Live Blog: Culture is Often Framed by What You DON’T Say, Not Necessarily by What You Do Say – Ash Coleman

It’s the final talk of the day and one I’ve personally been looking forward to. I need to not just get lost in Ash’s wonderful stories and actually blog! Also, I have newfound respect for this live blogging thing. It is an intensely intense (wording deliberate) way to experience a conference.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s get to Ash.

She starts off in German, which of course everybody loves :slight_smile:

The topic Ash is going to talk about is sensitive. She’s going to be talking about culture. In ourselves, in our space and also in testbash. By being in a space, we are in a culture, and we can craft that culture around us.

The title above is the talk Ash was supposed to give. She’s promising to actually talk about that, but after talking with people here she’s had a realisation. Over dinner with participants of testbash, she was inspired. She really tried to hold back and not change her slides at the last minute. But after the meetup, she did end up changing all of her slides. She’s asking for feedback and hopes that it resonates with us.

The original talk is going to be done in 999 seconds. And she’s going to do it now. Culture is framed by three things:

  • The language we use. This is connected to our unconscious bias
  • The limitations we set. The limitations can affect things like hiring.
  • The actions we take. What can we do to be more inclusive

This is about the pipeline – how we get people into our companies. In US, the culture is predominantly white male. In silicon valley, it’s white male and Asian male. Language within job descriptions can keep people on the border. Ash noticed her hesitation to apply if the job description well beyond her abilities. Even when she interviewed well, she often didn’t get the role.

After doing some research, she realised that job descriptions have extensive descriptions about who you need to be to work there. Also, they described a culture fit. The things you need to like to work there. Her conclusion: tech culture is kinda bro-y. Also, does she really need to fulfil all of those things? And what about the things she likes? So the language in the job descriptions was actually keeping her back.

So she started looking at women in the workplace. Generally, women look at a job description and won’t apply if they don’t fulfil all the requirements. In one case, there were over 200 requirements. Ash questioned: how many of those are really necessary? She didn’t go with it. She didn’t apply. This is another example of how language keeps people out of the circle.

LGBTQ and people of colour are also minority groups in tech. When Ash comes into a company for an interview, people want to see the proof that she can do the job. As a career changer, people wanted proof (such as 5 years’ experience or a CS degree). Interestingly, people who are underrepresented are the only ones measured on proof. Privileged people are measured on potential (wow that hits hard).

Job descriptions are also full of activities that create environments. Google has slides. SalesForce has a huge building that has a path with plants from around the world. These things speak to a very specific audience. For introverts, these might not be the best environments. It might keep people like that from applying. It means many interruptions for example – and so Ash may not apply.

Things like this set limitations. It keeps us within the same cultures that we already have. Testing is, in Ash’s words, doing the best at removing those limitations. One test is to describe your job to your friends. The important parts we describe about our jobs are based on experiences and preferences. And that is what happens when job descriptions get created. Who creates the description has a great effect on how the description ends up.

The actions that we take can combat that. How can we put ourselves in a position where our own desires and wants don’t discourage other people in job descriptions. The way we do that is by accepting our unconscious bias.

That’s the 999 second talk. Takeaways are that:

  • Language is the way – let’s be aware of the language you are using

  • Create the right conditions for success – we can be intentional about how we use language

  • We are our culture – by being inclusive, you honour the presence of others

We’re moving on to the next talk. This will be Ash elaborating on topics she’s had with attendees of testbash.

Ash has been talking to people about culture all day and for the past few days. The first thing she wants to talk about is who we are. The quote on her slide says “if you don’t know how you show up in a space, you don’t know the impact you have”. Her example is from her sister who had a very uncomfortable meeting with a guy who didn’t understand the impact he was having.

A light went on in Ash’s head: culture is us. A sad person walking into a room of cheerful people impacts that room. They might share your sadness, they might cheer you up. We have impact.

In another conversation yesterday, the person asked “is it the culture, or is it just me?” The culture of a working space can either attract or repel us. And the moment you enter an organisation, the culture changes because of your impact. You bring a personality, skills, knowledge and information. Some of it might be the same as others, other aspects will be completely individual. And that is enough to shift the culture. Say you’re with friends and you have a reservation for three. The server takes your order and leaves. A friend joins the party. The dynamics have changed – there’s a new person, the food queue might need to be reset, the total bill. This is a fact and it’s also a power. We have the ability to shift the culture.

Ash is going to tell us about unconscious bias through a story of being afraid of the dark. As a child, she was afraid of the dark. The fear is illogical, but that didn’t change the fear. As an adult, she is no longer afraid of the dark, but she can still remember those feelings. And this is the way with unconscious bias. Our family and experience as a child and young adult affect our view of the world and how we make decisions. What we experience as we grow up shapes us. And we don’t see other places and cultures outside of our own area. So when we grow up, these things are new. And this is where unconscious bias comes in.

A story about food. Ash specialised in Asian and Indian cuisine at school. She learned that the way those culture prepare, serve and gather around food is very different to what she grew up with.

Next story: construction workers invited a new team member to lunch. They all had their food. The new person, who was from a different culture, decided to start serving himself from their dishes. That obviously caused confusion and problems. It’s important to realise that a situation that we might perceive as being wrong might be seen as a prized meeting of friends in his culture.

In situations like this, it’s important to know how we measure ourselves and how much empathy we have. We have an individual measure for everything we experience – and this is due to that unconscious bias that we grow up with. Ash is still unlikely to start playing midnight football since she grew up being afraid of the dark.

