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The Enormous Diversity Problem at AWS re:Invent 2017

kylegalbraith profile image Kyle Galbraith Originally published at blog.kylegalbraith.com Updated on ・2 min read

I will be the first to admit I don't have all the answers. I will also say that I speak as a white male programmer in a position of power. There is no one person to blame or entity that has failed. But as a member of this community I have a responsibility to report what I observed.

The technology community has a massive diversity problem. Nothing made that more obvious then attending the AWS re:Invent conference this year with 43,000 other attendees.

It is easy to forget if you work for a diverse company. It seemed a bit second nature to me to have colleagues from underrepresented groups. Having others in the room with different perspectives on solving problems is incredibly valuable. Yet, you walk into an exhibit hall in Las Vegas for re:Invent and it becomes clear not everyone in the tech community has caught up.

Walking from session to session you could actually count the number of people from minority groups on one hand. Hundreds of people you are walking past, and those that were not white males could fit on one to two hands. That is at best 10% if we are lucky and probably more like 2-3%.

Do the math. 43,000 attendees with only 2-3% being non white male means there was at best 800-1,1300 attendees from underrepresented groups. We have to do better than that.

Amazon Web Services tried to promote diversity. There was a diversity track of breakout sessions, cocktail hours for Women In Tech, and awesome presenters for keynotes. It's not enough though. The lack of diversity with re:Invent attendees shows that companies still don't get it.

The same types of people in the same room all the time leads to the same thoughts, processes, and failures. It promotes the same ludicrous behaviors and actions that we are seeing on our news channels. As an industry that is going gang busters, we must do better. Amazon must exert its presence and tell attendees to do better.

There isn't change without action and those that wield the biggest stick are those that must act. But we must also act as well and push those around us to understand the value in diversity. It is a massive failure in the tech community if we do not solve the problem I observed at re:Invent.

As I said at the start of this post, I don't have all the answers. But I am happy to help in anyway I can. I will continue to promote diversity in my workplace, on Twitter, and with those I network with. I believe a failure to do so is a failure to recognize that we have the power to change the world.

Discussion

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scooterphoenix profile image
Scooter Phoenix

I asked you this very question when you were there. I'm used to it, but it still baffles my mind that there so few people in these spaces that look like ME! I actually had a man walk up to me at VMworld 2016 and call me a unicorn, give me thumbs up and walk away. I hope my being in these spaces, talking about them leading up to these tech events and reaching out to women and POC in my local community can start to make some headway.

What we do is amazing and challenging and rewarding, I want to share that with others so they too can learn about what we do and let them know that they belong. AWS, VMware, Microsoft and all these huge firms must do better.

I look forward to NOT being a unicorn.

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emlison profile image
Michal Lison

I hear what you're saying, the problem is most certainly there.

That said, I'm not sure if I agree that we should be putting "pressure" on it. I can't quite shake the feeling that conferences and companies have this virtual "diversity quota" that they need to fill, or they'll face backlash from social justice warriors and and social media.

Perhaps I'm just lucky, but in my bubble, I don't see this kind of open discrimination - it's mostly caused by unconscious bias, and that, as psychology teaches us, will not be effectively overcome by pressure.

This kind of pressure creates absurd situations and puts both parties in an awkward position. The institution's motivations are driven by goals that are remote to solving diversity, and the person gets treated as some kind of exception, a special case. This makes the divide only bigger.
Giving someone free tickets because of their gender, hiring someone because of their race, or simply listening to someone because of their sexual orientation is self-serving and only bolsters the perception of differences, rather than focusing on what is we have in common.

... but then again, what do I know, I'm a white male after all. Nobody listens to my opinion on this topic, precisely because of my race and gender ;)

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nepeckman profile image
nepeckman

You're missing the point here. People don't ignore your opinions on race and gender to be vindictive or mean. People ignore your opinions because you don't experience systematic discrimination. You said it yourself, you don't see this issue. It's not because this isn't happening, it's because it doesn't affect or target you. You don't personally experience the issue, so why should people listen to your thoughts on how to solve it? And if we want to solve this issue, we absolutely need to put pressure on it. You don't solve problems by ignoring them and hoping they sort themselves out. You solve problems by addressing them. And sometimes progress is incremental and hard to see. We can't really know how many people have been helped by free tickets, or diversity programs. Maybe someone found their passion through that opportunity, or realized they could do something they previously thought was unavailable to them. Representation is really important, and you shouldn't dismiss it so callously.

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emlison profile image
Michal Lison

I find these arguments somewhat misleading.

The topic is of interest to me, and I don't see why would my opinion be dismissed on such grounds as me not experiencing the issue personally. A doctor can mend broken bones without ever having one broken herself.

I'm merely suggesting there's other ways how to solve problems than pressure people into things, and nowhere am I implying that we should wish the problem away.

My argument is that we should treat people as people, not as female people, black people or gay people - I think this approach has, historically speaking, a better track record of making societies equal than putting people into separate boxes has.

