How to make work more awesome

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about making industries like tech more diverse. So much talk, in fact, that you start to wonder whether people are still talking about it because they don’t quite know where to start. It’s a thorny, complex issue — like the debate that comes up around the portrayals of women in fashion magazines, there are myriad people who need to step up to the plate before anything can change. Facebook recently blamed a lack of diverse talent for their lack of representation in hiring. In this case, women, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented groups like Māori and Pacific Islanders need to know that tech is for them.

While more inclusive workplaces are just nicer places to work, science and business research shows that more diverse teams are better, too. They’re more creative, more efficient, and they address more of society’s diverse needs. If you’re looking to sell a tech-based product, service, app, or website wider than just 30 year-old Pākehā men, you’d better make sure that’s not the whole makeup of your web development team.

But how do you create an environment where a diverse range of people feel comfortable? It’s not easy, and the culture needs to come from everywhere. The payoff, though, is immense. Enspiral Dev Academy is trying to help catalyse change, not just at its bootcamp level, but also as a workplace. At EDA’s programming courses, students learn to code — enough for jobs as industry-ready web developers — in just 15 weeks. Scholarships are offered for students who identify as part of a group that’s underrepresented in tech. Here’s how we’ve gone about making sure we walk the talk of welcoming people who don’t normally end up in coding schools.

Meet Jaime Campbell, a coder and marketer who looks after service design and student experience at Dev Academy.

Jaime’s had the experience of a job where the board was very resistant to innovation. She and a colleague had prototyped ideas to to meet the organisation’s objectives more efficiently and improve the wellbeing of overworked staff. “We were shut down in a really patronising way,” she says. “‘You’re young, you’re a woman. What would you know?’ It was a real heartache, seeing a better way but not being trusted to do things innovatively.”

She says at Dev Academy, there’s a focus on being inclusive and working with people’s whole selves, valuing things like communication and integrity over hard rules. It’s made clear to students that the culture’s something that’s taken seriously; that it’s just as important as code. “If someone was asked to leave the course, it wouldn’t be for lack of technical skills — it’d be for not wanting to be part of the culture,” she says.

“The effect it has for me is this incredible liberty in being trusted to show up and be responsible for the success of the business. It’s a high-trust environment. I turn up every day because I really care and know that I’m really cared about.” Jaime says staff and students are encouraged to talk about the situation at home, and not to waste energy concealing how they are, devoting it to the work instead. “We don’t draw that line of, ‘This is the person who’s paying us to study, and this is the person whose life is irrelevant to us.”

Of course, workplaces post-graduation might not be as compassionate. Jaime says her hope for Dev Academy graduates — most of whom go to work as junior web developers — is that they remember there’s always a different way to do things. “I hope that if there’s tension in the web development team where they work, they’ll feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey can we check in? Can I offer some feedback?’ And by doing so, they could potentially shape or influence a company’s culture. Asking people to confront some of their underlying beliefs is really powerful. Otherwise we’re part of a culture we’re not aware of.”

So, how does it work? Here’s student Rena-Deane Goldsmith, who came to EDA looking for a radical change in career.

Rena-Deane Goldsmith

Rena-Deane had her son in 2013, and once he headed off to playschool, she got bored at home. She started working at the Ministry of Education as a project coordinator, helping Māori and Pasifika students gain their NCEA level 2. But after a while, a manager and mentor told Rena-Deane she needed to practice what she preached to the young people she worked with. What not put herself on a path for a life that she chose?

Rena-Deane received a Te Uru Rangi scholarship to take on the Dev Academy bootcamp, after hearing about an accountant who’d taken the course without knowing any code. Giving her boy the life she wants is a big drawcard to a life in tech. She’d like to move home to the East Coast, work as a freelance web developer, and send her son to full immersion Māori schooling like she did. The career change will hopefully allow her to do just that.

“I deal with the roller coaster of the course day by day. You’re not going to learn if you’re feeling like shit, and there’s a really big emphasis on looking after yourself,” she says. Rena-Deane found the practice of “pairing” early in the coding bootcamp — where two coders share a computer, and one “drives” while the other “navigates” — very useful.

“It really develops your communication skills — you have to be really aware of how the other person’s feeling, their experience, their background, how they’re feeling that day,” says Rena-Deane.

“If I was to go into a job and work with people who are quite experienced, I’d use those communication skills I’ve learned at EDA. Things like self awareness and how to raise difficult conversations.The biggest thing I’ve learned from the course is being aware of other people and your environment.”

Sarrah Jayne’s one of those responsible for creating the vibe of empathy and compassion in Dev Academy classroom.

Sarrah Jayne

When Sarrah first visited Dev Academy, she saw an opportunity and space where things could be done differently. She started teaching yoga to the coding bootcamp’s second cohort, and that’s since expanded into student support, mindfulness, and a programme on emotional intelligence, called Selfware. She enjoyed the diversity of teaching yoga to a class of aspiring programmers; her previous clients had been mainly thin, white women. And she soon found it was making a big impact on the coding side. A move away from the sedentary lifestyles and “bags of lollies everywhere” synonymous with round-the-clock coding jobs, connected students with their bodies, allowing them to manage their energy levels better and ultimately do better work.

“What I try to stress in this environment is that it’s going to be hard and stressful and you’ll be spending heaps of hours here — it’s home,” Sarrah says. “If you’re not taking steps to look after yourself, it’s going to be so much harder and your recovery period longer.”

She says the only way to make practises like yoga and mindfulness a key part of company culture is by getting buy-in from the top of the organisation. And she says cultivating empathy in students, and encouraging them to be vulnerable and to trust each other, sets them up for long-term success.

There’s no one silver bullet to let people know that they’re welcome in the tech sector — despite what Facebook might claim about the pipeline being the whole problem. The message needs to come from the education sector, the tech sector, and the culture of individual companies — and there’s a big opportunity for New Zealand businesses to build flourishing tech departments and companies where coding and empathy go hand in hand.