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Jason Wong’s Systematic Approach Toward an Inclusive Workplace

Perspectives in Engineering

Jason Wong’s Systematic Approach Toward an Inclusive Workplace

GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.

A lot of us like to think that we’re running and working for inclusive organizations. Of course, anyone is welcome to work here! Everyone is equal! We’re color blind! And all the other right kinds of blind, too!

There’s intending to be inclusive, though, and then there’s proactively and deliberately facilitating an inclusive workplace. In today’s engineering world, those two concepts are continents apart.

“By default, our engineering organizations are wildly unsafe places for underrepresented minorities,” Jason Wong, Engineering Management Coach and Consultant, says. “Our companies are overflowing with sexism, racism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment.”

Those outcomes are unfortunately real whether we intend them or not. The tech community likes to rally around inclusivity on a conceptual level, but it’s often difficult to think of how to actually implement it. Lucky for all of us, though, Jason Wong has spent a great deal of time thinking about this problem, experimenting with solutions, and coaching others on how to build better workplaces.

What we want to do is ensure that our workplaces are safe, and that folks from all different backgrounds, histories, ethnicities, and walks of life have an equal chance of success.”

Jason Wong first became an engineering manager at Etsy during a time when the company cultivated some of today’s more well-known leaders in the space. After growing to Senior Director of Engineering at Etsy, Wong went on to become Senior Director of Engineering at Blink Health, where he oversaw the Engineering Management Practice (initiating training, career frameworks, and D&I programs, to name a few). Today, he’s a coach and consultant for engineering leadership and is keen on fixing tech’s D&I problem.

“What we want to do is ensure that our workplaces are safe, and that folks from all different sorts of backgrounds, histories, ethnicities, and races have an equal chance of succeeding,” he says. “The outcomes are fair and equitable, for everyone.”

In this interview, Wong outlines how to start building an inclusive workplace, unpacks the three milestones you’ll face along the way, and offers helpful advice for others looking to create change in their own workplaces.

Why build an inclusive workplace?

Whether it’s because we’re engineers or simply because we’re human, many of us turn D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) into a numbers game. “I’ve had plenty of conversations with leaders who focus mostly on the diversity side — the hiring side,” Wong says. “How do I hire more underserved populations? How do I hire more women? How do I hire more black engineers?”

And yes, the hiring process does play a vital role in creating a more diverse workplace. Wong himself has written his thoughts on hiring mandates and inclusion interviewing. However, it’s important to remember that hiring a diverse team is only half of the equation — building an inclusive workplace is how you retain a diverse workforce.

“Ultimately, what you’re committing to is a change in your workplace norms,” Wong says. “If you really believe in diversifying your workforce, and reaping the benefits of those efforts, you need to get serious about inclusion.”

We need to build an awareness of the challenges they face from discrimination, sexism, and misogyny, and of the unequal outcomes that occur because of those things.”

Creating awareness around inclusion is also a smart thing to do for the business, Wong says. Not just to attract top talent but to turbocharge innovation and improve the productivity of the organization as a whole.

Research points to similar conclusions: two studies, one analyzed levels of gender diversity in Spain, and the other looked at the cultural diversity of leadership teams in firms across the globe, both found that diverse teams were significantly more innovative.

“Even more, there’s also a business imperative for us to be able to make sure folks who represent minorities who are also our customers, and our users, and our clients, have great experiences,” he says. “In order to do that, we need to build an awareness of the challenges they face from discrimination, sexism, and misogyny, and of the unequal outcomes that occur because of those things. Having a diverse workplace will help your teams better understand your customers.”

Step one to creating change: Education

Wong’s first step toward creating a more inclusive atmosphere may be the most challenging of all, even though it’s also the most straightforward: Talk about it.

“We avoid those conversations in our workplaces, right?” he says. “We need to change our attitudes towards inclusion and change where we’re focusing our attention. What works really well is to start talking about it.”

That means talking about inclusion every way possible. Wong has conveyed ideas to his organization through regular, established, public, and archived group communications channels—think a Week in Review, and a monthly engineering-wide all-hands meeting. He’s found these channels work well for communicating his diversity and inclusivity strategy, as well as pointing out wins within the organization.

