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Startup advice: How and why to build a diverse engineering team

Mar 22, 2021 - 7 min read
Justin Beals

This article was written by Justin Beals, the co-founder and CEO of Strike Graph. Beals defines himself as a serial entrepreneur with expertise in AI, cybersecurity and governance. He previously served as the CTO of NextStep and Koru, which won the 2018 Most Impactful Startup award from Wharton People Analytics.

The question of what happens when you prioritize diversity, and what happens when you don’t, is at the forefront of the startup discussion.

Throughout my career, I have always strived to build diverse teams. I believe it’s important for the health of the business, but on a deeper level, for the health of the company culture.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in the topic of diversity and inclusion. I cannot and do not attempt to speak on behalf of underrepresented minorities, I can only share my perspective as a successful team leader at multiple, successful startups.

My perspective is supported by a plethora of research. According to Gartner (2019), diverse teams are 12% more productive than homogenous teams and this is something I have seen from my own experience. The benefits and importance of diversity span from increased financial returns to better decision making.

The limits of diversity are not confined to race and gender, but also include attributes such as age, geographic location, and various approaches to problem solving.

I’d like to share my insights into building a creative and engaging team.

Start from scratch

The most effective way to build a diverse team is to start at the beginning. It’s important not to fall into the trap of believing that a good “cultural fit” is simply someone who you would want to grab a beer with. Building a culturally rich team must be intentional. I approach hiring with the intent to build a team with a broad variety of backgrounds and expertise. When teammates who think differently from one another collaborate, they generate the most innovative ideas.

To find underrepresented talent, I build partnerships with educational institutions that are dedicated to underserved communities. I like to work with community colleges, HBCUs, trade schools, certification programs, and high-quality bootcamps. These institutions specialize in preparing non-citizens, non-native English speakers, and those who come from less fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds for a successful career.

These alumni are motivated to build and contribute. They just need the right opportunity to showcase their potential. With my remote startups, I’m not limited to hiring from a single geographic location. There is valuable diversity in the skillsets of graduates from Chile versus graduates from Montana.

At a previous startup, we had an employee with a business degree who solved problems by writing code. This employee was a first generation college graduate, and growing up they were repeatedly dissuaded from computer science because it would be “too hard” for them. I’m proud to report that they have gone on to become a senior engineer and complete a Master’s degree in data science.

As I build a new company, depending on the location, I consider educational institutions that are often overlooked. This gives me the opportunity to select from a different pool of talent.

Create a network

Each hire will bring their unique community to the team. Your first three hires are critical to how you will eventually grow your team. These three people set the stage for the next 30 as far as how they think about, recruit, and keep talent, and as entries into new communities and networks.

To get the best results, start hiring from different communities as early as possible. The team will both be and feel culturally heterogeneous, and members will value that diversity as the team grows. An initially diverse team will open doors to talent pools that you didn’t even know existed.

“These diverse perspectives give our work both breadth and depth as we meet our goals and serve our customers.”

In my experience, a more diverse team produces the most positive and dynamic results. I don’t want to build a team that consists of mostly graduates from the same university with a few outliers. I want to create a team of outliers, because they will bond over their unique perspectives and form their own pack.

At a previous startup, I built our first team in San Jose, Costa Rica. The primary job opportunities for software developers in that region were in finance. These stuffy, corporate environments did not tolerate dress code violations. Their hiring practices focused on re-creating the sense of “sameness” amongst their employees.

We recruited the people who wanted to work in a community that celebrated unique individuals. Our first five developers were skateboarders and punk rockers. They came from a variety of economic and geographic areas. Because we built our team around a culture of acceptance, it quickly grew to include women, LGBTQ+, and people of color. In two years, we grew to 90 developers in Costa Rica.

There is power in creating community in the workplace. At my current startup, Strike Graph, we haven’t used a recruiter at all. In fact, we’ve almost exclusively used personal references to grow our incredible team.

We rank individual qualities a little differently here. We are a tech company, but our team is evenly populated with computer science degrees, bootcamp graduates, and Fulbright Scholars turned ski-bums turned customer success managers.

While these experiential characteristics are important, our employees also come from communities of color and are gender diverse. We are a sundry of developers, critical thinkers, and liberal arts degree-holders who are uniquely poised to communicate our data model effectively. These diverse perspectives give our work both breadth and depth as we meet our goals and serve our customers.

Diversity feels good

A diverse workforce is undeniably practical. If your customers are diverse, your solutions will need to follow suit. A diverse team that focuses on inclusive behaviors will necessitate a culture of loyalty, support, and innovative problem solving. A team with these values will certainly produce higher quality work, provide better feedback loops, and more creative solutions.

The benefits of this approach to team-building extend far beyond business metrics, and it just feels good.

My team is made up of equal parts men, women, and non-binary members. We come from multiple countries, and speak various native languages. I learn from my team every day. They challenge me to broaden my frame of mind and approach problems from different perspectives.

They come up with ideas that I never would have considered. My colleagues are probably tired of my mantra “software development is a team sport.”

“Hiring a diverse team is the right thing to do. If you do it with your heart, you’re building a brighter future for your employees, customers, and their communities alike.”

With a diverse team, the common thread for all employees is the shared sense of belonging. This is what makes our work a joy. What we do cannot be accomplished by one senior engineer. To be successful, we must bond together in the name of a collective outcome.

Simply put, hiring a diverse team is the right thing to do. If you do it with your heart, as I have always strived to, you’re building a brighter future for your employees, customers, and their communities alike.

As humans it is only natural to feel like an “outsider” at times. When I started my first cybersecurity job at a multinational telecommunications company, my dreadlocks and tattoos made some of my colleagues treat me like an imposter. I was repeatedly diminished and demeaned for my appearance. Eventually I left to find a company that had a foundational culture of acceptance.

Finally, I decided that I needed to create the deeply collaborative environment I so desired. I’ve worked hard and been lucky to be a founder or early contributor at many great companies. At Strike Graph, we have a simple mission: “provide evident value to our customers and take care of our employees.” That includes all employees, regardless of the path they took or the culture they contribute to our team. We have hired with the intention to cultivate diversity. Because of this, our many different individuals create an exceptionally strong and unique collective.

I am proud of the great things my team has already accomplished. Our investors are impressed with our progress, and our customers are excited to see what we will achieve next. I am confident that we will continue to learn from each other as we grow our diverse community in 2021.

WRITTEN BYJustin Beals

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