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nepeckman profile image
nepeckman

A doctor can mend bones after years of study and training. Being white doesn't disqualify you from having helpful or valid opinions on social issues, but you do need experience first. Marginalized get this experience firsthand, by the fact that they are marginalized. I'm going to be open and say: I don't have this experience. I took a couple of college classes, but that doesn't qualify me to solve social issues. I have opinions, but everyone has opinions and there is no guarantee that my opinions are good on this subject. So maybe you're right. Maybe diversity programs aren't the way to solve this problem. But unless you have some experience in solving social issues, I don't think you're qualified to provide a definitive answer. And I would defer to someone who has experience in these matters, instead of dismissing them as "social justice warriors."

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ohnonapples profile image
Pine Apple

I agree with the part of "giving someone free tickets". It is great that we strive for diversity. But sometimes the root of the problem is much more deeper. I remember when I was in college, I was one of the 5 female students in the entire class of almost 100. In my case, how could you reach a diversity quota if you don't have enough supply? On the other hand, people make their own choices, we should respect their decisions about what major they choose and what career path they pick. Trying to be diverse just for pure social/political reasons does not seem right to me.

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emlison profile image
Michal Lison

That's right. Before I go see your talk in a conference, I don't want to be wondering if you're there just because you happen to have a different set of genitals than everyone else in the room.

And I do shamefully admit that this has happened to me on few occasions, but not before this whole diversity movement in tech started and companies / event organisers started to be afraid what's gonna happen if they don't fulfil their diversity quota. Shaming people into decisions is something else than having them make a decision on their own.

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erinlmoore profile image
Erin Moore

Weird, I can't shake the feeling that some people get hired as developers mostly because they 'look the part', and people who don't look like people's idea of a 'developer' have to work harder to be seen as competent. Guess we're all going to have our feelings.

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defectus profile image
Ondrej Linek

What about making it mandatory for people to work in IT? Just order them to do IT jobs. If they don't want join IT companies voluntarily we can introduce a quota system where people and especially people from minority backgrounds, would be forced to enter the IT job market.

It doesn't matter whether or not they want to start their career in IT or if they like doing IT jobs (or even if they are good at it) we will achieve diversity at any cost!

If this doesn't work we can punish companies that are not diverse enough with fines and taxes.

Diversity will be achieved!

Or we can do it the other way around - send white male programmers to other countries - I'm sure they will bring much needed diversity to places like Africa and Asia.

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lindydonna profile image
Donna Malayeri

As a woman in tech, I was actually surprised by the gender imbalance at re:Invent. I might be wrong, but most Microsoft conferences had better ratios.

I think AWS could have done more, such as having diversity scholarships. Microsoft does this, see twitter.com/gabrtv/status/94104634...

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rnhurt profile image
Richard Hurt

It appeared to me as though there were more women at this year's re:Invent than in previous ones; not by a large margin, but it was there.

I teach programming to 8th graders a couple of times a month and I'm always encouraged by the students that really seem engaged. In fact, the girls seem to be the quickest to catch on and go beyond the specifications of the project. Disappointment sets in when I talk to them after class they don't have any desire to move into an IT career. I'm not sure what else we can do.

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derwinmcgeary profile image
Derwin McGeary

Well said! I am aware that I got most people's perception of what a professional geek (I'm not exactly a developer, but I write code) should look like. I definitely know that my colleagues may be viewed differently, despite being more qualified in many cases.

I can't really do anything to be viewed as less competent (deliberately losing data is frowned upon), but I can make sure that other people get credit and help boost their ideas.

We can't achieve meritocracy overnight, as some commenters have pointed out, but we can push in the right direction.

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman

If it really bothers you, make a plan and do something about it. Negative campaigning is for politicians.

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kylegalbraith profile image
Kyle Galbraith Author

I agree about negative campaigning. The struggle for me is what I can do to help. As others have stated this isn't an easy problem to solve. It requires explicit inclusion of thought and catching things like unconscious bias.

So yes I think we all should make a plan and take this on. The question becomes how do we start?

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charlescbeebe profile image
Charles Beebe

The same way you start any dev project - learn "Hello, World!" Go to a tech Meetup at your local HBCU and listen to what people talk about. Find a project you can give a couple of hours to volunteer on. We won't solve this with a single grand plan; we will solve it by building and nurturing the diverse networks we claim to want to participate in.

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eaortiz profile image
Estefania Ortiz

I want to go this year! I'm a Latina and I own a development agency. I'm the architect and tech lead and use aws products all the time but as a small business (relative to big tech) the cost of conference and certifications is "not worth it" because I can always "figure it out" and it's gonna be a "room full of dudes" anyway. I'm curious if you know of an initiative (theirs or someone else's) that would subsidize the cost to lower at least one of the barriers to entry. 🤷🏽‍♀️

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kylegalbraith profile image
Kyle Galbraith Author

Thank you for the comment. I know AWS is putting a lot of focus on this issue at this years event. I shared my concerns with them and they are on the ball in trying to get it situated. In terms of a way to subsidize the cost, I don't know any initiatives off the top of my head. But I would try reaching out to Sacha as she might have more details on that.

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eaortiz profile image
Estefania Ortiz

Reached out thanks!

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helenanders26 profile image
Helen Anderson

Nice write-up Kyle, a timely read with the 2018 conference just around the corner. Are you going to be there this year?

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kylegalbraith profile image
Kyle Galbraith Author

Thank you Helen! Unfortunately, I will not be at this year's conference. I will, however, be following along and tweeting like crazy :).