In a scheme to place black testers in teams and organisations in Capetown, the retention level was low. After researching, the researchers found that the testers were being measured on their testing using the experience of other people. The measurements they were being graded against were just not relevant to them as a group (I’m sorry if this story is a bit garbled, I got lost in her telling of it!). The study showed that how people were raised in terms of dealing with money affected how they went about testing financial apps. That’s a difference that needs to be taken into account. And that perspective might be relevant for the product and for the risks associated with it.

When we’re trying to communicate at work, there might be differences in how we communicate. Ash uses this question: If you’re having a difficult time communicating, how many different ways can you interpret that? When we recognise that we and other people have bias, then we have a way to get behind that. We can clarify whether people are afraid to work together, or whether there are currently problems with the product.

When we assume that our unconscious bias is the right way to do something, it’s easy to identify differences in others. “Unacceptable to me” might not be objective. And if it’s not, it might be to do with bias. Is a behaviour truly ill, or is it just not how I would act?

When companies grow, culture can start to “disappear”. We need to understand that new people bring new culture. And we need to make space for them, while also retaining values. Working with values (like empathy) can be a great way to help communication and culture. It encourages us to be empathetic in a situation and open-minded.

Ooh, I got a cookie. Slightly distracted. Ash is talking about giving trust as a choice. We instantly give trust to people like doctors or police officers. And we don’t necessarily at work. If we enter a space with the mindset that we give trust, then that can help our culture.

I guess that’s a wrap for me! I hope you got some value from my words. I definitely had fun doing it!


Thanks for your live blogging throughout the day @alex_schl

Must have been a pretty intense day for you but have very much enjoyed reading your posts after each talk throughout the day amongst my actual work here in my agile team.

Hugely appreciate your efforts and have managed to feel like I’ve partly been in Germany today learning from the speakers.

I love this approach. I use something similar for reviews… but never thought to do it for presentations. Brilliant (both the idea and the execution)

I really appreciate that you captured the true essence of the talk. It is definitely something to pay attention to in our daily work and home lives.

Many thanks to Alex for posting this. I’ve now read it twice because Ash packed a lot into this presentation and some of it took a while to percolate through my consciousness.

I’ve just picked out two observations that I’d like to reflect on.

That’s an interesting observation, and I can certainly visualise the circumstances where this would be true. I’d like to explore this, based on my own experience.

As you will see from my profile picture, I fall into a demographic usually considered to be ‘privileged’ in most discussion on equality and culture. As a Brit with a background on the fringes of radical labour movement politics, I understand and accept this, though I have my own thoughts on that subject which add in the complications of class, a specific British thing that need not trouble us here. However, if in that profile picture I had taken my hat off, you’d see that whilst in one sense I might enjoy privilege, in another I certainly fall into an under-represented group in IT - persons of A Certain Age. Being of A Certain Age means that in a job hunting situation, I regularly ran into the experience of being assessed on proof. My qualifications are different because of my different life and educational experience. If I applied for a job and I managed to jump that first hurdle, then I was into the situation of being measured on potential, and too often came up short because that potential was age-limited. If an interviewer asked me that classic question “Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?”, the truthful answer would be “Sat at home with pipe and slippers, drawing my pension.” And then we’re into the whole new realm of age discrimination.

Being aware of that also made me look at job descriptions, and when Ash/Alex says “Job descriptions are also full of activities that create environments”, then that holds good for all the forms of discrimination. I often saw adverts trumpeting “our vibrant office”, “our fast-moving environment” or talking about “opportunities for new graduates”, and some of these were jobs well suited to my skills set - but the language of the advert either stopped me from applying or made me have a serious discussion with the recruitment agency before making my mind up over whether to even apply for the job. On at least one occasion, the recruitment agency (let alone the client) could not grasp the concept of age discrimination and could not see why I was being put off by the “new graduate” tag. I didn’t bother applying for the role.

By not applying for these jobs, I helped shape those workplaces’ environments by not challenging their idea of the office culture; I helped maintain their status quo, simply by staying away. And this has a bearing on this final takeaway point: “And the moment you enter an organisation, the culture changes because of your impact.”

This is a demonstration of something in quantum physics - the Uncertainty Principle. This says, broadly, that the act of measuring a thing changes it; and in dynamic systems, you can’t measure two variables at the same time. You cannot know the energy of a particle and its position; measure either one of those variables and you change the other.

My current employers took me on because of my business experience, which outstripped my technical knowledge. I changed the culture of the organisation when I joined, because I applied that business experience to the testing process. My colleagues (hopefully) learnt from the experiences and examples I described. At the same time, I have learnt more technical stuff from the same colleagues in two years than I ever did in the previous twenty. I have changed the culture, but I have also been changed by the culture.

Ash’s presentations are always worth hearing, because they encourage us to go and look at our own experiences and our own actions. And we always have to look out for biases that we are unaware of. A final example: an organisation I once worked for was based in Birmingham, and had a number of branch offices, including one in London. (In the UK, that’s unusual - normally, the HQ is in London and branches cover the rest of the country.) We had a vacancy for a receptionist in the London office; and when the job was advertised internally, the notice said “This post has been advertised in…” and then named two London-based magazines. One of them was called City Girl and the other, which I don’t recollect, was equally targeted towards a strictly gender-defined readership. With my trade union hat on, I went straight to the head of HR. “Don’t you think that advertising the role only in those two magazines is running the risk of being accused of sex discrimination?” I said. She saw my point immediately; within the day, an advert was also placed in the London Evening Standard. I never found out whether they had any male applicants for the job; but if I had not challenged that unconscious bias, I am certain that they would not have had any.