We know diversity fuels innovation, so how do we bring diversity into engineering leadership? 

On this week’s episode of Dev Interrupted, Bhavini Soneji joins host Dan Lines for another installment in our series on the career journey of an engineering leader. Bhavini speaks to the synergy between diverse teams and enhanced performance, painting a vivid picture of creativity, insights, and knowledge sharing enriched by varied perspectives.

Bhavini connects these dynamics to a culture of converting intention into action, emphasizing that intentions are just the starting point. If companies are to follow through on their promises, they should apply lean product development principles to the way they think about diversity. 

In this must-listen episode, learn how to transform your company’s culture, goal-setting, and hiring practices. 

Episode Highlights:

  • (4:00) Why diversity is important
  • (10:30) Normalizing diversity in leadership
  • (17:30) Flywheel effect
  • (21:30) Hiring & retention
  • (29:00) Bias awareness workshops
  • (32:30) Shadow Diversity (Gemba Walk)
  • (36:30) Getting started at your company

Episode Transcript:

(Disclaimer: may contain unintentionally confusing, inaccurate and/or amusing transcription errors)

Dan Lines: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Dev Interrupted. I'm your host, Dan Lines, LinearB co founder and COO, and today we're continuing our series on the career journey of an engineering leader with Bhavini Soneji, former VP of Product Engineering at Cruise. Bhavini, great to have you back on for a second episode.

Bhavini Soneji:Thank you so much, Dan, for having me. And, as I said before as well I love what LinearB is doing both for driving more, evidence based and database transformations, which is so necessary as we make. The whole software production and assembly line, as well as, what, this group is doing for the community outreach and helping leaders, like me to learn from each other.

So thank you for doing that.

Dan Lines: Absolutely. And thank you right back at you with the kind words. About LinearB and all the community stuff. And I want to say to everyone, if you haven't listened to Bhavini's first episode on building customer obsessed teams, product led companies, go and check that out.

I think it's a really good episode. We had a ton of fun recording it. And so yeah, of course, it's amazing having you on here for another episode. This time, the topic is a little different. We're going to step back from a little bit on the nitty gritty details about how to build a product and, the focus of that.

And it's, I would say this topic is a little closer to the heart. You wrote a blog titled Diversity Strategy Built to Scale. And in it, you discuss how to drive diversity, inclusion. improve the number of women represented in tech, all of these really important things. And some amazing, I guess stories there.

I'm really looking forward to hear your insights about all of these topics. And I think we can just maybe start out simple here for a second. Our first topic is driving diversity in tech. And in your own words, when you just think about it for yourself without being like, academic maybe, like, why is that important or why does it matter to you?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I think for a couple of things, why it matters to me, because one is, I have been on the receiving side of it. And when I see the next generation, I want to bring that change. And I would say the last but not the least is, I have seen it firsthand. of how it impacts driving better outcomes for the company, for the team.

So I'm a firm believer of it. And I'll tell you, one story around that, allyship, like people talk about, what is and why is allyship important. And that is where when the majority starts, supporting advancement of minority initiatives and advances, that's how a transformation comes about.

And that's why to drive this, you need both the parties to come together. And that's where I want to bring that awareness on, how this would help the leaders and the company. And the, one of the stories, touching back to why it's important to me. One of the stories that came to my mind was, during the George Floyd, Black Lives Matter movement.

I have twins who were, I think, probably, young at that age. And we had, taken them for one of the support rallies. And then, when we came back... My kid is asking, Oh, there were so many non Black people. And that's when it was an aha moment for them to learn from these examples that for a change to happen, everyone needs to chip in.

Dan Lines: Yeah, it's a fairly complicated subject, I think, because there's a lot of emotion behind it. and there's I could even go back to a human rights type thing. And seeing people that might not look like you, or maybe look different than you, all of that kind of stuff.

And then there's I would call it like a business academic side to it as well, where you talk, if you're just looking at numbers, you can talk about performance. And I think for example, in your blog, you cite a study from McKinsey and company stating that companies with diverse exec teams are 33 percent more likely to outperform competitors.

In terms of profitability. So it's like you have these two, this, or at least for me, like this emotional side and like human side, and then there's like a performance side. If we started with just the performance side, why do more diverse teams perform better?

Bhavini Soneji: Here's my perspective on that, Dan.

One is when you have diverse teams, it's mimicking a better customer mix composition. Which means you get better insights and evidence on problems, as well as better validity of hypotheses right there as part of your team. It fosters creativity and bringing in different perspectives. What this leads to is debates, discussions, more knowledge sharing.

