16 April 2017
Denali Lumma is a Senior Technology and People Leader, with close to 20 years’ experience. Her advice on the profitability and importance of diversity in the workplace is eye-opening, and she gives us insight into some of the forward-thinking initiatives she is leading at Uber to increase diversity, retention/attrition, and overall happiness in the workplace!
Tell me about how you started your career in technology.
As a kid, I was always interested in both Math and English. I’ve also been very impatient. Throughout my life, I seem to have done things in reverse. When I was in high school, I moved out of my parents’ house and got my own apartment at age 16. Still in high school, I worked after school as a barista in a coffee shop. I had very little money to pay for my tiny room in my tiny apartment, but I was self-sufficient. I grew up faster than others around me.
It didn't seem right to go to college once I graduated; I wanted to experience the world. A lot of people waste their college experience and don’t make good use of it, so I’m glad I didn’t fall into that trap.
It was the late 90’s in Silicon Valley. Through a mixture of luck and circumstance, a friend of mine who was working for a start-up needed help with their website. I taught myself the basics of HTML editing and was hired as a junior member of the engineering team. At that time, there was a deficit in technical workers. In that job, for many months, I worked around the clock. I kept a sleeping bag under my desk. These days, there are so many resources online for training, but at that time there wasn’t that much content. So, a lot of those months were spent staring at the computer and crying; and then continuing to study the problem, eventually arriving on the solution.
The company also needed help with dynamic web pages. I offered to try to build some of the simpler ones, for example, those just requiring simple reading and writing to the database. I studied Java Programming and Object Oriented Design. Sometime later, the company was purchased by Walmart to deliver the Walmart.com eCommerce site, and I worked for Walmart.com for a number of years on that. It remains to this day one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I can’t speak highly enough about my experience there.
After working in the industry for about five years, I decided to go to college. Much of what is needed for industry work isn’t taught in college, and some things are only taught in college and don’t come up in industry. I wanted to study more of the theoretical aspects of computer science that I wouldn’t be exposed to at work.
You taught yourself HTML in high school, and later worked as a self-taught Java developer. What motivated you to learn those things on your own?
I was motivated because it was tied to a potential job. If it had just been a course/class I wouldn’t have been as motivated. In general, I’ve always been drawn to projects that I can volunteer for or contribute to that have real application in the world.
What are your thoughts on networking and building professional relationships in your industry? Has this helped your career?
A lot of powerful, positive connections come about when I ask myself “how can I help?”, or ”who can I help this week?” I’ve noticed that whenever I go out of my way to reach out to someone and find out if there’s something I can do to help it always comes back to me tenfold. I find this to be true in my work and my personal life. I try to think about who might be having a challenge, and then just send them a simple message. It is a powerful tool.
Another important part of networking is public speaking - I’ve worked hard to create more public speaking opportunities to younger engineers in the field. People don’t understand how important it is and are sometimes afraid of it. Like most things, with practice, it becomes easy. Public speaking has a magnifying effect on your career, whether it be at public events, or even internally at your own company. Try to publish these presentations online later. When you have a presence online with previous presentations people can see what you are doing and opportunities will naturally align with your interests and expertise. Public speaking, about anything really, is something people should take seriously in terms of career growth. Event organisers are always looking for speakers - literally anyone who wants to talk about something will have the opportunity to do it. Reach out to event organisers and tell them you’d like to speak. I guarantee there will be an opportunity for you!
You have one of the most diverse engineering teams in any industry - how did you achieve that? What can managers do to create more diverse and inclusive work environments?
This is an area that's very near and dear to my heart. It’s something I've spent a lot of time and effort working on and thinking about. Here are some aspects of what to do that I see as effective...
Everyone on the team needs to feel like they have a clear path towards professional growth. There needs to be opportunities that support them to move to the next step. Employees need a clear vision of where the team is headed, where the company is headed, and where they are headed.
The recruiting pipeline is important, but there needs to be a much more concerted focus put into retention and attrition. Retention and attrition are the most important metrics for diversity, employee happiness and team health, in my opinion. Any company will tell you that if the customer churn rate is over 20% there is a serious problem. Most companies have 25% attrition rate each year. This means that the cost of recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, training have all been sunk for one quarter of their entire staff each year. If this is unacceptable for customers, why is it acceptable for a company’s staff? Modern companies will put more effort and focus into retention and attrition for everyone, and especially for people who bring a unique perspective and experience.
