#52 Raising the Bar

January 20, 2016

Leslie Miley went from being a college dropout to Twitter’s only black engineer in a leadership position. So why did he quit? Also a brand new Yes Yes No.

Twitter declined to comment specifically on leslie’s story, or to talk to us for this piece. A spokesperson sent us the following statement:

We’re committed to making substantive progress in making Twitter more diverse and inclusive. This commitment includes the expansion of our inclusion and diversity programs, diversity recruiting, employee development, and resource group-led initiatives. Beyond just disclosing our workforce representation statistics, we have also publicly disclosed our representation goals for women and underrepresented minorities for 2016, making us the largest tech company to put hard numbers around its diversity commitment.

Further Reading

Leslie Miley on Diversity

Alex Roetter’s reply to Leslie’s article

Carl Zimmer’s article on stool transplants

The Facts

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder

Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Special thanks to Raya Brass Band for use of the song “Unify.”

Sponsors

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Show transcript

PJ Vogt: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ: Don’t you feel like we’re about to do like an NFL announcing thing?

GOLDMAN: [sings] That’s literally all I know about sports is the song for football. Is that the song for football?

PJ: Yeah, it’s called the song for football.

GOLDMAN: Are you ready for some football? Do you remember Hank Williams the, Hanks Williams, Jr. did that song. I know the songs for football.

PJ: That’s cool. So this week we have, this week we have a really surprising great piece that you reported, but that is in the second half of the show. First. . .

GOLDMAN: We’re going to have a “Yes, Yes, No.”

PJ: Let’s go.

GOLDMAN: Welcome to “Yes, Yes, No,” the segment on the show where we treat our boss like our dad and walk through the internet and explain things to him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: These, these intros get more and more humiliating.

GOLDMAN: This of course if our boss Alex Blumberg. Thanks for doing this again. Sorry to embarrass you. But it seems like you like it cuz you keep coming back.

BLUMBERG: Well, like, I learn things along the way that’s the, that’s the good thing. All right, so this is a tweet. And it’s from a Twitter user named kept_simple, “kept underscore simple.” And the tweet reads as follows. “Contrast the strong virile Powerball with BB-8, the powerless white cuckball.”

So, PJ Vogt, do you know what this tweet means?

PJ: Uh, I can see some of it, like I can see the, some iceberg over the water but I don’t know how much is. . .

BLUMBERG: Just answer the question.

PJ: I don’t know. I kinda know.

BLUMBERG: Alex Goldman, do you know what this tweet means.

GOLDMAN: Yes, I do.

PJ: You fully know?

GOLDMAN: Yes. Alex Blumberg, do you know what this tweet means.

BLUMBERG: I do not.

PJ: Well, Alex, how far did you make it in before you get lost.

BLUMBERG: Me?

PJ: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: Uh, I get lost at, I get lost at “Contrast. . .” Let’s see, “Contrast the strong virile Powerball with BB-8. . .” I get lost at BB-8. “B-B-dash-8.”

PJ: Okay, but before that you know, do you know right now that the Powerball lottery is super high?

BLUMBERG: Yeah, the Powerball lottery is over a billion dollars. That I know, cuz I’m a human being.

PJ: Ok, I wasn’t calling into question, but you don’t know who BB-8 is?

BLUMBERG: No, I don’t know who BB-8 is.

PJ: Okay, well, a lot of human beings, most human beings saw the new. . .

GOLDMAN: There’s a new movie out. It’s a little movie, it’s called Star Wars.

BLUMBERG: Right, okay.

PJ: And do you remember R2D2 in the old Star Wars movies?

BLUMBERG: Yes. R2D2 the one that only spoke in beeps.

GOLDMAN: Right.

PJ: So, there’s a new droid that only speaks in beeps. His name is BB-8. He looks like a volleyball with another volleyball on top of him. He rolls around all the time and he says like, “Berp berp berp berp berp.” And that’s like his whole language.

GOLDMAN: He’s very cute.

GOLDMAN/PJ: [in unison] He’s very cute.

BLUMBERG: Got it.

PJ: We have now, like, maxxed out on my knowledge of this tweet. I don’t understand what a cuckball is or why they’re being compared.

GOLDMAN: So there’s a very specific reason why this person uses the phrase “powerless white cuckball” and we’re about to dive into that.

PJ: This feels already, like, one that I’m gonna want to not save in my brain. Is that true?

BLUMBERG: I’m really excited about where we’re about to go.

GOLDMAN: Okay, so are you familiar with the slang term “cuck?”

PJ: As in like “cuckold?”

GOLDMAN: Yeah, so. It’s become this sort of catchall word for like effeminate, cowardly men. They’re called “cucks.” There was a New York. . .

PJ: Wait, people? Which people?

GOLDMAN: Well, there was a New York Times article not that long ago about how the phrase “RHINO”–which used to mean “Republican in name only”–has sort of been supplanted by the phrase “cuckservative.”

PJ: Okay.

GOLDMAN: So, “cuck” is, is a slang term for, like, a cowardly helpless creature.

PJ: Okay.

GOLDMAN: And, as you predicted, now we. . .now we’re going to take a dip in the manosphere.

PJ: Okay. Don’t. . .can we not say, “Take a dip in the manosphere?”

GOLDMAN: I’m afraid we can’t. I’m afraid that’s the, that’s how it has to be presented.

BLUMBERG: “The manosphere” being —

GOLDMAN: There is a specific part of the internet, and I’m not sure if they self-identify as the manosphere, but there is a, there is like a sort of a constellation of blogs that are men’s rights activists. And, they are sort of white supremacists adjacent.

BLUMBERG: Mmhmm. . .

GOLDMAN: So, Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. . .

BLUMBERG: Yes.

GOLDMAN: . . .late last month. . .

BLUMBERG: Yup.

GOLDMAN: . . .to much critical acclaim.

PJ: Oh no, I know where this is going.

GOLDMAN: And one of the things that people were very excited about was the fact that it had a female protagonist and a black protagonist.

BLUMBERG: Got it.

GOLDMAN: But, there was a certain subset of the internet that was very mad about this. Their argument was that Rey, the main female character, used the Force too well too early in the series. Like, she didn’t get trained enough and they were like, “Of course they would make a woman so good at the Force.” That was really like a serious argument. That was it.

BLUMBERG: They were complaining about fictional fantasy affirmative action.

GOLDMAN/PJ: [in unison] Yes.

BLUMBERG: Like they were saying like, “Oh, you, like, she only got so good at the Force because she’s a wo. . .that’s amazing.”

PJ:  She took a spot that a white man coulda gotten into at the Jedi Academy.

BLUMBERG: She a fake fictional spot in a fantasy world that a fake white man in that fantasy world could have taken just as easily.

GOLDMAN: Basically, An image popped up, from 4chan, and it was all about how this movie was all about empowering people of color and women and the only character for white men to identify with was the powerless, white cuckball–the droid.

PJ: Oh, God.

GOLDMAN: You know, here’s here’s my question. How far did they get into the movie cuz Han Solo comes back.

PJ: Very quickly. Wait, but what does that have to do with “Contrast the strong virile Powerball.”

GOLDMAN: Someone’s making a joke about what’s going on right now with the lottery. They’re like, “The lottery is so big and strong right now at $1.3 billion” or whatever it is at this point. Compare that with the lowly, powerless white male surrogate. The ball droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

PJ: Wow.

GOLDMAN: So I think we’re at “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

PJ: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: We are at “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

GOLDMAN: Would you like to, would you like to explain back to us exactly what you learned?

BLUMBERG: So, okay, once again the tweet, “Contrast the strong virile Powerball with BB-8 the powerlesss white cuckball.” So, kept_simple is making a. . .is making a comparison, an absurdist comparison between the Powerball lottery–which is over a billion dollars right now, I think, at the time of this taping anyway–with BB-8, who is the new R2D2-style character in the latest Star Wars movie. And, and BB-8, I now know is, in the manosphere–a section of the internet that, up until a half an hour ago I didn’t know existed, and I wish I was back there now–

PJ: Just as an editor’s note, I’m not convinced that “the manosphere” or “dipping into the manosphere” exists outside of Alex Goldman’s, like, Google search brain.

GOLDMAN: No no no. The manosphere is a real thing.

PJ: The manosphere. I’m just Googling this. . .Oh, my God, it has a Wikipedia entry.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, manosphere. . .

PJ: Just to say, there’s also vivalamanosphere.com. Oh, my God. Okay, I’m done.

BLUMBERG: You resigning from the internet?

PJ: I’m going on sabbatical.

