To create technology that meets the needs of all its potential users, companies should form teams of engineers and developers that are diverse, thus hiring individuals of different genders, backgrounds, and with varying perspectives.
The process of designing and developing new technological tools can be vastly enriched by diversity, ultimately resulting in products that are more effective and that take into account the unique qualities that characterise different segments of the population.
With this in mind, more companies have recently started hiring and training more female engineers, as well as engineers from different cultural backgrounds. Despite this recent push towards greater diversity, the tech scene is still far from being fully diverse, with the global engineering workforce is still largely comprised of white males.
One technology company that has recently been working to enhance diversity both among its employers and in the overall tech landscape is Red Hat, a multinational software company with headquarters in North Carolina. Red Hat, which has recently become a subsidiary of IBM, specialises in the development of open-source software products for enterprise use, including cloud applications and solutions for the effective automation of everyday tasks.
Joanna Hodgson, who is currently Director of Pre-sales at Red Hat, has substantial experience in building effective teams and enhancing diversity within tech companies.
Before she started working at Red Hat, she covered different technical presales and senior business roles at leading computing company IBM, where she worked for almost 25 years. At Red Hat, she is currently involved in numerous initiatives aimed at encouraging young women to study STEM subjects and learn about careers in tech.
Over the course of her career, Joanna has had the chance to observe first-hand the characteristics that make teams more efficient, as well as the potential, value, and shortcomings of various diversity initiatives. In this insightful interview with Electronics Point, she shares some of the valuable lessons she has learned over the past three decades while working closely with engineers of different genders and backgrounds.
Joanna Hodgson, Director of Pre-sales at Red Hat.
Ingrid Fadelli: Before we start, could you tell us a bit about your academic and professional background, as well as your current role at Red Hat?
Joanna Hodgson: At university, in Glasgow, I studied Computer Science followed by a teaching qualification. At school, computer science wasn’t a subject offered, but during the university open days, the staff made me feel like the department was a perfect fit for me. They did not care that I hadn’t studied it at school (in fact they preferred it, as there were no bad habits for them to unteach), and were most interested in learning that I had previously studied music.
They told me that musicians made excellent computer scientists. I don’t know if there’s any evidence backing this assertion, but they made me feel that I had the perfect background and this was the subject that I should study. They made me feel welcome and included.
After university, I joined IBM, where I started supporting developers as part of their technical sales team. While at IBM, I had the opportunity to grow my career, changing roles every two or three years, which ultimately allowed me to always gain new experiences and skills.
I now work at Red Hat, where I am the Director of Presales, managing a team of solution architects that help our clients solve business problems with open-source software. Every day is different, depending on the programs and clients or partners I’m working with. Recently, I have been working on developing our team’s graduate program, which we launched in September 2018. This is a project that I am very excited about. I still consider myself relatively new to Red Hat and I am learning more about our products and culture every day. Red Hat invests a lot in its people and continuous development is thoroughly embraced within the company.
IF: What aspects of your job do you find most enjoyable or gratifying, and which ones more challenging?
JH: The best moments for me are always associated with helping others. This could be helping a client to implement improvements that can, in turn, simplify the life of its employees or customers. I greatly cherish all the times when people have thanked me for some advice or support I’ve given them and said that I was able to help them achieve something. Being able to help others develop and grow is why I became a manager in the first place and what I still love about it.
IF: Can you share a little about your motivations and desire to speak on the topics of women in tech, diversity in the tech industry, and promoting an open culture in the workplace?
JH: I worry that as technology becomes ever more pervasive, if women are only consumers of these technologies rather than designers of it, then they won’t have an equal say in how we will live our lives as they would if they played an active part in creating or programming it. With more women working in STEM, we will have technology that addresses a more diverse set of needs; technology that is in balance with society.
In order to achieve this, the industry needs to see diversity as an imperative and have a very broad appeal as a career for females. Creating an open culture in the workplace is the one really important thing that the industry can do. Ideally, it would be great if companies could work to create workplace environments where the best ideas are adopted, no matter whose idea it was – a place where everyone feels that they have a voice and that their contribution matters.
IF: Why do you feel that corporations should encourage more diverse and inclusive workplaces? More specifically, why does it matter that employees from different backgrounds feel welcome and can this play a role in the success of a corporation or contribute to its positive reputation?
JH: Diversity matters on multiple levels. Firstly, it makes for better business. Study after study shows that we get better results, more innovation, and reduced (unconscious) bias in our solutions when teams are more diverse.
