Ensuring depth in diversity: Part 1

This is the first in a two-part series.

Globally, the IT industry, despite its meritocratic leanings, hasn’t been completely successful in treating all individuals fairly. Imagine if you were a woman, from a small nondescript college. Would it be difficult for you to break into the IT industry? Maybe a little. Now let’s take it up a notch. What if you were a  queer man of color unable to complete your education because of a lack of funds? What would be your chances of landing a job in Silicon Valley? Harder, you might say? Let’s go all out. What if you were born in an impoverished family belonging to a fringe group in a third-world nation? With less than a dollar a day to spare, would you have been able to bag a graduate’s degree to become eligible for recruitment by tech companies?    
Individuals, who represent the confluence of multiple diversity factors, find it doubly hard to pursue a career in tech. They are either unable to complete their education or do not fit the typical recruitment criteria of graduating from reputable universities. As a result, they are inadvertently, and ironically, sidelined by the very programs whose objective is to include them in the organization.

This two-part series explores the challenges in ensuring depth in diversity across two contrasting locations - India and the United Kingdom. It also highlights some success that we’ve had in implementing programs that challenge the industry norms vis-a-vis recruitment.  

ThoughtWorks Software Technology Excellence Programme (STEP) - India

At ThoughtWorks, ensuring diversity and inclusion forms the bedrock of our organizational culture. However, several years into its existence, ThoughtWorks India realized that their hiring strategy – that of recruiting graduates from engineering colleges – was, in fact, a diversity bottleneck.

ThoughtWorker Srijayanth Sridhar explains, “ThoughtWorks' hiring pool has traditionally been engineering colleges. This meant that the only people who came through were the ones who could afford such an education. We felt that there was another set of people who were just as good, but lacked the opportunities and the means to acquire the requisite educational qualifications.”

Let’s consider Sarita, a young woman from Andhra Pradesh, India, for instance. Here she relates her challenges, in her own words: “In the village where I come from, people don't understand the value of education, especially that of girls. No girl in my village has studied past the tenth grade. As a result, my family experienced immense societal pressure to discontinue my education. However, I managed to get admission into one of the better diploma colleges in my state. But the financial condition of my family prevented me from staying in a hostel. The college was located three hours away from my house and I made this journey back and forth for three years to obtain a diploma.”
Bright and exceptionally motivated, Sarita seems like an obvious candidate for the ThoughtWorks internship program, doesn’t she? Except for the fact that she has a Diploma, and not a Degree, which she couldn’t attain because of the juxtaposition of the unique challenges of her life.

On a typical day, Sarita and many other talented, driven, and hard-working youth like her would have been disqualified from pursuing a life in tech by the industry’s eligibility criteria. However, today she is interning at ThoughtWorks - a result of her induction into ThoughtWorks Software Technology Excellence Programme (STEP).

Modifying processes and expectations

ThoughtWorks India began, in 2011, to hire interns from diploma colleges - vocational colleges that offer 2 to 3-year programmes in the trades, similar to an Associate Degree in many parts of the world.  ThoughtWorks India realized that this could not be a typical internship, and that it would have to be a cohesive program that includes both training and hands-on work. Srijayanth explains: “It is structured this way in order to bridge the gap. Traditional internships work when the gap between an education and the industry isn't vast. Interns we recruit, however, come from a vocational system, which often doesn't provide them with a significant practical education. We wanted to create a tight feedback loop between learning and working and ensure that the interns are up to date and can participate as ThoughtWorkers and not remain token interns.

Eventually, the idea took root, and ThoughtWorks Software Technology Excellence Programme (STEP) came into being. The STEP internship now accepts Diploma holders in all subjects, and not just in Computer Science. The programme is structured in the form of three semesters over the course of two years, split into one year of classroom training and one year of hands-on project experience at one of the ThoughtWorks India offices with ongoing learning and support. The ThoughtWorks STEP method of teaching includes a mix of lectures, practical sessions, case studies and group discussions. The topics vary, focusing on technical and coding skills as well as professional and communication skills.

Upon completion of the internship, these individuals become members of our professional services team and continue their work on projects across India. The interns are paid a stipend to support themselves throughout the programme. ThoughtWorks also pays the cost of their tuition to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Nurturing relationships and transforming lives

However, there is a lot more to the programme than meets the eye, insists Srijayanth: “Just letting them in through the door won’t do. You’ve got to make them believe that they are a part of the family. You’ve got to treat them like family. And that takes time; a lot more time than the two years of the programme.

He further explains how STEP is a huge responsibility: “You pick them up from a traditional stream where they might have had certain employment opportunity. You have now taken two years away from them. If at the end of it you discover it doesn’t work for you or them, that’s an enormous loss to them. If you don’t make them believe that they belong to the system, the profession, then you are leaving them in a much worse situation than you found them in.

This means that trainers like him need to be closely involved in the lives of their trainees. First, they must continuously optimize the 2-year programme to ensure that the trainees’ skillset continues to be in demand even years later. Second, Srijayanth insists, it is a huge emotional commitment: “To date over a 100 people have graduated from the programme, and they all are family. We talk all the time. Another thing, it is not easy to manage 15-18 year-olds. At any time you are equal parts trainer, friend, enemy, surrogate, call-it-what-you-will. It is a huge emotional demand to make the transformations that are necessary. Most importantly, you need to understand that this isn’t just a 2-year commitment. Once involved, you’ve kickstarted an unofficial 15-20 year long mentoring cycle. So you need to be around!

Success: One story at a time

STEP has now existed for 5 of ThoughtWorks India’s 15-year long existence. The program has produced 100 full time hires with another 51 on track to be hired this summer. When seen from afar, the programme may seem like a tiny blip on diversity’s radar. But to the programme’s participants, the experience has been transformational. Mahesh, a STEP intern, is an only child of a single parent from Andhra Pradesh. Unable to afford even a ceiling fan in the blistering Indian summer, his mother defied societal pressure and economic hardships to continue her son’s education. Here is his story, slightly reworded for clarity.

At school, I wasn’t considered a good student because I didn’t like memorization. Our relatives advised my mom, a single parent, not to send me to school but to engage me in menial jobs to add to the family income. However, my mom knows the value of education and regretted her inability to complete her own studies. So, even though we were struggling financially, she worked hard to educate me. I developed an interest in Programming after I joined a Diploma program in Computers. With the right infrastructure, advice and direction, I knew I was capable of a lot more. Then STEP happened. The program not only taught me job-ready skills, but helped me understand myself better. My self-esteem increased. I learned that I should 'listen to understand' instead of 'listen to reply'. My world used to be my home and school and nothing else. STEP opened my eyes to all the possibilities around me. I feel like I have taken a rebirth through STEP.

Making a #HomeInTech a reality

Diversity is rooted in struggle. And unfortunately, not all struggles make it to the headlines. When mapping our organizations’ depth of diversity, we must look at the outliers in the scatter chart – individuals who do not fit the traditional categories under which diversity is defined or those who lie at the intersection of several diversity indicators. Interestingly, such an approach also makes business sense, because it gives us increased capacity at little or no cost to the client.
The key is to detect and break patterns in recruitment. This might mean seeking talent in offbeat places. Or relaxing certain requirements and providing the support needed to bridge the gap later. And hiring just by aptitude and potential.

In the second part of this series, we’ll talk about how ThoughtWorks UK has turned tables on diversity bottlenecks with the ThoughtWorks Scholarship.

Note: Names of interns have been changed to ensure privacy.