Thursday, July 30, 2015


Once upon a time, I was in a business meeting. While there were enough chairs to go around, space at the actual table was limited – most of the chairs were lined up along two walls of the room. It was a long meeting, and as time passed, people would leave the meeting, and other people would enter. After a few rounds of people coming and going (including myself), an interesting situation presented itself - all of the seats around the table were taken by white men. All of the women and minorities in the room were seated in the overflow chairs around the edge of the room.

Watching the process unfold, it made sense - when someone seated at the table excused themselves, someone from one of the other chairs would move into that seat, and whenever someone entered the room, they first thing they would do would be to scan the table for an available seat. So eventually, you hit a particular point in time when the shuffle resulted in all the seats at the table being filled with White men. And it didn't last for the remainder of the meeting. But a look around the room for in that moment seemed to speak to everything that people say is wrong with the technology industry.

But what I realized was that almost all of the people who were seated at table had been in the room when I had first arrived, and didn't appear to have ever left. And there are times when I think that informs a large part of the way industries shuffle themselves. While I'm in technology now, I'm a relative latecomer to it as a career - I started out in social services. And, as a result, I find myself working with people ten years my junior, who, nevertheless have more experience in my career path than I do - simply by virtue of having started out there.

When I talk to people I worked with back then, they're quick to tell me that we were all woefully underpaid. But had you asked me at the time, I would have told you that I was making a phenomenal amount of money - after all, I'd doubled my take-home pay in a job that, that I had no education and little experience for, and was less physically and emotionally demanding than what I'd been doing.

The easy lesson, perhaps, from that conference room is to alter the seating arrangements - set aside a certain number of seats for certain people. But I think that a better lesson might be to add more or larger tables, so that there are enough seats to go around. I was fortunate in that I stumbled into the technology sector during a time of rapid expansion - when employers couldn't afford to be terribly picky about who they hired. When I describe it to people I tell them that the standard wasn't whether or not you knew the work, it was whether or not you could be educated to do it in a reasonable time. And that situation created thousands of opportunities for people - including latecomers and people who needed to step away for a while - which prevented the shuffle from homogenizing things based on experience.

Of course, it's easier to add tables to a conference room than it is to add businesses to an economy. But we've done harder things...

No comments: