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Human Readable
32 MIN

Ep. #1, Intent vs Impact with Demetris Cheatham

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about the episode

In this inaugural episode of Human Readable, Lo Etheridge and Rizel Scarlett speak with Demetris Cheatham of GitHub. This conversation explores topics like DEI in tech, the importance of mentorships, advice on hiring, leadership and management training, and the many parallels between social work and tech.

Demetris Cheatham is Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Strategy at GitHub.


Lo Etheridge: All right, let's get into our topic with our special guest. We're talking about good intentions versus good impact. Rizel, do you want to introduce our guest today?

Rizel Scarlett: Yeah, I'm happy to. So Demetris is my coworker and a good friend of mine. Demetris is the Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at GitHub. She's responsible for leading the company's long term strategy across four pillars, which are people, platform, policy and philanthropy, and her work includes aligning diversity, inclusion and belonging to the company's global expansion, growth and business strategy. That also includes the plan for future footprint of its workforce.

Lo: Welcome, Demetris. Thank you so much for being on our show. So we're talking about good intentions versus good impact, and just to get started I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you think the difference between good intentions versus good impact is when it comes to DEI in tech or tech communities.

Demetris Cheatham: Thank you so much. That's a great question, and before I get started I just want to say thank you both so much for having me. Rizel, you know I would do anything that you ask me to and show up wherever. As part of my bio I have to acknowledge, along with Lauren, I am a proud graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, so I have to get that Aggie pride out the way.

Lo: Yes, Aggie pride, blue and yellow!

Demetris: So back to the question. Good intentions versus good impact. If you really want to think about it in its simplest terms, and this is for DEI in tech and other industries, or just in general, intent is about how you feel. Impact is about how you make others feel. I think the issue with intent versus impact really comes into play when there's a repeated pattern of behavior, whether it's by an individual or is common knowledge and that individual should actually know better.

It starts to feel like when someone says they are sorry to you over and over again, but their behavior doesn't change. How this plays out in DEI is when they diminish the impact by hiding behind statements like, "We should trust by default or assume positive intent." After a while when you keep hearing that over and over, it just becomes another form of gas lighting.

Basically saying, "I did something, but you aren't hurt by it because I didn't intend for it to hurt you," yet here you are, sitting over here like, "Dang it, I was harmed by that. Wasn't I?" And then you start questioning it, then you start excusing it, and after a while this is what becomes the underpinning of a toxic relationship, a toxic team or a toxic organization altogether.

Lo: Right. And I think that's what starts that, like you said, toxicity. But also that plausible... I call it plausible deniability, right? Which is akin to gas lighting where you start to question everything around you, everything you think, and that cuts into your confidence about the things you're trying to do, your work task and all of that stuff.

Then comes that narrative that you were just speaking about, about, "Oh, trust by default." If you're already coming from a foundation where that's not your truth and then you're constantly hearing that, and then you circle back and have an experience like what we were just talking about now, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not.

You're never going to report anything that's happening to you, you're not going to say anything about when you see something happening to someone else, and all of that stuff contributes to burnout, I feel like, and all of that stuff. That's when people end up leaving your organization, and you may not even know why.

Demetris: Correct. They're surprised when someone leaves, like, "How did this happen? We didn't even know this was going on."

Lo: Yeah. "You're do such great work, why are you leaving?"And it's like, "Well, we're basically in a Lifetime Movie Network relationship. I didn't see it, but we were for years. I got to go."

Demetris: And then even the more ironic part is that now they expect for you to tell all about this toxic behavior in your exit interview. I don't even feel psychologically safe enough to do that, and so then they get this narrative that you left because you got an amazing opportunity somewhere else or for more pay. "No, it actually wasn't because of that, it was because of the toxic environment that I still don't even feel safe to tell you about on my way out the door."

Rizel: Yes. Why are y'all speaking my truth? I left a job and they were like, "We know it's because you don't want to be a software engineer anymore." I'm like, "No. Because y'all are toxic, but go off."

Lo: It's like, "No, I don't want to be your software engineer anymore."

Demetris: I like that a lot, I love it.

Rizel: I love that. So let me ask you a question, Demetris, how do you make a positive impact at your job?

