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Growth mindset and diversity

Eric Aside

All opinions expressed in this column (and every Hard Code column) are my own and do not represent Microsoft in any official or unofficial capacity.

Are you seeking the perfect teammates or new hires? Wake up! Nobody’s perfect, including you and me. As I discuss in Hire’s remorse, seeking perfect candidates is a fool’s errand. Not only does it take longer, but it often causes you to miss the best candidates.

No one arrives in a team as a perfect fit. Instead, new teammates gradually learn the team’s technology, people, and approach over time as they become effective members of the group. Accepting and embracing this reality is part of a growth mindset—believing that potential is nurtured, not predetermined.

Of course, new hires aren’t the only ones that need to learn and grow—we all do. Great teams are made up of members who learn from each other, taking advantage of their wide variety of backgrounds, skills, and experiences. The greater the variety, the more there is to learn. Unfortunately, differences between people can lead to unease and misunderstandings. However, expanding your team’s mindset, making you and your products better, is well worth the effort necessary to be welcoming to your peers. In contrast, staying closed and comfortable only creates openings for our competition. Skeptical? Need pragmatic advice on being accommodating and hiring the best? Read on.

Eric Aside

I reveal five steps to quickly come up to speed on a new team in The new guy (or gal).

I just want to fit in

Deep down, we all want to be surrounded by people like us. We want to feel comfortable and fit in, particularly among our teammates. However, while it’s essential that your coworkers share common goals and values, it’s counterproductive for them to share common backgrounds, experiences, and interests. The smaller the knowledge gap between you and your teammates, the less you can learn from each other. A little personal discomfort can go a long way toward enhancing your knowledge and skills and improving your designs and products.

Though it might be awkward, try to be open-minded and adaptive when you’re part of a diverse team. Not everyone will be outgoing (I’m an introvert), so you need to seek input from each person, ask questions, and listen carefully until you reach a common understanding. Some people might need more time to process and/or respond (I’m dyslexic), so you should slow down to ensure all voices are heard, even if that means giving people time afterwards to respond in the way they feel most comfortable. Sometimes cultures clash (I’m from New York), so you need to stay calm, re-examine your assumptions, address misunderstandings, and generally assume good intent.

Asking questions, slowing down, and addressing misunderstandings takes extra time—time away from coding and shipping. Calm down, relax, and be a professional. Those extra minutes could save you substantial rework and gain you millions of customers by allowing you to identify design issues and opportunities early—issues and opportunities you couldn’t see because you lack the background, experiences, and interests of your peers. That’s the whole point of teaming with people different from you—you fill each other’s gaps and work together to grow your business and yourselves.

Eric Aside

Microsoft HR has published more about ten inclusive behaviors on their internal website. If you lack access or need a reminder, the behaviors are: examine your assumptions, make a habit of asking questions, ensure all voices are heard, listen carefully to the person speaking until they feel understood, address misunderstandings and resolve disagreements, if you have a strong reaction to someone ask yourself why, include and seek input from people with a wide variety of backgrounds, take action to reduce stressful situations, understand each person’s contribution, and be brave. I further discuss being inclusive in Good engineers.

You’d be perfect

When you have an open role on your team, you want to fill it with the best candidate. But how do you define “best”?

  • The best technically? That’s a fallacy. There are basically three categories of engineering candidates: unqualified, qualified, and unicorns. Unqualified engineers can’t code beyond a for-loop, can’t focus and finish an assignment, and/or can’t work effectively on a team—avoid hiring them. Unicorns are exceptional individuals who become distinguished engineers—your team can’t support multiple unicorns, even if it could find them. So, seek qualified engineers—those who can code, finish, be great teammates—and then differentiate between them using some other criteria.
  • The best at your team’s technology? Another fallacy. Sure, there are kernel and compiler technologies that require years of experience to master. However, the overwhelming majority of technology can be understood by a qualified engineer in a few weeks or months—the time it takes for any engineer to onboard to a new role. Differentiating based solely on technology is a great way to waste time and qualified candidates.
  • The best team fit? Ah, now there’s differentiation that goes beyond a few weeks of onboarding. But what defines “fit”? As we already discussed, it doesn’t mean someone exactly like you. The best fit is someone who shares your group’s goals and values, but whose unique background, experiences, and interests expand the knowledge of your team.

Eric Aside

For more on making strong hires, read Out of the interview loop.

Special treatment

Conversations that touch on diversity naturally lead to debates about preferential treatment based on something other than technical skill. Rather than hide from this controversy, let’s take a fresh look at it.

As I’ve mentioned, once you’ve filtered out unqualified individuals (folks who can’t code, finish, or be great teammates), the remaining engineers are all qualified and not substantially differentiated technically, except for the most specialized roles. Thus, any choice you make between qualified engineers won’t be based primarily on technical skill. Remember, there’s no perfect engineer for a role, only engineers that grow with us into a more perfect match.

If you aren’t differentiating based solely on technical skills, what basis are you using? Personal bias or connection? Over indexing on specific technology knowledge? The need to fill an open position quickly? Of these, urgency is the only compelling reason to restrict your choices to those qualified candidates immediately available. I talk about how to fill roles quickly in Permissible poaching–internal recruiting.

Industry, college, and intern hiring, as well as succession planning, all afford you more time to select qualified engineers that will expand your team’s mindset and capability. Is that giving preferential treatment to those people? Heck yeah! I prefer to hire the best candidates for my team. The best candidates are the ones that can code, finish, be great teammates, and bring new perspectives, experience, and knowledge to my team.

From the standpoint of people seeking new roles, if you’re part of an underrepresented group and were selected over more conventional competition, you might feel indignant about even the perception of preferential treatment. While your reaction is understandable, and those feelings are valid, there’s a healthier and more self-affirming way to see it. Assuming your competition was also qualified, any of you could have excelled in the role. You were the best candidate—the one whose background, skills, and experience, technically and otherwise, will best expand the team’s mindset and capability.

Eric Aside

My younger son is autistic. He graduates from UW next year. (Go Dawgs!) I’ve witnessed times that his diagnosis has been a disadvantage and times it’s provided opportunities. I see that same pattern in my own life, as well as the lives of everyone I’ve employed, mentored, and worked with over the years. Who we are, what we know, and how we behave all shape our careers—for better at times and worse at others. The key is to embrace the opportunities when they come. Read more in Opportunity in a gorilla suit.

Make it so

If we truly believe that potential is nurtured, not predetermined, then we believe that any qualified individual can grow to become a valuable contributor to any team. Qualified people come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds and locales, and with all kinds of preferences and interests. For you and your teammates to learn the most from each other and grow together to produce the greatest products and services for our customers, you want the broadest diversity of peers.

Whenever possible, you should choose to fill your team with people that expand its mindset. Diversity on your team requires you to be flexible and adapt. You should ask questions, address misunderstandings, and take the time needed to ensure every voice is heard. Doing so benefits you, your team, your business, our company, our products, and our customers.

Embracing diversity has another benefit beyond great teams, great products, and delighted customers. Embracing diversity enables you to bring your true self to work every day. When everyone is different, being yourself is more than acceptable—it’s normal and desirable. What better place is there to work than a place where you’re constantly learning and growing, where your team reflects the world and your customers, and where you can be exactly who you are? Make it so.

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