They Wanted To Eliminate Gender Bias In Technical Hiring But Ended Up Losing All Their Female Candidates.

One of our most recent seed investments recently posed a question to me. They had designed a technical hiring process to try and eliminate gender bias but were losing all the women midway through their funnel when a take-home project was introduced. What was going wrong?

I reviewed their current approaches alongside Homebrew’s Head of Talent Beth Scheer and we made a few recommendations, but there was nothing glaringly broken. Attention then turned to the take-home project since that’s where the breakage seemed to be most acute. Was there something about this step that was unintentionally sending the wrong signal to female engineers? This wasn’t my area of expertise but I’m fortunate to have smart friends so I asked Joelle Emerson, founder of Paradigm, a leading consultancy providing training and strategy around inclusion. Her response was, not surprisingly, really great and she agreed to let me publish it below in its entirety. Hopefully this will help other startups too. Thanks Joelle!

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Email From Me to Joelle 

hi! QQ for your expertise. Have you seen any research or have any POV on how giving a take-home coding project during interview process impacts genders differently in the funnel? ie increases/decreases candidate or employer decision to move forward in process, and does it differ based on when in the process it’s introduced?

One of our more technical companies had been using a 3-4 hour coding project post initial interview but pre-team interviews. They were doing for two reasons – first to give the candidate a taste of what they’d be working on, and second, they thought it would be an unbiased way to assess technical expertise (the current team is three men).
They’ve hired a few people with this process so far (all men) but are doing away with the take-home as a default for a variety of reasons. One is that no woman who has been offered the coding project has decided to move forward with it, whereas the male completion rate at that stage is 50%+
I know without seeing the specific language as to how the test is intro’ed, etc you can’t judge this particular situation but i’m curious if there are best practices or research in general about these types of “technical interviews” and gender. Thanks!
From Joelle to Me In Response:

Hi hi! Great question. Take home exercises can be a really helpful complement to interviews. When they’re designed thoughtfully, they can give great signal on how someone would actually approach their work, and can reduce subjectivity and bias in hiring. But whether a take home project is effective or not depends entirely on how it’s designed and framed. Here are a few things, in particular, I’d be on the lookout for given the circumstances you’re describing (where women are less likely to participate in the exercise):

  • How the project is framed: Your instinct on this is spot on. The language around how both how this is introduced, and how the exercise itself is framed, can have a big impact. A few things to look out for:
    • Growth v. fixed mindset language: Is this described as an assessment of ability or approach? It seems like it’s not being framed as a “test,” which is great, but there can be other language that makes this feel like you’re trying to get at someone’s ability as an engineer, which can lead candidates from underrepresented backgrounds to experience stereotype threat, and select out.
    • Vague vs. clear language: Are you specific about exactly what this will entail, and what you want to see from people?
    • Masculine/homogenous vs. inclusive language: I’m guessing you’ve already looked at this, but language that skews masculine (words or phrases like hard core, dominant, competitive, intense etc.) would be unhelpful 🙂
  • What the project actually is: I’m not an engineer, so I probably can’t be super helpful here, but I’d be curious about what you’re actually asking them to do in this project. Does it simulate what real work would look like? (It sounds like that’s the goal, which is great!) Does it bias towards a specific type of engineering style or approach? Is there anything else that might make the project itself less exciting to some people?
  • How long the project takes: People from underrepresented backgrounds in this industry are less likely to be able to invest a ton of time in a something, unpaid. How big a time commitment are you asking people to make?
Finally, it could be good to ask people (of all genders) who’ve declined why they did this. Maybe the early stage of the process didn’t feel great, so they’re not actually interested in the company. Maybe it’s too large a project. There’s almost certainly something you could learn in asking, if you haven’t yet.
———

Now, the postscript on my unnamed startup is that they’re a small team which is prioritizing diversity and reaching back out to the female candidates who decided not to go forward in order to offer a path without the take-home project if they’d like to continue discussions. I’m proud of this CEO for being so proactive in iterating and improving!

Update: Textio’s CEO sent me some helpful tips regarding Take Home engineering

How Becoming a Dad Helped Me Become a VC

“Don’t stop asking me what it’s like to be a mom and an executive, just start asking dads the same question.” I can’t recall the conference or, unfortunately, the specific woman, but I remember being struck by this answer (which was in response to some rote ‘so, what’s it like being a CEO and a mom?’ question). This was before I became a parent myself but it felt right. More honest and open than pretending we’re not impacted, in all sorts of ways, by becoming a parent.