And thus avoiding the confirmation bias, which in turn leads to continuous learning and pushing the comfort zone boundary and builds grit to persevere. It instills a sense of belonging, being heard, being valued, taking risks. And if you reflect back on all of these are the tenets for a strong culture and innovation framework.

And hence, diverse teams perform better. They give better outcomes.

Dan Lines: I think a lot of the things that we do, at least in product engineering, we're solving complicated problems. And especially if you go into, I think, an executive room, the right answer or the right thing to do, it's not really like black and white. There's a range of outcomes or like a range of perspectives.

And what I can see, say just from personal experience, I would say a more diverse room brings more perspectives. And more solutions, I think, to problems where there's not only one solution. So that's one thing I've personally experienced. And I would also say the vibe of the room gets a little more collaborative.

It's balanced out. If you just have, let's say all white men, all white males in an executive room, it's very stale. It's a very stale feeling. And the only other thing that I would say is, like I'm into sports and maybe some of the people listening are into sports.

I don't think you would ever say, I want to build. Like my football team or like my soccer team with the same Person over and over again for every single position. No one would ever do that You're saying okay, if I'm playing basketball like my point guard I want them to have certain trades my center that person's gonna have a different set of trades and If we get good people that are different in all of these positions, we'd be the best And so I don't know maybe that can help people like think about it that way if you're into sports or performing You never build a sports team with a clone of the same person over and over again, right?

Bhavini Soneji: So true.

Dan Lines: You highlight another statistic. This one's from the National Science Board that women make up only 24% of the STEM workforce, and less than 9 percent hold engineering exec roles. So if we think of the STEM workforce, that's like engineering, right? Engineering, math, science. Yeah, that type of thing. What are your thoughts on how we begin to normalize this and be more diverse in tech leadership?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I think, the first thing is it starts at the top, at the leadership level. And the second one is. The company must have the intention. And we all know just, the third step, just, having strategy without execution is hallucination. So if you don't have the plan to convert the intention into action, it's futile.

So how do you then rally it up? And in my mind, and, I'm a firm believer on. Applying all of the Lean product development principles and framework over to any process transformations that you want to drive. And so how do you bring that by setting goals, measuring, driving awareness, training? And, fostering, allyship and inclusive culture.

And I have those are some of the things I've outlined in the blog post, on how to go about doing those.

Dan Lines: So you're saying it's like any other product, like you can use the same principles that we all know in engineering and yeah, I would agree with that. And you talked about the word intention, So we, like the head of our people and culture, her name is Jess.

She's awesome. She talks about intention a lot, and this is a subject that we work with intention on within LinearB, like our diversity percentage and all of that. And what I saw was the first thing that needs to happen is the engine, or sorry, the executive leadership team, not just the engineering, the executive leadership team needs to commit to that intention.

Correct. Honestly, or it won't happen like it's you either you have to get everybody in on it and say this is just like you would run any project and like we do it data driven like This is, our current percentage of, diverse hires. This is how many people we're giving an opportunity to.

Here's our goals against it. Have you and I would say sometimes maybe convincing your executive leadership is tough to get. It's tough to get buy in. Do you have any tips that you've used or anything that you've seen to start that conversation? At the exact level, if that is a new concept for your company?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I think just before I answer your question, building on what you were saying is just running it as a project and measuring, it's, what is important? You measure that and you bring that, front and center. And so this should be sitting at the same level as your business outcomes and other people goals.

And wherever you're, visiting that, reviewing that at whichever frequency, you bring these across as well. So that's how you repeatedly use data and over communication to, apply the strategies that's going to drive the change. Now, to your question, right? How, when a company doesn't have some of this.

How to bring about that, how to introduce that concept or how to bring about that change. And some of the things that have worked is, A, aligning on the problems with them, right? If they want to drive the company outcomes, telling them back to how some of these will tie it back to those outcomes.

So connecting the dots and showing them that for their value add, for the goals they are reaching, how does this piece play a factor in there? The second tactic is, different people get influenced through different means, which means learning what, what do, which other company do they see as, or which other leaders do they see as something that, they get inspired by.

Using that information, as a way to bring it back and showing that evidence of how those companies are doing it or how those leaders are doing it. The third aspect is just, right now, if you just see other companies, there's a whole, website that, I think quantit. com resources slash articles.

DEI Goals. It outlines the goals from some of the companies like Amazon Mattel, all the different kinds of industries to showcase what are the diversity OKRs they are driving. So this can be another way to see what are the parallel industries in that same company. What are those companies doing and influencing through those means?

So I think there are different, ways based on what as the perspective within the company, to partner and, bring about a change. And, Dan, I'll tell, the last thing is... It starts also with, starting with some change. So you don't have to wait for the full sponsorship and support from leadership to start this from the ground level.

