As the former Chief Scientist at Elastic Knowledge and Data Architect at Spiceworks, Marian Nodine has always believed in diversification, both in what she knows and who she works with. An MIT graduate with her Ph.D. from Brown University, she is a lifelong learner. Nodine has a heralded passion for building and working with diverse technical teams because she loves learning from people with different backgrounds and life experiences. She knows this makes her better and makes her team inherently better.
While the Covid-19 pandemic brought tremendous change to a lot of our work lives, another major change has been the increased prioritization of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace. By no means is DEI a new concept in the technology business world, but it’s clear that a lot of progress has been made with DEI becoming a leading priority in hiring and team creation. As with all things where progress is made, many feel that there is much further to go.
The advantages and strengths created with an inclusive workforce are nothing new for Nodine, who has been at the forefront of driving the discussion for most of her career.
The “Why” Behind Inclusion
To get to the “Why”, Nodine looks back on her own experience.
“I’ve been on two different teams that took immense strides in creativity and productivity, and honestly were the most fun too. They were my best teams, and by far had the most impact in technology development overall. They had a couple things in common and one was that they were incredibly diverse. We had women, men, introverts, extroverts, people of all races. One of the teams was the first time I encountered anyone in the transgender community and learned what that really meant. The great experiences I had on those teams versus the experiences I’ve had on more monolithic teams have led me to personally value diversity and the creativity that comes from it.”
Nodine sees expanding diversity as a win-win proposition. She’s seen some people view it as a win-lose proposition, and thinks this lens needs to be adjusted.
“When you have a team that values diversity and pulls that in, you get an incredible boost. In the long-term, it’s been proven how diverse organizations see the benefits of diversity, whether in their corporate bottom line, employee satisfaction or other important metrics,” Nodine says. “You’ve seen a lot of studies, a few out of Forbes, that have concretely shown the benefits of diversity. The positive impact on the bottom line is definitely there, and when the bottom line improves, things tend to go better. While improving the monetary side is really good, coupled with that improvement is the improvement in teamwork, where the team members each have a unique lens that improves the whole. Being accepting and supportive of people of who they really are adds significant value.”
“The other thing that DEI contributes is that if you want to have products that are both creative and durable, you really do want to look at the base of who your customer is and make sure your team reflects those customers. This means doing your research well. Creativity relies on uncovering and clarifying new problems, especially where you are making a product where there has not been a product like this before. You want to have the collective input from diverse teams because they uncover new problems instead of getting stuck in old problems. I think the creativity idea is incredibly strong and diversity is really important, at least to the extent of your customer base.”
Inclusion is the First Step
Nodine has written extensively about In Group Thinking, which is a common trait in organizations. In Groups are social groups to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. “So if you look at groups and how they work, you start out identifying people by shared experiences and commonalities, mentally grouping them. I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from that type of thinking – here’s my group and here’s their group. Part of the key is to make everybody part of ‘Our’ group, so inclusion becomes the vector that enables people to start identifying their work group as their primary group. This is us and we’re accomplishing this as opposed to looking inside your work group and seeing the other natural divisions,” she says.
“Allowing group divisions to get in our way is visible, as you can clearly detect when you are disproportionately elevating some people and disproportionately putting down other people. We can see that in our language. If leaders or management can bring everyone back to a point of belonging, that helps counter things. If managers of the group, all the way up to the executive suite, observe where things are not balanced and if you can counter it naturally and easily, you can continue to bring the team together.”
“You can’t really start with diversity and then strive for inclusion. Inclusion is the first step. While it’s really hard to put things in order sometimes, I think you can do it when you start with simple things. The simplest thing is to build trust between your employees – all of them. How do you build trust? There is a quote by Brene Brown: ‘Trust is earned in the smallest of moments. It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.’ So if you can build those things into your company – paying attention, listening to everyone, genuinely caring and connecting with people, you build trust and I think you naturally see inclusion following from there. Once inclusion comes along, you’re able to push your diversity boundaries more strongly.”
Nodine continues, “One way to create inclusion with your teams, whether engineering or not, is to periodically ask your employees to fill in the blank:
I work best when I _________________.
Whether the answer is ‘sitting in the corner and not disturbed’, or ‘when I don’t have any meetings’ or ‘when I’m socializing with people and interacting with them’, everyone has a way that they work best and asking that question allows for us to be inclusive knowing there are going to be different responses. This allows the company to be fair and have a culture of inclusivity, which in turn puts the employee in a situation where they can be more productive, all the while supporting the company’s best interests because productivity is maximized.”
