Alan Noble has been the Engineering Director for Google Australia and New Zealand, a hub with over 550 engineers, since 2007. His teams work on Google Maps, Apps, Chrome, and much more. In that time, tech has undergone a cultural shift. The topics of gender equality and diversity used to be mostly ignored by mainstream industry publications and major tech companies (still happening to a certain degree), but it’s rapidly becoming an industry norm to actively promote, measure and goal set for diversity. (Yes, even in Sweden, when I first started working in tech in 2011, the companies that were actively measuring diversity indicators and goal setting for diversity - like IBM and HP - were the exception, not the rule). The fact that we’re even writing this blog, hosted by NyTeknik, is a noticeable part of that cultural shift.
This shift at Google was most marked by its decision to publicly release its diversity data in 2014. But as you’ll read below, transforming from being a homogenous workforce into a more gender balanced and inclusive environment requires leadership, constant attention and a long-term strategy. Once the strategies are in place, though, the results can be very rapid. It’s especially difficult to go from a workplace with almost only male engineers, and very few female engineers, to, within a few years, a workplace that has successfully increased its gender balance. This interview is especially for those of you who feel stressed because you’re starting from a tough situation, with mostly male engineers, and very few female engineers. It’s possible for the numbers to change in a few short years, with leadership and commitment. This story is by no means over, because what Alan, Google, and honestly, the entire industry, are embarking upon is an ongoing process of cultural transformation. But let’s hear about it directly from Alan.
What are the concrete results that you've seen from your diversity work in Google AU?
Google Australia, much like Google globally, is still not where we want to be in terms of diversity of our workforce. Google took a bold step in 2014 in releasing our diversity data, as we wanted to be as transparent as possible. Many tech companies followed our lead as a result. This year, we have released our global data for gender, which shows a positive improvement, but we still have a long way to go. While I can’t share the country by country diversity stats, I can say that Google Australia is very similar to our global numbers in terms of gender. (Note: Global numbers are 18% women, 82% men on the tech side). However, in 2013, we were not - we were much lower and have since turned this around. It took quite a lot of work to significantly boost our number of female engineers so that we are now at the same level or higher than the global figure.
This change has happened as a result of us playing the long game, as well as the quick wins. In 2013, we launched the The STEP internship (Summer Trainee Engineering Program) in Australia. This intern program is designed for 1st and 2nd year university students from traditionally underrepresented groups in computer science. We launched this program four summers ago, aiming to give students practical experience early in their degree, creating an opportunity to get them excited about Google and inspired about a future career in CS. Since then, we have had over 100 STEP interns in Sydney and we’re starting to see the results, with many of these people now being converted to Google employees. And we are still going - this year Australia will host over 80 engineering interns, including 30 STEP interns who reflect a good gender balance, and come from diverse backgrounds such as from indigenous populations, LGBTi communities, and include students with varying levels of physical functionality.
When did you start the work?
We have had a number of diversity efforts for several years, but it wasn’t until 2013 that we made a public commitment as a company.
What was the biggest motivating factor to improve (the business case)?
Google’s mission is to increase access to information, and our approach to diversity is a natural extension of that mission: to increase access to opportunity by breaking down barriers and empowering people through technology. The diversity of perspectives, ideas, and cultures, both within Google and in the tech industry overall, leads to the creation of better products and services.
What has worked well?
Bringing together people who are interested in creating change, while enabling them and empowering them to do so. Googlers are not afraid to take on big and complex challenges, so I knew that many people (from underrepresented groups or not!) would be interested in getting involved.
Employee Resource Groups have always been a really important part of Google culture for some time. For example, in Australia, we have a thriving community of Gayglers (our employee resource group for LGBTi employees, their friends, and allies) and Women@Google, amongst others. They not only create communities within Google, but inform our own programs and policies, so that we are a workplace that works for everyone.
Part of my personal learning was listening to the women in Engineering - they helped me shift my perspective and really understand what it was like to be a minority in a work environment. They were very honest in telling me that there was an impetus to not just change Google, but to change the entire tech industry. And I still rely heavily on “office hours” with GWEs (Google Women Engineers) to get direct feedback. Another strong influence was my daughter, and seeing her grapple firsthand with many of the issues confronting women in the workplace and beyond.
So in early 2013, Google Australia started our first Task Force for Diversity & Inclusion, a group of Tech Googlers who are working to make Google Australia the best workplace for everyone. We had some quick wins, such as making the workplace more welcoming by introducing situational awareness training (before it became a Google global practice). We also changed the way we ran internal events to make them more inclusive. For example, we no longer award wine as a present to recent promotees, instead awarding a pair of beautiful embossed glasses. We also made sure we had some long-term, systemic projects too, such as our internship program and STEM education outreach work, which are now starting to pay dividends. Today, the Taskforce is a growing collection of Googlers, who are all on offical 20% roles as part of Google’s global Diversity Core program.
What hasn't worked?
Relying on a small group of people to create the change. This involves all of us. And we will all benefit if we get it right. This is why we focus as much on the representation of our workforce as we do on inclusion - creating an environment where Googlers feel comfortable and can thrive at work, so they can be impactful, innovative, creative, and inspired.
What was the most challenging aspect of the diversity work?
This is slow and steady work. While we are excited about some of our quick wins, we know that changing the representation of an industry will take time and continued investment. Google has a holistic diversity strategy, which we have adapted for Australia.
What are you currently doing right now?
We have had some great wins on the hiring front with internships, and while we need keep the pedal to the metal, we are going further down the line to create systemic change for STEM in Australia. To create a tech industry that is accessible to everyone, we are engaging and developing the next generation of tech innovators through our outreach work. This focuses on entrepreneurship and STEM education in Australia, with a vision to enhance access to technology skills for all young people. One thing I am really proud of is our work with the Australian Government and Australian universities in the the development and rollout of a national Digital Technologies Curriculum. This puts a new, strong focus on computational thinking in Australian schools right from foundational levels, providing the strongest possible pathway for students to engage with and excel in computer science, and benefit from the careers it enables. Long term bets such as this set Australia up for the next ‘innovation generation’, enabling a wide range of people to shift from the consumers of technology, to creators of technology.
While we do this, we know that the challenges we are facing are more than just a ‘pipeline issue’. In this way, we are also ramping up our internal efforts to retain, develop, accelerate and include the people we already have working here.
Are you doing wage surveys to ensure equal pay, and if so, how often?
Google is a data-driven company and our approach to People Operations is no different. Our Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock recently explained how Google approaches our compensation process, which explains why we do not have a gender pay gap. We take this really seriously and do a thorough analysis of pay to ensure bias doesn’t play a part in pay. We encourage other companies to set and check their own processes as well.
What did you do to work on changing people's mindsets about inclusion and equality?
Everything starts with awareness, which meant talking about it - a lot! People need to understand that this is a priority - not just for me personally, but for Google. A really important first step was to make the unconscious conscious: research shows that when we are more aware of our unconscious bias, we can make more objective decisions. To date, more than 26,000 Googlers (including 80% of people managers) have engaged in a company-wide dialogue around how unconscious bias can affect perceptions of others, interactions with coworkers and clients, and the business overall. We hope this focus will not only foster a more inclusive workplace, but also make us a better company. Building a vocabulary for people to be able to have these discussions means we can become more aware of when something is amiss. Then we take action early and follow up to make sure we continue to make Google an awesome place to work.
How do you see diversity in terms of leadership, and in terms of being the Engineering Director for Google Australia and New Zealand?
Diversity and culture go hand in hand. As our most senior engineer in Australia, my job is to ensure that we build a great culture that supports diversity and inclusion, because this enables everything else. In large part, this is about engendering a civic responsibility that encourages everyone to invest time in doing the things that make our office a great place to work. For example, enlisting volunteers to host summer interns, in particular STEP interns, has been crucial. The STEP program would not have been a success unless the majority of Aussie Googlers were willing to get involved. Volunteering to help out with the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship program is another example. It’s certainly not about getting everyone to join our Task Force for Diversity & Inclusion. As we often say at Google, that would not scale :-)