I was part of Microsoft and a lot of those at initial times. The women just started coming together as a community, as a network, as a support forum to support each other and then starting to bring about and influencing change. So my thing is that, yes, start with the top, bring about that change, but don't wait.

You can do it in multiple directions and in parallel.

Dan Lines: A lot of good tips there. And I hope, I think what we can do, I really like that reference for some of those larger success, highly successful companies. Here's what other companies are doing. OKRs, goals against us, that type of thing.

Yeah, I'd love to include that, as a link for our listeners. Cause I, I do see that. Useful as a gateway to say Hey, our company's not doing this yet, but look at some other successful companies that have goals against it. Here's how they do it. That kind of gives confidence.

Bhavini Soneji: Totally. And it also gives a pretty good blueprint for starting, right?

You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can just start with some of those things and adjust it to what works for you.

Dan Lines: Now you have, there's a flywheel concept, that has to do with hiring and retaining diverse candidates. And we'll also get into, unlocking diversity in hiring, but what is the flywheel concept around this?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I it's simple. It's, how do you bring about this change, right? And the net, The outcome is you want to bring about the numbers shift, to drive that culture and business and innovative, framework. What that means is, first, you have to have the strategy for hiring diverse candidates.

So that you can bring in more of the funnel, you can bring in more of the pipeline, and you can convert, more of those candidates. Now, if you've improved this, the second step would be, how do you retain them? How do you foster a culture to drive that inclusive, and engaging, environment?

And for that, the reason is because you don't want to have a leaky bucket. Otherwise, you're going to have a funnel coming through and a, challenge with retention means you're not going to be able to retain them. So once you have that environment, it now helps. to bring about risk taking creativity, and, innovation such that you're going to be able to have better, company growth, a better durable business, a better repeat patterns of, driving your projects and problem solving and solution, building.

So this is now going to bring Awareness and attract more candidates because they will hear from their network around the, successful company culture and outcomes. So that's in my mind, it's a flywheel that will just building, continue building on and, getting more and more, successful.

Dan Lines: It makes sense. Like for me, what I've seen is usually, hiring is the most difficult. It's like getting the momentum to hire more diverse candidates. I think I've seen that be the challenge with a lot of companies. Let's dive in there, what are some of these, tactics that we can use to encourage diverse hiring?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I think there are a couple of them. One is, how do you just make sure that, companies are not taking the easy route? By that, what I mean is, making sure that, people are able to, go and reach out to candidates, outside of, those that have just, applied.

And that, is super helpful because, you're... You're trying to get out, candidates who might have, pruned themselves out because they are not meeting all of the checklists. And so that's one way to, get those things out. And even before that, just having the data again.

To track how many candidates that we reach out of what was the diverse representation there. How can we drive those numbers change through various other outreaches, to seek out, these diverse, representations. And then making sure that, during the Interviewing as well, we are not having, biases, towards, some of the ways of, assessing the candidates and, falling into, the mindset of, like minded, correlations.

So those are the other ones, and I think just one more thing during the interviewing, it's very helpful to have that representation. of some of the minority interviewers on the panel to get some of the signals as well as for the candidate to be able to relate and ask more questions.

Dan Lines: If we break down each step that you're saying the first thing that we need to do is allow for the candidate pool to increase the diverse candidate pool needs to get larger.

So it's like a funnel. And I have a note here about tackling the application dilemma, which I think you're calling out maybe some of the differences on this one between a male and female approach to job applications. Is there anything you'd want to like highlight there for the audience and how maybe to not have a bias?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, I think, the research basically shows that, when you have, people, and this is just based on some of the, analysis that was done, which I can totally relate and, agree that's happened, my observation as well, when you have an application and all the requirements listed, female candidates will apply only if they check off all of them.

And male candidates will apply even if they, checklist one of them. So how do you make sure that, your, job description Is, conducive to getting a full, represented, persona, of the profiles. And so that's one of the things. And there is a software text IO that does some of the analysis to make sure some of the ways that's coming up aligned to a diverse representation of a workforce.

Dan Lines: That's really cool. Yeah, again, I would just say from personal experience, I, it's not all the time and I don't want to speak like out of line here, but I will say when I'm a little more conscious to give, diverse candidates and opportunity at an interview because you don't know them. I'd say like opportunity to interview.

You don't know them when you're looking at the resume or something like that. And I'm usually, more often and not surprised, almost wanting to say, Hey, you could bolster your, or be more confident in your resume. Like I, I came in with a lower expectation and I'm surprised. And I would say the other way around sometimes with the other group, it's oh, you looked better on paper than you really are.