BLUMBERG: So anyway, so there’s a section of the internet called “the manosphere.” One of the people on the manosphere posted on 4chan that the only character in the “Star Wars” movies that they could identify with was that quote “powerless white cuckball” and that is the comment on 4chan that kept_simple is referencing in his satiric tweet.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, we’re at “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

BLUMBERG: And like always. . .why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

PJ: One day it’s gonna. . .

BLUMBERG: Why do. . .

PJ: . . .turn out different.

BLUMBERG: Why do we keep answering questions? I was so excited to be. . .I’m thinking back to that young, innocent Alex Blumberg of like 20 minutes ago who was very excited when you, when you were about to launch into the story of the powerless white cuckball and I was so excited. I thought you were going to take to a place of wonder.

GOLDMAN: I mean I would call it a place of wonder.

PJ: Yeah, but you think it’s going to be like Back to the Future I where everyone’s on hoverboards, but it’s like Back to the Future II where like the mean guys in charge and it’s a dystopia. Like every single time. . .

GOLDMAN: Both of those things happen in Back to the Future II.

PJ: Really?

GOLDMAN: I’m sorry to break it to you. All of Back to the Future I takes place in either 1985 or 1955. It’s in the second one that they go to 2015.

PJ: I hate you. I hate being friends with you. Like it brings me no joy. You’re like a fuckin’ human corrections column.

GOLDMAN: If it makes it feel any better I pronounce everything wrong and I don’t know what any words mean.

PJ: Coming up after the break, “Where do you keep your ketchup?” Stick around.

 

BREAK

 

PJ: Welcome back to the show. So this next story is about ketchup, stool samples, and a big debate about the right way to solve problems. Alex has the story.

GOLDMAN: So when I think of silicon valley, I think of this playground for rich techy guys. You know, offices with beanbag chairs, ping pong tables, xboxes. i don’t ever picture neighborhoods or the people who live there and have actual not-venture-capital lives.

But there’s the guy, his name’s Leslie Miley. He’s a big shot in the Silicon Valley world. He’s worked at Apple, Google, Yahoo. And he’s different than most of peers in a couple ways. First of all, he’s black. And second, he grew up in Silicon Valley. Just a couple miles away from the companies he’d later work at. But it might as well have been a different country. I reached at his home on Skype.

LESLIE Miley: I’m a Silicon Valley native and, you know, the the sometimes the walk home was not fun. I’m African American, I’m a guy named Leslie and, you know, that did not go far in a mainly Hispanic neighborhood.

GOLDMAN: Back then, he was just another poor kid in San Jose, the son of a General Motors assembly line worker and a stay-at-home mom, trying to avoid getting beat up on the way home from school.

LESLIE: And, so I would like take these really circuitous routes home and, I know, I’d walk through strip malls, and, you know just whatever so I could to avoid where I knew these guys were hanging out. And and I just went into, I don’t know, it was like a computer world or I can’t even remember the name of it.

And I would go in there and saw these these what I thought were just video game machines and you know after like a day or two of playing there, they were like you need to learn more than just how to play a video game. And so they popped in like a programming language, and that’s how I learned. . .

GOLDMAN: Wow.

LESLIE: . . .and they would sit with me, and you know, and give me pointers, you know, and I would get a task to do and then I could play a game.

GOLDMAN: Few years later, Leslie went away to college, but after a few semesters he dropped out, and found himself back in San Jose.

LESLIE: . . .and took a job as a security guard at Apple in the 90’s, and because I had some programming experience, I would hang out with the old school programmers who hadn’t bathed in 6 or 7 days. And, and they taught me a lot. So that’s how I got started.

GOLDMAN: Leslie found his way into the tech world almost 20 years ago, doing back end work on software at Walmart. And from there he went on to work at some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley–Google, Apple, Yahoo. And three years ago, he was thrilled to land at Twitter.

LESLIE: It’s a really interesting company and it has a lot of great things about it, and and in some ways it may be the best job I ever had.

GOLDMAN: After the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the Black Lives Matter  movement was using Twitter to organize. Which was really inspiring for Leslie – it gave him a sense of purpose, and made him proud to work there.

This was honestly a dream job, for Leslie. Which is why I was so surprised to learn that in October, he quit. Not for another job somewhere else. But because working there had just become too frustrating.

