So Long, Boulder. Hello, Bay Area.

After a half-decade living in Boulder and three years (technically four if including the time I spent with Learndot prior to the acquisition) working remotely for Palo Alto-based technology company ServiceRocket, I am thrilled to announce I have joined SF-based technology startup BuildingConnected to lead the Content Marketing team. As I settle into my new role and Bay Area relocation, I feel called to reflect on the profound impact living in Boulder has had on me.

Five years ago I moved to Boulder, CO from the East Coast. Like so many Boulderites, my Boulder transplantation story was a mix of luck and fate. I had been to Colorado only twice before moving. The first time was in late April 2013. It dumped snow during the entire visit, rendering the streets slushy and the famous Flatirons completely obscured from view. As a native East Coaster familiar with fairly predictable seasons, I couldn’t quite believe it.

What is this place where it snows in springtime?” I wondered.

I gave Boulder another shot a few months later in June of that same year and inevitably fell in love with the lush mountain trails and the welcoming and vibrant startup community. At the time I was working remotely for a LA-based tech company and after a wonderful weeklong summer visit I decided to move to Boulder instead of LA. I made the move that fall, just weeks before the infamous Boulder flood, which, incidentally, destroyed the apartment I was renting at the time and ironically connected me to my community far faster, I think, than if I’d moved at another time. Note to Bay Area fault lines: Please don’t feel the need to give me a similar naturally disastrous welcome.

Living in Boulder has been a true blessing. In Boulder I developed personally and in my career, becoming a member of a remarkable, active, generous, and innovative startup community. I have built lifelong friendships and experienced what it means to integrate “work” and “life”. In Boulder we take startups as seriously as we take being out in nature and taking time to be active, relax and enjoy our relationships, friendships, and community. There are too many amazing people I love in Boulder to name here, but if you’re reading this, know that you have touched my life.

Boulder is considered by many to be an idyllic place; it has gorgeous nature, an amazing startup community, and embraces laid-back sensibility. It is in many ways progressive, and yet, it is also a “bubble”. Like any place, Boulder has its limitations. Boulder’s lack of diversity, particularly in the tech and startup communities, is an issue I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working with others to improve. In 2014, disappointment in Boulder’s lack of resources for LGBTQ+ people and allies in the tech and startup scene compelled me to found Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup, also known as Flatirons Tech.

Flatirons Tech, which is now more than 720 members, has partnered with Boulder Startup Week, NCWIT, Foundry Group, Twitter, Google, Sovrn, Galvanize, Kapost, Lesbians Who Tech, SimpleEnergy, SheSays Boulder, and other startups and local organizations to put on local panels, happy hours, and other events centered around increasing tech diversity and inclusion and building community since its inception. Growing Flatirons Tech has been one of the greatest experiences of my life and career. It has been a source of community, inspiration, love, and deeply fulfilling relationships. I am so proud of what we have built and of our amazing co-organizers who continue to grow the organization and community.

Working remotely for ServiceRocket was undeniably another cornerstone of my time in Boulder. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the most incredible colleagues with whom I have ever worked doing some of the best work of my life. I am thankful beyond words for my time at the ‘Rocket and look forward to witnessing ServiceRocket’s continued growth and success from the sidelines.

As I move on to my next chapter in Silicon Valley, I am joining a company that addresses customer needs in a space I am new to: the preconstruction industry, which is a market that has been previously underserved by technology. BuildingConnected is the leading cloud based preconstruction bidding platform that enables owners, general contractors and subcontractors to communicate easily and efficiently throughout the bidding process.

BuildingConnected’s company values align with my own, and I am proud to be working alongside talented, creative, and kind colleagues who are similarly inspired to serve our customers and partners.

I deeply resonate with this statement on BuildingConnected’s career page:

“We reject the status quo. We challenge the norms of tech and construction, and we believe that both industries benefit from a more diverse workplace that includes talented women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.”

I am proud to be part of a team that is committed to ensuring everyone who joins can be themselves at work. By the way: We’re hiring!

It hasn’t quite hit me yet that I’m not on a work trip and that I actually live in the Bay Area again. With each passing day the move is feeling more and more real. The transition has definitely felt easier knowing I now have an official excuse to return to visit Boulder: I am pleased to announce that I am joining the incredible Techstars family as a mentor for the next Sustainability cohort. I can’t wait to meet the companies and get the opportunity to help them innovate to make the world a better place to live.

So long, Boulder. Hello, Bay Area.

 

Strategies for Assessing Startup Culture Before Joining

pexels-photo-380768Before working for a startup it is essential to understand company culture and values to ensure you align with them. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the questions I think are worth exploring before joining any startup.

1. How is bias handled? 

All humans have biases. “We need to out our biases to ourselves and each other and not be afraid to say, ‘I’m biased,’” says ServiceRocket COO Erin Rand. “We need to constantly remember and take action to correct our biases. We can’t feel ashamed of our biases and let that shame prevent us from doing the right thing.”

Given that bias is universal, how does the startup you’re considering joining handle bias? Do they acknowledge bias openly, working to ensure that it isn’t playing a role in key decisions like hiring, promotions and firing?

Startups that acknowledge bias take steps to mitigate it. Those that sweep it under the rug just end up reenforcing bias.

Consider asking an interviewer to give you an example of how bias is addressed at the company. Their answer may be lip service, but you are more likely to find a place that genuinely takes bias seriously if you ask about it and they give you an open, direct answer. Beware when anyone skirts the issue or says it “isn’t an issue”; it’s always an issue.

2. How do departures look?

It can be just as important how employees exit (or “retire”) as when they arrive. If employees leave and then sometimes come back, that’s a good sign. If departing employees leave behind a trail of awful Glassdoor reviews, take notice. In fact, the first thing you should do is head to a peer-review site like Glassdoor and find out how employees find the exit process. It’s also worth it to find out if your company has a decent severance package for employees who are laid off or fired.

Some startups advertise their severance packages. Netflix, for instance, has a outstanding severance package for employees. They do this to reduce the risk that anyone sticks around who isn’t a great fit and to make it easier for managers to fire underperformers or bad fits. The thinking is if that you’re firing someone who you know is going to have a great parting experience, you’re more likely to do so rather than hanging on to people who aren’t a fit, thus improving the quality of the team.

Unexpected or unwanted departures can happen for all kinds of reasons at startups — sometimes a startup hired too quickly, or a pivot means no longer needing a person or department. Your role as an employee is to make yourself as versatile and adaptable as possible, but you may, nonetheless, depart either willingly or unwillingly, and you want to make sure that it will be as positive an experience as possible.

3. What is the dress code? 

Dressing for success at a startup could mean anything from jeans and a logo t-shirt to khakis and a button-down shirt. Ask ahead before an interview — nothing looks worse than being over- or under-dressed. The key consideration: Will you, in all of your uniqueness, feel comfortable bringing your whole self to work? If you have multiple piercings and hair dyed a color that does not naturally grow on human heads, will you feel out of place? Is there a policy that you can’t live with? Do you prefer to dress up and want to work somewhere that this is the environment? Find out ahead of time by talking to HR, looking on the company’s social media and website and sussing out the office for yourself.

4. Does the company champion inclusivity? 

Tech still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity. The latest reports show that startups are overwhelmingly white male-dominated. This is a big can of worms; many companies purport to champion inclusivity but what does this mean?

How To Answer These Questions

It’s worth asking outright, but there are more subtle ways to assess startup culture as well.

Do your online research

If a startup’s career video proudly displayed on their homepage showcases men hitting each other with nerf guns after downing sake bombs celebrating a release of code, well, there you have it. Does the company have “Best Place to Work” awards, or is their Glassdoor is rife with one-star reviews highlighting the terrible leadership team from disgruntled former employees? (Note: Ex-employee reviews may not be all true. Look for patterns vs. individual data points)

In addition to the company website and sites like Glassdoor, don’t miss company social media accounts (especially if they have an Instagram; that tends to be the least formal platform with posts most indicative of culture), as well as social accounts of company employees — especially those who will be on your team. Related: Be sure that how you personally show up on social media aligns with your values; startups can and will research you, too!

