Much has been said about the lack of women in engineering in 2016. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on how major tech companies are struggling to show progress towards adding more women to their ranks. KQED ran a report on “Why Aren’t There More Women In Tech? …”. Tracy Chou challenged the tech industry to show that the percentage of women in engineering was actually going up in her 2013 blog post Where Are the Numbers? Despite this trend, our Weight Watchers office in San Francisco is an exception to this common gender diversity problem. A problem that seems to plague so many tech companies around the world and begs the question: Why are women continuously underrepresented in engineering?
You probably would not think of Weight Watchers as a tech company and until Weight Watchers acquired the company I co-founded, I wouldn’t have either. However, I quickly learned that Weight Watchers apps serve millions of users and produce hundreds of millions of transactions per day.
After joining Weight Watchers my cofounder and I were tasked with substantially growing the tech team across product, UX and engineering. I was to grow the engineering team. Even after a series of acquisitions, the San Francisco office only had a dozen people across product, UX and engineering, and only two of them women. Since then I have grown our engineering team from five to sixteen and half of our engineers are women.
Believe it or not, our goal was not focused on specifically building a diverse, gender balanced team. We just set out to build a great team. I am the first to admit that diversity was not top of mind when hiring and it may have been pure chance that we ended up with a gender balanced engineering team. However, because this seems to be such a big issue for so many, I believe that some of the practices and core principles below may have increased our chances of building a more gender balanced engineering team.
1. Look Outside the Establishment
The first step came about mostly out of necessity. I knew that it would be hard to compete with names like Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Uber and other well known tech companies, especially if I focused our search on established engineers with years of experience. Even before joining Weight Watchers I had learned that my odds would be greatly improved by widening my search to include more junior engineers.
This strategy helped me build my first engineering team a few years back. By hiring talent with the potential to be great engineers, and investing in them, I managed to build a team of six mobile engineers in a very short amount of time. I hired the first two straight out of college. Subsequently, the team grew from the inside with all future hires coming from internal referrals. The engineers were happy to gain experience as they kicked off their careers and were also happy to invite their friends from school to join a growing team.
By looking outside the pool of already established engineers our odds of finding a more diverse group of people increased. Out of the engineers we hired two were women. These two would later follow me to Weight Watchers which helped me establish the base for building a diverse team once again. We applied this same strategy at Weight Watchers. Although, this time we had a more experienced team to build upon which made it easier to attract both experienced and junior engineers.
2. Create a Culture of Learning and Growth
The second principle I follow when building a team is to create a culture of learning and growth. Engineers are happier when they learn new things and when they improve upon their abilities to design and create. It is also important for them to have an impact.
Luckily, because of the work at hand it was easy to create opportunities for impact. Instead of giving junior engineers a long list of small bugs for them to fix while learning the ropes, we tasked our engineers with building entire apps or major components from scratch simply because that’s what we needed. We had entire apps that needed to be written from scratch or completely overhauled, so we coached and mentored everyone through the process and created an environment that enabled and empowered. Some engineers got up to speed in a couple of weeks others took a month or so. In the end they all became extremely productive and happy with their progress.
3. Build on Top of a Diverse Base
The third step was to build on top of a small diverse base. Once we got to eight engineers, four women and four men, we seemed to be more attractive to other women candidates. Our diversity appeared to be a strong factor in their decision to join our team. The positive feedback from candidates, be it male or female, when we mention that our engineering teams are evenly split on gender is consistent and self fulfilling. Our internal trend continues to reinforce itself.
If the team you are trying to grow is unbalanced to begin with you can start by creating a smaller, diverse team within your organization and grow that team organically. For example, say you need to build a team of four engineers to build a new app. You can start that team with one male and one female and task them with helping to grow the team. Ideally, these engineers would participate in the recruiting, interviewing and in the final decision to hire the additional teammates. The smaller more diverse team will be more likely to hire a diverse gender balanced team than one that is more homogeneous.
By widening the search to include engineers with less experience and focusing on candidates that demonstrate the potential to be great you may inadvertently avoid the historical biases that create the current trend of gender inequality. Once you have your diverse team, it is important to provide them with a culture that promotes growth through support and mentorship. This will create a more productive environment and encourage the team to support growth from within. Once you have a small base of diverse engineers to build upon, momentum should take care of the rest.
A diverse and gender balanced team has direct benefits. It creates an atmosphere that feels more open, dynamic, friendly and fun. Our engineering team often receives compliments from product managers and designers that we are less intimidating than the typical software engineering team, and I believe it is because we have a diverse, inclusive culture.
Today we are a balanced team, not only engineering but also in design and product management as well, and that is something I am very proud of. Our diversity goes beyond gender we have people from various backgrounds — American, Mexican, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Brazilian, English, and German to name few. Our diversity strengthens our ability to build great apps and systems that impact millions of users daily by helping them on their journey toward a healthier and happier life.