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Why & How to Increase Diversity in IoT Development

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At the 2019 Scenic City Summit event in Chattanooga, TN, Tracy Lee, CEO of This Dot Labs, gave a talk on creating inclusive architectures in tech, and this article is inspired by her diligent research, innovative ideas, and compelling presentation

Diversity Matters in IoT Development

We’ve all used poorly designed products. Products that weren’t created with the user in mind. Or created with the wrong user(s) in mind. Or without enough users in mind. 

One of the most famous examples of this is this automatic soap dispenser that went viral for not recognizing dark skin. While design failures like these may sometimes just prove annoying or offensive, they also can have serious consequences. Car airbags not designed to accommodate the shorter statures of children and some women, for example, killed 191 children and 39 women from 1990 to 2009.

IoT products, which present their own unique challenges when it comes to design and development, fall prey to poor design just as easily. Heart rate monitors in smartwatches that malfunction on dark skin can put people of color at risk. And a 2018 CNN investigation revealed 103 Uber drivers were accused of sexual assault or abuse, with little precautions built into the app or service to protect vulnerable people ride-sharing with complete strangers. 

What all of these products, IoT-enabled or not, have in common is this: lack of diversity in the product development and design process. How might these products and services been designed differently had underrepresented groups been involved from the beginning? 

Would the soap dispensers or heart rate monitors have been shipped as-is had people of color been involved in the decision-making? If more women had been on the development team at Uber, would they have created a product that incentivizes young women to get into someone else’s car alone late at night with no way to protect herself? 

Lack of diversity in IoT development is downright dangerous. On the flip side, research shows that increasing diversity makes companies more money. The CEO of Comp TIA estimates that diversity could net the tech industry $400 billion in revenue each year. McKinsey, meanwhile, found overall higher returns for diverse companies — 35% higher for companies with diverse races, and 15% higher for companies with diverse gender composition. 

It’s clear: diversity matters, not just to meet an arbitrary quota, but to create the best possible teams, products, and services. So how do we make it a reality in tech, where lack of diversity is a known issue? We’ll discuss initiatives that need to take place at the company level, then drill down into changes that IoT engineering and product leaders can make on their own teams.

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Exploring Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the Company Level

Before we can start talking about how to increase diversity and inclusion, we need to take a step back to define what those terms actually mean. 

Gallup defines diversity as the full spectrum of demographic differences, and it goes beyond just skin color and gender to include differences in religion, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, and physical disability. It can even include differences in lifestyles, personality characteristics, perspectives, opinions, family composition, education level, or tenure elements as well. 

Inclusiveness, meanwhile, is defined by Gallup as “a strategy for using each person's unique strengths to increase individual contribution, team collaboration, and customer value.” Inclusiveness asks: knowing that my organization is made up of many different people, how do I create a framework that allows each of them to do their best? 

Now that we know what diversity and inclusion mean and the value they bring, how do we increase them in our organizations? As with most persistent, complex problems, no silver bullet exists. However, there are examples of successful programs executed by pioneers that can be emulated, like:

  • Investing in equal pay. When everyone is being paid equally for the same work, employee retention increases and national economies perform better. Beginning in 2015, Salesforce committed to making equal pay an integral part of the company’s DNA, and to date has invested a total of $10.3 million to ensure equal pay for equal work. At Very, meanwhile, we started our company with an open salary model, meaning that everyone in the company knows how much everyone else makes — you can even see salary ranges on each of our open positions. This level of transparency makes it easier to prevent, identify, and rectify pay discrepancies that put minorities at a disadvantage. 
  • Hiring intentionally. Pinterest had a history of improving their app’s offering by involving multiple different people in the product creation process — so they went one step further beginning in 2015 to ensure that their employee base looked more like the wide range of consumers they wanted to serve. By expanding the talent pool when sourcing candidates, involving employees from underrepresented groups in the interview process, and more, Pinterest continues to meet diversity hiring goals. 

Building inclusive architectures goes beyond the purvey of HR and senior leadership, however.  What steps can you take at the team level to increase diversity and build better products?

Increasing Diversity and Inclusion on Your Product Team

As an engineering or product leader, there are many changes you can make to empower not only minority groups but everyone in your organization. 

A good starting point? Think about ways that you can help your junior developers succeed. People from minority groups with less access to opportunities may start out as junior developers, and if your existing processes, programs, and tools don’t intentionally set them up for success, they’re likely setting them up for failure. 

A few examples of ways your team could be failing your junior devs:

  • Incomplete onboarding documentation
  • Overly complex codebase
  • Lack of review opportunities or mentorship
  • Relying on individual excellence instead of building a process that helps everyone be successful

Wait… did you notice something in the list above? A lot of those examples don’t just hurt your junior developers. They hurt your team and organization as a whole. Non-inclusive architectures make it harder to onboard and hire, delay productivity, and stagnate careers. Spaghetti code that only one person understands is virtually impossible to decipher after that person leaves, impacting your product and eventually your customers. 

Here are a few steps you can take to support diversity and inclusion on your team:

  • Define better development processes. Don’t rely on the heroics of a few brilliant team members to create and ship excellent products. Rely on tested, trusted, well-documented processes, and don’t ever stop asking questions about how those processes can be improved. At Very, we use the Agile and Lean methodologies for IoT product development, which help us to collaborate better with one another and with our clients to build better products faster.
  • Delineate clear roles and responsibilities. Again, don’t rely on your most brilliant team members to get all of the work done, or expect conflict resolution to happen just because you’re all nice people. Teams need structure to govern who’s in charge of what so that things don’t fall through the cracks and toes don’t get unintentionally smushed. For just one example, Very follows the holacracy framework, which helps us create clarity and accountability on all of our teams.
  • Frameworks make it easy to do the right thing. Development is hard, even for crazy-smart developers. Invest in frameworks that take care of the most difficult stuff for you. This will not only help your junior devs get up to speed faster but also increase productivity for the rest of your team. A few of our favorites include:
    • Firmware development frameworks
    • Web development frameworks
      •  Phoenix
      • Rails
    • Mobile development frameworks
  • Mentor the heck out of your team. Mentorship programs have been shown to improve inclusion and retention, boost leadership skills, reduce knowledge silos, and more to help both individuals and teams grow. One system we’ve expanded at Very is pair programminghere’s how we do it with a remote-only team.

Reality Check: How Are We Doing?

Throughout this post, we’ve mentioned several steps Very takes to build an inclusive culture and increase diversity, from our open salary model to embracing Agile processes and frameworks, to holacracy and pair programming. 

But it’s critical to acknowledge that the work of promoting diversity and inclusion is never “done.” We want to be the IoT development company that makes the best products and we can only do that with the best team possible. We’re immensely proud of the people we employ and are committed to growing our team through more intentional hiring of people from underrepresented groups.