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How to recruit, hire and retain female engineers

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Leaders at tech startups are alarmed by the absence of women from mission-critical roles — software engineering, especially — at their own companies. Their boards are saying, “We gave you the money to grow, grow, grow, but you’re not. You don’t have the engineers to get it done.” The board can’t miss that you only seem able to hire men. So your dev team is shorthanded.

Moreover, they might be shortsighted. As a 15-year veteran board member at more than a dozen tech companies — I’m still on three of them — and a venture partner at Scale Venture Partners, I don’t need to pummel you with studies or quote profitability reports from McKinsey and Morgan Stanley. I’ve seen firsthand, over and over, that companies with diverse teams (Salesforce: 23 percent female in technical roles) do better financially and compete better in the market.

Entrepreneurs contact me because they want to change the ratio on their eng teams. It’s not because they’re out for social justice, or because they fear a lawsuit, or because California has gone insane with political correctness. It’s because founders want to build successful products and make a lot of money.

But if fast-growing tech companies can’t find and hire qualified women software engineers — whom they know exist — their goal of a fully-staffed engineering team is even more elusive. They lose an important diversity component, which means everyone touching the product is constrained by a similar, maybe singular point of view. It’s not news: Any real geek knows “diversity overcomes adversity” was an unspoken theme of Star Trek from the start.

A company whose engineering team can only hire men may miss goals, may make less money, may flat-out fail. That’s why founders want to change the ratio. Yet their startups, which aspire to be visionary and disruptive, are possibly ignoring or even repelling a valuable set of candidates who could help meet and beat company goals.

This article is a how-to guide for finding and hiring women software engineers who will get the job done. Front-end or full-stack, QA or customer success specialist, it doesn’t matter. These steps to success apply to hiring women into any coding or code-adjacent role.

Mid-level engineers: The problem and the opportunity

Don’t think that diversity hiring only means onboarding junior people into entry-level roles. Look at your open positions and you’ll see you’ve got the same situation as most other tech firms: There are far more mid-level positions going unfilled than there are at the entry level. We made a map that showed the number of open software engineering roles in a dozen Silicon Valley area cities. We counted 3,443 open entry-level engineering jobs. But we also found 8,548 unfilled mid-level positions, defined as two-10 years of engineering experience, and able to act on broad directives. That’s two and a half times more empty mid-level spots on the org chart.

Raising the number of mid-level women would solve two problems at once: The need for talent of any gender identity, and the ratio of diverse staff. Many CEOs tell me that’s their dual goal today.

Entry-level women: Pre-trained for mid-level roles

There are two strategies to hiring qualified mid-level staff. Strategy No. 1 is to throw money at the problem: Raise the salary offers, hiring bonuses and perks for mid-level engineers working at other places. Hope that candidates who’ve spent five years optimizing algorithms on live servers, then playing Civilization all weekend, haven’t also figured out how to game the Valley’s compensation system. Good luck. Engineers have online and offline backchannels, just as founders and funders do. If more pay is what you have to offer, you will end up with employees who value money disproportionately — the mercenaries. Your internal pay equity will be out of whack, teamwork will go out the window and your costs will spiral up.

Changing the ratio of your tech team is a proven path to smarter problem-solving, more bright ideas, more success and more money.

Strategy No. 2: Hire women into entry-level positions — you have plenty of those open — who come from other professional backgrounds, yet have the affinity and chops for coding. Bootcamps alone will graduate 18,000 this year, with over one-third of those women, a higher percentage than traditional college CS programs. These women, thanks to their time in other careers such as lawyers, analysts, marketers and scientists, have entry-level coding skills, but mid-level professional skills. You won’t have to train them how to manage people, how to meet team deadlines and budgets, how to stick to your priorities when they don’t agree and how to interact with clients and partners professionally to save a business relationship until your technology delivers on your promise.