Talk to people

The best way to figure out what a company is really like is to talk to people who are currently working there. You can also talk to former employees. Try to engage people who aren’t directly involved in your hiring decision. When you go for the interview, observe. Hang out. And…

Go to the kitchen

Pretend you’re an anthropologist on a mission to observe the startup culture through its kitchen. Go get a glass of water and listen to what is being said. Sample the startup’s snacks and see if they’re organic/gluten-free/free-range enough for your taste. Overhear how employees are feeling about their work and lives. Do they clean up after themselves? Analiese Brown, Director of Talent and Culture at CampMinder, wrote a great blog on the link between employee engagement and kitchen cleanliness. You will invariably learn something if you spend time in the canteen.

Observe leaders — and lower-level employees

Even if you’re considering an executive position — or perhaps especially — pay close attention to how the company treats those who aren’t in management. This includes those fresh out of college or those in lower-level positions.

Respect for everyone should be a foundation of any company culture, and if it’s not, you can anticipate other problems.

Be a consultant

Some startups will allow you to join as a consultant on a project basis before you join full-time. This can be a great opportunity to truly understand the work environment, as well as how likely you are to enjoy the experience.

Being a consultant is a great way to de-risk your involvement with a startup.

You can engage in an initial project with a company in order to assess fit with the team with whom you’ll be working, assess whether the values are truly lived by the company, and overall whether you and the company/role are a great match. Some companies have employees do an unpaid test or assignment before joining. This is not the same thing as being a consultant! It’s one-sided and doesn’t quite give you the chance to dive in with a team, whereas with consulting, you’ll be contributing something tangible, be paid for your work, and get a much better insider’s view of the business. Not every company will allow you to do this, but it’s worth asking if it may be possible to do an initial engagement prior to working together.

Giving Ourselves Permission Not To Crush It All The Time In Tech

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It’s Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado. I am sitting on my couch in my striped blue-and-white pajamas, staring at two emails in my inbox inviting me to speak at tech events–one in the Bay Area, where my employer is located, and one in Boulder, where I currently live. Normally I would be thrilled to accept these invitations right away. I want to accept them. “Say yes to challenge” has become my motto throughout my career. This motto has undeniably served me. Outside of the office, pushing myself to be more visible, do more public speaking and share my ideas with the world has led to incredible opportunities, promotions, and career upleveling. But today, I can’t bring myself to hit “yes” in the reply fields. The duo of invites sits there another day unanswered.

On the coffee table next to the couch sits a bottle of prescription medication, one of a few meds I’ve been taking these past few weeks to heal from an illness. Being sick has meant that I can’t currently drink alcohol or coffee, dine at most restaurants, and that sometimes I don’t feel awesome. Thankfully, I am still able to work at full capacity, read, write, and organize Flatirons Tech events (come to our next event at Google in Boulder!). But I’ve become less social while convalescing, and networking has taken a backseat. It wasn’t until I got sick that I realized how much of tech networking is organized around imbibing caffeine, alcohol, or being “on” at an event. I know I am not alone in abstaining from drinking caffeine and alcohol, but it can sometimes seem that everyone in tech is throwing back either a Nitro coffee or a craft beer siphoned from a keg.

Around when I first started feeling under the weather, I gave a brief talk at Twitter Boulder. During the talk I smiled, trying my best to seem warm and inviting. Immediately after I got offstage, I slipped out of the event. I normally would stay and mingle with the audience, but I simply couldn’t. You may have seen the picture I tweeted and Instagrammed at the event, but you certainly didn’t see the reality of how terrible I was really feeling that day.

And that’s just it: in our current social media-driven world, we see only what others allow us to see. I see my colleagues and peers “crushing it” online, speaking at conferences, being out there in the industry, and they likely see the same of me. I feel pressure, as I’m sure others do, to always be “on” and constantly grow, innovate, and become a bigger force in the industry. But I frequently don’t know others’ private struggles, pains, illnesses, and challenges. And they don’t know of mine unless I share.

Being sick has brought up a flurry of doubts: Who am I in the tech world if I can’t have a drink at a tech meetup or enjoy a normal business lunch? How long will it take before I’m back to “myself” and am able to say yes to every career opportunity? What if I turn down opportunities and then people stop inviting me to speak at events–and what would that mean for my career?

