The Stack Overflow Podcast

A conversation on diversity and representation

Episode Summary

This week we chat with two Stack Overflow employees, Ian Allen and Syeeda Briddell, co-chairs of the company's Black and Brown (BNB) affinity group. Ian is an engineer working on our talent product and Syeeda is a senior sales executive on the Advertising team.

Episode Notes

Syeeda and Ian talk with Sara and Paul about how affinity groups came to exist within Stack Overflow, and how the  BNB group helped to lead the design of the company's short and long response to issues of systemic racism. You can find more about Stack's plans here.

More generally, the group discusses how people at all levels of their organizations are putting a renewed emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and how individual contributors, managers, and executives can come together to find new ways to listen and learn.

You can find Ian on Twitter and Github. He has also written for the Stack Overflow blog. You can find Syeeda's images and writing on Instagram and more about her education and career on LinkedIn.

Our lifeboat badge for this episode goes out to IsVForAll, who answered the following question: How to check if a value exists in an object using JavaScript?


Episode Transcription

Syeeda Briddell We felt that we had to take action in terms of, okay, here are several glaring issues that have been brought to the forefront of, I guess, the American consciousness at this at this time. How can we kind of work with our senior leadership at Stack Overflow in order to have an impact on our community outside and inside of Stack Overflow.


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Sara Chipps Hello everyone and welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast! I'm here with my lovely cohost, Paul. Hey Paul, how's it going?

Paul Ford I am doing fine. Except we had a little technical glitch. Cause it turns out that maybe Linux isn't fully ready for the desktop. [Sara laughs] Regardless, that's that's not what we're here to talk about today on the Stack Overflow podcast.

SC I could never have predicted that. I could never have seen that coming. I don't know.

PF Ohhh man. [Sara laughs]

SC So we have two guests today for our podcast. I'm excited to introduce them, Ian and Sayeeda from Stack Overflow. Hi Ian and Sayeeda! Heidi. Can you say hi and tell our audience a little bit about what you do at Stack Overflow?

Ian Allen I'm Ian Allen, by day, I'm a software developer here at Stack Overflow working on our talent product. I'm also one of the co-chairs of our black affinity group of BNB that I started a couple years ago and I kind of help organize and drive that forward. I'll talk a bit more about that later.

SB Awesome. Hi everyone. My name is Syeeda Briddell. I work on the advertising team at Stack Overflow. I'm a senior sales executive, and I am also the other co-chair to the BNB group.


PF So wait a minute. Stack has, what does, Sara you tell me, and then let's find out the context here. Like what is an affinity group?

SC Yeah, that makes sense. So we have a few affinity groups here at Stack Overflow. We had the Black and Brown group BNB group, the API group, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Ian, maybe you could tell us a little bit more about how the BNB group started at Stack Overflow and what an affinity group is in general.

IA So yeah, affinity groups or they're also known as like employee resource groups, they're basically just organizations within companies that kind of bring employees together around certain like identities or affinities. So it could be based on race or sexual orientation. So here at Stack, like it was only maybe four or five at the time, but there was none for like black people at the time. Didn't have that many in the company at the moment. So I remember a particular day where I just kind of felt really isolated just from things going on in the news, you know, black people being killed by the police. And I felt like I had no one to talk to you. So that kind of what drove me to start if you need a group here at Stack. So I just kind of talk to people about how to get started. And at the point we, at that point, we just needed a charter and to say what we're about to become official. And then from there I had free range to kind of decide what that really means and what role of, and should serve. So I kind of got them together and just started. It just gave me a safe space just to get a core group of people who are excited about, you know, starting an affinity group and kind of having that network. And that's where things really started to take off as the company hired more diverse people. That's when we're really able to scale and cater a real strategy behind it. So, okay, now that we have a passionate group of people, you know, how can we make this group really impactful, not just for ourselves, but also for the community they care about. So they're just like the help scale kind of just started dropping a strategy about, okay, you know, what's the governance structure, okay. Like will people really driving it forward and we let people fit in. And then kind of what is the organization about, you know, for us, it was like at first we kind of based around four pillars, community service, internal community, value, bringing value to the company and kind of make sure our culture is reflected in the companies, you know, recruiting practices, products, uh, you know, it's across the gamut and that's kind of what drove us forward in the first couple of steps. And then as we got more people, you know, people like Sayeeda, and got more leadership with scale and kind of try new techniques to kind of measure our impact on the company, uh, development, like diverse programming, things of that nature, Sayeeda can talk a bit more about that as well. 