How to hire entry-level women engineers

I wrote an article for TechCrunch last year on what works at companies with qualified women in coding or code-savvy roles. Most of it still holds. Here are a few updates from a year at the front lines with Hackbright and our industry partners.

  • There are now many more women graduating with CS degrees, as the major has grown 50 percent since 2012. While only 18 percent of the roughly 60,000 computer science graduates nationwide this year, that’s still more than 10,000 women ready to go to work. Going forward, the BRAID Initiative has universities from Harvey Mudd in California to MIT in Massachusetts working to encourage women (and people of color) to major in computer science.
  • Coding bootcamps are also graduating more qualified engineers — about 18,000 in 2016.  More than one-third are women — that’s another 6,000-plus potential new engineers.
  • Online gender-blind coding tests, which replace in-person whiteboard challenges known to be stressful for women loomed over by men, now have commercial solutions: HackerRank, GapJumpers, CoderPad. The online coding interview is becoming standard practice, because it’s more realistic than a whiteboard session. But it also lowers a well-known gender barrier for many companies.

How to grow entry-level engineers to mid level

All you’ll have to do is raise their level of software skills. That’s much easier. Your mid and top-level staff love being the experts. Let them show their stuff — they can conduct internal bootcamps on the company’s tech stack and mentor professional co-workers into becoming valued peers. The women they’ll be helping to grow into more senior roles have the proven grit and interest for learning software skills, and they’re more professional to work with than a squad of college hires at their first real jobs.

In fact, do that for all your entry-level hires. Bloomberg does. You’ll accelerate their time to value, and integrate them better with your senior engineers.

It sounds exhausting. But the alternative is to sit surrounded by empty desks with an unmeetable deadline. Which would your engineers prefer?

You can get them; you can grow them — can you keep them?

There are two fronts on which the diversity staffing battle is fought. Recruitment is one. The other is retention. “We tried hiring women, but they keep quitting.” Why would that be?

A workplace that makes women feel unwelcome or unappreciated is as doomed as one that discards their applications. Once you’ve grown an entry-level woman into a mid-level senior engineer or manager, you risk the same threats you do with men who become disgruntled. They’ll leave for their own sanity, or they’ll be poached by an employer who uses Strategy No. 1.

My original TechCrunch article includes resources for analyzing performance reviews, code reviews, salary reviews and culture. Your competitors are using these resources. Salesforce.com, GoDaddy and many other successful technology companies hold themselves to the highest standards of gender and racial equity. You can’t afford not to.

Patience is a requirement. Habits are hard to break, and your culture may favor the incumbent majority until you get closer to parity. Losing the good women on your team becomes a downward spiral. The market gains reference points that your company isn’t worth applying to. Do you see a conspicuous lack of women applicants? The word may be out there already. Internally, the guys may conclude “women can’t cut it here,” excusing themselves rather than making an effort to change their behavior. They’ll find other explanations for the team’s constant understaffing, and competitors’ more frequent innovations.

Change the ratio: It’s as easy as 1-2-3

Changing the ratio of your tech team is a proven path to smarter problem-solving, more bright ideas, more success and more money. Look at Salesforce.com’s commitment to “Women Surge” and the follow-up actions they took to equalize pay.

It’s a simple formula:

  1. Bring in qualified entry-level women engineers with mid-level professional skills.
  2. Grow their software skills on the job to match your needs, rather than disrupting your compensation structure and company culture to poach someone who learned to code elsewhere.
  3. Keep an eye out for company culture that drives out accomplished mid-level women.
Despite the travails women report in Silicon Valley, as an industry and region we are optimistic and idealistic. I contributed a number of the stories in the Elephant in the Valley report — yes, they actually happened to me — yet my overwhelming feeling about #changetheratio is excitement for the change that is measurably happening. Focusing on your numerous mid-level jobs is entirely rational. It can be right and good for you, and for our industry. Your job as a lead is to build the most qualified team, period. For you, exchanging advanced coding knowledge for broad work experience may be the ideal trade.
Featured Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock