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Interview: GitHub's promise to diversity and social impact

By Sara Barker
Tue 30 Oct 2018
FYI, this story is more than a year old

GitHub is primarily a collaborative approach to coding and technical expertise, but dig a little deeper and you find that the company is so much more.

From its diverse workspaces to employee training and social impact projects, GitHub is about making its global workforce feel welcome and empowered – and not just what programming language you use.

At GitHub Universe I sat down with Merritt Anderson, VP of employee experience and engagement; and Admas Kanyagia, director of social impact, to talk about GitHub’s wider approach to employee diversity and how GitHub projects are being created to change the world.

One of the announcements at GitHub Universe centred on the Octoprenticeship, a new initiative to lower the barriers to entry into technology.

Anderson says that over a last year and a half, GitHub has been working to identify its core tenets and what the program aims to achieve.

“How are we going to reach a different demographic in the workforce that we've not been able to reach before? I think that's where our partners came into play really well for us as far as getting on kind of our values and our goals around diversity, inclusion, and belonging,” says Anderson.

“When we say we’re lowering the barrier to entry, these are also folks that maybe have not been in tech before. These are folks that would traditionally be locked out of tech. They haven't gone through a program; they're not four year degrees. A lot of these folks are self-taught, they've gone through boot camps. These are people that we believe are the future of software, and can help make our product more inclusive.”

While that is one way to attract people into tech and address the entry-level skills shortage, what about positions that require more senior-level skills?

“We approach this from the long tail perspective, the work that Admas does in the communities and kind of empowering the next generation of developers,” Anderson says. 

“We believe that the best learning and development the best training is done on the job. And so for us, it's how can give them the skills to navigate that journey up within our organisation.”

“That’s providing learning and development opportunities, that's providing mentorship that's giving them stretch assignments on things like big ships here, universe that they can get involved in, to build and diversify their skills.”

That also extends to the enterprise, where GitHub’s Learning Lab allows teams to learn about GitHub and upskill through practical projects.

Kanyagia adds that the GitHub platform facilitates amazing forms of collaboration.

“Cancer researchers are looking at large data sets and are using the collaboration aspects of GitHub to in order to collaborate.”

“We're starting to see more users of GitHub or not necessarily fit that traditional ‘I'm just sort of a developer only’, because as you know, tech is becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives. These kinds of tools like GitHub are being accessed, but they also need to be accessible to more than just that very narrow view of what a developer is.”

GitHub’s Diversity Report certainly seems to suggest that its own employees are spread far and wide, although Anderson points out that it barely scratches the surface.

Users are widely spread across US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Almost half work out of a home office and 10% work from coworking spaces.

Focusing on the broader GitHub user base, Anderson says GitHub’s philosophy is rooted in the idea of creating a work environment that allows people to be creative, innovative, and productive.

“It's really important to us, this is not an eight to five job. It's about working within the hours that are most conducive for productivity, recognising that we are distributed and we're all working in different time zones and working on the platform and collaborating together.”

Eighty percent of GitHub’s users are outside the United States – a reflection of the platform’s global reach and its growth.

Another thing GitHub does is run unconscious bias and inclusive leadership workshops. They aim to create awareness about other ways of working throughout the world.

It’s not about shaming bias, but recognising that brains are wired differently, Anderson says.

“It's more about creating awareness and how to navigate situations and circumstances from a place of not trying to eliminate our bias, but being aware of it. It’s also about ensuring that it's not in any way adversely impacting the way we interact with one another, and that we're not building it into our product.”

“Inclusive leadership is really about how do we meet from a place of inclusion, and how do we also take a lens of inclusion when we build anything with better be at a feature in our product, or a program for employees.”

GitHub users have also some incredible stories to tell about projects that have had a profound social impact. Kanyagia’s social impact team is to activate GitHub’s positive impact in society.

“A lot of the conversations that we’ve had at Universe were all about developers on GitHub, using our product and our platform to address the pressing a social issues of our time. And that work is foundational.”

But there’s still much work to be done to create a positive view of tech, especially with popular narratives pushing the idea that tech is responsible for some terrible things in the world.

“Tech, code and software and especially open source really has the potential to be used as a tool in addressing social issues - so how do we think about our product supporting developers for doing this work – that’s our vision for the future,” Kanyagia says.

“We want to better connect folks who are working on disaster relief issues, or to be able to connect communities who are working on healthcare issues.”

GitHub also works to expanding the tech pipeline for the marginalised – an area where Kanyagia and Anderson work together closely.

“We have been investing in teaching kids how to code; we have been investing and supporting science and maths programs. But in addition to doing that, we also need to be thinking about how we can connect those that have been left behind to the jobs that are really quite transformational opportunities.”

“Veterans, for example, or people with disabilities or formerly incarcerated. These are populations that we never know, especially if they don't represent our experience.”

Kanyagia says it’s about going beyond looking at our own life experience and considering others’ barriers to opportunity. 

One example that took centre stage at GitHub Universe was OptiKey, an assistive on-screen keyboard designed for those with Motor Neuron Disease. Julius Sweetland, the program’s creator, spoke about his inspiration for the project and how he used GitHub to create it. 

“After our panel, somebody walked up to Julian and said, my family member has this disorder. Julian was visibly choked up because I think he didn't expect to actually need an actual user of OptiKey, especially somebody, who deals with the same experience that he dealt with in his family,” Kanyagia says.

Ultimately, OptiKey changed lives – and it was the end users themselves that shaped the project. 

“For many developers, they're sort of speaking to their own either their own experience of experience, that have something that they're seeing in the world around them,” says Kanyagia.

She acknowledges that it can be difficult to include end users and those new to code in the development process, but it’s a sign of what to focus on in the future.

“And if we're not having conversations that really everyone and then we're not seeing assets, particularly in those users, that they actually have something to teach us and to tell us, even if they're not developers, that will improve the solutions over time to develop.”

With that in mind, it’s clear that the tech industry and the future of development has many goals it can set, and many paths it can follow to create a world of change through code.

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