SC Yeah Sayeeda, how did you get involved and I know that you're a co-chair. What is, what does the governance look like? 

SB Yeah, sure. So I've been at Stack now for a little over a year. And when I first joined, I think, um, being a black woman, particularly in a startup, are in tech, one of the really appealing things for me was this was the first time that I had ever worked in a organization that had a BNB group of sorts. And so that was really exciting. I think I like messaged Ian maybe on day three being like, how can I get involved or like, how can I connect with the group? And so, um, that's how I kind of got involved from a member perspective. And then just as kind of, um, time went on, I really wanted to kind of grow, uh, with BNB in terms of getting involved in some of the awesome programs that they were doing. I, I had like attended one of their events when I first started and I thought that was really amazing. So wanting to just kind of get a little bit more involved in, in BNB from being able to kind of work on those types of programs or, um, as Ian mentioned, kind of working on how can we partner with the company to make the company a little bit, a little bit more inclusive. In terms of kind of governance, there's two chairs. So there's Ian and myself, and then we also do have kind of a events planning and coordination role. And then there is also a senior role for like career guidance and mentorship.

PF How do you all work together? Like, is it regular meetings? Is it Slack channel? Like what, what's the actual formal structure of a group like this?


IA This in like several mediums. So like, I guess the home base is a Slack channel. There's a private Slack channel for all the members to kind of come together, especially since, you know, Stack's such a distributed company, like we have members across the world at this point. So I would say that's the home base when we were in the office, we would have like monthly, just like a meetups as well, and then call in the remote folks just to get some face time with everybody and more just community building as well. And then also just kind of just getting feedback on an initiative for planning, just to see if that's something we went into. So all of those turn into remote meetups every month [of course, of course] and then we'll ad hoc meetings for any initiative we're trying to drive through and then Sayeeda and myself, we meet about every other week at least, or, and also just talk in general just about kind of what we're thinking and always trying to before thinking about what the group needs and how we can execute that and how to get more people involved.

SC That makes sense. One thing I can say as an outsider, someone in Stack Overflow is the strength and the support of the BNB community is that Stack is like, unlike anything I've seen. I think, you know, recently with the protests and the mandate in the US to hold police accountable for violence against people of color, I've had a lot of peers really focused on holding their companies accountable for some of these things. And one thing I observed at stack is that the BNB group really just stepped in and immediately set some time to meet with our leadership and gave them a clear mandate of the things that would be helpful in general for the BNB group at Stack. So it's something I think, I don't know what your experiences on the other side of it, but as an employee, I think it's helped a lot of people to focus to understand that it's a priority for the company and to focus on political actions externally, while supporting internally. What was, can you talk a little bit about your experience dealing with leadership at Stack and yeah.


IA Well, one thing I failed to mention earlier that was key, especially in this particular situation, is that when we're starting up, this executive sponsorship was huge just for BNB like existing and growing. So our head of strategy Mihir, he, once he found out I was doing this, he was like all in on, like helping me drive it forward. And he kind of pushed me to like really take on a, more of a leadership role to drive it forward. So just having that executive sponsorship, one just kind of helped me as a leader, just help grow the organization, but also kind of help give us a voice or some sort of connection to management that kind of over the years have really helped pay off and help us get some buy in. I think Sayeeda could talk more into like how this particular incident and recent incident on how we kind of help control the conversation in terms of what's happening and kind of helps community draft the strategy.