These doubts spring from a dominant startup narrative of “keep growing and crushing it at all costs,” which is harmful to all of us. The “crush it” mindset means constantly seeking opportunities to be in public–public speaking, networking, conferences, as well as taking on so many challenges at work that we’re burning the midnight oil more often than not. Where does the pressure to “crush it” come from? Perhaps it is from the illusion that everyone else is crushing it, and if we don’t too, we’re going to miss out. For some of us, being a minority in tech adds another layer of constantly feeling a need to prove ourselves.

Tech is an incredibly important part of many of our lives, but it isn’t our whole lives, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling pressure to “crush it” no matter what.

My current health condition, I am told, will likely resolve within a few months. I know I am extremely lucky. Many people in tech silently deal with serious and/or chronic health issues, some of which take a long time to heal or will never fully heal. Others struggle with balancing careers and being a primary caregiver to parents, children or an ailing family member; dealing with a divorce, death or loss; a personal illness, or another significant life challenge. No matter our life situation, each of us will go through a period at some point that won’t enable us to follow the “crush it all the time” ethos. As an industry, we need to think about how we can build a tech culture that is more inclusive of everyone throughout the ups and downs of our lives.

Summoning my courage, I regretfully decline the invitations. I know there’s a lot more “crushing it” ahead–even if that isn’t right now.

Should You Join A Coding Bootcamp? Ask Yourself These Questions First

pexels-photo-90807Bootcamps are a great way to get into a programming career if you are motivated but lack the skills. Reputable programs boast a 95% success rate if you follow their career services guidelines; once you land a job as a junior developer, you will always be able to continue to grow as a software developer throughout your career. But bootcamps aren’t right for everyone. To understand who should join a bootcamp and how they should approach the task of finding the right one, I sat down with Flatiron School’s Head of Online Instruction Peter Bell, who shared advice from years spent helping people make these very decisions. Here are the questions Bell recommends asking yourself before taking the leap.

If you’re interested in joining a bootcamp, be clear about your objectives.

Are you looking to get a full-time job as software dev, to enhance your skills with front-end dev as a designer, or to build the skills required to found a company? Each objective drives a different learning environment. Bell says the first job out of a bootcamp is the hardest job you’ll ever get; after that, you’ll be turning down offers within two years. Once you snag that first job, the only reason you wouldn’t succeed long-term is if you chose not to because you didn’t like the job.

Are you sure you really need to participate in a bootcamp to meet your career goals?

Bell says if you just want to be a product manager, you don’t necessarily need to learn to code to manage developers. Learning to code gives you deeper empathy, says Bell, but if your only goal is manage development, he says taking a bootcamp isn’t the most effective way to build skills you need. in addition to focusing deeply on skills you don’t need, bootcamps don’t cover a lot of skills regarding product design, agile, kanban, scrum, workflows, and other important things. Bell says bootcamps are primarily training you to be a junior engineer – not build or manage a dev team. So make sure you really want the software dev skills or want to become a software developer.

Have you tried free online labs to see if you actually like software development?

Bell recommends going to Code Academy or Flatirons Schools Bootcamp Prep Program where you can go through labs for free. These free online programs will show you whether you enjoy the process.

“The actual task of being a software developer is writing code. It doesn’t work, then you spend the rest of minute, hour, day or week getting it to work,” says Bell. “Do you find that frustrating or in general to be an enjoyable challenge?” Bell says if you spend hours or days or weeks getting it to work, finding the answer on StackOverflow, trying to figure out why the thing that worked yesterday doesn’t work yesterday, and enjoy this process the way you enjoy doing crossword puzzles, great.

“If you get frustrated when tech doesn’t work like it should, you won’t enjoy the task no matter how much you like developer salaries and opportunities,” says Bell.

Have you fully researched the bootcamp(s) you’re considering?

Assuming you want to become a software dev or have a reason to take a bootcamp, try to check on coursereport.com where graduates provide feedback from their experience. Bell advises you to take the time to look through those reports. Find out: does a particular bootcamp align with your values and learning style?

Do you want to do an-person bootcamp or an online course?

The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you are going to do an in-person bootcamp or an online course? Bell says the benefits of an in-person course is much more structure.
“You complete the course in less time and build good friendships and connections that help you get through program and succeed over time in your career,” says Bell. This is because it is easier to build a network during an in-person course.