Demetris: Rizel, I think you are a witness to this. But I talk to people a lot. I talk, I'm constantly talking. When someone asks my 70 year old mom and dad what I do for a living, they literally say, "She talks, a lot, for a living." That's how they describe what I do. How can I put this in tech terms? I would say my feedback loop is strong, that's something that we can all think about.

Now, of course I'm always looking at data, I'm setting measurements for success, but I also make sure that I'm reading between the numbers or seeking to understand what the data might not be telling me. I probably drive people batty with this, because I don't like to do numbers for numbers'sake, and people love to play the diversity game with numbers, right?

Like, "Thousands of people that we've helped here, we've got hundreds of new hires for this and all those things." But you know what? I can actually stand up a program pretty quickly that 10,000 people would get access to. I can do that all day, every day.

But I actually like more of the ripple effect strategy, I like going deep and having that transformational effect with a few that will turn into having an impact on a few more and so on. I like to go for those exponential results that generations can feel.

But the downside to that is, I'll be quite honest with you, it is slow. We were doing it for a few people, and engineers, we don't like slow. But we've been playing the numbers game for years, right? Think about after the murder of George Floyd, you had companies like, "We're going to put $50 million for racial equity. We're going to do $100 million for that.

We're going to upscale a million people here, black and brown faces," and all those good things. Then you'll see those big numbers going out, but then we keep looking at the numbers in tech and it's still 4% black, after all those big numbers keep being reported. When you go down and drill to that bottom line number, it's not moving.

So I always say, "What is insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result." That's why I was like, "We have to look at a different approach to diversity, equity and inclusion."That's where I like that slow, that intentional, that going deep versus the breadth of it.

Lo: Yeah. And I think that's a really amazing point that you just made, because I come to tech from the social work world, right? I was a social worker before I started doing this, and particularly in harm reduction. Harm reduction is all about slow but methodical behavioral change.

And so when I'm thinking about trying to make the tech community that I'm involved in, the Sanity community more inclusive, or reaching out to organizations that are doing this work, I'm thinking about us getting in there and not just doing one activity but staying with that same organization for a long period of time and actually establishing a relationship. That is directly mirrored to all the things I did when I was in physical communities, you take a group of people and you slowly move through this series of actions.

Demetris: Yeah, but I think what... Yes, and. I shouldn't have said but. A lot of organizations are always, regardless of what they're doing, they're looking for that ROI, that Return on Investment. I talk about this all the time, and I say this humbly, being from North Carolina A&T, a Computer Science major, when a company wants to check the box that they've gone to a HBCU, a Historical Black College and University, it's so easy for them to go to A&T, Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Hampton, FAMU, those big schools, and they're like one stop shopping almost. "We went there, let's grab as many as we can and we're gone."

They will ignore the smaller schools. Lauren, because we're here in North Carolina, I'll say the Shaw Universities of the world, the Saint Augustines, the North Carolina Centrals, the Fayetteville State. I'm just naming those that are right here in our area, because they're like, "Well, they only have a few students over there so it's not worth us actually spending the money, sending people down for us to maybe get one.

Let's just play that numbers game and go with that big pond so we can just grab a lot." Versus I'm thinking, "What would happen," and I'm so glad that RedHat has done that, "if you take one school, one company and you decide to go deep and long with them?" If you do that and you work on their infrastructure, you work on all these things, you create pathways for those students, it's in turn going to allow the school to increase enrollment and increase the number of students.

That's how you increase the talent pool. You don't all compete and go in the same pond and fish for that same group of students. That then feeds into that narrative around, "There's only a few of them, it's so competitive to get them." No, you're just going in the same place. Expand your network, expand where you go and who you know, and stop with that return on investment numbers game. Business is about that bottom line, and so that's when you have to have that commitment to doing it differently.

Lo: Absolutely. And I feel like a lot of times there's a situation where a lot of these tech companies and people who were doing this tech community work, they don't realize that that comes off even as performative, right? This sort of doing these huge catch all things. It's like, "We know what you're doing, we see you." But in their minds, I feel like their perception is totally different than, I think, how they're actually being perceived. Again, it's intentions versus impact.

Demetris: Exactly.