SB Yeah, no, I agree that kind of having that executive sponsorship is going to be really, really key, particularly at Stack Overflow. It's not like we are, you know, a 10,000, you know, or a 40,000 person company. And so we're fortunate in the sense that we have a little bit more or easier access to our senior leadership team just because of sheer size of the company. And so having the executive sponsor kind of really helped us easily kind of navigate that relationship, but in particular to what you brought up, Sara, in terms of meeting with our senior leadership, particularly after everything that's kind of happened or has been happening, but has been really highlighted these last kind of three to four months, really making sure that you are utilizing kind of every aspect of your organization. So within BNB, right? Like there we come from all different aspects of the organization. So we have representation with community. We have, um, you know, sales, marketing, kind of every function of the company and making sure that that is being considered when trying to put together a prescriptive kind of recommendations for how to one make your organization more inclusive, but also how to, um, from an external perspective really be a leader. Um, so we worked really, really closely with, um, Grace, who's our kind of head of DNI here at Stack Overflow. She was a really great kind of liaison between senior leadership, particularly marketing and ourselves, and really just being able to kind of utilize kind of the different personas and strength that you have within your, within your ERG and kind of using those different skill sets to make sure that as you're writing these recommendations or having these conversations that you're touching upon all of the different aspects of an organization that are going to be important to consider.


SC What do you think is the role of leadership? Well, first of all, what's an ERG?

SB Sorry, there, it's a employee research resource group, so that's what BNB is. Apologies there.

PF I'm just sitting here as a non-Stack person, just kinda nodding like, Oh, ERG like in my head, I just sort of saw someone in an ambulance for some reason. [Sara laughs]

SB No, are you thinking like EKG? [Sara laughs]

PF EKG or EMT? I got all confused, but back to Sara's question, like, so interaction with leadership is key here, right. And there's gotta be a good structured way to do that. How does that happen? Maybe Syeeda, that you could take that one.

SB Yeah. So as Ian mentioned, like we already have an executive sponsor. Who's amazing. And is part of that kind of, uh, the senior leadership team. And then on top of that, we also have a wonderful head of DNI diversity inclusion here at stack overflow, who also, you know, obviously as a leader in the, in the Stack Overflow community allowed us to, you know, have access to, or acted as a liaison kind of between the senior leadership team and our, and ourselves. But I think also really relying on the structure that you've set up within your employee resource group, you know, Ian and I, as co-chairs, and then any other kind of individuals within that group who are in a leadership position, kind of putting together and meeting with, let's say that liaison. So in this case, it was grace from diversity inclusion to kind of act as a, as a champion for recommendations or a champion for your, for your voices within the, within the Stack Overflow community to meet with senior leadership.


PF It's interesting though, because his affinity is it's a partnership model, right? Like I think that when a lot of people think about organizations inside of their organization, they wonder about the dynamic. And what's really clear to me from two things. There's one like buy in from executive leadership was critical so that it could be two ways. And then the other thing that really kind of blew my mind in a funny way as a, as a manager, is that Syeeda walks into stack and says, let me go talk to that software developer, even though I'm over here in advertising, that doesn't happen on the floor normally because of this affinity group, like everything else aside, it's bringing like a lot of people from different parts of the company together. Do you notice that sort of interdisciplinary nature in your conversations like does that, does like advertising have goals that might differ from software or things like that?

IA That's the kind of the beauty of it just like, I think this strength of the affinity group itself is just like as Syeeda mentioned, just that diversity have within it in terms of skillset and background, just me and her it's coming from advertising and engineering, just like we just tend to think differently and see things in different perspectives and ended up being very complimentary and our leadership model going forward, or, you know, when we're drafting plans for senior leadership and we got most of BNB involved just from these are research engineering, ad sales, marketing, because across the whole gamut. So like we've been able to have a holistic picture of recommendations that would like really have big impact and just not, you know, from my myopic engineering perspective of like how things should go. So it's definitely, I would say one of the biggest strengths of the organization and also when it came to recruiting and growing the group, that was really helpful because when it first started, we had to like excited group and then, you know, I did my best to like help them find value from the organization. So it made it easy when new people were hired. Like I didn't really have to reach out. They would like find a new hire, like, Hey, you have this group come join. So that kind of help overall just kind of scale and just kind of bring in more kind of cross organization collaboration. 