One of the things that’s totally in our control is this concept of being better allies. The best way to begin is to look at how we educate ourselves — to build awareness of these problems.”

Then there’s the admittedly more difficult forms of communication—the intervening kind. When he observes anyone in the organization using exclusionary language, whatever its intent, Wong aims to have a private conversation with that person about what’s acceptable and inclusive. “I’ve had to talk to people about inappropriate jokes, comments in Slack channels, and offensive word choice,” he says. He also acknowledges that this kind of communication can make him feel comfortable—but he’s making the attempt to improve his initiative and skill.

“There are things that are within everyone’s control and there are things that you need your leaders to step up on,” he says. “One of the things that’s totally in our control is this concept of being better allies. The best way to begin is to look at how we educate ourselves — to build awareness of these problems. ”

Wong recommends building a library of resources to refer people to when having discussions around how to become better allies. Here are a few of his recommendations you can add to your library (he admits that these are far from complete, and are primarily focused on women in tech. Still, they’re a good starting point):

The three inflection points you’ll face

If we could all step out the front door this morning and simply decide to be inclusive, we’d probably all do so. Very few of us intend to be exclusive. So one of the biggest actions we can take to become more inclusive is to recognize when we’re inadvertently being exclusive.

“When I think about when these things go spectacularly wrong,” Wong says. “I think about the conditions in play. I think about the three inflection points.”

There are a lot of systemic issues in place, but that doesn’t make us bad people. The question is, what are we going to do with this information now?”

Essentially, you’ll know that you’re building awareness about inclusivity—for yourself and your team—when you notice you are moving through those three inflection points:

Not complicit to complicit

“We all think of ourselves as good people, we all think we’re on this inclusion bandwagon, and then one day someone holds a mirror up to our face and says, ‘Hey, this thing that you’re doing, it’s hurting me, it’s affecting folks, and I would like you to stop.’ And that’s when a lot of us balk and bail out,” Wong says.

It’s challenging to recognize our own complicity because we don’t usually intend to be exclusive or sexist or discriminatory. However, Wong recognizes that we are all actually complicit in some way, and that may be happening outside our own design.

“There’s a lot of systemic issues in place, but that doesn’t make us bad people,” he says. “The question is, what are we going to do now that we know?”

Believing in the lived experiences of others

“We live in a world with lots of bias,” Wong says, “and because of that, two people can do the exact same thing and end up with wildly different outcomes.”

In other words, we can invest our time and energy in a place that ends up being a great place for us to work—and that may not be a great place for other folks to work. Hearing that as a leader is tough. You need to get to a place where you can believe the perspectives and experiences you hear, especially when they run counter to your own lived experiences.

“This second inflection point is when you can default to being curious, and to believing what you hear, and to wanting to fix it,” Wong says.

Investing time and money

“That’s really where the rubber hits the road,” Wong says. “Talk is cheap. Am I going to ask someone to spend the time to change the language that we use in our materials to be more inclusive? Are we going to ask someone to rename a project that might be gendered, so we can talk about our technology in neutral terms? Can we invest in bringing in training, or sending folks out to conferences? Do we invest in different benefits?”

You can ask a thousand questions right here, and that’s good. Start asking those questions. You don’t need to answer them all right away—though eventually, you do. But start analyzing and asking where you can invest your actual resources to reflect your values as a leader and as an organization.

An inclusive workplace isn’t a destination. It’s part of your everyday job

“You will find yourself and your organization moving through these inflection points over and over again,” Wong says.

You’ll come to grips with one aspect of your complicity, and then you’ll come across another. Because there’s always another. You’ll learn to listen to one set of lived experiences, and yet you’ll still feel incredulous that another could be true. You’ll discover that your words and actions, or your silence and your inaction, have contributed to excluding some members of your team.

This is normal. This is difficult. Welcome to the struggle.”

That doesn’t mean you’ve failed to make your team inclusive. It means that you’re aware of how you and your team can be even more inclusive of everyone, for their own good as well as the good of the organization.

And it’s not easy—but you have to continue the cycle if you truly want to succeed.

“This is normal,” Wong assures us. “This is difficult. This is frustrating and tiring. But it is, of course, more than worth it.”