So maybe it's just like a little bit having a mindset there remembering that difference. And then, once you get a diverse candidate into the interview process. You have something here around the power of interview panel diversity. So what's up with that? What's up with the panel?

Bhavini Soneji: People sometimes ask me, what do you mean by the panel as well, based on the size of the company and, the ways they've been doing, and for me, the. The panel is the people who are, interviewing and you want to interview on culture, you want to interview on, system skills, you want to interview on, coding skills, managerial leadership skills, etc.

And so you just want to make sure that, you have a well represented, panel so that there is some, connection. with the candidate, as well. And, the reason is, twofold. One is in case, of a minority candidate coming through, they can now relate, to this individual, and they can ask more pointed, questions around the experience.

And that helps them to know and understand what the, what the company culture and what they're getting into. So it can help selling as well to the candidate. The second aspect is around, how does this help with non minority candidates? Because, that's going to be the case as well.

And for the non minority candidates, It helps to assess the culture fit as well. And yes, it might not be effective in, normal situations, but that it becomes effective in testing out some of the outliers. And one of the examples, I've seen it firsthand as well is, and then we had a mixed, there was, two interview was because one was shadowing.

And, the candidate, when the minority person would ask the question, would still look at the other individual and answer. And that was a complete, no on kind of not even being acknowledging or, being representative of, the situation. And so we, of course, said, based on this and some of the other signals, we were like, no higher.

But... This is where having that representation in the panel helps to assess some of these, as well as during the interviewing discussion, debriefing, as you were mentioning how some people are great at storytelling. It helps to, ask for facts. It helps to seek truth and understand that we are not just, getting carried off in one direction based on one perspective.

So this again helps to, assess both minority and non minority candidates to make sure they are, a better fit for the company and the intentions the company wants to pursue.

Dan Lines: Yeah, that, that's really cool. I think if you're not using a diverse panel today in the interview process, like you said, there's a lot of benefits there, and that's something that you can, if you're listening, suggest to, to your company, I think it's like a really smart, easy suggestion that you usually works.

Yeah. And one, one thing that I've, again, this is not data for me, but one thing that I've seen, maybe there's two types of biases. One thing is, do I look like the person that I'm interviewing? So if it's I'm a male or I'm like, I'm a white male and I'm interviewing a female or I'm a white male, this is just for me personally.

And I'm interviewing a minority candidate. Almost like a bias training. I think we're going to talk about this to say, okay, can I recognize that this person I'm interviewing does not look like me and therefore I may have this like natural bias against them. Let me like cognitively turn that off or think about it.

Bhavini Soneji:In smaller companies, you might not even have that minority representation in tech already if you're at the starting.

And so how to be creative, right? You can bring in from different functions. To just, get a connection and, do a lunch and learn or culture fit, etc. So just be open to creative ways to, drive the outcomes. And the second thing you mentioned around, some of the biases, right? On when you see that individual who is not like you.

But also, based on your past interactions. You might see that person, related to, some past interactions that you were not liking or not comfortable, and you would just box this person in and think all of those negative things would apply here. So how do you keep that open perspective that every situation and thing is different, so you don't need to, d this candidate with the biases from your past unhappy experiences.

Dan Lines: So there, there's such thing as bias interview training workshops or something like that. What's that all about?

Bhavini Soneji: So I think, and this, bias awareness of workshops, this applies to anything, right? Not just interviews or so it applies to your culture, your working collaboration, et cetera.

And, people say, okay, everyone has biases. So how and what this will help. And even whether they'll be effective in remote teams. My perspective is that these has been very helpful, both for me and, for my teams, as well. And what these are is, these are the activities or workshops, and they can be very small, Dan.

You don't have to think about it as a day long workshops or anything. And there are various, options to do these different workshops. But they help you think of your self development or self personality check things as well. Some of these just help you understand and know about your biases.

Sometimes you knew about your biases, but you did not know additional ones that you had or in which aspect they are surfacing up. So these things help you. To connect back to how you are coming across and how you want to, change some of those, mindsets. And the key in these things is doing breakout sessions, because in these breakout sessions, now the team is bonding.

They're discussing some of the things they're discussing, some of the ways to come across, like what you, outlined, right? What are some of the biases during, hiring? What are some of the biases during project assignment for managers? What are some of the biases, that apply during, review system and performance management?

So having some of the things tied back to the company and to the day to days of the team helps to make it more, concrete. And I'll give you one more kind of parallel, right? Because many times I feel people are like, okay, we've done it all good. This has to be done repeatedly again, every year over and here.