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Our daughter arrived early in 2012 and she was instrumental in my decision to leave Google and start a venture fund with my good friend and former colleague Satya Patel. Homebrew was about living my most authentic life. Google – still a great job and great company – had become a stable but not always enjoyable place for me and I worried that she’d learn the wrong lessons observing me hold on to the status quo. So I leapt. And now she gets to see me building my own business, supporting other men and women trying to build theirs. It’s not about prepping her for YC 2030 but instead giving her confidence to do whatever she wants, even if it doesn’t yet exist!

Which relates to another transformation that I think gives me a better shot of becoming a successful investor. As a dad my goal isn’t to tell her what she should be but help her become the best version of herself. I think of our role as early stage investors in the same way (albeit less paternal obviously, but still with a lot of emotion). We want to back founders who have a strong vision of what their company could be and just help them get there. Ultimately they need to build a startup they’re going to be proud of.

Wondering if other friends in the industry felt becoming a dad changed them professionally, I asked a few people. Here’s how two of them replied:

Jonathan Abrams, CEO Nuzzel

“Being a parent for me has meant no longer being able to brute-force the todo list by working to 2 am, since I might get woken up at 4 am5 am, and 6 am.  Instead I’ve had to be more ruthless about prioritization and saying no.  On the other hand, it’s brought perspective.  My kids don’t care at all what TechCrunch or some VC thinks of me.  One thing that has NOT happened:  a single journalist ever asking me how I manage to combine being a startup CEO with being the parent of small children.  I doubt that would be the case if I were a female founder.”

Jason Spinell, Head of Slack’s Corporate Venture Fund

How becoming a dad changed/shaped the approach to my work

Appreciation 
Even the littlest things illicit immense joy for a toddler. Fatherhood has made me stop and not take for granted how lucky I am to engage, learn, and work with amazing people on a daily basis.
Perseverance 
His willingness to continually strive to achieve a task is astonishing. I think about this a lot in regards helping coach founders though all stages/cycles of their businesses.
Beginners mind
For a toddler, everything is new. A great reminder to be a sponge. It’s ok not to know everything.
Time management/What is most important – 
Time is not mine anymore. Have become very intentional around how I spend it.
—-
Thanks Jonathan and Jason for sharing! And let me also plug Winnie, a great app for modern parents to get advice and find kid-friendly restaurants, parks, etc.

What I Learned Backing Female Founders: Every One Has a #MeToo Story

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When the #MeToo hashtag broke wide, one of the consistent remarks from men was “wow, feels like every woman I know has been harassed in some form.” And the consistent reaction from women was, “well, duh. Did you not know that?”

My own journey from the Land of Naive Male occurred earlier this decade, and it came from backing enough female founders to see a trend emerge. Homebrew will be five years old in April but we seem to fund companies with a female founder ~5x more frequently than our industry as a whole (26% vs ~5%).

Here’s what Hunter thought on Day One of Homebrew: “All female founders know of a female founder who has experienced some form of harassment.”

Here’s what Hunter realized after funding a number of female founders and being trusted enough to hear their stories: “All female founders have experienced some form of harassment, continue to experience harassment, and expect to experience harassment in the future.”

I was shocked (remember, I was still in the Land of Naive Male) and saddened by this. Saddened not on the “people should treat each other with respect and feel safe” or “I have a daughter!” tip, but because it’s so friggin’ hard to start and grow a company. Can you imagine having to do so with the practical and emotional load of ongoing harassment, sexism and consistently being underestimated? To murder a famous quote, these women do everything Jack Dorsey does, except backwards and in heels!

And we’re so thankful these women soldier on because they’re building amazing companies that are going to be tremendous investments for us. As an industry it’s “easy” to decry the most egregious repeat abusers once brave women out them – see Scoble this week – but harder for us to look at our own individual practices and ensure we’re creating a supportive and safe environment. Difficult to look in the mirror when we can instead rage tweet at someone worse. Challenging to realize that we’re part of a system that has systematically held women back. And that I, as a man, have benefitted from this status quo. So to any man reading this, our choice (but really our responsibility) is to ask, “what do I do – or permit – that leaves women feeling unsafe, belittled or minimized?” Because I believe solving this problem involves admitting there’s always an answer to that question, even for the best-intended of us.

What It’s Like Attending the New York Times “Page One” Meeting

A few weeks back my friend Millie Tran invited me to attend the daily morning News meeting at the New York Times. I’ve been a HUGE Times fanboy since growing up in NY and while I’ve had the chance to visit their offices many times, I’d never seen the inner workings like this. Well, at least not outside of the famous documentary Page One (the morning news meeting *used* to be called the “Page One” meeting during the Times’ more print-centric days).

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Scene from the Page One meeting, circa 2003

What I didn’t tell Millie was that I wouldn’t be attending alone. You see, when I travel my daughter gives me one of her stuffed animals to take along and send her back pictures of our adventures together.

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The News meeting is staffed in-person by all the top editors and called into by the Washington bureau and any other editorial leads who happen to be remote that day. The session lasts 30 minutes or so and it’s an around the room format where each section lead describes any of the big articles they’re running that day (or week) as well as anything they think the rest of the team needs to know. This was the Monday morning after the Harvey Weinstein harassment piece and it was really fascinating to get an inside look at how they thought the coverage was received and the follow-up work going on across several sections.

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Bunny gets an inside look at how the New York Times works

I came away really impressed by how collaborative the editors are together. It was also pretty thrilling to get the inside scoop on some reporting that wouldn’t be public for another day or so. For example, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down was hitting stores the next day and the Times was reviewing it in the daily paper – an honor that among Young Adult books had only been granted to the Harry Potter series. John’s a friend from my YouTube days and it was fun to hear that the review would be a positive one, even if I couldn’t share the news with him in advance (ethics!).

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John Green, my sister, and me at his book launch performance

Editors who attend the News meeting are allowed to bring guests (we’re announced at the start so no one is surprised). If you can swing an invite, I’d highly recommend taking it in. Especially if your only frame of reference for major metropolitan newspapers is this guy…

daily bugle

How Tech for Campaigns Has Helped 3,000+ Techies Make a Difference in Progressive Politics

I met Jessica Alter when she was running FounderDating, which helped solo founders discover their perfect cofounders. Like many of us, the 2016 Presidential Election alarmed her, but unlike many of us, she’s doing something more than just rage tweeting. Jessica, along with two cofounders, started Tech for Campaigns, which connects tech volunteers with the campaigns of progressive candidates for skill-based volunteering. Their momentum has been impressive and I’m a donor, so wanted to learn and share a bit more.

Hunter Walk: For folks just learning about this effort, what is Tech for Campaigns? How’d it get started? Where is it now?

Jessica Alter: Tech for Campaigns (TFC) is the digital arm for centrist and progressives. TFC brings digital and tech to down ballot political campaigns – both by building shared technical solutions and by matching our community of 3,000 tech volunteers campaigns. We have 50 campaign projects projects active or completed, since we started in February and we’re crowdfunding now to begin to scale up to 500 campaign projects for the 2018 midterms.

It turns out that since 2009, the Democrats have lost control of 39 state bodies and 900 seats (net) at the state level. In the meantime, Democratic campaign’s spend about $.05-$.10 of every $1 they raise on digital. The Republicans outspend them 3:1 on just Google digital channels (2016). There is a major deficit on the tech and digital side for Dems. When we learned this we realized that we could help, that building a tech army – replete with people, repeatable best practices and technology – is vital to changing political outcomes.

HW: Were you involved with politics prior to cofounding T4C?

JA: I was not involved with politics previously, nor were my cofounders (Pete Kazanjy and Ian Ferguson). I’d characterize each of us as politically inclined but not politically involved. We’re all tech entrepreneurs who were incredibly frustrated and saw an opportunity to make a real and lasting impact.

Importantly, 60% of our volunteers have never previously been involved with politics outside of voting or giving. The silver lining of the 2016 election is that people woke up. They want to be involved. For those with hard skills, they want to use their skills to contribute and have it feel meaningful.

HW: How do volunteers get matched with a campaign and have any of them gone even further – such as leaving their job to work on these issues fulltime? How can people get involved?

JA: It’s an assisted marketplace model. Our campaign relations team talks to every new political campaign to understand their needs and recommend specific projects – often from a menu we’ve developed. Each project is scoped with timelines, metrics and deliverables. Based on the skills needed and affinities (hometown, current city, etc) we send the opportunities to volunteers who are potential matches and form a project team – they opt-in to each project.

Each project team is about 3-5 people, including one team lead who goes through a separate training and is main liaison with the campaign. Then they work in weekly sprints the way teams at many companies would – weekly check-ins with the team and the campaign, trello boards, slack. No project phase is longer than 8 weeks, so when they volunteer they know how many hours/week and how many weeks they are committing to.

HW: Within establishment organizations such as the DNC, how has T4C been received?

JA: TFC is friendly with the establishment organizations but not reliant. We talk to the DNC, DCCC, DLCC and the like and they are supportive – they’ve been clear they are not going to build a digital arm at this scale and refer campaigns to us. They can’t help that many campaigns. For example, the DCCC probably picks 20 campaigns/cycle for their frontline program – their program that helps high potential or at-risk seats. Tech for Campaigns will help 15-20x that many campaigns. So the scale in numbers and impact is different.