PF I got to imagine too, as, as executive leadership is happy to see interdisciplinary collaboration, like that is such a good thing in an org. That's such a huge positive.


PF So talk a little bit about like, so there's the meetups other stuff, obviously we're reacting to a very big moment in the world. Like, Syeeda, what are some of the things that, that the affinity group has been doing?

SB Yeah, so I think first and foremost, and I mentioned this when, you know, Ian is like, we meet kind of every other week just to kind of do a quick, um, kind of pulse check and see kind of what the group needs. So first and foremost, those were really, really incredibly tough couple of weeks. Um, when things first started breaking, particularly around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, you know, the marches started, you know, happening, and this was all in the middle of a pandemic that were hitting a lot of our communities within the BNB kind of hardest. So when I say that these were grueling grueling weeks, um, to kind of bring yourself to work and try and do kind of your best and bring your best self, it was even just like on a personal note was really, really tough. So first and foremost, like I think Ian and I needed to do something for the group, um, something internal just to allow people space, to process, um, and connect and not necessarily feel so isolated, you know, work is somewhere where we spend the majority of our days. And so having that sense of community and having that sense of, you know, someone really has your back or understands you, I think is really, really important. So first and foremost, out the gate, we had, you know, a couple of meetups that were really about the group, uh, for the group and, and processing everything that was going on. We met as a group. There were, you know, kind of, uh, several, you know, kind of late nights of planning. And what we've been doing is working kind of in-tow, with our senior leadership team on the list of recommendations that came out of all of those kinds of late night meetings and discussions. Um, and each one of those recommendations are in, it's a multi-phase rollout. So, you know, there were some really easily executable things in phase one. So we've already kind of completed that phase with our senior leadership. And it's about kind of continuing the conversation and looking at those, uh, phase two, so on and so forth with our senior leadership team, but definitely keeping the line of discussion open and making sure that we are, you know, on task with, with those recommendations as we can execute them.


SC I think that it was really beneficial for the senior leadership team. And additionally, I think there were a lot of things that come up even just immediately, there was a communication to managers, Hey, let people know on your team that it's okay to take some time right now. And if it means they don't meet their numbers, if it means we don't meet goals, that's okay. You know, I think as a manager, I just kind of assumed people knew that, you know, I was like, Oh, of course, but just the communication to explicitly say, Hey, it's alright y'all like, if you can't get your work done, we'll help. Or, you know, that's fine. I think even just as an immediate action, as I know, there is a lot more to be that we're working on. I think that was really beneficial.

PF Sara, I think as a manager, people need to hear you say the things and then you need to say them five times. Like that's the lesson I keep learning is like, once isn't enough, twice is enough. Like people need to hear the stuff like that. Real clarity. Like here we are. Absolutely. You need to take the time. This is real. We care. Like, and as bad as that can sound coming from a manager, you have to say it anyway.

SC Yeah. I think once I have one more question. Both Ian and Syeeda, for that person that's listening right now, who is, you know, either the only person of color on their team or the only person on their team like them, and really is thinking about putting something like this together or someone that is listening and saying, well, man, I really could use a resource like this. What would you say to them?


IA Say, I just got to get some started. I mean, it's just kind of first step is just grassroots organizing. So the most likely that you're not the only person who feels that way. So we really like go through your employee directory, walk around the office. Or I guess we can't do that now, but try to find other people and just start a conversation with them. I'll just see how they're doing and pitch them the idea. And if you can get a small group of like excited people, then like can get the ball rolling just on that, but it's hard to do alone. So the first step is just finding other likeminded individuals who feel the need for this group. And then look for a leadership who can co-sign, uh, kind of what you're trying to do. Cause I can't stress enough how much helpful executive leadership is. Um, it helps you have a diverse leadership team. I struggled some companies and I think underscore the importance of having diverse leadership. So, so you have advocates that like, you know, loves the company, but I would say in terms of like the first step is just getting an exciting small group of people together and are meeting consistently.

SB I wholeheartedly agree with you Ian, in terms of it being really grassroots and that you are, it's very unlikely that you're the only person who feels a particular way. So it's a, it's a bunch of, you know, Hey, let's grab coffees or navigating your way through your employee directory to kind of find that, that like-minded person who's going to help kind of get the ball rolling with you. I also think that there are kind of, I mean, just like a quick Google search will give you a wealth of resources in case you're going through your grassroots kind of campaign, if you will. Um, and you're still finding some roadblocks that there are a number of, you know, organizations or, you know, other, uh, employee resource groups that have been successful within other organizations that have information on their websites and, and kind of taking a look and seeing best practices that are listed may also be really helpful as well. But yeah, and I, the last thing I would add is actually just kind of networking with, particularly in larger cities. Um, I know that there are a lot of networks of ERG from, you know, specific industries. I know financial services in New York has a major one. I think talking to as many people around something like this is going to be, you know, all that more beneficial to you.


SC That's great. And what would you say to the people listening that are in leadership, um, that maybe aren't in a minority group that, but want to make space?

SB I actually feel like I have to answer this question in two ways. One is that when you're going to your senior leadership, I think one of the biggest challenges that a lot of companies are having right now is really trying to figure out their role in the conversation like responsibility and how much they should be putting forth efforts and not just, you know, towing the line between moral and business obligations. And so I think one of the things that we cannot stress enough and we've stressed so much on this podcast is that our BNB group has a, you know, a wealth of diversity in terms of backgrounds. And so really leveraging every part of a business and being able to make the business case from each perspective was really helpful. I think too, to our senior leadership and senior leaderships in general, because it kind of, you kind of circumvent that question of whether or not, you know, how much should we get involved? It's like, Oh no, we should be getting involved because this is actually affecting multi-facets of our organization. And then I think, secondly, from the perspective of senior leadership, I think these are uncomfortable conversations for a lot of us. And I think that listening first, which I think is like such a, a leadership skill anyway. So it's something that you can probably already utilize to what your Black and Brown or whomever employees are saying about their experiences within an organization and how it affects their kind of day to day. Other, you know, kind of working for your organization is really, really important. And because I think a lot of this has happened because there hasn't been enough listening going on. So I think listening first and saying, Oh, I didn't realize like that's okay. I just say, I didn't realize, and now I need more information. Your employees are there because they believe in your organization and want to continue to drive your organizational success. So listening first and saying, I didn't realize I need more information, allow them to give you that information is what I would say.


PF What I would say as an extremely typical boss. Is that what I've, what I've learned recently is that when you say you have an open door policy, that actually isn't enough because that's what I've said for years, open door is meaningless, like structure, budget, encouraging people to come forward and making sure that there is structure in the organization for voices to be heard is totally critical because everything else is kind of just good intentions. And so, like, I think leadership actually has to create a space where this stuff can happen. It's going to happen. Identity is a key part of working now today, especially online. Like it is, it is just like human identities are critical to how work gets done in 2020. And so finding that, structuring it, look, I think the other thing as a boss. What I keep hearing is here are really positive advocates for the company. Who've come together across disciplines to improve and make the firm more accountable. And it feels like, I mean, here we are in this podcast, like celebrating that is the right strategy, right. That is the way that a company moves forward. I think it's complicated for people from who are used to who want to have control over things. Right. Cause this is a, it's an affinity group inside of your org. What are they going to do? They're going to advocate for Stack and try to create a more inclusive community, relax. Right. Like this is really good. So that's what I'm hearing is we're talking just like, okay. Wow, cool. That's that's really good. Um.


SC If you had a magic wand and could change some things about Stack's community to make it more supportive for folks and welcoming for folks from different backgrounds, what would you do?