He tried to explain it to me. Yeah, well, Twitter the product was used by all kinds of people, Twitter the company felt very white and very male. In fact, Leslie was the only black engineer in a leadership position at the entire company.

LESLIE: You just kind of look around, and you’re like “Wow, look at who’s getting promoted. Look at who’s getting the accolades.” You know, you look around and you’re like “oh, we don’t have any minorities, ethnic or racial minorities in a position above manager. You know, what’s up with that?”

GOLDMAN: He just didn’t think these problems were getting enough attention. He described a meeting he attended with Twitter’s former diversity, Janet Van Huysse.

LESLIE: She was talking about diversity recruiting and I said “What are we doing to increase diversity in engineering, specifically with African Americans and Hispanics.” Her response was something something along the lines of, “Well I’m the only one, so I’m only concentrating on women right now.”

GOLDMAN: Realizing that that might be taken poorly, the Senior VP of engineering Alex Roetter stepped in.

LESLIE: And he’s like “Hey, diversity is absolutely important. And, you know, we’re going to lead in this, you know, but we’re not going to lower the bar.”

GOLDMAN: To Leslie, this was infuriating. Lower the bar? Who said anything about lowering the bar? And, this happened all the time across his whole career. When he was at Apple. When he was at Google. Someone would say something, in a room full of people, and it was like Leslie was the only one hearing it.

LESLIE: When I was at Google and an engineering director tossed me the book Not an Ordinary Black Man by Bryan Copeland with the comment that maybe I will get along better after I read that book.

GOLDMAN: Actually, turns out the book is called Not a Genuine Black Man, but anyway, the guy gives him the book.

LESLIE: You know, the book is about a black guy living in a white neighborhood.  You know, it’s, you know you get that book, I’m sitting on this couch and I get this book and and I’m like, “Ok, I need to talk to somebody,” but I have no one here at my level or above my level who I can go and talk to about this.

GOLDMAN: What do you think his intention was in that instance?

LESLIE: Does it matter?

GOLDMAN: I mean, I guess not.

LESLIE: I hate to be just blunt, but does his intention at that point in time matter? No. And his intention will never matter. It’s, it’s an ignorant thing to do and callous thing to do.

GOLDMAN: Moments like these were isolating and tiring. And at Twitter, they were frequent enough that they began to weigh on him. And  when he’d talk to his bosses, they’d tell him that he was the problem.

LESLIE: You know, early in my career, my reviews would come back that I’m intimidating, I’m aggressive, I’m this, I’m that, and and you know, I would always take that feedback and try to get better, take that feedback and try to integrate it.

GOLDMAN: But to integrate this feedback, Leslie ends up trying desperately not to conform to the stereotype of an angry black man and he ends up sanding off all the sharp edges of his personality. Just not being himself. Fast forward to a performance review while he was at Twitter.

LESLIE: The, my my manager at the time, the director at the time was saying, he’s like, “You’re just not aggressive enough.” Which is like, well I’m thinking, “Well what the hell just happened here?” You, you know, five years ago, I was too aggressive. Today I’m not aggressive enough. You know, and then that’s why I asked myself, have I over compensated? You know, have I tried to make people so comfortable and not be the scary intimidating black guy that I’m actually not being aggressive enough? Because I don’t want to scare people.

GOLDMAN: Even with all of its frustrations, Leslie still loved working at Twitter. It was challenging. It was fun. But then, in October, his frustration bubbled over. It was during another conversation with Alex Roetter.

LESLIE: We started, you know, the conversation of hey I think, you know, diversity in engineering, you know, we’re not doing as well as we would like to do. You know, I have some thoughts, I have some ideas. I. . .and then he shifted the conversation, and he was like “I think it’s a sourcing problem, and we need to find out where candidates are falling out in the funnel.” He’s like, “Well, you know, we can just write a name classifier. You know, write a name classifier, that you know, like the name Nguyen is probably 98% Vietnamese, so if you know if you have a Tommy Nguyen, he’s probably Vietnamese.”

GOLDMAN: To be clear, when Leslie says “name classifier,” what he means is a program that would automatically identify non-white sounding names, so this would jump out of the hiring pool. This was Alex Roetter’s suggestion for how Twitter could find a diverse workforce.

And first of all, a tool like that isn’t likely to even work. If you run a name like Leslie Miley through it, it’s pretty likely to assume that you’re a white woman. But more than that, for Leslie, the ick factor of something like this was just off the charts.

