As the New York Times best-selling author, Brené Brown says, “Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.” In today’s cultural and work environment, we’re no longer able to avoid sensitive and pressing issues, but many leaders are paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes in the way they address them. This is especially true when it comes to addressing concerns around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

That’s why our host, Federico Toledo, wraps up season three of Quality Sense with an illuminating interview with a leader in the DEI space. Ash Coleman has had a very unique and interesting career path that has led her to her current role as the Head of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at Credit Karma. Before that, she was a professional chef who made a transition into software testing. These professional experiences have led her to understand what goes into making amazing experiences and products that meet the requirements for a diverse population.

As you will learn in the episode, not only is DEI important for companies to that want to do the right thing, but it’s been proven time and time again that diverse companies outperform those that are not. Listen to the episode and/or read the transcript below for all that and more!

Episode Highlights

  • Why the role of quality engineering helps companies be more inclusive
  • Pros and cons of having a distributed team and its impact on diversity
  • Reverse discrimination, racial and gender equity in the workplace
  • How important representation is at work and its impact on employee retention
  • Three simple ways individuals can help promote DEI

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Episode Transcript

Federico         

Hello Ash, how are you doing?

Ash

I’m doing very well, thank you. How are you?

Federico

I’m fine. I’m very excited about having the possibility to get the vaccine very, very soon, so … And what’s coming after that. Yeah. This is the hope that we have.

Ash          

Oh, absolutely. I personally, just on the vaccine, I happened to receive the first dose this week. And so I am well on my way, and I’m hopeful that a number of others are well on their way to receiving the vaccine. I think that we’re turning the corner right now, and hopefully we’ll see a lot more opening up given the accessibility of the vaccine.

Federico      

Yeah. Well, we can start dreaming again about meeting people, conferences, and things that we really enjoy, right?

Ash             

Absolutely. Oh, I miss everyone so dearly.

Federico

So Ash, I know that most of the people out there know you because of your contributions to the testing field, but can you tell us what’s your current position, what you are doing nowadays?

Ash

Yeah, so a little over two years ago, I fully cashed in my quality engineering chips and converted to a people role. So currently I’m the Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Credit Karma. It’s a financial tech company that focuses on progress for everyone in their financial life and space.

Federico       

Cool. So talking about diversity and inclusion, what do you think about our field, about testing? How diverse is our field, or the IT industry in general?

Ash          

Oh my heavens. So tech is one of those spaces that regularly comes up as an area of improvement when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion. And there are very valid reasons why. I mean, when we look at the history of computer science, when we look at the opportunities of where computer science shows up, we’re seeing disparities in its offerings from a historical perspective. And so almost naturally what we’re seeing is those disparities really calculate into what we’re seeing as opportunities for individuals in tech today.

So areas that we can absolutely do better in are with women, non-binary individuals, our BIPOC folks, and the intersections continue from there. Our LBGTQ community can use a little bit more loving, there’s a conversation in some areas of the world, because we’re talking tech universally, we can talk about where people are coming from, right? Their ethnicity, their origins. And so having the full scope of what a global tech community looks like, it would be better gendered in the way of more diverse tags, or identities of gender representation, as well as folks from historically excluded communities being more accessible… Tech being more accessible to them.

Federico        

Yeah. And maybe collaborating with each other is a way in which we can learn and be more open, and change our minds, and the way we interact with each other, respect each other, right?

Ash             

Absolutely. I love even the way that we met, or have found each other when it was pre-COVID and we were able to travel and interact and engage. The more that I did that, the more I found I was aware of how the world works. Which helped me to empathize and to really understand the conversation outside of myself. So taking myself out of the center of the conversation and really looking at the world around me. And I think that tech also allows for that to happen a bit, especially in the quality engineering space, where we’re thinking about usage from a global perspective. And when we do that, we think that it’s a lot bigger than me, it’s a lot bigger than my neighbor, and being able to connect and grow with others really helps us to round out that experience from a diversity perspective.

Federico        

Yeah, totally. Do you think testing is a field with some particular things regarding inclusion or diversity?

Ash          

Oh yeah. So I think it’s really interesting that all of the organizations that I’ve ever worked at … Well first let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m a black woman, I identify with a number of different intersections other than just being black and a woman. But I was regularly the only quality engineer on my team who was black and/or woman. So let’s put that out there in the front first. But I think it’s interesting that as I’ve had that experience, 

“I’ve realized that quality engineering is one of the most diverse areas in tech, because it focuses a lot on quality and usage of folks who we are creating products for.”

ASH COLEMAN

And when we think about quality engineering, it is how does this technology function in the hands of various different people? And being the person who tests for that, it’s almost natural for it to be a more diverse community, given what our responsibilities are. And so I’m always delighted to see that one, I’m on the team, but then a number of other folks are on the team who have various different backgrounds and identities that help build up the quality aspect technology that we’re building.

how testing helps with diversity and making products that are better for many types of people

Federico        

Yeah. Considering different perspectives or different ways in which people are going to use the products you are developing, right?

Ash            

Absolutely.

Federico         

Yes. I have an example related to that, I’m remembering now. We were collaborating, teaching testing to a group of people with disabilities. They’re in Uruguay, and we learned a lot, more than what the students were learning.

Ash           

Right.

Federico         

And how important it is to include people, different backgrounds, different perspectives. It’s a way where we can learn from each other, from our differences, right?

Ash             

Absolutely. And that is the joy of it, right? Is that through quality engineering, we get to bring our lived experiences to the table. There’s nothing more fortifying for me in this arena than being able to speak about how I personally would use something and know that it is a test case that no one else thought of, because they don’t use technology the same. And so I think that that alone should be enough for people to start considering, how diverse are your testing teams? And then an extension of that, is how diverse are your tech teams? And an extension of that is, how diverse are your companies? Because all of these folks are working together and collectively to make a product, all of those perspectives are really what’s making the most robustness out of the products that we build. It’s a competitive edge.

Federico        

Yeah, because it doesn’t matter which product you are building, probably your users are going to be very diverse, right?

Ash            

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. If conversion is the bottom line, right? 

“If revenue is the bottom line and you want to sell to the most people possible, it would be really disappointing to find that your product doesn’t reach a certain demographic because you don’t have the perspective.

ASH COLEMAN

Federico         

Yeah, that’s right. So what would you say are the main issues we have to face as a community in our industry?

Ash             

Oh, heavens. Inclusion. I think that inclusion and belonging are the things that really define the struggles that we’re regularly encountering. And what that means is there’s room for us to understand how we exist in a space, understand what that existence breeds, AKA what our biases are. How they play out in our workspaces and on our teams, and then try to extract the things that result in the most negative impact. And so a lot of folks talk about unconscious bias, and have varying thoughts and feelings about whether trainings for that work or not. I take it a step further and say, “Well, how are we existing in our own experience in our own bodies, to be able to understand how we personally are presenting at the table?” And then talk about, “Where are my blind spots?”

I think that that’s a better container for conversation around bias, rather than, “Does an unconscious bias training work?” Or just having a pure awareness of unconscious bias in general is not helpful. It isn’t helpful until we apply it to our own self and our own identities, and be able to then have the fuller conversation of, “How is my bias creating a blind spot?” And that’s the work that needs to be done. So when we talk about it from an industry perspective, how are we really cultivating an environment where we’re having those conversations, and we’re being open and honest, and folks feel like they could contribute honestly, and be honest with themselves about where they might be perpetuating the issue?

Federico         

And what about when the team is in different locations, do we need to take any particular things into consideration?

Ash            

Absolutely. There’s a mixed bag there. Distributed teams can be a plus and/or a huge minus, depending on how you see it. When it comes to diversity, there is opportunity in distributed teams. One, when we think about everyone being co-located, it limits specific demographics depending on where you’re located, right? If you only have an office in LA, for example, then you’re limited to the folks who are in LA, which means you have a very Pacific coast centric organization and perspectives outside of that, depending on whether you’re recruiting talent from outside of LA, is going to impact your perspectives and bottom lines, right? And so in that way, having some level of distributed teams outside of LA can benefit the product, and again, its ability to having more diverse teams in those remote areas and building a product that has many perspectives outside of that central area.

Now where we can get into some trouble though, is not really allowing those remote teams or those distributed teams to really be their true selves in building this product. And I think that that’s what we see more often than not, is that if you have distributed teams and your focus is mostly staying a Pacific coast centric organization, then you are minimizing and limiting the things that are most beneficial about those distributed teams.

Now, when it comes to the interpersonal side of distributed teams, the hardships of that, again, go into this. How are we, one, recognizing that these teams that are outside of our central location are valuable, and their contributions are equally as important as ours? And also realize when we’re talking about an international type company, what are things like time zones, social norms, conversations around diversity equity inclusion, what are they sounding like in those areas? Because then you build on top of the already complex interpersonal relationships that you had, even being geo located in the same place, right?

So this just breeds further the conversation of how are we being inclusive? How are we allowing for space for folks who are not from our location to be heard and seen and their contributions to be just as valuable? And then there is the leadership conversation. 

