My personal journey around diversity

Today, in the software development industry, the issue of gender, racial, and other diversities is widely accepted. But I also think this is still largely understood as “social value,” as opposed to “business value.” As a result, the awareness is not leading to enough actions, because it loses out in the crucial fight over priority. Like all other good things, it never get acted on.

This is a story of my personal experience that helped me develop new perspectives on this issue, to more clearly see why it’s in your business interest to tackle this.

Where I started

I’m a left-leaning man born to Japanese parents, who spent equal time between the U.S. and Japan. In other words, I’m generally on the side of increasing diversity in any given team. I’m also a father to a daughter. So I’ve always felt very sympathetic to the gender diversity issue. it was obviously a good value to uphold.

I was also very proud of the geographical and cultural diversity of the Jenkins community and CloudBees. I remember in one dinner we had, I looked around the table and realized that this group of 8 people represented 6 countries and 6 native languages, and I loved it.

I’ve been feeling like I was a supporter of the cause, a part of the solution.

What made me pause

Then I hired Tracy Miranda as a new community manager to my team at CloudBees. She was going to help us grow the Jenkins community. She was very passionate about the issue of diversity, she led that effort in the Eclipse foundation. So it was no surprise that in one of the planning meetings, she proposed that our team prioritize tackling the gender diversity problem.

A surprise was my own reaction. I found myself not really buying into it. The question wasn’t whether that is a good thing to do. It obviously is. The question was whether it’s better than all the other good things we can do.

I didn’t feel like she gave me that rationale, I couldn’t answer this myself, and I felt other people in the team had the same question.

That’s when I realized maybe I wasn’t a part of the solution, I was a part of the problem, a part of the system that created inertia.

What I run into

That realization wasn’t a pleasant one to face, but it also gave me an important question — what is the business value of the diversity? Fortunately, within a relatively short period of time, I randomly came across two great stories that helped me explore this question.

  • The story of Arlan Hamilton: This series of podcasts tells a story of a gay black woman trying to start a venture capital. She makes the observation that startup founders are not reflecting the general population balance, and therefore her core investment thesis is that there’s a untapped business opportunity in investing in minority founders. It was interesting that she doesn’t see her work as a social responsibility or charity work. It’s simply a space the competition was failing to dominate, an untapped field, and she was going to win that space.
  • Curb cuts: This 99% invisible episode talks about ‘curb cut,’ which is a slope from a pedestrian walk to a road. This was originally done to make roads more accessible to wheelchairs, but when it happened, it turned out that everybody benefited. Parents with strollers, people with suitcases, etc. What I got thinking is that when we make a community accessible to one under-represented group, the effort will have a ripple effect to other under-represented groups. This is a very common thing in software engineering. When we solve one use case, we often solve it in a bit more generalized way, and that helps other use cases.

What I learned

From these stories, I started to see the issue of diversity differently.

It’s like opening a new bar and in a new town. You build a bar that you like, you hang the “open” sign, and you wait for people to show up. Some people wonder in, the place gets busier, your regulars give you feedback, and you improve your bar, which brings more customers. Things are going great.

But at some point, this kind of growth will plateau, because you are self-selecting your customer base. At some point, to ignite the next growth, you need to do something else.

What you do is to go out on the street, see people who are not coming to your bar today, then think about what it takes to make them your customers. You might notice that there are a lot of Hispanic people walking around in your neighborhood. Maybe you’ll prepare a menu in Spanish, or put pictures in the menu. And you repeat this cycle to win more customers.

If you think about it this way, it’s obvious. Don’t sit and wait. Reach out. In marketing, for example, people do this all the time. But among software companies or open-source projects, too many people are still in the “open a bar and hope people show up” mode, and not realizing the lost business opportunities.

And that’s because this is also hard. It’s hard to think about and understand people who are different, who you don’t see.

How I connected dots

And on the point of how hard it is to think about and understand people you don’t see, I have a lot of personal experience.

I grew up in Japan, so I’m well connected in the software development scene over there. I know countless faces of great software engineers, team leaders, and open-source people over there. It’s the number 3 economy in the world, after all! But here in the west, they are just not on the radar. The open-source people I interact in the U.S. and Europe simply don’t know that these people exist, and so they don’t know what they are missing. That’s something I felt personally passionate about, and I realized the structure of this is exactly the same with the gender diversity.

I had another “aha” moment of this exact same structure from another angle, when I visited China and saw its thriving tech scene. I realized many obstacles we unknowingly set up in the Jenkins community. Our mailing lists are on Google Groups. Too bad, Chinese firewall blocks them. Our official twitter feed was similarly blocked. If we hope to reach Chinese users, we need to be on their social network that none of us knew. Something that I was completely unaware of, that became totally obvious once I met them and talked to them.