LESLIE: And, you know, and I’m thinking about it I’m an engineer, right? And so I’m like I mean I get this. But, he black part of me, you know, which is a major part of me, is like, “Really? Really? I I have to build a profiling tool? You’re you’re suggesting a profiling tool?”

I said, “I’m not sure if it’s legal and, you knw, I’m not even sure if this is ethical to do something like that.”

He’s like, “Yeah, but, you know, we could solve that problem!” And and I just realized that this is not something that this person is thinking about this as a thing to be solved as an engineer only. And if they’re going to look at solving the problem this way, you know, I don’t want to be a part of it because that just doesn’t sit well with me.

GOLDMAN: For his part, Alex Roetter, he says that he didn’t mean it the way Leslie took it. But still, Leslie had had enough. He just said “That’s it,” and he walked away from his dream job.

LESLIE almost immediately started talking about his experience at Twitter. And he made this argument, one that I find really interesting.

LESLIE says that Twitter’s lack of diversity doesn’t just affect the workplace atmosphere, but it goes straight to the heart of the product itself.

LESLIE: Obviously if you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product, you’re going get a very very narrowly focused product that may do one or two things really well or just may not do anything really well. And if you look at Twitter as a product, it doesn’t a lot of the simple things. It doesn’t do direct messaging well. It doesn’t do media sharing well, right? And if you had people from diverse backgrounds, you may have been able to expand, you know, what what you thought was possible?

GOLDMAN. Let me ask you this how must of your desire to see diverse workplaces comes from the fact that it’s just morally correct to have diverse workplaces versus it will make your product much better.

LESLIE: Yes. The answer to that question is yes. It’s going to, you know, diverse teams have better outcomes, that is, there’s so much has been written on that in the last 30 years I don’t even know why we’re talking about it. And and I think, you know, I hate sounding like, you know, like a total socialist, but arising tide lifts all boats.

GOLDMAN: Honestly, even though Leslie says that there’s 30 years of research to back it up, this particular idea, that diversity makes for better problem solving–I’d never heard of it. So I went and looked into it and there are actually a ton of people studying this concept. Like this guy.

SCOTT PAGE: So my name is Scott Page, I’m a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute.

GOLDMAN: Scott researches how teams perform. And in 2004 he published an experiment that tackled the idea of quote unquote “lowering the bar”

SCOTT: I was interested in this question of when would it be the case if I were trying to hire people that I should hire the best individuals and when would it be the case that I should hire just even random people, I mean random good people.

GOLDMAN: Being a professor of complex systems, Scott used mathematical algorithms as a stand-in for people. And he’d give these algorithms really difficult math problems to solve. And then, he made two teams, one full of highly effective algorithms all programmed to solve a problem, in ways similar to each other. Like, how a group of smart people who all graduated from the same colleges might behave. But then, Scott filled the other side of his model with less expert equations, all of which approached the problems from totally different directions. Like a team from different backgrounds.

SCOTT: And so I was writing all these computer models and mathematical models and in every, in almost every model I wrote what was happening is the team of the best individuals was not doing best. The team consisting of the best individuals was getting beaten by just randomly picking people.

GOLDMAN: The experts were losing. If anything, they were the ones who needed the bar lowered.

Granted, we’re talking about zeros and ones, but still, it was strange. Scott was noticing that the “so called” expert performers, the ones who tended to have really similar strategies, when you put them in a team, they’d get stumped more or less at the same time. While the randomly-picked, less expert algorithms, they always had some new strategy to try. And they won again and again.

And Scott says the same thing happens in real-world experiments with people. When faced with a hard problem a diverse team gets better results. And by diversity, he doesn’t just mean race or gender.

SCOTT: One way you can measure diversity is you can ask, literally, you know, what knowledge bases do you have, what have you learned? You can ask what experiences you’ve had?

GOLDMAN: Scott says that language, age, geography, personal hardship–they all inform how we solve problems in these crazy subtle ways. And he gave this example that I find totally mind-blowing. Where we keep our ketchup.