What does leadership look like? How are we measuring talents? How are we building and growing as an international or distributed organization? Are we building the right tools for communication? Are we on the same page when it comes to whether this needs to be a VC, an email, or even some cases snail mail, right? 

So distributed teams, I think it depends on how you look at them, but personally I feel that when you have different locations, you do introduce a number of interpersonal problems, potentially, but you also have the fullness of having perspectives from outside of your central location, depending on how your teams are actually distributed.

Federico         

Yeah. Even if they are within the same country or in different continents?

Ash            

Right.

Federico         

Yeah, totally. We have different offices in Uruguay and we also have an office in Chile. We are all from South America, but we have a lot of differences and we are learning a lot every day, one from each other, you know? 

Even in the different cities of a small country like Uruguay. And I think this is very encouraging for all of us.

Ash             

Yeah. And that’s… It’s how are you valuing those other opinions and experiences, or is it more of a cog in the system, right? It can be two sides of the same coin, positive or negative. And I think that in the true nature of diversity, it’s about how do we open up channels for more communication, collaboration, and belonging, rather than how are we limiting those opportunities based off our own biases. The way that we do it here is way better. Is there a compromise, is there a conversation that can bring about better practices that are important for both locations? And I think that we get this across time zones where it’s, “What time are we having meetings? Are we recording this?” And those are just… We’ve experienced a lot of that during COVID. So something that’s on everyone’s mind.

Federico         

Yeah. Can you tell me why is this important, this topic important for people in the company?

Ash             

I think it’s important for people in the company because it involves every person in the company. It’s really interesting being in this role right now, because it’s easy to assume that it is solely my job. And I think that we’ve done a really big effort of communicating and messaging that in reality, everyone has an impact level in diversity equity inclusion. Which means that based on where they’re situated within the org, they have a span of control of which their biases exist based off of their person existing, right? Their actual identity in themselves, and their experiences on existing in that space.

So if we’re not all aware about, one, diversity being important, but two, how we present in a space and what that means from an impact perspective, then we could easily lose sight of what momentum we can make in being a more diverse and inclusive company. It’s an all hands on deck type of conversation within the organization, and folks need to be aware. Again, awareness is key, intentionality is key. And if nothing else, making sure that if and when it’s your turn to speak for diversity at your organization, you have something to say in regards to how you personally experience it, and/or moving the needle forward in progress.

Federico         

Yeah. Maybe for you, maybe for a partner, maybe for someone else, right?

Ash            

Absolutely.

Federico         

Yeah. And sometimes for people in other companies, because you are also collaborating probably with customers, or with the providers, and it’s important to take everyone into account when talking about collaboration, yeah.

Ash             

Absolutely.

Federico         

And you already mentioned one of the motivations that a company could have in order to pay attention to these types of topics, which is because of money. Because you will lose money, lose users and customers. What other arguments would you have for supporting these ideas? For trying to persuade management, for example, to pay attention to inclusion?

Ash             

When people’s needs are being met, they work more efficiently and effectively. I think that… I mean, this is my experience, and my experience alone, is I had a hard time working during shelter in place because I, one, had a brand new baby, and I was dealing with understanding this new human, as well as working in my home where this human also existed. And so when we talk about hardships and whatnot, I wasn’t able to really get work done in the way that everyone else was getting work done. And so I had to have a transparent conversation with my boss, of which she’s incredibly effective at creating a safe space for that to say, “Listen, I’ve got this kid that has a lot of needs, and I want to be able to meet those needs, and I also want to be able to contribute at work. However, it’s going to need to be seen very differently than what you might be used to.”

And her being open for that conversation helped me to express my needs, which then helped to meet those needs. And I was able to continue to produce, and contribute, and I think that’s something that gets missed in this conversation is some folks want to continue working through this, I’m one of those people. That is not the expectation for everyone, but my need was I really want to connect and have opportunities at work, even while I am growing and caring for this new child. And I want you to hear me say that, because that’s a part of the needs that need to be met during shelter in place, and during my ability to contribute, and during all these other things. 

Once that conversation was had, and once my boss was able to meet those needs, which was literally, “So what can we do, Ash?” That’s how I was able to be productive. Now again, my needs are very different than everyone else’s, but it really does come down to how we are able to meet those needs.

Federico         

How important it is to have a diverse management, because in that situation, you are more able to understand the different needs.

Ash             

Absolutely.

Federico        

For example, if there is a mom or a parent in the management team, probably the team would be able to understand more that type of situation and be more empathetic, and yeah, and listen from another-

Ash             

Absolutely.

Federico        

Another way.