And here is an analogy that comes to my mind, right? People management, right? Think of that and people, leaders, people, managers, they do trainings. It's not that the first time the person started, they did training and for 20 years of their leadership management career, they did not. So why? The reason is because as you are progressing, each stage, they discover something new about the situation or about themselves.

And so when they do these trainings or so workshops, They're now better equipped with learnings from the trainings and how they can apply to their situations in this, in light of these new things. And it's just like peeling the onion. And that's why it's a continuous learning and a work. In progress.

Dan Lines: Continuous nature of this, the reminder. Yeah, it's a, a tough thing to figure out. It's definitely not easy. And you have, maybe a few tips or you have, like I saw on here in my show notes, tell me about the shadow diversity.

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, that one was actually very effective and I've done it. And, I hadn't realized, I did not project that it would be so impactful. So let me, let me walk you through it. It ties back to what I was saying is I'm a big proponent on the product development principles. So this is following that framework of Gemba Walk, which is.

Shadowing your customers, that gives you the first hand visibility into the specific challenges, and how to effectively, transform that. How do we as leaders And I wanted to understand the challenges of, minority or the inclusivity environment culture, and how do we learn from it and bring about that change.

And so what I had done was, and different people can apply different ways based on this pattern. So what I had done was, I was hearing some of the things from my minority individual. Representatives. So I had a women manager, who, connected with the minority group. And had a candid discussion, Blameless and No Names called out.

And, thinking about, okay, what are the challenges people are facing? What are the suggestions that the minority groups have for fixing it? And then they, with some examples and asking if some of these examples, still trying to keep it anonymous, would be able to, are they okay sharing that? And then I had this, woman manager come and talk at my leadership.

Sharing with my leadership group, on some of these findings and all. And then it was just so amazing. And I was really grateful and humbled that my leadership was so open to the input. They all thought, talk about biases, right? They all thought they were doing extra to lean in with the minority. So they thought there was nothing wrong.

And when they heard this. With representation of what that other person and why that other person came to these conclusions, what was the pattern? They started to see that, and they were able to understand it at a deeper level now what is going on, such that they were able to then, go back and talk to them and align with such what are some of the things that will bring about a change.

And the key thing was that it was it related and it was so important to them that some of them were saying, we went back home and we're having this discussion with our, at the dinner table with our families. That's when you realize that, okay, you've brought about that strategic and long lasting change.

Because now people are believing it. They can understand it. They're connecting with it. So I think it was just very powerful, insight for me. And I tried to apply this pattern, more and more to get more insights and take them back. 

Dan Lines: Where I want to wrap this episode up with this last question for you. If I'm listening and I'm moved to take action at my company, so I could be, an engineering manager, I could be a director, maybe I, maybe I'm a VP, something like that. I have a little bit of influence and power, but maybe my company, we're not doing this stuff yet, like we're not measuring, we're not doing any of this.

What would be your advice on a first step or first few steps to get the company moving in the right direction here?

Bhavini Soneji: I think basically, first of all, is fundamentally understanding and believing how this will impact what matters to the company and the leaders, right? Which is a great team, which is a great company, great product.

And tactically, track this initiative, follow through on it, just like any other business and project and ensure. The numbers are moving.

Dan Lines: That's awesome. Thank you for all of your amazing advice, Bhavini. Thanks for sitting down with me again. It's been such a pleasure to have you with us for two episodes in our leadership series, it means so much to everybody.

Where can listeners go to learn more about you or to, we know you're doing some of this consulting services stuff. Where can we get at you?

Bhavini Soneji: Yeah, thanks Dan for having me on the episode. So to pursue my passion of nurturing leaders and companies to become force multipliers and drive transformations and effectively scaling I've started this consulting that provides services like fractional, interim, CTO, advisor role, as well as executive coaching.

And people can learn more about it at bhavinisoneji.com or the most intuitive place for most people is LinkedIn/bhavinisoneji. And, there's ways for people to foster this allyship, have the support system. And for some of the women minority group, I love this community that executive has started, which is called, sheto.org. And that's a great engineering leadership community for women that supports a lot of mentorship and, a lot of ideas, as you were mentioning for people to bring about this change in their company and get support for that.

Dan Lines: Awesome. So yeah, very important topics for everyone in the engineering community.

Feel free to reach out to Bhavini, you can sense her passion, for all of these types of important topics. And before we go, remember to check out the Dev Interrupted substack for more insights and discussions like today's. And if you found this episode valuable, please share it with your network.

Thanks for listening. We have one final installment in our Engineering Leadership Series. It's going to be a great episode. You don't want to miss it. And we'll see you all next week.