The outpouring of emotional responses to a now-fired Google engineer’s internal memo about diversity and hiring practices can be painful to read. But contrary to what you might think, this controversy may turn out to have been a good thing for Google — and for every engineering team. I’m glad it’s calling out the myth that only coding prowess matters, and that backchannel gripes about diversity in tech are now out in the open.
I helped grow VMware’s stellar engineering team from 30 to more than 3,000, and I’m now an investor in the next generation of startups. Scaling a team is a complex, nuanced process. It requires diligence, perseverance and open discussion of ideas.
Today’s engineering teams are nothing like the old stereotype — a bunch of loner nerd boys who grew up playing video games and tinkering with code by themselves in their parents’ basements. To build successful products, you need a diverse group of personalities: People with strong customer empathy, others who can innovate on user experience, still others with the “brown thumb” for finding bugs before they ship, and those who take pride in fixing those bugs for good. And the personalities you need to hire will change as you grow to 10, then 100, then 1,000 engineers.
No engineer works in solitude today — even a code ninja is part of a team. That’s why you also need people who can keep track of product priorities and schedules, who can make difficult tradeoffs, and who have the people skills to keep team members focused on the goals and deadlines that matter. Technical teams also need people who can interface with marketing, sales, operations, human resources, customers and everyone else so that the company, as it grows bigger, stays headed in the right direction. “Soft skills” are just as critical as coding chops.
For a company to scale successfully, its engineers not only must be the best hires, they need to be given paths to develop the aforementioned skills and to grow according to their abilities and interests. And it’s up to technical management to incentivize that development and to establish the best ways to measure that growth.
You need to make moving the company forward a requirement for individual advance. You might set growth milestones for engineers to reach, including some that get them away from their screens and into more extroverted, public roles — publishing papers, giving presentations at conferences and mentoring new team members.
At VMware, we gave cash bonuses for having a paper accepted to present at a top-tier conference, just as we did for patent filing. The pure technical achievement was given the same weight as being able to clearly define and present those technical ideas to a qualified and questioning audience. We also made mentorship an explicit qualification for promotions up the technical ladder. Individual contributors are important, but those who can effectively share knowledge and help shape the skills of more junior technical staff are just as critical.
As a manager, you must send a strong signal that communication and organizational skills are equally as important as technical skills, especially as the team grows too big to all know one another. Needless to say, you must set a strong example for this balance as well. VMware created a parallel management career track alongside the technical track, and made clear there was no stigma in switching from one to the other and even back again.
Why do communication skills matter so much? Diversity of ideas is what leads to innovation. Software companies in particular — built on new abstract concepts — take pride in encouraging employees to speak their minds, even when their co-workers resent it. “Everything is up for question and debate,” Google’s SVP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, asserted not long ago. Free-speech culture and its blowups — familiar to everyone on open source software projects — are the foundation of great software companies.
But this also requires a culture of mutual respect. The loudest complaints on both sides of the ongoing showdown share common themes: My co-workers don’t respect me. My co-workers don’t take me seriously. My co-workers enjoy saying things they know make me feel unwelcome. The challenge for leaders is to maintain openness and respect in parallel as three engineers become 30, then 300, then 3,000.
A successful team is diverse, driven, communicative, vocal … and often argumentative. Imagine a world where everyone shuts up and does their job as assigned. Where you get ahead by not rocking the boat. Where you learn to nod in agreement with the common wisdom. Where there’s never a workplace spat, and “disrupt” is a slogan rather than a verb. Those are the companies that have been run off the Internet, one after another, over the past two decades.
If you want to build the next Google, you’ll need to create a company that fosters this kind of open dialogue — including complaints about the dialogue that results. The larger your company gets, the more it will matter. You’ll need to hire a broad range of people and guide them to grow together — even when they fight.
At some point, we’ll be glad everyone has stopped holding back their feelings about diversity conflicts in tech. Remember when Yahoo’s Peanut Butter Manifesto was considered a scandal? Finally we’re talking about the real issues.
Steve Herrod is a managing director at General Catalyst, investing in infrastructure- and developer-centric companies. Prior to joining the firm, Herrod was CTO and SVP of R&D at VMware, where he played an integral role in growing the engineering team to more than 3,000 people. Reach him @herrod.