Conclusion

As the software engineering community, we need more good engineers to join our teams, our communities. And a rational way to do so is to build a new muscle to seek out untapped engineers and win them. Find, talk, and understand a group of people different from you. Accommodate and win them. As with everything else, if you’ve never done it before, doing it for the first time is hard. But you will get a hang of it pretty quickly.

I think any group of people would do. When you solve it for one group, you are already halfway there solving it for other groups.

Gender just happens to be a relatively “obvious” one to tackle first. It just acts as a concrete goal of the otherwise abstract idea of “reaching out.” One, the total addressable market (TAM) is pretty big — it’ll basically double your current TAM. There’s no firewall, no time zone difference, no language barrier. It’s also a very visible group that everyone can see, which makes reaching out much easier. On top of that, it’s a well trodden path with a lot of collective experience to tap from.

So that’s where I stand in 2019. Hopefully my journey is useful to others going through the same journey. Looking forward to hearing from people who have thought more about this.

Software is eating the world all right, but is everyone becoming software business?

As CTO of CloudBees, and the founder of the Jenkins project, I often take a podium in front of a room full of senior technology leaders and make a pitch that software is eating the world and that every business will have to transform into a software business, or they get eaten by those who transformed.

When I talk about this, I have companies like Uber, Netflix, Amazon, and Google in mind. They all seem to be disrupting some established industries by fundamentally being a technology company. Google is my favorite example of all, because I used to think their core competency is a killer search engine, but it’s actually their software design, engineering, & operation practice.

But I started thinking lately that maybe this is a naive view, biased by highly visible supernovas and their effective engineering branding campaign. Hear me out.

Airline Industry

First, think about Sabre. This is originally American Airlines’ booking system (the thing that connects passengers and airplanes.) Then they spin it off to a separate company, and now it’s used by half the airlines around the world. The other half runs on Amadeus, which came from Air France & Lufthansa. So here is the industry where most business seem to have outsourced the heart of their technology to 3rd party provider, instead of transforming themselves to the technology business like I’ve been claiming. And they seem be doing fine.

And it makes sense. If you are a “small” national airline, like, say Japan Airlines (JAL), they seem to be making a choice that being a part of Sabre and pooling the development cost with other airlines get them better technology cheaper than “transforming themselves into software business.” Presumably JAL won’t be able to offer unique, killer customer experience that technology enables, in ways that UBer can,  but you also won’t get left behind too badly, and that lets you choose something else as a differentiator. And what choice do you really have? It’s going to cost prohibitively to build air booking system from scratch. And the risk it involves!

Core Banking

Next, think about core banking. That’s the part of banking where they safeguard consumers’ money and help us receive paychecks and handle payment to buy groceries. There are ~4000 banks in the US alone, and clearly most of them can’t afford to “transform themselves into software business,” so instead many seem to run software like Flexcube.

And again, it makes sense. It’s a commodity that you have to have as a bank, but it’s not a differentiator. You’d rather pay somebody else to run it for you than you run it.

Insurance Platform

And the last week, the last data point happened in the hallway of Linux Foundation Open-source Leadership Summit. I randomly sat next to a CTO of Allianz spin off where he said insurance companies are getting together to spin off what they consider “the commodity part of their business” into a common open-source platform, so that the industry can pool the cost of developing and maintaining the necessary evil, and divert the resource to what matters, such as providing a great customer experience when they have car accidents. (Notice how car insurance commercials often start with a scene of accident where somebody is making a frantic phone call that gets answered by a calm,  assuring agent? That’s the differentiator!)

Common Thread

I feel like there’s a common trend that connects these. The role that technology plays in any business is going up (aka “software is eating the world”), but there are more and more services like Sabre, Amadeus, Flexcube, and million others in every domain, then not to mention cross-cutting services like LivePerson or Finicity. Collectively they are the turtles growing under every business that raises them higher. It’s like how software development has shifted more toward “just integrating services” so to speak at our level, albeit at a wholly different abstraction altitude.

So it’s not inconceivable for me to imagine a future where more and more software that business relies on come as services from startups, vendors, and industry consortiums, and all that’s left to do is some glueing and wiring, ala “just hook up webhooks from here to that service over there.” Maybe with a bit of serverless thrown in here & there.

That is the world where most business is not software business.

(This is obviously just a combination of guessing, speculating, and over-simplifying based on a small anecdotal experience. But for me, it was an eye-opening thought. I’d love to hear from people who are actually in these worlds on how I’m wrong!)