“In-person is a wonderful experience,” says Bell. He says if you don’t live near an in-person bootcamp and the logistics of moving somewhere for three months, or you have a job or family that make a 60-70 hour week impractical, there are a number of online programs.

Whether the bootcamp you’re considering is in-person or online, Bell advises speaking with one of instructors. It is important to figure out the instructor’s objectives and background. Bell advises interviewing a bootcamp company the same way you’d interview a place to work for. He says not to discount cultural alignment.

“You’re looking for a place that values similar things,” says Bell.

Ask them specific questions about learning environment, and what to do when students are struggling or having trouble with motivation or other issues. Admit your weaknesses upfront to see if it’s a good fit. Bell says you’ll get a good sense for whether the program adopts a “be tough or else you won’t make it” approach or is a more supportive and engaging environment.

Has the bootcamp you’re considering scaled quickly?

It is not wrong for a bootcamp to be large, but there are cultural challenges with scaling any organisation. As with any company growing too fast, be particularly careful about the quality of the instructors you’re going to be working with.

“That will have a big impact on experience,” says Bell. He also advises asking for their jobs report – do they have some statistics on what percentage of grads get a job and average salary, and ideally listed by a third-party. Those statistics can shed light on the quality of the program, regardless of scale.

Final Thoughts

Bootcamps aren’t for everyone. Be clear what you’re looking to achieve from attending one, whether it’s the right program for you, and plan to invest energy into going above and beyond the requirements.

Spring 2017 Recap: Lesbians Who Tech, Boulder Startup Week, Pulse Conference, & more

Is it really June already? Here is a recap of what I’ve been up to in early 2017.

Spoke At Lesbians Who Tech Conference 2017

Sarah E. Brown speaking at Lesbians Who Tech Conference in San Francisco 2017
In February, I spoke at Lesbians Who Tech Conference about how to grow your career as a startup employee in a non-technical role. Watch the recording below.

Received Top 100 Customer Success Strategist 2017 Award From MindTouch

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In May 2017 I received the Top 100 Customer Success Influencer award from MindTouch for the third year in a row. I am proud to have been named among so many people whom I admire in the Customer Success field, and enjoyed celebrating with MindTouch at their Pulse Conference Happy Hour. Check out the list.
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Featured With Helping Sells Radio Co-Host Bill Cushard by Successly Live at Pulse Conference 2017

I had fun catching up with Successly chatting about Helping Sells Radio with my podcast co-host Bill Cushard at Pulse Conference this year. Watch the video below.

Organized and Moderated Boulder Startup Week Panel On Growing Your Career In A Non-Technical Role At A Startup

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Photos by photographer and data scientist Josie Martinez

A lot of Boulder Startup Week is focused on helping founders or aimed at folks in technical roles. This year, I worked with the Boulder Startup Week team to organize event aimed specifically at helping employees who are in non-technical roles at technology companies level up their careers. I moderated the panel including career experts including Analiese Brown, Director of Talent & Culture at CampMinder, Rachel Beisel, VP Marketing and Communications at CableLabs, Tamara Hale, PhD, Lead UX Researcher at Effective and Teri Keller, Director of People at Sovrn, who shared valuable insights aimed at folks in operations, finance, marketing, HR, and other roles that aren’t focused on coding. Learn more about the panel.

Performed With Boulder Improv Collaborative

DSC_6323One of my mentors, ServiceRocket’s VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, got me into improv, and I’ve since seen the benefits of saying “yes, and” throughout my life. My Boulder Improv Collaborative class performed in May, and we had a total blast. Many of my classmates also work in tech, so you can imagine the fun we had when the audience gave us the word “unicorn” as a prompt for one of our montage scenes.

Passed the 40th Episode Milestone of Helping Sells Radio Podcast

I co-host Helping Sells Radio, a podcast about helping customers discover, adopt, and thrive using your software. My co-host Bill Cushard and I celebrated hitting the 40 episode milestone at The Business of Customer Education and Pulse Conference.

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Here are a few of our latest episodes:

Thank you for reading!

Connect with me on Twitter @SEBMarketing or email sarahbrownmarketing [at] gmail.com.

Non-engineering roles are given too little attention in today’s tech diversity and inclusion initiatives. Here’s why we need to change that.

