Joe Ray

Principal Engineer

Inclusivity and devops

One of the themes that came out of the recent devopsdays Ghent conference was empathy, and Bridget Kromhout wrote afterwards about making the first rule of devops, ‘welcome to the club’.

Inclusivity is something I’ve been increasingly thinking about over the last couple of years, especially with regards to women and minorities in tech. I have just about all kinds of privilege going for me – white, heterosexual, university educated male from a nuclear family with a middle-class background and supportive, open parents – and so understanding the difficulties that others face when trying to enter and thrive in the industry has been a challenge.

This post is not an attempt to provide solutions to the problems facing women and minorities in tech; I wouldn’t presume to know better than the people it actually affects and inclusivity is only one part of the problem in any case. Rather it is a synthesis of the thoughts I’ve had around inclusivity and the people and posts that have inspired me. Making tech an inclusive space is incredibly important to me and I hope to show you why.

Many of the examples in this post are about gender as that is what I have been mostly reading about recently. However, my desire for inclusivity extends to everyone, not just women, as I hope you’ll see.

Why should we care about inclusivity?

Before talking about inclusivity, I’d like to talk about diversity.

If you have a homogeneous, white/Asian male workforce (and statistically you do, at least in the more technical roles) then your teams will all have had similar experiences, they’ll likely lead similar lives, have had a similar education. Whilst this makes collaboration easy, the flip side is that we all think in similar ways and so come up with similar solutions.

By introducing people who don’t fit the mould you introduce new ideas, new ways of approaching problems and thus improve the quality of your work. Research has shown that a more socially diverse environment increases performance.

But quite apart from the benefits for the organisation, I just don’t want to work in a homogeneous environment: it’s boring. I want to speak with people not like me, hear their stories and learn about their lives. Surrounding ourselves with people that are different from us enriches our own lives as well as producing better outcomes for everyone else.

Of course, introducing people who don’t fit in can be painful, as illustrated by Erica Joy Baker in her recent post The other side of diversity. This is supported by research, and not only that cited in her article: whilst a more socially diverse environment was shown to increase performance, the same study also showed it increased relationship conflict.

The reason posited for the increase in relationship conflict comes from social identity theory: “group members establish positive social identity and confirm affiliation by showing favouritism to members of their own social category.”

For me, this is where inclusivity comes in. By creating an inclusive environment where individuals are accepting of others, and by creating a communal social identity which is inherently inclusive, hopefully we can decrease the risk of conflict.

I also want to work in an environment where acceptance is the norm. Inclusivity is so often associated with gender, race or sexuality, and those things are all incredibly important, but it’s also about the smaller things such as understanding that not everyone wants to drink alcohol – people are different from us in many different ways, and that’s OK; we can still share things with them.

We have a habit in the tech community of creating separations between us based on perceived knowledge gaps, where we judge and exclude others because they’re too nerdy or not nerdy enough. I really want to break down this ’nerd hierarchy’ where someone more or less ‘beardy’ than you is not seen as ‘other’ (and while we’re at it, can we stop using beard length as a measure of nerdiness please?) so that we can work together, respecting everyone’s skill level.

What’s it got to do with devops?

For me, devops is fundamentally about collaboration and human interaction. The movement attempts to address the problems of separate teams working towards shared goals (in our case, producing quality, functional software that is easily deployed and scaled) and so, whilst the tools associated with devops help us achieve some of that, our primary concern should be culture, not technology.

The classic situation that devops hopes to address is the organisation that has separate development and operations teams where the development team rarely takes responsibility for their software once it is deployed in production, ’throwing their software over the wall’ for the operations team to deal with. This problem won’t be solved by throwing a configuration management tool at it.

Given devops culture depends so heavily on the ability of individuals to collaborate, and if we want a diverse workforce (which hopefully you’re convinced we do), then we need to find ways to minimise conflict.

One of the ways in which we can achieve an improved culture of collaboration is to increase the quality of our communication. For me, allowing people the ability to express themselves free from constraints (in a constructive, respectful manner of course) is key and so building an environment where team members feel comfortable is crucial. Creating a culture where everyone is welcome goes a long way towards this and, as Bridget stated, this should extend not only to the development and operations teams but also to the other people we work with to produce software.

But I’m already inclusive!

The short answer to this is that even if you think you are, you’re probably not, at least not entirely.

When attending an interview recently, I was talking with my interviewer about inclusivity. The company had recently moved offices and my interviewer mentioned that the landlord had installed a sign on the unisex toilets with a man and a woman on the front. In order to be more inclusive of transgender people the company had requested the sign be removed, which would have never occurred to me before now.

The problem is that we are shaped by the world around us and we adopt the traits and biases of the culture we grow up in. Take gender bias, for example. There is no country in the world that has achieved perfect gender equality (the World Economic Forum puts Iceland at the front and according to the index they’re still 14 percent off total equality) and so we are all influenced by stereotypically associating men with breadwinning work and women with childcare.

Even if we work to redress this imbalance in our conscious thoughts, our actions are still influenced by our unconscious biases and we can often do things which exclude people without thinking.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest unconscious (or perhaps, sadly, even conscious) bias when hiring. Take the post describing a black woman who pretended to be white, resulting in a marked increase in job offers.

Research backs this up, both for racial discrimination and gender discrimination. Given two CVs of fictional candidates for an academic job which differ only in the name (Dr. Karen Miller vs. Dr. Brian Miller), the male candidate is either perceived as more hireable than the female candidate or reviewers are four times more likely to express reservations about the female candidate even if they think she has the required expertise.

So what do we do?

Firstly, I think it’s really important for people in a position of privilege to acknowledge this and constantly challenge it. I do this by having great people around me who inspire me and call me out on my speech and actions (thanks sis!) and by reading as much as I can. For example, for more information on the research into gender differences, I can’t recommend Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender enough.

I know I said I wouldn’t propose solutions but it would be silly of me not to at least point you in the direction of other people with suggestions. A lot of this is related to gender, as that’s been my main focus for my reading, but some of it equally applies to including other groups and individuals.

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