It also matters more broadly, because the world we live in needs to work for everyone and so all parts of society need to be represented in creating that world. With IT being so pervasive in our lives, the risk is that some groups are only ever consumers of IT and thus need to automatically adapt to, or live with the limitations of, a version of the technology that was designed by and for a small section of society.
Inclusion also matters, because no matter how diverse teams are, if the individuals in them do not feel included and accepted for who they are, they won’t be able to bring all their qualities to the table and this means that a company is limiting the potential benefit of that diversity.
IF: Considering your experience as a speaker on the ideas of inclusiveness, creating an open culture, and promoting diversity in the workplace—how relevant do you think these concepts are for a productive work environment?
JH: The ideas of an open, inclusive culture and leadership always resonate with audiences. They want to know how they can start, even if they are not in the most inclusive environment themselves. Just imagine how engaged these people would be if this was the sort of place they turned up to work every day. I believe that it’s very relevant and whatever improvement you can make towards greater inclusiveness for your colleagues, your team, or your company, it will be worth it.
IF: Based on your experience, what do you think motivates tech professionals to work better in different work settings?
JH: There are a few things that most tech professionals want:
Autonomy and the ability to self-direct their work.
The ability to master a subject and become an expert.
Meaningful work that matters to them, which they can be proud of.
To a greater or lesser extent, all IT companies, particularly big IT companies, offer this. What makes the difference is the environment and the culture that supports these things. Are their ideas heard and adopted? Are others willing to collaborate with them for the good of the idea? Do they feel supported? This is where an open culture can make a difference.
IF: Why do you think it’s important for corporations such as big tech firms or engineering manufacturers to consider promoting an ‘open culture’?
JH: An open culture encourages and empowers people, not just to bring out the best of themselves but also to get the best from others. In an open culture, this isn’t just a manager’s responsibility; it is everyone’s responsibility. All of us can work towards this by learning to draw upon others’ expertise, taking responsibility and initiative for working as a community member, gathering input and feedback on our own ideas and projects, and influencing others to participate. This way, collaboration and innovation can begin to happen consistently across a company all of the time, not only when requested.
IF: Based on your observations, what are the most prominent or ‘traditional’ approaches to working in a team adopted at tech companies?
JH: As a whole, people are hired as individuals based on their own merit, often meeting a similar profile as everyone else in the company. There is little or no consideration of how brilliant teams will be formed once new employees actually start working in the company. The problem with this is that it does not foster sufficient diversity, in all its variety, to ensure the formation of truly highly-functioning teams. A team full of individuals with one dominant profile can function well enough, but not as well as it could if there was greater variety in it. Such a team will also be more prone to miss alternative options because its members lack perspectives or insight that they collectively have no experience of.
IF: Based on your experience, what are the worst mistakes that a corporation and employers can do when (consciously or unconsciously) trying to create a particular work environment?
JH: One of the mistakes that I’ve personally experienced is in workshops. In an attempt to encourage greater diversity, I often see women split up and ‘shared around’ the teams so that each team has at least one woman. Whilst the intentions behind this strategy are good, it does not take the burden of always being a minority into account, as individual women should not be responsible for solving the diversity challenge. In other words, it appears to me as another way in which women are isolated, unnecessarily. This also happens at some schools with low numbers of girls choosing a particular degree or subject, such as physics. Rather than putting these girls in the same class so they feel like the core of the group, they’re split across different classes to ensure that there is at least one girl in each class.
IF: In your opinion, what unique challenges can women face in the technology field?
JH: One of the biggest challenges for women working in technology today is that they often are the only woman in the room, in their team, or at a given event. As a one-off, this isn’t a problem, but over and over it can be exhausting. Arguably, there is nothing inherently unique about women in this regard. If the environment is inclusive, you will get the best out of everyone no matter who they are. If it’s not, however, the risk is that an individual will self-censor his/her ideas to avoid standing out. In the long-term, this can end up stifling innovation.
IF: How can companies welcome women’s involvement and contribution to the tech industry?
JH: To welcome a women’s contribution, one first has to welcome more women into the company and try to create an open work environment. By and large, my experience is that companies do welcome women’s involvement and contribution once they’re in the company. From the outside, however, many companies do not appear as welcoming places for women, and this is something that definitely needs more work.
The challenge is that this is a complex problem, which often starts with perceptions of STEM subjects in school. This is changing, but rather slowly. One thing that the industry could do is work more collaboratively to address this. We all spend a lot of time tackling things in our own way and we haven’t really seen the needle move much over the past 20 years. Perhaps it is time for us to pool our ideas, build a community, and begin tackling this issue together.
