At GDC 2021, four industry professionals, Movell Dash from Unity Technologies, Davina Mackey from SIE and Trinidad Hermida from Niantic, moderated by Nika Nour of IDGA Foundation, came together to discuss how to scout and nurture talent within the industry and build programs to support that growth.
The goal of this talk was to address systemic talent pipeline problems by informing potential employers on how to not just recruit diverse talent but also to keep it. Maintaining a diverse team doesn't mean just hiring a good employee when you spot one but rather supporting that person's growth over time. This can mean fostering people's talents and skills as far back as college.
As Sony's Davina Mackey lines out, SIE's strategy includes internships, recruitment programs with HBCUs, and special tuition funds to help facilitate entry to the tech industry at the ground level. Similarly, Niantic offers a certificate program with a state college to help train applicants in Unity, AR and VR and serves communities that have little access to tech with programs like their Treehouse Apprenticeships, which recruits candidates with no previous experience to mentor them into the tech industry. The process, as Niantic's Hermida notes, is not "sexy," but radical change requires direct action, for example, addressing pay disparity or acknowledging the flaws in the EOCC's reporting system. For Hermida, this means tackling the issue from both a "low hanging fruit" and "high hanging fruit" perspective, embracing small wins for morale while working on the bigger picture.
"...We're not going to reverse  years of systemic racism overnight. So how do we go about making sure that not only our leaders are accountable and committed, making sure that we're still engaging our communities and our partnerships externally and in our backyard, but then also building a culture that sense of occlusion, where people can bring their genius to work? So these are all things that are toiling into my mind every day."
Moving on to a more global perspective, Unity's Movell Dash speaks about the challenges of addressing diversity within your team when working in European markets, where privacy laws often prevent countries from collecting demographical data like race or ethnicity. To that end, Dash says the company works with what data they are allowed to accumulate, and tackle the issue of balance in less overt ways, like using their own internal metrics to assess pay equity, recruiting, retention, and promotion. They too work with local nonprofits and community organizations to help achieve some of those goals, and have also introduced training for some of their directors and team leaders as well as recruiting targets, attending five recruiting conferences per year. While Dash's background is not in tech, she points out, "The issues are the same wherever they are...I've been doing this work for 20 years, and the issues are the same from industry to industry."
Retention starts with a people-first mentality
As the talk shifts towards the topic of retention, Hermida says, "It starts with a people-first mentality," saying that more training needs to be given to those in managerial roles so they really understand what DEI is about. It also starts at the executive level, she says. "You have to show it at your leadership level. Your board, your executive leaders, do they look like the communities you're trying to attract?" If they don't, "that's a hard miss." Recruitment should come from colleges less represented in tech spaces, and the right introductions to key leadership should be made so that diverse talent has a chance to thrive. But also, managers need to be given opportunities to actually understand the people they're trying to represent. There is so much focus o the pipeline over management but, she says, the pipeline is "trash" if the managers don't actually understand how to work with them, "see them, empower them, give them feedback." Feedback is key to an employee's growth and managers should not hold back on it; it is an investment into their success.
A big part of the problem, says Mackey, is that there are managerial gatekeepers whose "unconscious bias" ("Let's just say what it is is prejudice,") is neither challenged nor corrected, leading to disproportionate numbers in representation on the collegiate versus Silicon Valley level. That said, says Mackey, among underrepresented groups, there is a responsibility to promote awareness of the professional possibilities in tech, even on the middle school level, which has also been incorporated into Sony's recruitment strategies, which Mackey cites as improving their pipeline. Also, when considering DEI, sometimes your metrics for professional success will need to shift to account for people's differing roles and identities, for example, Sony's performance management tools and structure, which were to updated to allow for employees to set goals specific to their cultural roles within their job titles and facilitate that specific type of growth.
On the topic of retention, Dash goes back to that concept of gatekeeping, saying that a major issue is that many people of marginalized identity are often ushered through the door, but then they're not recognized or nurtured as actual talent, leaving them to stagnate and not progress further in their careers. At Unity, she says, they're trying to address this by creating sponsorship programs between leadership and new hires, but only letting the talent nominate themselves (instead of relying on the gatekeepers to recognize who has skill). Sponsorship is also preferable to mentorship, in that it forces the sponsor to actually advocate for their talent rather than simply advise them, directly creating key, career-defining opportunities. Also, going back to the issue of professional criticism, Dash says that too many managers are too afraid to give people of color feedback on their performance, leading to stagnation and lack of retention. If a manager is actually invested in their employee's growth, they will be willing to offer insight on their performance. "That's part of how you retain people. You give them that constructive feedback that is not always favorable, but they're able to understand, 'this is where I need to grow.'"
To finish out the panel, the panelists are asked what advice they have for the next generation of talent, which we'll summarize as bullet points here:
- Take control of your own career. Says Dash, "It's not about trying to get a seat at the table. If no one wants you to be there, you make your own damn table...Advocate for yourself...Don't sit back and wait to be told what to do. Take your career into your own hands. That's what I tell people."
- Be able to take feedback and ask for specifics and incorporate those into your performance.
- Take accountability for your career by setting the right foundation. Says Mackey, "Make sure that your college experience is specific to the discipline that you want to get it within because it's going to give you a higher success rate in getting a job. Make sure you get an intern[ship] and get a mentor sooner [rather] than later."
- Learn negotiation skills, and "don't be afraid to understand what your value is and ask for it."
- Make sure you know what training opportunities are available to you, and take them.
- Ask your managers for 1 on 1s on a regular basis and know what's expected of your job.
- Form and execute a personal development plan so you know where your career is headed in the next 3-5 years.
- And, "network, network, network," says Hermida. Put yourself out there to different organizations and then, when you do, "offer them something," i.e. look for volunteer opportunities or other ways to help.
For more thorough dissection and discussion of each of these topics, be sure to watch the entire video above.