Ash             

By affinity, we are able to relate to folks who are in similar circumstances than we are. And that’s a bias, right? It’s a positive and can be a negative bias. But in the situation of diversifying management, it means that those who are our leaders can identify, along with our experiences that are very real and lived, the need for care, the need for time, the need for space. It’s an incredibly empathetic opportunity when you have people who can relate.

Now, that’s not to say that everyone who has that experience has the same experience, but I think that’s where the word empathy comes in, is those who both have a situation where they can relate to, or maybe a similar experience that expresses the same feelings or needs, can be able to extend that empathy over and say, “I hear you, your experience is real, and this is how we’re going to move forward to assist in creating space for that experience.”

Federico         

That ‘s amazing.

Ash             

When it comes to business, I want to double click on diversity being a competitive edge. A cohort of mine who regularly does trainings with me, always states that it isn’t arguable. 

“There is no case against diversity being a competitive edge, which means the more diverse you are, the more money your organization is going to make.” 

ASH COLEMAN

And this has been proven time and time again, through a number of stats and research opportunities that have unfolded quite a lot of information around how diverse teams are just more profitable. Their products are more robust, and the competitive edge is there, right? So I think that that needs to be the first and foremost, because that is the fact.

Now, if we go down the chain and we talk about what are the other ways in which this is important? When you think about, of course, money being… We all want to say that diversity equity inclusion is about doing what’s right, right? 

I think that personally, we all want to do what’s right. As humans, we want to make sure that an experience is equally as fulfilling for every individual as possible. There’s no malice or ill intent, which means that we all care about it in some regard. But here is where it comes back to that competitive edge, the bottom line which is revenue and/or gain, is that when we’re thinking about the folks who are building these products, are they ones who want to stay within your organization? Are they ones who want to continue building the product that you build?

If they’re not seeing how their contributions directly affect the product that they’re building, right? When you think about turnover within organizations, attrition is one of the areas that can cost a company a lot of money. And so keeping folks within the organization for longer really does help with that bottom line. 

“People are not going to stay where they don’t see themselves. They’re not going to stay where they’re not having a fulfilling experience. They’re not going to stay when they don’t feel appreciated and that their contributions are being seen or heard. More importantly, they’re not going to stay where they are not being seen. So when we talk about diversity from the perspective of what’s good about it, it’s that the organization wins, the individual wins.” 

ASH COLEMAN

I don’t know of a better equation than that.

Federico        

Great. Related to what you just mentioned, I am remembering now also a conversation I had with some of our collaborators, that she mentioned that for her, it was really important to see so many leaders in Abstracta that were also women. Because that means that she, in the future, could also be able to be there. So it’s important to be diverse in all the corners of the company, right?

Ash             

Absolutely. Representation is wildly important. If you have a leadership team that is all one demographic, what does that look like for … What are you signaling to other folks who don’t fit within that demographic? And it’s not even that the possibility is there, because it very well could be possible for that individual to make it to leadership, however optics are a real thing. And folks can only envision themself where they see it. So diversity in that regard is really important. Visibility in that regard is incredibly important.

Federico         

Yeah. Totally. So what can we do as individuals to contribute to the diversity, equity and inclusion in our company?

Ash             

Yeah, we can be intentional. We can be intentional, right? I think that a lot of this is about self-awareness, it’s about awareness in general. It’s about us looking around us and understanding who’s missing from this conversation? Who’s missing at the seat or at the table? And then being intentional about figuring out how to make that gap filled. And that really is what it’s about. And that’s easier said than done. For example, no one likes to feel as if they’re negatively impacting something because of perhaps a blind spot or bias that they might have. And it’s hard to reckon with that, but also if we don’t, then that means that blind spot is going to continue being a threat. That blind spot is going to continue being a danger to the progress that we want to make.

Federico         

Do you have any message for leaders or for companies out there about things that they could be implementing or trying to work on?

Ash             

Yeah, I think again, it’s about starting with the individuals who build up leadership. Can they rally around the idea and the understanding of diversity equity inclusion, being something that is a competitive edge, if nothing more? But then going down the list of, are we doing the right thing? And then assisting them in feeling supported, speaking up and speaking out on how that can be better? 

I think one of the huge blocks as well with diversity equity inclusion is the blocks that come from people not supporting it, the blocks that come from people not feeling as if they can surface, improvements that could result in more equitable, inclusive, and diverse practices. And having the real conversation of, is our organization ready to breach this topic in a way that’s going to be effective in its progress?

Federico         

Cool. What do you think about equity? There is a concept in Spanish that will be translated as positive discrimination.

Ash             

Positive discrimination. Yeah.

Federico        

Making a discrimination, but with a positive intent, right?