IF: How do you think companies, from large corporations to small startups, can spark change in their work environment, making it more inviting and inclusive?
JH: There are, of course, many things that companies can do to help. One major change they could make is to take a fresh look at the flexibility of roles. When this is done well, it can benefit everyone; yet it is still frequently cited as the reason why women leave the industry mid-career, often in the years that follow them having a family. Most large companies these days will support an employee’s shift towards working part-time while allowing him/her to retain their role.
The problems tend to arise if an employee is looking to continue growing professionally while working part-time. Very few internal roles are also advertised as part-time opportunities, so those who shift to part-time work often end up stuck in a role getting bored. The other issue is that some organizations create a role, often a non-core role, that they’re comfortable with employees covering part-time. If and when there is any resource action or redundancy program, however, these roles are often the first to be cut, therefore disproportionately affecting women. We need to be more creative about how we can make core business and client-facing roles flexible or part-time.
IF: What should be the key responsibilities of HR departments, supervisors and team leaders when trying to create an open work culture?
JH: I think their main responsibility is to lead by example, creating and curating the right environment for everyone to experience an open culture every day. They should ultimately hold it up as the everyday standard to meet–challenging behaviour that doesn’t meet this standard and make sure that people feel comfortable giving feedback, even if they find it uncomfortable to hear.
IF: What are the greatest lessons you learned over the course of your career?
Be brave. Throughout my career people have offered me opportunities that I didn’t feel I was quite ready for. I’ve learned to say yes first and then figure out how to deliver excellent results. This approach has given me so many brilliant experiences that have helped me to develop and grow, including several job changes.
It’s not what you know but how generously you share. Being an expert is important, no doubt. But sharing your knowledge and experience so that many more people, customers and colleagues, can also learn what you know is a sure way to grow your influence beyond the handful of people who already know you what you know.
Mentor and be mentored. I have found that having someone who will challenge me, support me, and open their network to me has been invaluable. I credit some of my mentors with being instrumental at key stages of my career. Being a mentor, which entails being able to do that for someone else, is also hugely rewarding and a further opportunity to learn from someone else.
IF: What are your hopes for the future of the tech and engineering landscape, as well as for your own professional development?
JH: There are some big problems in the world today, such as climate change, which tech and engineering can help tackle. It will require collaboration and an openness to achieve this and I hope that this is what we will see more of over the next few years.
Today’s IT and tech companies are already looking for multi-disciplined teams. Not just developers but designers as well. This includes creative people and sociologists who understand how people use technology and can make it work better, more intuitively, for the user.
When thinking of the application of disciplines in the tech industry, I prefer the term STEAM to the term STEM. We need people who are passionate about the arts as well, as I firmly believe that we need the whole range of skills, the whole brain, to have the deepest impact on society and business. Looking at the future, I think this is an area where we will see continued changes in the tech and engineering industry, with more companies and researchers embracing different disciplines to envision and create a better world.
IF: To conclude, would you like to share any particular or initiatives that you are involved in at the moment with our readers?
JH: Through Red Hat, I have had the chance to support a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging more children from all backgrounds to get into STEM.
For instance, Co. Lab is a Red Hat initiative that introduces girls to open-source principles, technology, and collaboration. It started in the US, but we recently ran our first international Co.Lab in London with girls from across the city. This was a really inspirational event and we’re now looking to expand the project’s reach to many more schools in the UK over the coming months and years.
Another great initiative is the Open Schools Coding Competition (OSCC), which encourages teams of four children to design and develop an app for a charity of their choice using a free visual programming environment. Participating schools get to select their best two or three projects for a grand finale. Many girls participate in this competition and some were on the winning teams of the past two years.
Finally, shadowing/taking on work placements while completing their GCSE allows young people, including girls, to get an idea of what a future tech job could look like. We see students, perhaps inspired by the Open Schools Coding Competition, taking GCSE Computing, for example, but with no idea of what the course could lead to. Showing them the range of roles and the sort of work we do can help realize the possibilities of a career in STEM.
In addition to fulfilling her duties as Red Hat’s Director of Pre-sales, Joanna is currently investing much of her time and efforts in spreading awareness about the value of diversity in engineering and tech work environments.
In October last year, she spoke about how being an open leader can unlock a company’s potential at the Women in Business Expo in the United Kingdom (UK). She has also spoken about diversity in tech at other events and has been featured in multiple media articles.
To learn more about Red Hat’s initiatives aimed at shaping a more diverse tech workforce, including the ones that Joanna mentioned in her interview, visit: https://www.redhat.com/en/jobs/life/diversity