A Call For More Social Diversity And Less Technical Diversity

I had the honor of speaking at Drupal GovCon hosted by the National Institutes of Health in July of 2016. My talk focused on Georgia’s Drupal implementation and ROI after 5 years.

This conference brings together organizations using or aspiring to use Drupal within the government space. I had keynoted at this conference (back then known as Capital Camp) when Georgia first implemented Drupal as its enterprise web publishing platform. It was a gutsy move for a state back in 2011 when very few states were using open source technology and no other state was using it for its enterprise needs.

Every year, this conference teaches me something new or validates an initiative we implemented in Georgia. However, as usual with this annual conference, I walked away learning something new that seems to validate our work at GeorgiaGov.

More Social Diversity, Please

The keynote handled a very important and touchy topic: diversity in the workforce. Allyson Kapin (@womenwhotech) and Sibyl Edwards (@saedwards) spoke about how we need more women and people of diverse backgrounds in tech. It was a topic we read about but rarely discuss, let alone address it at a conference dominated by men.

The initiative was immediately applauded on Twitter as engaged audience members tweeted about the learning experience from a different viewpoint. It wasn't just a flurry of opinions but a conversation based on hard facts.

Gender-diverse companies outperform others by 15%, ethnically diverse outperform by 35%.

It’s no secret that the tech industry is very monolithic. Most of the industry is dominated by white and Asian men. These numbers go beyond just Silicon Valley. Tech microcosms across the nation still have a lot of work to do, and it is rare to find diverse culture.

Everyone acknowledges and applauds the benefits of a diverse workforce, but the needle has barely moved in the last 2 years. Sibyl showed a quote from the article Diversity is a broken product in tech. FIX IT, by Bo Ren, a former Facebook product manager. “If diversity were a product that launched two years ago, it would be considered a failure,” Ren wrote. “A product that stagnates for two years has a growth problem.”

The speakers didn't stop at addressing the concerns but took the discussion to the possible root of the issue: the influence of Ivy League cookie-cutter molds where developers with computer science degrees are considered qualified. Speaking in technology terms, product features are going to be only as good as the pipeline.

This is where recruitment matters. If companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook — founded by entrepreneurs who dropped out of college — require their developers to have a 4-year college degree, we are living a world of double standards.

The moment of truth came when Allyson asked the room full of developers if anyone believed they needed a computer science degree to be able to code. Not a single person raised their hand. More and more people are shedding their Ivy League lens for self-validation and teaching themselves how to code. Others recognize the value of updating their skills with professional training programs that don’t require an expensive and time-consuming 4-year college education.

Organizations need to understand that unless we open the gates for candidates without traditional computer science degrees, we are blocking a huge set of talented applicants who will enrich our work culture and bring in a great amount of diverse perspectives to our products. After all, a monolithic group of people cannot design something for a general mass.

Less Technical Diversity, Please

This equation is turned on its head when we look beyond people. When we look at the technology itself, we find a huge amount of diversity — especially in the government sector, where departments functioning in silos are unknowingly duplicating efforts based on what their budgets can afford before the end of their fiscal year. This phenomenon is known by a few as “Government Christmas.”

Humans are wired to follow social behavior. So why do we go rogue when it comes to technology — using multiple software licenses and content management systems when we could have a common platform?

There was a lot of buzz at the conference around creating universal platforms to reduce the diverse footprints of technological solutions that complicate back end processes. A presentation by Acquia’s Dan Katz (@mtndan) validated the initiative Georgia took 5 years ago when we decided to scrub the diverse platforms and technologies that powered agency and elected official websites and create a common platform to host multiple sites powered by a single code base.

Using a single open-source platform brought an efficiency of displaying information and maintained the format consistency. Agreeing on and following technical standards relieves people from an ongoing learning curve and allows them to master the information they wish to present.

Often, diversity in technology equals diversity in user experience — one place we all strive for a universal understanding. When technology drives design, the user is limited. However, a common technology platform not only helps standard information but also allows people to focus on the content itself rather than worrying about how it is delivered.

How We’re Doing

A few years ago, speaking at Capital Camp, I stressed the need to centralize an organization’s web publishing platform because of the benefits, which include driving a good user flow and helping operational maintenance and enhancements. Audience members were eager to know how the Georgia experiment turned out, and I was lucky to be the messenger of good news. An audience member still remembered my keynote from back in the day.

A consolidated platform has not only helped Georgia save costs but has added a lot of value to its web presence. As Dan Katz put it in his presentation, these assembled experiences are made possible by a common platform with components that are reusable, supported, governed, secure and long-lived. With PHP (the server side script used by Drupal) having an 82.3% usage rate by the end of the first quarter of 2016, there is no argument for switching to other technology.

The conference was a good validation for everything we’re doing in Georgia. We’re removing the diversity in web technology while applauding diversity within our little Digital Services Georgia team. Our recent team photo proves it.

We’ve been a truly diverse team from the beginning, and as our team members have changed, the diversity has not. We welcome diversity of gender, race, education, and thoughts and agree that social diversity is something we need more of in the big tech world, while technological diversity (using various technologies in siloed departments) is something we need less of in the working world.

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