at career progression in the company. Given the small number of non-binary staff, I don’t drill into them in the detailed views, which only explore women, minority, and Black/Hispanic populations.
At first glance, you might wonder why the numbers went down in Minority and Women groups from the summer of 2017 to the following winter. That’s partially an artifact of temporary workers, and I learned to only really look at the data year to year to separate out our summer employees. In the last year, representation of women has leveled out, as well. I attribute that to a combination of factors, but it starts with retention: those twenty-one net new staff from the start of 2020 until now? That’s almost all hiring, because only one person left the team in that time period, and it was in the first week of 2020. Since an Akamai reduction in force early in 2018, my team has had only ten departures. If we’d had the tech industry average turnover, we’d’ve expected to lose fifty people over that three year window. We would have had to hire twice as many people over those three years to have maintained the same trajectory. There’s also just a bucketing artifact; the last five people to start in 2019 were women, and the first four in 2020 were men.
But that reduction in force, timed with a few other personnel issues on a small population, also significantly impacted the Black/Hispanic population. Because those issues are about specific individual humans, I won’t dive into them here, but there is a strong lesson in representation: when you have small numbers of a represented population, even a few changes at the same time are not only significant on a chart, but they are significant in effect, as your team becomes visibly less representatively diverse. You shouldn’t change your standards (unless they’re bad standards) to prevent this, but it’s another reason to drive for increased representation: so you aren’t tempted to ever just work to a metric. I don’t believe our team ever did, but I regret putting them in a position where they might have felt the pressure to just meet a metric.
Retention is a huge part of my strategy for changing representation. I’d actually argue that it is more important than hiring, because if you have a retention problem, then it’s going to affect your hiring as well. So how do you retain great staff?
Notice that I said “staff,” and not “women” or “minorities.” While your strategy to build an inclusive environment needs to be informed by the diverse needs of your team, if you try to build an environment that is only intended to be inclusive to one aspect of your team, you’re not going to succeed. Not for the obvious reason, either – sure, you’ll alienate your male staff – but for the less obvious. Your staff will notice your insincerity. You’re going to focus on being inclusive to stereotypes, rather than to the actual humans who work for you. There are a lot of aspects to inclusion, but I’m going to focus on three here: professional, work-life integration, and unique needs.
Professional inclusion is one of the most important things you can address. Every single member of your organization must have a professional development plan, not just the ones you see as “high potential.” You should identify their next two jobs (and there might be options), and make sure they and their manager are talking about the development they need to show, and what opportunities might be available for them. Your managers should remember those needs for when an opportunity does come up, so they are considering all of their staff, and not just the ones on their favorites list. For some of your staff, their next best opportunity may not be in your team. Help them to build the skills to leave, if that’s what is right for them – they might choose to stay instead, and you directly get the benefit. But indirectly, when everyone sees that more of your staff are being taken care of professionally, you benefit with increased engagement and retention.
Work-life integration is one of the simplest, but least well utilized retention strategies. If you don’t make it a focus, your managers will, unfortunately, betray you. But it’s not their fault: it’s yours. You believe that having an unlimited time off program is sufficient. But then you tell the team how many new priorities that they have to juggle, and you never let them deprioritize work. Your managers hear that as requiring more hours out of your employees. If you don’t make it very clear that you value the wellness of your staff, continuously and frequently, your managers will subvert your message. You need to make clear that you care more about the productivity of your employees over the next four years than over the next two weeks. You’ll actually end up with more productivity. Consider those 40 employees I didn’t lose. If we assume that it takes a year to hire and train someone to comparable productivity (I think that’s laughably short for most security jobs), my team has had almost twenty percent more productivity than a team with average turnover. That twenty percent buys an organization a lot of time flexibility, even ignoring the much higher productivity from staff with greater experience in the organization.
Years ago my team experimented with flexible work programs after parental leaves, allowing people to gradually phase in their work hours, rather than returning abruptly to a 5-day work week. Some staff didn’t need it, but others greatly valued it. We were in the process of officially codifying it when Akamai did us one better and added significantly more time to the parental leave program, but we still let staff phase themselves back into work.
Unique needs of your staff are a deep opportunity to excel. When only one person needs something, and it’s outside the usual set of requests, it really does matter. It’s easy to think you can just check a few boxes with having diverse interview panels and a better parental leave program, but your team will really pay attention when you notice, and react, to the unique needs of individuals. Maybe you have someone for whom the office lighting is a problem. Use your influence to push for a better solution for them. Perhaps you have a person who celebrates holidays that aren’t observed by most of the organization. Do you move your own meetings to accommodate one person? Do you make sure future meetings take those holidays into account? It’s the personal, small things that actually have the biggest impact in retention, because it creates a clear signal to everyone in your management team that your employees matter to you.