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In 2017, lack of diversity in tech is still a problem. Google has spent over $100 million on diversity initiatives. Intel has allocated $300 million towards increasing workplace diversity. Yet while hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in recent years by the tech industry to increase diversity, the numbers remain disappointing. These initiatives are falling short.

Tech companies, nonprofits and other organizations are currently driving initiatives aimed at attracting women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and others from underrepresented groups, but these campaigns are almost entirely focused on how to get more minorities into technical roles. Reaching these groups and paving the way for them to succeed at tech companies is crucial. But as an industry, we are going to be unsuccessful in our mission to increase tech diversity if we don’t also think about creative ways to engage and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Perhaps we don’t think it’s an issue–and, admittedly, other departments are often more diverse than engineering. Yet, recent statistics from NCWIT show that engineering isn’t the only area where minorities are underrepresented. For example, only 25% of tech salespeople are women. Women represent only 12 percent of sales leaders.  Thirty percent of 450 tech executives surveyed by Reuters reported that their groups had no women in leadership positions.

Many tech leadership positions are non-technical roles, and many are paths to the C-suite; focusing on inclusivity among non-technical roles will be key to improving the diversity in tech leadership

In 2017, tech leadership is still predominantly white and male. This problem isn’t exclusive to our industry; according to CNN Money, only around 14% of the top leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. Inability to see oneself in a leadership role contributes heavily to churn among women and minorities backgrounds. Women are more than twice as likely as men to leave tech careers. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows U.S. women working in STEM and tech are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry. NCWIT research reports 48% of Black women in tech feel their careers are “stalled” without promotion opportunity. Lack of representation in leadership absolutely plays a role in this flight from tech jobs. Increasing leadership diversity in each department helps every department.

Engineers can and do become leaders at tech companies–but we should also focus our inclusion efforts on cultivating leaders from underrepresented groups from all roles. This diverse leadership can more effectively drive towards, and sustain, a diverse industry.

It is not all bad news

Some companies like Atlassian pay particular attention to company-wide diversity initiatives, ensuring diversity isn’t siloed in one department, and companies like Twitter offer inclusive benefits such as parental leave policies, gender reassignment surgery, partner benefits, and more, while other companies host employee resource groups and other inclusion efforts that do help retain diverse talent across the org chart. Lesbians Who Tech organization puts on an event called “bring a lesbian to work day” where LGBTQ people and allies can help queer women shadow us and learn what it’s like to work in tech. These efforts are laudable, but overall in the tech industry, we don’t do enough to explicitly attract and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Here are some ideas for extending tech diversity initiatives to the entire company.

Immersion programs for aspiring engineers are great–we need similar programs for non-technical roles, too

The diversity initiatives that have been shown to work for increasing minorities in engineering roles can also be applied to non-technical roles. For example, to help address the gap between the tech pipeline and hires, Girls Who Code offers immersion opportunities so that girls who are learning how to code can get a glimpse into what it will be like if they work at a tech company. Coding bootcamps now help people from all backgrounds gain the skills they need to be successful in programming and data science roles. These bootcamps, immersion programs and “pipeline cultivation” for programming can work for attracting diverse talent in non-technical roles, too. The assumption may be that these aren’t necessary for filling non-technical roles; after all, coding is a specific skill, and many non-technical roles don’t require additional training for candidates to be successful–but I would argue that’s untrue.

There are candidates who are qualified skill-wise for non-technical roles but who don’t know how to break into tech or don’t think the industry is for them. In addition, many minority candidates who have experience working in tech in non-technical roles aren’t getting hired or promoted. Organized immersion and training programs targeting non-technical fields could build the confidence and exposure needed to be successful in tech’s unique environment.

Identify cultures within your organization that are disadvantaging women and minorities, then set goals around, measure and publish diversity stats for the whole company

Inclusivity is key to retaining talent; recent studies reported in the Harvard Business Review suggests that diversity “doesn’t stick” without inclusion. ShareRoot COO Mischa McPherson developed and executed a plan to create a more inclusive tech sales teams. At the time she joined ShareRoot, the percentage of women on the sales team was 25%. She knew before she’d reach her goal of increasing diverse talent, she’d have to work hard as a leader to show a career path for underrepresented team members. 

