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How developers can help build a diversified workforce

Diversity comes in many forms. One way to diversify your workforce is to find new applications for the unique skills developers bring to your organization.

It's true that to create a diverse and inclusive workforce, organizations need to bring in people with different backgrounds and experiences. A diverse workforce includes talents and skills that might not traditionally fit the mold of job descriptions for sales or leadership positions.

One way technology organizations can build a diversified workforce is to bring developers into the business fold.

In many organizations, the software development team is one of the most overlooked talent pools. Software developers and programmers are task-oriented problem-solvers who are trained to recognize patterns and attack problems methodically, so they can often provide a new perspective to a variety of nontechnical teams in an organization.

Why developers need a seat at the table

To compete in the digital economy, companies must stop asking their developers to write code on command and instead include them in high-level problem-solving, Jeff Lawson argued in his book Ask Your Developer: How to Harness the Power of Software Developers and Win in the 21st Century. Founder and CEO of Twilio, a cloud communications platform, Lawson started his career as a software developer.

Lawson's book and career path are certainly encouraging for developers who want to be part of the executive decision-making process. The question is: To get a seat at the table, what must developers bring to it?

"Oftentimes a developer's job starts when someone cuts a ticket, and it's easy to fall into that pattern of believing that's where you fit," said Ricky Robinett, vice president of the developer network at Twilio.

To move into more sophisticated business territory, developers need to understand why that ticket exists, Robinett said. Why did it get there? What, ultimately, do customers need?

To move beyond the code, developers must be in alignment with their business, said Don Jones, head of software developer skills at Pluralsight, an online technology education platform developer. To be effective in their role and communicate with the business side, developers need to understand the business model and where it plays in the marketplace, Jones said.

There was all this fear about the sales team. 'What are they doing? They're just trying to get people to spend money.' And then when we started talking to them, the amazing thing was, 'Oh, the sales team actually wants the same thing our team wants.'
Ricky RobinettVice president of the developer network, Twilio

"You can produce the greatest software in the world, but if it doesn't align to the business -- meaning it doesn't solve a problem for the business's customers and it's not something the business is capable of marketing, selling and supporting -- then you won't win," Jones said.

He suggests that developers learn how to read profit-and-loss statements to understand how their company approaches sales and marketing.

It's also helpful to put yourself out there. Developers should engage in discussions with people working in other parts of the business to gain an understanding of what their jobs entail and what their needs and challenges are, Robinett said. When he started at Twilio, it was rare for developers to communicate with the sales department.

"There was all this fear about the sales team. 'What are they doing? They're just trying to get people to spend money.' And then when we started talking to them, the amazing thing was, 'Oh, the sales team actually wants the same thing our team wants.'"

"I think challenging that assumption and gaining that understanding always opens new doors to [gain] the confidence that you cannot only bring something to the conversation, but that you have allies along with you as you're having those conversations."

Developer diversity failures

Bringing developers into the fold and pushing for a more diversified workforce is great, but leadership needs to be ready to listen. Leadership doesn't always appreciate the approach software developers and engineers take to solving problems.

For those working in organizations that are reticent to embrace developers as more than coders, Robinett encourages people to initiate conversations that demonstrate how the developer perspective can contribute to solving problems.

"If you're able to show the ticket said that we should build it that way, and technically it would be better if we built it this way -- actually, it would be better for the user -- you zoom out from the technical to the things that other people care about, [and] you're earning that trust a little bit more." It can take time to establish trust, but the payoff is worth it, Robinett said.

Similarly, Jones counsels developers to try to drive change in their existing organizations. "A lot of business leaders are jaded by years of technologists making requests and statements that simply don't align to the business," Jones said. "Show you get the business and you're interested in learning more about what business leaders' concerns and motivations are."

If that doesn't work, it may be time to move on. "If you can't change your company, change your company," he said. "That is, if your organization is committed to not changing, then start looking for one that might be a better fit for you."

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