Ash             

Right, right. It’s like a consequence, everyone only associates it with negative, but there are definite positive consequences that come along with our actions. So the English translation might emphasize discrimination a little too much. So I would say that this is racial or gender equity. That’s how that communicates in the DEI space. And what that means is, again, it’s being intentional. It’s being intentional about the corrections we need to make because of our previous missteps.

Federico         

Okay.

Ash            

And folks get caught up on this a lot because it’s, well, if you are spending a lot of time on this one demographic, then that means you’re excluding the rest. Yes, and. Yes, and this other group has been discriminated upon for so long that the disparities are overly obvious. And that means that we need to fix it. And it’s just like anything in your home. We just bought a new home, and there luckily aren’t very many things that we need to fix, however, the things that need to be fixed need that attention. And if we said, “Well, you know what? We’ll just spend our time equally across all of the things within the home.” Then that means will those things ever get fixed if we’re not intentional about spending time on them? And the answer is likely no.

So when we’re thinking about reverse discrimination, or racial and gender equity, it’s about how do we fix this problem that’s long standing? That we know is obvious, that we know has resulted in a complete disparity in opportunities and/or presence within an organization. And what do we do about that? We are intentional with the time we spend, the money we spend, the resources we allot to that particular problem so that we can fix it. And then hopefully we can have the conversation that’s less about equity at that point, and it’s more about equality.

Federico        

Yeah. The example you made made me think that it’s also about prioritizing, right? It’s that you have different things to solve, there are so many problems out there. Maybe we have to prioritize and tackle the problems one at that time, but it’s hard to do it.

Ash             

Absolutely. I always say in the QE space, if everything’s on fire, nothing’s on fire, right? All right, are we fighting fires? And that’s the way that I see prioritization is, if everything is a P0, there are no P0s.

Federico         

Yeah. What can we read if we want to continue learning more about the topic?

Ash            

Learning more about the topic? This is always a fun one. I think the book that I started on a little while ago and finished recently was Brené Brown, Dare to Lead. I think that’s a phenomenal book when talking about leadership in general. It brings a lot of perspective on how to address things like our bias. She doesn’t come out and say bias in that way exactly, and it’s not classified as a DEI book. However, it’s something to think about as leaders within your organization.

And then there are a number of other books that I have in the many boxes that are in my office here. But one that comes to mind right now is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. There we go. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And it’s an experience of him writing a letter to his son about the black experience. And these recommendations are more on how can we bring additional perspectives into the conversation, and what do they allow us to know when we’re making decisions around diversity equity inclusion?

Federico         

Is there something that we could do in our daily lives also to improve the way we experience diversity and inclusion? Do you have any advice?

Ash             

Oh, I have plenty. Unsolicited advice, everyone. But I think the three major things that I always like to talk about are, one, recognizing who you are in the conversation, because it better helps you identify others and de-center yourself from that conversation. I think that the unfortunate impact of a lot of the actions we take within diversity, equity and inclusion come from a place that’s well-intended, however the impacts might not be positive for the folks who are on the receiving end. So being self-aware. 

The next is being intentional. Be intentional about the work that we’re doing. This goes back to what we were just talking about, about how do we fix the problem? Prioritize it, be intentional. I don’t want to use the wrong language. Be intentional, take a second.

And then the third thing is… 

“Be curious. Continue to learn and grow. I know enough to know that I don’t know anything at all, and what that means is that I’m constantly looking for more information that helps me to understand the world around me.”

ASH COLEMAN

Before that was easier with travel, where I was able to go and experience those things in person. That is an ableist perspective, that is a privileged perspective, and not everyone can do that. And so things that folks potentially can do is be curious about the people around you. Get on your phone or the internet, if you can, if you have access to that and Google, right? Learn more about the world around you. And so those would be my key tips, if you will.

Federico       

Thank you so much. I think there are a lot of things to process and to learn from all this conversation. Is there anything you would like to invite our listeners to do? Reach out or anything?

Ash             

Yes. There is an organization that I work with called Techquería. And it is a phenomenal organization that has this conversation very strongly within the Latin and Hispanic communities. And really just talks honestly about the work that needs to be done internally, as well as within the tech space, for those who are from Latin America and from various other countries and spaces in the world that are all within that demographic. 

I invite you to stay curious. If that curiosity brings you back to me, you can find me on Twitter at AshColeman30, or on LinkedIn.com/Ash-Coleman.

Federico         

Thank you so much again, and hope to talk to you soon and maybe see you at a conference or something.

Ash             

It would be my pleasure.

Federico         

Bye-bye.

Ash            

Bye.


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