Home Community First REFACTR.TECH Conference Proves That, Yes, Tech Can Solve Its Diversity Problem

First REFACTR.TECH Conference Proves That, Yes, Tech Can Solve Its Diversity Problem

by Holly Beilin

There’s lots of talk around the tech industry’s diversity issues. Media and pundits debate: Is it a pipeline issue? Is it lack of access? Is it preconceived bias? 

One new conference, held last week in Atlanta, proved that at the very least, this issue is certainly confrontable — and showed just how committed certain individuals and companies are to improving the statistics. 

REFACTR.TECH was conceived by several of the original organizers of the past two years’ WeRise Conference, which focused on women in tech. Beth Laing of CallRail, Angel Banks of First Data, and Erica Stanley of SalesLoft are all leaders in Women Who Code’s Atlanta chapter, one of the top ten chapters of the global tech organization in the world.

The intent of REFACTR was to broaden the original audience of ‘women in tech’ to a wide swath of any marginalized population — women, minorities, transgender and non-binary individuals, disabled persons — and their allies.

Many of the sessions during the two-day event were like those you’d find at any technology conference: workshops and lectures on various programming languages, coding shortcuts, emerging technologies like blockchain and IoT, and the like.

Others, however, were specifically geared toward the mission of broadening the tech workplace. Sessions like “Bootstrapping Inclusion,” “Web Accessibility 101,” and “Building Inclusive Engineering Teams” went all in on REFACTR’s mission of comprehensive acceptance. 

A ‘Career & Leadership’ track brought in hiring managers and leaders from top technology companies to share best practices about how they go about building and retaining successful diverse teams. 

In a session on “Harnessing Your Team Superpowers,” Slack Senior Engineering Manager Tia Caldwell walked the room through a framework for team success, including having each manager on the team complete a personal operating manual (POM) statement to share with others. 

Caldwell, who formerly worked at Microsoft and Netflix, also described Google’s Project Aristotle, a research framework that established how the most innovative teams create an attitude of psychological safety so that team members feel empowered to take risks.

In another panel sponsored by Netflix, a group of black software engineers from the streaming company shared experiences navigating their careers as an underrepresented group.

And non-traditional tech careers were represented as well. In a scene that was perhaps the most indicative of the entire dynamic of the conference, a highly-diverse keynote panel talked through lessons learned on “Forging a Path Through Inclusive Entrepreneurship.”

The group of five speakers plus a moderator included two Latinos, a black woman, an Iraqi-American, and two individuals that identify as transgender.

“The reason I became a tech entrepreneur was because I could not find a job,” shared Kortney Ziegler, Ph.D. Ziegler is the founder of Appolition, an app that collects spare change to pay other individuals’ bail, as well as the Trans*H4CK tech organization.

“Initially, I didn’t want to put pictures of our team on our pitch decks,” said Lynette McKissick, VP of Operations at on-demand food reclamation startup Goodr. The company’s founder is a black woman, as is McKissick.

“But if they don’t want to work with you, oh well. Someone will,” she said. 

The founders also explained that, even though they themselves are members of underrepresented groups, that doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to the same internal biases as everyone else. 

“We started off as being diverse — [CEO] Farah is a black woman, I’m an Iraqi man,” said Nael Alismail, CTO of music rights startup The Labz. “But even amongst us, there are those demographics that we just don’t have in our circle.”

“We don’t want anybody on the team that’s exactly the same,” said McKissick.

A conference of 500 attendees — even one sponsored by forward-thinking companies like The Home Depot, SalesLoft, Honeywell, and Mailchimp — will not change the entire tech industry. But it’s certainly heartening to see roomfuls of people dedicated to trying, and to bringing others along on their mission.

You may also like