No tech company wanted to hire Danie Banks two years ago.
She had an Ivy League pedigree -- Cornell 2004! -- but her degree was in general studies. After graduating, the 33-year-old Bronx native worked a series of office manager jobs, filing, getting coffee, organizing schedules.
“I was pretty bored,” she told The Huffington Post recently.
Banks always had an interest in tech, so when she wasn't working she taught herself how to code online. She joined the Startup Institute, which offers a course that aims to help people break into the New York startup world. She landed interviews.
“Those interviews were just talking through my resume: ‘Have you done this? No?’ Pass it back,” she said. Rejection came quickly. “Nobody got to know me.”
Then Banks went to a networking event for "black nerds" -- Blerds Night Out -- at ThoughtWorks, a global tech consulting firm headquartered in Chicago with 3,000 employees and a passion for social justice bordering on obsession. She dropped off a resume, landed an interview and went through a process unlike anything she’d previously experienced.
ThoughtWorks tested her coding skills, asked her about her views on social justice, made sure she interviewed with a diverse roster of employees for a position as a software developer. And, dear reader, she got hired. The way it happened offers lessons for any company -- in tech and other industries -- looking to hire more women and minorities.
For the past five years, ThoughtWorks has aggressively sought to increase the number of women in its ranks, with impressive results -- nearly doubling the percentage of women in tech roles to 32 percent from 17. The company’s most recent hiring class was 57 percent women, surpassing its 50 percent target. These are unheard of numbers in tech.
The stats on women in tech are typically depressing: Just 26 percent of computing jobs in the U.S. were held by women in 2013, according to a recent study. At big companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, women are the minority, particularly in engineering and technical roles. At big trade shows, attendees neatly summarize the problem by tweeting photos of long lines at the men’s bathrooms and no lines at the women’s bathrooms.
Hiring more women is something most tech companies are talking about. Many now make the rounds at women-in-tech events, throw their support behind groups like Girls Who Code and spend money to encourage more women to major in computer science. Some even offer workers training in unconscious bias, seeking to root out the kind of discrimination that holds women and minorities back at work.
ThoughtWorks is active along those lines, but two other things set the company apart: First, it actively recruits outside of computer science, hiring unconventional candidates and offering extensive training. Forty percent of its software developers have degrees outside of computer science -- think music, economics, accounting, history.
“We do not just look at education and the typical boxes when meeting a candidate. We look at the whole picture. Their life journey, their curiosity and of course their technical proficiency,” said Joanna Parke, the managing director of the company’s North America division.
Second, and perhaps most intriguing: The company takes a nontraditional approach to interviewing that deliberately combats the unconscious biases that typically lead interviewers to hire someone who seems just like them.
The interview piece proved key to boosting the numbers over the past five years, said Jo Avent, who holds the title “recruiting change agent” at ThoughtWorks. Because even as it was finding more women before that, the company found it was not actually hiring them. “It was really kind of demoralizing,” said Avent.
To help keep bias in check, at least two employees conduct each interview. And in discussions with company recruiters afterwards, interviewers try to identify “bad smells,” the company term for the unsupported prejudices that seep into one’s assessment of a candidate. Statements like “they just didn’t seem like a fit” or “she talked way too much” or "we just didn't click" are analyzed and tossed if not backed up by facts.
ThoughtWorks tries to make sure at least one female interviewer is included in the process -- to showcase diversity and to assess a candidate’s reaction. “You’ve got a candidate and two interviewers -- one male and one female -- and the candidate only makes eye contact with the man. It happens all the time. It’s a flag. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s something you want to look at," said Parke.
The company also tries to make sure you’re interviewed by someone who looks like you. “So candidates can see the company isn’t just talking about diversity,” said Avent. That was tricky in Banks’ case -- she was interviewed by women, but no black women. Right now 8 percent of the company’s employees are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. Parke said in an email that the company knows it has a long way to go on this.
Banks also had to fill out a “values” questionnaire, where she was asked things like “If you were president of the world, what would be the first three things that you change?”
She laughed recalling her answer: “I think I said ‘world peace’ and ‘end world hunger.’" Banks said the mere fact that they even asked her about those things was amazing.
“We’re looking for an openness and a desire to learn and a curiosity about the world,” said Parke. “It’s a core part of our culture.”
ThoughtWorks makes about $350 million in revenue each year and has its fair share of corporate clients -- it’s done work for the Gap, Southwest Airlines and Caterpillar -- but the company also brands itself as strongly committed to social and economic justice.
Indeed, ThoughtWorks recently worked with the international aid group Save the Children to develop an electronic medical record system for use during fast-moving outbreaks like Ebola.
It’s been a year and a half since ThoughtWorks hired Danie Banks, and by all accounts it’s paid off: “I’ve learned so much,” Banks said. When I asked her if she thought those companies that didn’t want to hire her would be interested now, she didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”
Developing talent is a dangerous game for companies: You can train workers, and then they wind up leaving you. That’s not what’s happening at ThoughtWorks. The percentage of workers who leave the firm is very low -- just 10 percent for women and 16 percent for men.
Bank’s certainly isn’t going anywhere. “ThoughtWorks gave me a chance, I’m gonna kick butt for them.”
If you’re a women in tech and have a story to share please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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