We do work very closely with state caucuses. They run the state legislative campaigns, where we focus, and we work with the caucus to give them a digital makeover of sorts and then fan out to the campaigns we jointly identify as high priority. It’s the model we’ve used in Virginia for their 2017 elections. We’ll have done 35 projects on 15 campaigns (including the caucus) in Virginia alone by November 7, 2017.

HW: There’s some feelings that the tech community has a savior complex when it comes to politics – they think they can just burst in and fix everything. Several organizations have failed. Why is TFC different?

JA: We understand the legacy feelings and, to some extent, they are warranted. But we’re trying to be a resource to campaign managers; to share our digital expertise and tools to help them win. There are a few things that differentiate us:

  1. We pair people with technology – we’re building tech infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed to campaigns, but we don’t just hand them technology. We give them expert teams to implement. Giving one without the other doesn’t work in politics.
  2. We know there is no silver bullet – there are several major problems in the politics. Digital and data, which we are tackling, is one of them – and candidate selection and grassroots organizing, and…We get that, we’re not saying tech is the panacea, we’re saying it’s one of the key areas in which we need to build a competitive advantage.

To this end, part of a what we’re trying to do with our current crowdfunding campaign is start a conversation. We’ve paired up major tech leaders – Kara Swisher, Dick Costolo and Sam Altman – with major political leaders – Senator Cory Booker, Former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul and candidate for Governor in Georgia, Stacey Abrams- to do fireside chats that our backers get exclusive access to and can set the agenda. These conversations need to happen to bridge the gap.

For donors, who want to see real change we’re also different. Just giving money to campaigns or central bodies isn’t helpful because the spend mix is outdated. When donors give to Tech for Campaigns they know that it will definitely go towards getting hundreds and eventually thousands of candidates to use best practices on digital in a scalable manner.

To get involved consider donating to our Indiegogo campaign which runs through Election Day, Nov 7th (but you should really click RIGHT NOW)

Twitter Needs a Public Police Blotter

Twitter’s general policy is to not comment on the actions taken against a specific account deemed to be in violation of its Terms of Service. Occasionally in high profile or controversial cases they’re forced to present clarifications, such as yesterday’s tweets from @Safety regarding Rose McGowan’s suspension.

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Today there exists a trust gap between Twitter’s professed interest in decreasing abuse on the platform and the community’s experience day-to-day using the product. There are lots and lots of blog posts about why Twitter has struggled in this area and plenty of suggestions as to how to revise their product and policies. In fact, two of them are mine — My House, Your House and Don’t Let Abusers @ Name, informed by my longtime on the Twitter platform as a user and my product leadership stint at YouTube. But this next suggestion actually reaches further back in my career to a social creative environment which in some ways was more challenging to manage than Twitter….. the virtual world Second Life.

I had the pleasure of working at Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, during approximately its first three years of existence. We were a small team – got as large as 30 people during my tenure – and I had the chance to work on product, marketing and whatever other issues became pressing for the startup. We considered the product to be a platform, not a game, and the immense freedom of the virtual environment meant it would be impossible for us to programmatically enforce all our community standards; we were going to have to rely upon user reporting in addition. And the team wanted to make sure that the world felt open, guided by norms and personal preferences rather than a place where we enforced a strict standard of interactions.

This left us with a challenge – how to signal to the users that we cared about the ToS without creating the feeling of a police state, which limited creativity and made us solely responsible (not in a legal sense, but removed the feeling that Second Life was only going to be successful if users took accountability for their actions too)? How to provide a feedback loop while still protecting the identity of individuals on the platform? Since we were creative a virtual world we ended up borrowing a construct from the real one: a crime blotter.

Up until Second Life, the vast majority of online communities, especially massively multiplayer online games, didn’t want to discuss how they handled griefing and misbehavior. They worried that it gave fame (an incentive!) to the griefers – ie an achievement mindset where you’d want to prove you were ingeniously destructive enough to do something that the community managers had to address publicly. One byproduct of this silence was that it eliminated the important feedback loop of a platform’s owners signaling they cared, and thus enrolling the public in maintaining the norms of the platform. Mutual trust.

To combat this within Second Life I reached into my grad school days at Stanford and my bemusement with the police blotter of the local newspaper. The attraction, as you can see below, was initially because Palo Alto was generally so bucolic that tiny little annoyances made the crime reports. But even this helped support the sense of peace and quiet. The neighborhood was so safe that “annoying children” were an investigable report.

palo alto police blotter

So we created the Second Life Incident Reports summary where we summarized the number of violations on the service for a given time period (during the early years we experimented with also noting which server they took place on – sort of the “neighborhood” portion of the Palo Alto blotter). Here’s a snapshot I found online presenting the types of infractions summed over an unknown time period.