SCOTT: Now turns out if you’re British or if you’re African American from the South, not as a rule but generally speaking, you’re likely to keep your ketchup in the cupboard. If you’re not British and you’re not African American from the South, you tend to keep your ketchup in the fridge. And you could think “Vive le difference, who cares, right?” Well it actually does matter because suppose you run out of ketchup. If you’re out of ketchup and you’re a ketchup in the fridge person, what are you gonna use? Well you might use mayonnaise, you might use mustard because those are things you think of when what’s next to the ketchup. If, alternatively, you’re a ketchup in the cupboard person and you run out ketchup, what’s next to the ketchup in the cupboard? Well, malt vinegar.

GOLDMAN: So, the more diverse the backgrounds, the more associations you get, and the more paths towards solving a hard problem.

And there are actually a lot of real-life examples of this. Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the New York Times, he says that the ketchup story completely tracks with what he sees in the science world

CARL ZIMMER: Y know if a scientist is looking at a problem and thinking about how am I going to solve it, there’s a range of approaches that they may think of just based on their training. You know, and they can’t even imagine that there’s another way of approaching it. You know, they can’t imagine that there’s ketchup in the pantry, really. And the fact is that another scientist can walk in and be like,“Oh, look, you’re looking at this totally the wrong way.”

GOLDMAN: Carl had a great example of this kind of cross-pollination. So, going back about 8 years.

CARL: There was this gastroenterologist who was dealing with a patient who was dying of a horrible gut infection and everything he had been trying wasn’t working. And so he had heard that if you give a patient a stool transplant from a healthy person, that somehow that could cure these kinds of infections.

GOLDMAN: A stool transplant. The gastroenterologist, Alexander Khoruts, he tried it and it worked. The dying patient had a complete recovery in just a couple days. But Khoruts didn’t understand why. To figure out just what was going on he needed the help of someone else. A woman named Janet Jansson.

CARL: I remember, like, the first time that I talked to Janet Jansson, and I said, “Wait a minute. So you’re not, you’re not a medical doctor?” And she’s like, “No no nono, I’m an ecologist.”

And I’m like, “Well, what do you study?”

And she’s like, “I study dirt.”

And I I I I just I, I thought maybe I called the wrong person or something.

GOLDMAN: But as Janssen explained, when she looked at the stool sample, she saw something that Khoruts didn’t. She saw a thriving ecosystem. Just like the ecosystems in healthy soil.

CARL: What had happened with the stool transplant was that basically a a healthy ecosystem had been restored and had taken the place of a sick one.

GOLDMAN: And it’s not just stool samples. The microwave, it’s thanks to a guy who was developing radar for the miliary. The discovery of the double helix, mostly the work of a zoologist and a physicist.

Sure, It can be tricky to pull off, but scientists know that if they’re stuck on a problem, they need to talk to someone who keeps the ketchup somewhere else.

So between Scott Page’s mathematical models and the entire history of scientific breakthrough it seems pretty clear to me: Silicon Valley would benefit immensely from more diversity.

Which is awesome. I mean, this is probably the first time in my life that the profitable thing was also actually morally correct thing.

But unfortunate.y, because I was excited about this idea, I mentioned this to my co-worker Adam Davidson.

ADAM DAVDISON: I’m Adam Davidson co-host of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome with Adam McKay. I also write a column for the New York Times Magazine.

GOLDMAN: He’s also a founder of the radio show Planet Money and an expert on economics.

And Adam says, “Yes, diverse workforce, it’s a beautiful idea, and I’m all for it.” But when it comes to Silicon Valley there are two big problems. First: we don’t have proof yet that it works because to prove it, you’d want to look at all of those diverse Silicon Valley companies. And, they don’t really exist.

ADAM: I was looking at the numbers just this morning for Silicon Valley, looking at African Americans in Silicon Valley.

GOLDMAN: Right.

ADAM: And it is, even though knew I was going to be shocked, I was still shocked by the numbers. The highest is that 6% of engineers at some companies, I think, are African American but but far more typical is less than 1% are African American and then in positions of real power and authority it’s much much smaller than that.

GOLDMAN: You need like a larger set of data to work from.

ADAM: Yes a part, a problem with–whether it’s institutional racism or whatever it is–a problem with having an incredibly small number of minorities working in positions of power in fast-growing companies is it’s really hard to make any conclusive determination about them because there just aren’t enough.

GOLDMAN: So in order to prove the value of diversity in the workforce you need to first have diversity in the workforce to be able to prove that it’s valuable.

ADAM: Yes.

GOLDMAN: So for now a lot of companies don’t want to take the risk and they do want to keep their investors happy by making money fast.