We see equal numbers of men and women apply for technical work, but these numbers drop off steeply for women after the phone screen, and then again the interview. Fewer women are hired, and additionally the attrition rate is more dramatic. The most important question for diversity in my opinion is, how do we create a work environment where people feel like they have a future, they have the resources to help solve problems which will inevitably come up, and feel that it doesn't require leaving their current company to solve these problems. How can we create an environment where underrepresented people belong, feel rewarded, respected, and treated fairly?
That's the work we need to do to drive diversity in our teams. More diverse teams are more effective; they perform better. The reason is, ideas need to be questioned, vetted and thought through carefully with sufficient supporting evidence. This process doesn't happen as much when you have a team of people with homogeneous backgrounds. It does happen much more in a team of people who have different backgrounds, cultures, assumptions, etc. That’s why diversity is profitable.
Tell me about the work you're doing around People Engineering.
This is a very exciting initiative that I pitched to our CTO last November. Our company had sent out a cultural survey across the company with questions about how they felt about their work environment. My organisation was anomalously positive in this survey; we were an outlier.
I asked our CTO to fund a group that would allow us to use data to drive tools to help people be more successful at work. The organisation would be broken out into four teams to begin with - recruiting technologies, individual contributor technologies, manager technologies, and a data platform group.
We’ve just finished shipping our first round of products; and one of the products I’m most excited about is an internal mobility tool which allows people to transfer to different projects and teams easily. If they are already here and they have successfully interviewed, been on-boarded, trained etc. (all these things are very costly) we should work to help them stay here. If they are having trouble with their manager or no longer excited about their project, they don’t have to leave the company, they can find another manager and a new project that is in line with what they are looking for. The company doesn’t have to recoup the costs of another instance of attrition. Additionally, when we have problems with a project, or a manager, this process will provide a strong feedback mechanism for senior leaders.
Another tool I’m very excited to be shipping is a resume parsing tool which removes any gender or ethnicity identifiers. The tool will scan resumes for work related experience. The tool will alert the hiring manager about relevant resumes. We are building machine learning models which use current employee resumes to look for key indicators of good fit. We hope this tool will remove a lot of bias as well as automate the process of resume review to ensure that all resumes which are submitted are considered.
Those are some of the things we are doing now. We want to use data to provide a very consistent, unbiased feedback mechanism for managers to make decisions on hiring, promoting, and firing based on a consistent data set rather than personal bias.
What are your thoughts on education and certifications in relation to career success?
I think that courses and certifications are awesome if you have the interest, time and funding. Always check with your employer first, most will cover the cost or help with the cost because it’s a win-win situation. They get an employee who is better trained, the employee gains more marketable skills.
Certificates are not necessarily the most important item for all fields - what matters most in my field is practical knowledge and the ability to demonstrate that. However, education matters in the sense that it can help to develop practical knowledge, which is very important.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to move into a position like yours?
In terms of career progression, the path I took was probably consistent with many others. First, you must work as an individual contributor and build deep knowledge in a particular domain. Pick an area, and go deep there. Go deep enough that you can start to direct the larger work efforts and lead the team technically. Transitioning into full time management is then a good (but not the only) natural progression. After managing a team directly, the next step is to build out solutions that address problems requiring multiple teams to coordinate. In other words, help groups coordinate together to achieve something bigger than what they could have achieved on their own. Then, look to supporting and coordinating groups of leaders.
The first step is to become a domain expert. Whatever is interesting to you - you can’t go wrong. Something you’re personally excited about. Don’t waste your time! If you’re not interested in the work you’re doing, try to limit the time you spend doing it and find a job or project that you are interested in. Don’t give up, and don’t take things too personally. You will have failures - worry if you’re not failing enough! Each day you should have at least one failure. If not, you’re not taking enough risks.
The other advice I have is, be authentic with people and have authentic connections. Don’t be afraid to always be honest, (though always with compassion).