IA That's a good question. It's kinda like just giving more space for people to bring their identity, to Stack Overflow. I don't know, like my experience is like when I go Stack Overflow, I go in as developer, you know, and to have to like issue any other parts of my identity just to like kind of fit in just cause it just seems like there's like a archetype of Stack Overflow contributor that you kind of have to conform into to have a positive experience. So it's kind of giving more space for people to bring their whole identity as a developer to Stack Overflow, I think can make a difference. For example, I've been part of this, like a organization for Black software developers, it's called dev color. And it's landed on a similar model of asking for help of several hats on Slack. But, uh, it's just like a completely different environment where like, I feel a bit more comfortable kind of going through this group when I need information, even though like it's so much smaller group, it doesn't have the breadth of Stack Overflow just cause I know I can be myself without judgement.

SB I think that's super important. And that goes back to, um, Paul, what you were saying kind of about the open door, because ultimately when I go to, you know, Stack or just any job, I have always felt that I had to wear either some sort of mask or not bring my full identity to work because it wouldn't be, it would make my other coworkers uncomfortable or it wouldn't be something that's celebrated or something that's appreciated. And so that goes all the way up to an open door. I'm not going to walk through, you know, leadership's door and like feel comfortable expressing myself if I don't feel comfortable expressing myself to just my colleagues. So I think that's like a wonderful point. And then the only thing that I would add to that is, and I've heard this in probably every single place that I have ever worked is I would probably wave a magic wand and have my colleagues, um, and the organization as a whole actually do their diversity and inclusion training, especially when it's good training, because prior to all of this pandemic and things that are happening right now, I, we had diversity and inclusion training that was required. And all I could hear were my colleagues saying things like, I don't have time to do this, or I just don't want to do this, or I'm not going to do this or I've just put this on mute. And I'm just like, you know, not really listening to it. Um, and as a person of color, as a woman in business, like that was just so disappointing because I was looking at these individuals, you know, either remembering times where, you know, they have unintentionally made me uncomfortable or just looking at them and feeling like you were the one who needs to do this training as we all do. Right. There are things that I took away from that and learned from that that's something that I would, you know, wave my magic wand and say like, no, this is something that actually is important. And that we need to talk about, um, as an organization, since we're all in here together.


PF I mean, I think people get confused, but this is the work like it's actually part of the job it's about doing the job well and being like just creating this community as part of your work. And it's just, yeah, everyone go openheartedly to the DNI training or D and I, and make sure that it makes sure that you're listening. Cause that is your job. Right. And you want to be good at your job. This is awesome. I mean, it's just what a positive group. You're like, just, you know, I want to read the charter and you know, like, it's just, it seems like you've, you've created something sort of good for yourselves and good for the org. And I'm sure there's a lot of incredibly complicated, difficult stuff that you've all worked through. That is not part of this podcast, but it's, it's really great to hear about. Thank you. 

SB Thanks for having us.


PF Sara, do we have any lifeboats this week? Ben's not here. It's I feel that we don't have a net, but you know, we should try to stick to the schedule. 

SC Yeah! Um, so we have a lifeboat. Thank goodness Ben shared with me. And the question is how to check and value exists in JavaScript, which is really something I ask myself every day. The lightboat goes out to [inaudible], who is shared to use the, for in loop. So use for K and object return true. Once you find that value. So thanks for answering that question for all of us.

PF It's a classic.

PF Why don't we tell everyone who we are and how to get in touch with us?

SC Yeah. My name is Sara Chipps and you can find me at @SaraJo on GitHub.

PF My name is Paul Ford. I'm the cofounder of a software company called Postlight. You can find me at @Ftrain on Twitter. 

IA Ian Allen. You can find me on Twitter @Ianislike or GitHub @IanAllen.

SB My name is Syeeda Briddell. You can just find me on my LinkedIn or you can find me @syeedabriddell on Instagram.

PF Alright. Let's get out of here. Let's all. Get back to work.