The Enduring Value of Diversity in Tech
It's always fun, and incredibly educational, to see what happens when organizations "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk." I recently had the thrilling and instructive opportunity to see the benefits and value of diversity in action as a first-time attendee at Microsoft's Global MVP Summit, held March 3-9 at Microsoft's Seattle-area home stomping grounds.
By any measure, that group of slightly more than 2,100 people was both incredibly diverse and equally interesting. The event's first pre-day focused on soft skills development — also a favorite subject of mine, as anybody who's been following me here for any length of time already knows.
Not coincidentally, it also discussed the value of diversity, while providing an eloquent demonstration of that value at the same time.
Let's Start with Women
I was very interested to learn that men outnumber women in the global population by a very slight percentage. According to the World Bank, in 2015 that ratio was just under 50.5 percent men to 49.5 percent women. According to that same source, the ratio of men to women in the global workforce is around 60.8 percent men to 39.3 percent women.
In IT, of course, those numbers are somewhat lower. Women in Tech reports that women represent just 25 percent of the IT workforce in the United States. By eyeballing the attendees at the MPV Summit and performing rough counts at every session I attended there (only 30 or so gatherings out of a possible 600-plus) I estimate that the proportion of attendees that was female was around 40 percent.
(I've contacted show management for better numbers and will update this post when and as they're forthcoming).
Data Platform MVP Rie Irish gave one of the best sessions at the pre-day in the downtown Hyatt in Bellevue, Wash. Called "Let her finish!," that session discussed both Irish's own and other women's experiences in interacting with (male) bosses, co-workers, and others.
It informed all of us present as to some of the best ways that IT professionals can detect and correct their own unconscious and "totally normal" biases in working and interacting with women on the job. I walked out of that session with my head spinning, realizing that I am as guilty of this kind of behavior as anyone else.
Thanks to Ms. Irish's terrific presentation, however, I am also now armed with some great rules and ideas for behavior modification. Just in the short weeks that have passed since the event, I feel this counsel has already made me a better person. I'm grateful that I listened to her spiel and, yes, "let her finish!"
On to Geographical Diversity
Next, I was stunned and thrilled to observe that the audience almost reflected the geographical distribution of people on the planet. In fact, this was the first time I've EVER attended a conference in the United States where the number of attendees from outside the country significantly outpaced the headcount for "locals."
Here's the projected distribution of where attendees had planned to visit from, which Microsoft issued before the summit occurred. (Again, I've asked for updated numbers and will report them when and as I can lay hands on them.)
The only sub-group that's seriously out of whack is APAC (Asia-Pacific), which should exceed all other regions by total count, but is actually second-smallest, ahead of only Latin America. Ranked by total population, we should see APAC, EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa), North America, Latin America.
Nevertheless this was an amazingly geographically dispersed group, with lots of interesting and useful viewpoints to share. Some of the most interesting feedback I heard at the Summit was that Microsoft needs to change its release terminology (which currently uses the terms Spring and Fall for semi-annual releases).
It turns out that only the United States calls the season "Fall," whereas the rest of the English-speaking world calls it "Autumn." It further turns out that the southern hemisphere has those seasons reversed, so that what makes sense to those north of the equator is the opposite for those below it.
Q2 and Q4 (or something similar) might make more sense, because everybody at least understands the Julian calendar, even if not everybody uses it (exclusively). And indeed, there was lots of value in hearing about the ins-and-outs of language support, as well as cultural and other geographic differences.
Moving to Racial Diversity
While I haven't seen any official numbers on this, my informal counts at the sessions I attended showed a highly balanced mix of Caucasian and other ethnicities in those rooms. While a 50-50 ratio of that kind sounds good, I was stunned to learn that, ostensibly, Caucasian peoples make up only about 15-to-20 percent of the global population (it depends on who you ask, or where those numbers come from).
That is approximately equal to the number of peoples identified (or self-identified) as "black" (again 15-to-20 percent). At around 46-to-55 percent, Asiatic peoples make up the largest segment of the global population by far, with the remainder allocated to Middle Eastern (6-to-10 percent) and Central/Latin American (7-to-11 percent) peoples.
In fact, the whole concept of profiling humans by type or ethnicity is fraught with disagreement, if not outright peril, among academics and laypeople alike. Nevertheless, the MVP group included what I saw as an honest, if not statistically accurate, attempt to include as many people from all walks of life, geography, and ethnicity as possible.
Getting to Diversity's Benefits
So, what happens when you bring as many different kinds of people together as you can find — all of whom share a common interest in things Microsoft — who have sufficient recognition from their peers (and from Microsoft) to identify them as outstanding pillars in their technical communities? Quite a lot, as you might imagine.
Certainly, with their abilities to support and promote better, more effective uses of Microsoft tools, platforms, and technologies, this group can't help but drive further economic growth across most sectors of the global economy. By coming from, and interacting with, a wider or broader share of consumer markets across all sectors, these people can also help to serve and represent more consumers better and more equitably.
As I saw repeatedly at the Summit, drawing from this kind of group definitely fostered ideas and innovation, with creativity popping out all over the place. And if ever there was a hotbed of entrepreneurship, it was the MVP attendees at the summit, most of whom were "working the angles" — with Microsoft, with each other, and with anybody who wandered into their vicinity — with vigor and dispatch.
Great stuff, all in all. Great enough, in fact, that I'd encourage readers to ponder the value and benefits of diversity in their own work and lives. For those brave enough to help foster further diversity of all kinds, rewards should come in many forms — not least of which is more pie to share with everyone, of course.