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Join Our Quest for the Extraordinary Unknown

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Jan 17, 2021 by Rosalind Benoit

My colleague Nikema Prophet published a brave and deeply personal post about how the pandemic opened the door to her career in tech last week. I’d like to add my perspective on how her journey relates to Armory’s vision of a frictionless SDLC experience.

How do safe deployments, with commits going safely and predictably to production, connect to opening tech’s doors to underrepresented people? A piece I wrote last year about a scientific link between psychological safety and trends in technology infrastructure tells part of the story. By digging into some basic neuroscience, I describe how “safe science” platforms like Spinnaker and Terraform allow enterprises to fuel innovation by delivering on the promise of psychological safety. SREs, cloud architects, and DevOps experts build safety for developers by stitching tools into a landscape that codifies the software delivery culture.

Kicking Exclusion to the Curb

Lowering barriers to success in this way is vital. Why? The answer starts with what’s called the “curb cut effect,” which observes that rules and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups often end up benefiting all of society. When walls of exclusion fall, things improve for everyone. The eponymous example, described by founder and equity advocate Angela Glover Blackwell in her 2017 article The Curb Cut Effect, is the story of a street and sidewalk accessibility innovation that improved the ways we all move. 

Cities began installing sloping “curb cut” ramps into sidewalks in response to insistence from activists who used wheelchairs in the 1970s. Then, everyone began using curb cuts. Safer play for kids on bikes and scooters, more convenient travel with the rise of the wheeled suitcase…think of all the times you have unthinkingly leveraged this innovation! Blackwell notes:

“Parents pushing strollers headed straight for curb cuts. So did workers pushing heavy carts, business travelers wheeling luggage, even runners and skateboarders. A study of pedestrian behavior at a Sarasota, Fla., shopping mall revealed that nine out of 10 ‘unencumbered pedestrians’ go out of their way to use a curb cut.”

This is the kind of force multiplication I’d like to see in tech. I theorize that creating psychological safety for underrepresented people, like my Black colleagues, in our tech work will increase psychological safety for everyone, and that this in turn will ultimately increase our productivity and product quality. Blackwell points to scholars’ observations of this pattern everywhere:

“It happened when affirmative action was created to open the doors of higher education to black people—and ended up emboldening vast numbers of white women, and other racial and ethnic groups, to push for greater access as well. It happened when fed-up flight attendants spearheaded a national fight to end smoking on planes, setting in motion a decades-long public-health campaign that has largely banished smoking from public spaces and cut tobacco consumption in half since the 1960s.”

As a Portlander and gravel-biker, another observation is close to my heart: bike lane installation also exemplifies this pattern! Folks may have felt annoyed as cyclists and environmental advocates have pushed cities to install bike lanes. But this innovation has not only netted the predictable result of slashing serious injury rates for both cyclists and pedestrians – down 75% and 40%, respectively, in New York City from 2000 to 2013, when about 30 miles of bike lanes were installed. Streets with bike lanes not only experience improved driving behaviors, but also an unprecedented prosperity boost:

“In addition to creating safer and saner streets, bike lanes add tremendous economic value to a neighborhood. One stretch of Ninth Avenue in Manhattan saw retail sales rise nearly 50 percent after bike paths were installed, compared with a 3 percent rise borough-wide. Rents along the Times Square bike paths grew 71 percent in 2010, the largest increase in the city, as people flocked to pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods. A single block in Indianapolis saw the value of its property jump nearly 150 percent after adding bike lanes. [Moreover,]  a study of the San Francisco Bay Area found that a slight increase in walking and biking each day can reduce the prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease by 14 percent, while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent as well. If just 5 percent of New York City commuters began biking to work, the CO2 emissions saved would be equal to planting a forest 1.3 times the size of Manhattan.

Therein lies curb cut effect’s power: the wider positive impacts of making changes to benefit vulnerable people are Black Swans. We can’t estimate or predict these impacts; to realize them, we must first to decide to act right.

What’s In It For You?

When Nikema joined my team last Fall, we had enlightening conversations about this. Like all the journeys I embark on, my continuing antiracism journey runs parallel to the software operations automation journey that has become my life’s work. As we discuss how the two intersect, I label many of my thoughts as selfish – “No, seriously people, this will result in greater economic growth in the end!” Indeed, if selfish growth is our objective, the data is behind us. In 2016, Harvard Business Review repeatedly noted a strong positive correlation between diversity and business success.

First here:

“For example, a 2009 analysis of 506 companies found that firms with more racial or gender diversity had more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits. A 2016 analysis of more than 20,000 firms in 91 countries found that companies with more female executives were more profitable. In a 2011 study management teams exhibiting a wider range of educational and work backgrounds produced more-innovative products. These are mere correlations, but laboratory experiments have also shown the direct effect of diversity on team performance. In a 2006 study of mock juries, for example, when black people were added to the jury, white jurors processed the case facts more carefully and deliberated more effectively.”

And again here:

A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. In a global analysis of 2,400 companies conducted by Credit Suisse, organizations with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that did not have any women on the board.”

So, okay, investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion appears to make good economic sense. In 2019, Forbes dug further into the why:

“…The best predictor of [team] performance wasn’t the average intelligence of group members, but instead was a collective measure of intelligence or “c” of the group itself. One factor predicting “c” was the number of women in the group. Groups with women happen to be more socially sensitive. They are better at reading others’ social cues and more likely to make room for and consider interjections of varying opinions. This type of fluid exchange often leads to a more productive outcome.

Different ways of thinking, which can be affected by identification with a particular group (gender, race, socioeconomic status, to name a few), produces something extra – a bonus. When people with varying “tools” for solving complicated tasks come together and work inclusively to find solutions, the results are powerful. Case in point: The million-dollar Netflix algorithm challenge. When unrelated teams from different professions around the globe joined forces, they beat the company’s existing program for predicting users’ movie ratings based on previous ones (e.g., if you rated Spaceballs five stars, would you do the same for Airplane! or Star Wars?). Across fields, Page shows how errors in group predictions and complex problem solving are mitigated by the diversity of the group doing the work.”

Hand in Hand: Psychological Safety & Diversity in Our Industry

Based on my understanding of the rise of Spinnaker at Netflix, I’ll wager that our friends there agree with my hypothesis: psychological safety is a significant factor in value derivation from a diverse team. When everyone on a team trusts that they are accountable to the same reasonable standards, every teammate works smarter. Just as white jurors stepped up their game when Black jurors joined their deliberations, software engineers must step up their game when they recognize that each engineer at the company:

  • Owns the services she deploys to production
  • Has access to the same golden paths to make those deployments successful
  • Can observe SDLC processes, decisions, and results 

To Kelsey Hightower’s point, our best technical solutions often don’t appear especially technical, because we focus them around the human needs of our teams and the specific needs of our businesses. Security requirements and access controls articulated as policies in a service mesh allow us to operationalize our requirements in human-centric ways; in policy-driven implementations, tools follow the rules so that humans don’t have to think about them. This is core to the serialization of psychological safety, and requires organizations to shift their perspectives and language (and notably, not their policies) from limitation to enablement, from punishment to positive reinforcement: following process A will give you agency over your creation, along with the assurance that no wrist-slaps or blameful retros lurk ahead. 

So the benefits of both psychological safety and diversity stem from the rule of equity.  Everyone gets guardrails, not gates. Everyone gets ownership, not power-over. Everyone gets a friendly automated notification of their mistake or policy violation instead of a fear-inducing meeting or announcement. By treating each employee with trust and respect, and by focusing leadership relationships around empowering and unblocking rather than controlling, we reveal our teams’ best work over time. 

And to recall the curb cut, everyone benefits from this mentality. My deep commitment to being a good manager to Nikema, my Black employee with ADHD, has led me to realize that I needed to step up my management game; I had never managed a remote team before joining Armory despite having worked remotely myself for years, and needed new strategies for forging both structure and discipline, and connection and belonging, over the wire.

Opening the Gates of the Software Delivery Lexicon

From this collaboration-in-progress on our Community team, an exciting new Armory blog series is born! One of the things Nikema pointed out to me early on is the mythological nature of the “pipeline problem”. In her experience as a community advocate for tech equity, she has observed a relatively recent influx of Black and other underrepresented folks into web development and frontend engineering, roles where many of us now working in infrastructure originally got our start [raises hand].

Even though they don’t “show up at tech’s door empty-handed,” as Nikema writes, these developers may not achieve the prosperity and job security enjoyed by those in highly specialized tech jobs. Unfortunately, the market for their skills has become more saturated as web dev automation and abstractions have become productized. But when we look at this from another angle, themes of gate-keeping become visible. Nikema and I have identified open discussion of the knowledge around how tech is operationalized as an inclusion gap.

If you work somewhere in the SDLC, think back to the first time you put a buzzword on your resume. Once you discovered the vocabulary and thought processes behind automaton trends like test automation, continuous delivery, and even software-defined infrastructure or configuration management, you may have experienced a reversal of fortune. How much more quickly did your take-home-pay rise once you became a DevOps person?

To begin chipping away at this inclusion gap, we are delighted to introduce the #NikemaLearns series. Nikema has wisely chosen an AWS certification track as the bones for a learning-in-public journey that we hope will culminate in her achievement of the coveted DevOps Engineer certification. As an AWS Public Sector Partner, Armory is proud to sponsor our employees to achieve these portable certifications, widely regarded as gold standards of cloud expertise.

We’d love for you to enjoy this public validation of Nikema’s technical expertise vicariously. If you are studying for an AWS certification, you are not alone. If you would like to walk through the steps to gaining context around applied DevOps as you level up, you’re in luck!

Let’s Unlock The Extraordinary Unknown

Whoever you are, I invite you to ask yourself a few questions on this eve of a particularly momentous Martin Luther King Jr. Day: 

What could the unexpected benefits be to our society of making tech equitable? What do we all stand to gain? 

This is my why for what DROdio succinctly calls #velocity. Imagine the power of the curb cut effect at the scale of tech. What products would companies build? What could our lives look like powered by the solutions that fast, friendly teams collaborating in safe, respectful spaces can build? I don’t know, and you don’t know. But if we’re students of history, we can predict a net positive impact according to the curb cut effect. 

As we build a new generation of diverse and equitable teams and businesses, product-led growth gets easier, and we can begin building better B2B and consumer technology products from new perspectives. The science is right here in front of us, pointing to the extraordinary unknown. 

Time’s a’wasting, so I’m learning how to do this as I go. Are you in?

. . . . .

Psst…want to discuss DE&I in open source with us? Join Spinnaker’s new Contributor Experience Slack channel to reach Nikema and her co-lead directly, or follow us on Twitter: @dev_nikema and @dnilas0r. Have questions about Spinnaker itself? Ask them of Armory engineers 1:1 during our upcoming Spinnaker office hours

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