And that speed, that pressure, it creates the second big problem. Startups, of course, want to grow quickly, and diversity may make that more difficult.

ADAM: One theory is sameness is really good especially for fast growing startups. That when people have the same cultural background, the same educational background, they can communicate much more quickly, they can collaborate much more easily, there’s much less misunderstanding. So I was thinking about this on the way here. Like, you and I are Jewish guys who worked in public radio

GOLDMAN: Yes.

ADAM: We work for a company that has a lot of them and you called me and said hey can you come onto the podcast and talk about this thing. And we did not have to talk long. I knew instantly what you meant I knew instantly what you meant, I knew immediately what you would kinda like see as a success and what you’d see as a failure and it was very easy.

GOLDMAN: But Adam says, imagine a different scenario: a company that decides to hire a bunch of employees from all over the world. They have different expertise, different cultural references, even different ways of arguing —

ADAM: So you could understand why there would be an initial cost, you know, initial disruption to that. . .

GOLDMAN: Right.

ADAM: . . .but that over time you would start to get the benefit. Like, oh, these peole have a different education, they have different perspective, the benefit comes later. But if you’re the most the most numbers focused profit maximizing CFO, why do I want to be the first one? I’d rather be the eighth one.

GOLDMAN: You don’t have to look far for examples of this. On Monday, Apple’s board of directors rejected a proposal for improving diversity in the company, calling it “unduly burdensome and not necessary.” And that seems to be where we’re at right now with Silicon Valley. A lot of profit-driven companies that would happily be the eighth one to try a new approach.

But Leslie Miley? He doesn’t want to be the eighth one to try this approach. He wants to be the first. Right now, he’s working on a new venture, he can’t tell me much about it yet,  but he believes his company will be the exception in Silicon Valley because it will be staffed with people from all sorts of backgrounds. And he says it’s not all that hard to build a company like this. You just need to ask people you’re interviewing a new set of questions that most companies aren’t asking yet.

LESLIE: What I really need to do is look for the best talent given a kind of a list of different. . .differing criteria. Like “How did you get to where you are?”

GOLDMAN: How did you get to where you are. Which is to say, “You made it here, to this interview. You’ve probably overcome a lot of obstacles to do that. I’d like to hear about it.”

GOLDMAN [to LESLIE]: And do you think that that’s a question that should be asked in lieu of “What Ivy league school did you attend, or even what school did you attend?”

LESLIE: I totally think that’s a question people should ask. If you’re not asking that question, you know, if you’re not answerin that question you’re not hiring, you know, you’re nor hiring right. You know, I want to hear people say, “Hey yeah I had to go to community college,” or “I had to take a year off because I didn’t have the .” You know, I mean those are the experiences I want to hear from people, you know, because it shows that they’re that they have they, I don’t want to say more rounded, but they’re rounded individuals they have different life experiences and they’re going to bring it to the table.”

GOLDMAN: This idea that Adam Davidson brought up–that diverse teams can slow a company down, cost it time and money–I brought it to Leslie and he just didn’t seem to care.

LESLIE: I’ve read a lot of the studies about having diverse teams can impact efficiency and I think that’s absolutely the case in most cases that it does because people have to learn their different communication styles. They have to start having a greater understanding of the person they’re working with, you know, as a human being. So it is going. . . it is going to create friction. It’s going to cause friction. It’s going to slow things down initially.  And for those of you who say, “Hey, we have to move fast so we just want to get people who all know the same thing.” You know, I I I I say, “Go to hell.” Because that’s just your, that’s lazy. We should all be trying to get better. And if getting better means you have to be uncomfortable for a little while, you know what? So be it.

Twitter declined to comment specifically on Leslie’s story, or to talk to us for this piece. A spokesperson sent us a statement about the company’s commitment to diversity, which you can read on our website.

Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Mervyn Degaños. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Matt Lieber is one of those nights that is so fun and gets so out of hand that when you describe to your friends you can tell that they don’t totally believe you.

Special thanks this week to Shankar Vedantam of the Hidden Brain Podcast for all his help with this episode.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Thanks to the Raya Brass Band for use of their song “Unify.”

You can find us on our website, replyall.fail or in iTunes at itunes.com/replyall.

We’re taking next week off to work on some stories so we’ll see you in a couple weeks. Thanks for listening.

 

 

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