Diversity and Universal Design
It’s clear for DEI to be a priority, diversity must be a value. “When diversity is a clear company value, you begin to identify more with your organization and less with your other groups. I’ve been part of organizations that have tried really hard to make diversity a priority and you can see how people gravitate towards their organization because it’s diverse, which propels the advantages of diversity,” she says.
“The framework for creating diversity is dependent on each company. There clearly isn’t a one fits all solution. That said, you can create a culture that fosters diversity. Listening and a culture of listening is critical. It helps employees work through conflict. When an employee’s productivity drops off or you see changes in behavior, listening allows you to understand and accept where people are coming from. A culture of listening enables you to align with others. Just knowing you are listened to allows you to feel cared about and therefore, more productive.”
She continues, “There is also a concept around universal design that Marcelle Ciampi writes about as it aligns with the workplace. Universal design was originally an architectural design method, like getting the ramps in crosswalks on the corner of streets. While they were created primarily to help people in wheelchairs, they also help parents pushing strollers, workers unloading equipment, etc, so everyone really benefits from it. Looking at universal design and applying it to HR policy, what you develop are policies that universally include the entire workforce versus policies directed at specific groups. This helps uplift the entire organization.”
Removing Bias – Especially Your Own
Everyone has bias, whether they acknowledge it or not. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s just real. Understanding that you have bias and what that bias entails is critical. Nodine noted, “There are two ways of removing bias. We tend to focus on one and forget about the other. The first is having a true awareness of what biases you might have. The second is to change, because you have the internal drive that changing is the right thing to do. Early in my career, I used to have DEI training as an engineer, taking quizzes after watching videos. Engineers are smart, so giving the answer you know the quiz wants is easy, and that was our DEI training. It was completely useless for the organization and the employee – the training just didn’t translate to behavior.”
“There is definitely a question of awareness versus willingness. There are a couple different ways to be aware that you are thinking in a biased way. There is a concept of double empathy that Damian Milton defined where a group thinks they have empathy while another group thinks they have none and vice-versa. What this made me take away is that if I’m trying to talk to you and you’re having a hard time listening to me or responding to me, it’s actually an indicator that I’m having a hard time speaking, listening or responding to you. If I’m perceiving a lack of understanding on your part then it very likely that there is a lack of understanding on my part. There is an anonymous quote that, ‘If you told someone something a thousand times and they still don’t get it, it’s not them that is the slow learner’. The willingness to understand why you don’t understand someone’s viewpoint when they are not understanding you, flipping it around, helps you understand where you might be thinking in a biased way or jumping to conclusions that are incorrect. That’s a big step.”
Nodine adds, “Willingness to change is the second way to remove bias, and it’s really hard. Because of this, this starts with listening – listening to other people, their stories, and why they are where they are. Listening makes you connect, even if it’s with those that you don’t easily connect with. It opens the door to having a culture of people telling their stories, which in turn builds trust and inclusion.”
Winning with Products Created by Inclusive and Diverse Teams
Nodine knows organizations will win more with a focus on inclusion and diversity. While most of us strive for it, the difficult realities of growth and scaling mean executing consistently on it is harder than it looks. Creating an environment that builds trust, promotes inclusivity and values diversity must be intentional and done with purpose, knowing the advantages are measurable and real.
“We have so many resources and strengths around us that we sometimes ignore – our ability to be creative, our unique insights, our empathy, our knowledge – I think that being able to take full advantage of the resources each company has is an enormous advantage. This is beyond the company level. I think about it on the national level. For America to continue to drive prosperity, we want to be able to maximize everyone’s ability and utilize their gifts and strengths to make that happen. Analytically, I know this is a huge, complex optimization problem.”
She concludes, “I think that if we take a long-term perspective, this works. If you are looking at solutions that are durable and long-lasting – those that benefit a lot of people and drive prosperity using everyone’s strengths – then you have to learn to focus on and prioritize inclusion and diversity. Everyone is gifted with a different mind, strengths, and weaknesses. Looking at it holistically, we have to put all these pieces together to create the best outcome. Enabling the situation where we bring everything to bear on the problem is it’s own biggest advantage. It creates bigger innovation, higher productivity, and it shows up in the solutions and the durability of the products we’re putting out. It differentiates organizations from those that may be more homogeneous while having a really solid social benefit that attracts great talent.”
Marian Nodine is a graduate of MIT in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and earned her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Brown University. She is the former Chief Scientist at Elastic Knowledge in Austin, and previously worked as the Data Architect at Spiceworks and Lead Data Scientist at StepOne. She is currently a consultant and coach, helping organizations build and nurture diverse technical teams.
If you’d like to connect with Marian, she can be reached at email@example.com.