When Misha arrived at ShareRoot she set a goal to increase the proportion of women to men on the sales team to 50/50. In her first four months on the job she increased the proportion of women on the sales team to thirty-three percent. Misha was deliberate in changing the previous culture and moved the company closer to the goal she set by measuring progress and publishing stats around it for the whole company. 

Final Thoughts: Why this matters to me

I’m passionate about this topic because I’m in a non-engineering role and I’ve seen firsthand that our group is often underserved by tech diversity initiatives. I am confident that this is not intentional; we’ve become so focused on increasing much-needed diversity in engineering departments that we’ve lost sight of the rest of the tech org chart. We need to do more to reach and retain minorities for non-technical roles, improving the industry as a whole. I recently participated in an interview with Inventing Heron aimed at encouraging young people to consider tech careers–including non-engineering roles, and also recently gave a talk at Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco this year on how to grow your career in a non-technical role. In 2014, I founded Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup  in Boulder, which frequently hosts events that are aimed at people in non-engineering roles.

As an industry, we need to develop and implement more intersectional initiatives aimed at helping minorities succeed in any role in tech; when we do this, everyone will benefit.

We Need To Start Talking About The Debt of Withheld Feedback At Startups

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I was on a walking meeting with my colleague Erin when she gave me feedback on a talk she had just seen me rehearse. For an instant, I wanted to rebut it, but instead I thanked her and integrated the feedback, and it made my talk better.

The feedback Erin gave me was relatively easy to receive; I was asking for it, and the feedback involved was something I could (and did) easily adjust. Honestly? Even then it was hard to receive.

In many cases, the kind of feedback we desperately need to give each other is much harder to give and receive. And so, we avoid it, and the pain accumulates over time.

The difficulties we face in giving and receiving feedback leads to an epidemic of withheld feedback at an organizational scale — feedback debt.

Just as a startup can incur financial and technical debt, withheld feedback is an insidious and often unaddressed issue that is responsible for a myriad of problems at companies. Conceptualizing withheld feedback as debt makes it easier to understand it as an untapped source of organizational value.

Withheld feedback is a resource. Like capital, it holds tangible value, and comes with interest.

The sum of feedback not given among individuals and teams at your startup is creating a strain on your company’s outputs. Thus, it is a kind of organizational “potential energy” and has the capacity to reveal issues so that they can be addressed. When people have insights for each other — good, real, constructive insights that could make a person, project, or team better–and then don’t give it, that depreciates the total value of your organization.

Like technical debt, the debt of withheld feedback may actually keep an organization working smoothly in the short-term but sets it up for major long-term problems.

Technical debt is a term coined by Ward Cunningham to explain the consequences of a shoddily-done short-term technical solution. According to Atlassian:

“Constantly procrastinating on bugs that need to be fixed is a dangerous way to make software. As the bug count grows, tackling it becomes increasingly daunting–resulting in a vicious death-spiral of technical debt.”

Withheld feedback has a similar impact. Procrastinating on discussing issues that need to be fixed is a major issue. On individual, team and organizational levels, the consequences of not giving feedback can be devastating:

  • A subordinate doesn’t disclose a potential security issue she notices in a new feature that could put customers at risk because of fear of upsetting her manager.
  • A CEO doesn’t tell her VP of Sales she’s afraid he isn’t right to scale with the business, watching the company performance lag until finally the situation becomes unsalvageable.
  • A head of HR doesn’t follow up on getting feedback about major allegations of discriminatory behavior at the company because she’s afraid the founder won’t listen, or worse, may be implicated.
  • And more…

Withheld feedback debt must be repaid eventually

If you haven’t told someone the truth about something, chances are you’re going to skirt the issue and that’s going to be wasteful in some way vs. directly addressing it. That’s a debt that accumulates over time–with interest.

Uber has come under fire recently for missing the opportunity to receive feedback about its cultural issues. Companies that just don’t want to face the truth will have to pay up at some point, with interest, and usually publicly.

Winning companies will become adept at maximizing the flow of healthy feedback at every level of their organization.

My hope is that by conceptualizing withheld organizational feedback as debt, startups squash it on their way to increased profitability and success, and improve culture along the way.