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Like many of our design decisions this feature was [pats self on back] quite innovative and I know it influenced other game/community designers down the road. But back to Twitter…

I’m of the belief that Twitter should publish a “This Quarter in Trust & Safety” four times a year. It should summarize some of the features and improvements they’ve made to help keep the platform productive. It should talk about what they’re working on for next quarter. And it should contain some version of the Twitter Police Blotter, which lets us know aggregate numbers of bots taken down, accounts warned, accounts blocked and so on, perhaps even with some categorization for cause. We need to know that our flagging of tweets matters. We need to know that Twitter takes this more seriously than “thoughts and prayers.” And we need to meet in the middle on this – I respect Twitter’s rights to not want to always comment on individual situations and that there can be situational grey areas which require policies to be updated or decisions to be reversed. But sharing more data publicly would be a good step towards making the black box a bit more transparent.

How This Anxious Introvert Handles Large Events

If you only kinda know me you might think I’m a confident extrovert, but if you really really know me, it’s more clear: I’m an introvert, and one who gets slightly anxious during prolonged exposure to large groups. Introversion isn’t shyness and it’s not a like or dislike of people generally. For example, I really enjoy public speaking. Introversion is quintessentially “does being around other people give you energy or take energy away?” Introverts can be proverbial life of the party but then need time alone to recharge.

My own introversion is compounded by low level anxiety in large group settings, especially when the social dynamics start to approximate high school – you know, groups of people, some of whom know each other and others who don’t. A bit of hierarchy and peacocking starting to play out, alcohol flowing (I don’t drink much).

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Over time, and in the interest of self-care, here’s how I’ve approached my own expectations and behaviors at events, especially day-long or multi-day conferences:

A. Depth Not Breadth When Meeting New People at Conferences: The routine went like this – end up at a conference with 100+ amazing people. Assume that “doing a good job” meant meeting and impressing all of them. Then beat myself up when I retreated from this goal after shaking a bunch of hands and finding myself unfulfilled, exhausted. So I changed my definition of success. It’s fine if I end up seeing a bunch of people but, really, if I can have meaningful conversations with just five, 10, 15 people over the course of a day, that’s a win.

B. When I Feel Ready to Ghost, Stay 30m Longer: Before I’d quietly slip away whenever I felt the first tingles of “uh I don’t want to be here anymore.” Now I recognize that impulse, honor it, exhale and see if I’m cool staying another 30 minutes. Once I do this check-in I’m totally ok bouncing after 30 if that’s still the way I’m feeling, but often I’ll end up hanging out much longer without even knowing it.

C. Take 30-60 Minute Recharges: Look for points in the schedule where it’s ok for me to go take a walk, grab a coffee, take a shower or exercise. Things that put me in another headspace and recharge me. Yeah so it’s not that I wasn’t interested in your panel topic, it’s that I needed some Hunter time.

D. Pull People Aside for 1:1s: As Joe Greenstein knows from an annual conference we both attend, I’m a big fan of catching up over a 1:1 walk, even offsite from the event. I find this technique especially good at evening events where instead of a loud noisy drinking circle, I’ll find someone I wanted to spend time with and we’ll find a location to just sit and chat for 20-30 minutes before releasing back into the frenzy.

E. Don’t Go In the First Place: With Homebrew, Satya and I kind of ‘divide and conquer’ when it comes to events, and we’re more likely to both decide not to go to something versus “arguing” over who should attend a fancy event. When we do both attend the joke is that I’m good 6am to 4pm and he then takes over 5pm to 2am. Near 24/7 coverage! But the pressure that I might have felt 10-15 years ago to attend every conference is gone. And you know what, the types of early stage founders we tend to resonate with most substantially aren’t on the conference circuit either. So instead of taking that week-long international trip, I’m in SF putting sweat behind our investments or meeting founders back home. Investing is generally about being self-aware enough to run your own playbook and pushing yourself when you need to, but not being all things to all people.

goldfish leap

How about the other anxious introverts out there – what are your strategies for conferences and events?

Suggestions from the Crowd: 

  • Get attendee lists in advance to identify folks you know who are attending or people with whom you have mutual friends/interests
  • Asking people I know at the event to introduce me to people I don’t. Even if I only know 1 person at first, this lets me have many convos…
  • Also use a buddy system – Bringing a guest puts me at ease and makes it easier to meet new people