Your goal shouldn’t just be about total representation in your organization, but needs to also look at representation among both your junior and senior staff. It’s tempting to try to tackle senior staff representation at once, and just go hire from outside. That presents a challenge, because senior staff hires are more complex in a number of ways. My observation of our team is that while about 45% of my team is senior, only around 25-30% of our new staff are. It ticks up a little for mid-tenure staff to 33%, and long-tenure staff are 70% senior. Looked at from the opposite direction, my 15 most senior staff – director level and up, 29% women, 18% US non-white, 11% US Black/Hispanic – are all long tenured personnel, with one exception, as the most recent team member approaches their fifth anniversary this summer. Clearly, my hiring strategy isn’t going to solve for senior staff quickly, but I can certainly check to see if we’re trending in the right direction.
This chart is a little bit of an eye chart. The first cluster is just a copy of the overall representation for women from above. The next two clusters show the representation among junior staff and senior staff, and you can see that senior staff representation is finally starting to tick up over the last two years. Why? The final three charts have the story. While our hiring representation (as seen in the “New” cluster) has been relatively good, the retention is key. The mid-tenured staff is slowly growing more representative, and in the last two years we see long-tenured staff increasing in women’s representation. The long-tenure representation tracks pretty similarly to the senior representation, and that’s going to be key: ensuring that we have an internal pipeline of candidates for senior positions. Before I address that topic, a quick look at non-white US representation:
With lower numbers, and a little more jitter in the numbers, I see a pattern here that hints at even better futures. The upswing in minority representation in the new- and mid- tenures suggests that the long-tenure will start to rise in the next few years, which ought to really start driving the representation in the senior cohort. The smaller change in Black/Hispanic representation is more problematic, and, for the next CSO of Akamai, is clearly a place to investigate improvement efforts.
The reason that retention matters so much in my philosophy is that the best senior staff are often those who come from within. Every time we have an opportunity to fill a senior staff role – either through the very rare departure, or through increased funding to support a business partner – we have the freedom to hire one person, or to promote a handful…and still hire one person. When an engineering team asks for a dedicated senior architect, that allows us to promote an architect, a senior security researcher, a security researcher II, and then hire a security researcher.
I also keep an eye on staff who haven’t had a promotion in a long time. When I meet with my staff for our annual strategic staffing check-in, they each bring their list of people that they think are due for a promotion. I also bring in my list, of the longest tenured people who haven’t seen a promotion in some time, so we can make sure we aren’t leaving people out, just because they aren’t making any noise.
But the real reason that promotions matter for representation numbers is because, frankly, the rest of the industry has done an atrocious job at developing competent senior staff, and the representation is awful. Great staff with experience, especially if they also happen to check a diversity box, are getting paid premiums beyond what I’m willing to pay, simply because a lot of employers are trying to quickly patch their representation problems. So if I want great senior staff, a lot of them are going to have to come from within. Additionally, it means that we have to spend less time with senior staff on culture and value basics, because they’ve all spent years creating the baseline we expect.
Hiring new staff is where everyone thinks the heavy hitting happens. Like Moneyball, it’s not about home runs, it’s about just getting on base more often. I’m not expecting my recruiters to solve all of my representation issues, but I can make it easier for them, by setting reasonable expectations. We don’t hire unicorns. We’ll develop our staff, so they needn’t be perfect when they walk in the door. In fact, they may feel overwhelmed.
Insertion: Many of our positions aren’t classic cybersecurity jobs at all. The State of the Internet team (50% women, 25% minority) is a classic example. Half of the team started their careers as reporters. One is a data scientist. One is a still-recovering auditor. For many of our open positions, we go looking into adjacent career fields to find people with amazing skills that our career field is short on.
Early career: We make heavy use of a college internship program, and we focus our summer projects with one clear success criterion: Did the intern have a valuable summer experience? If we got useful work out of them, that’s icing on the cake, because our real goal is to find out if the intern will be a good fit for us, and if we’ll be a good fit for them. Our goal is to know, by the end of the summer, if we’re going to make an offer, and make it as soon as possible. We want the intern to know we want them back.
Transitions: Akamai runs a fantastic Technical Academy, in which we pay people to go through a six-month intense training program to help them convert/return to a tech job. Any time there is an ATA cohort where we have staff, we commit to hiring at least one person, because there is always at least someone who will be a good fit for a security team, even if they didn’t know it.
Market: We did occasionally hire in the cybersecurity job market. We paid careful attention to our job descriptions. Did they use language that might dissuade candidates? Did they contain voluminous requirements? You’ll need to check the job descriptions after you post them publicly, because sometimes, in an effort to standardize and comply with various labor rules, the job descriptions get edited after you submit them. We made sure to have visibly diverse hiring panels, as well, partly to help convince talented staff to join us, and partly as a sensor to detect candidates who might have a problem in a diverse environment.
The Long Road
There isn’t just one secret. You have to commit to a many-year effort to solve your representation issues. You have to lead with deliberate care, and be visible all through your management chain making your interest clear and visible, But you can make a difference, with effective intention.