Lo: So I wanted to ask you about are there any moments where you tried to make a good impact in your work but it had the opposite effect? Or either some lessons learned that you could talk about?

Demetris: Yeah. One in particular. There is one thing that I used to be a big champion of, that I think are meant to be a really good DEI initiative in an organization, and there is some good in it, but there is also some very negative impact. That concept is around hiring for potential. This is when a company hires a candidate who may not have the necessary skills or technical skills or whatever when they start, but they possess the personal traits that make them a great fit for the organization. Even though you can't see it, I just put great fit in air quotes because that's a problematic term as well, but I just wanted to let you know.

Lo: Yes, let's not.

Demetris: So the intent I find in hiring for potential that the employers now are giving someone who otherwise would be probably in the no pile, right? When you see that resume, "Nope, we're not going to move forward with them." But now you're giving them a chance, they're going to pave the way for them to be successful and they're going to have these uber-loyal employees.

This also helps address things like the stats around men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women only apply if you meet 100% of them. So if you have this hiring for potential initiative, it kind of lowers that barrier as well. But here's why hiring for potential is problematic and can be harmful if not done correctly and with intention. One, this concept only works if you have the proper support structures in place for that new hire.

Rizel: Yes, mentorship. Yes. That's what was in my mind.

Demetris: I'm seeing a lot of small, under resourced companies do this hiring for potential, and quite honestly, it's really a lazy way to source candidates against what they feel is a tight talent market. There's those air quotes again. So they hire them into these orgs, these folks that you know still need to grow a little bit and get upskilled in their roles, but they pushed them out there and it's like sink or swim. They're starting to say, "They need to work hard, they need to take the initiative and go out and learn on their own."

It's a set up for failure and/or burnout from the start. Then you add in the punishment gap, where women and people of color are often punished more harshly for the same mistakes compared to others. So you set us up in this structure, and then you don't even allow us the opportunity to fail.

Then you'll find these new hires for potential, they're quickly on PIPs, Performance Improvement Plan, then ultimately ushered around the organization. Then, this is where it gets even worse, that's when these companies and management and leadership, they start having conversations like, "Well, we tried." Or when you start talking about diversity, you then have to have this conversation, "But we can't lower the quality bar."

All those things, because they felt like lowered the quality bar for the sake to get diversity, but really you had it setup. But, but, but, I have to say all is not lost because there are success stories, and oftentimes here's what happens with those success stories when you do have a hire for potential and they are able to navigate and improve and do what they need to do.

Then it becomes this never ending debt, "We gave you a chance so you should be grateful to us. You should be grateful you have a job. We hired you when no one else probably wouldn't have." So then therefore, when that hire starts experiencing things, they don't even feel comfortable saying anything because they gave you a shot when no one else did. No one wants to feel that way.

It is never ending, "How much do I owe you? You're not promoting me now. You're not giving me any type of raises or compensation for this extra work,"because in their mind I'm constantly trying to make up for this favor that they did for us. So that's why hiring for potential gets to be a problem. It can be good, I've rarely seen companies, except for really, really mature companies, do it well, have what they need in order to grow those folks or have a successful program.

Lo: I just want to say I'm going to be using that, because I have seen it happen, what you just said. Because I've seen it happen so many times, I just wasn't able to eloquently express it. But from the bootcamp that I graduated from, there's a lot of companies who get really excited, they're like, "Oh my gosh, black and brown people that learned to code," and then a couple months later they fire us and it's not because we're bad.

It's just you didn't have mentorship or support, or we quit because of that reason, like, "Oh, you owe us. We did you a favor. No one would've hired you." First of all, people would've hired me, you just happened to be one that I thought I would have a great time at, but apparently not.

Demetris: And it's so easy for an organization to look at and blame the quality bar, rather than look at their own internal organization and say, "What did we do to contribute to that?" That requires an amount of ownership, accountability and just that growth mindset and a potential to learn. They make it psychologically safe.

I'm doing this program called All In and we're doing a pilot, Rizel is aware of it, but I go to the students all the time like, "It's a pilot, and there's so many fits and starts and all this, but I made it so that I need y'all to email me when we're getting on your nerves, when we're not doing something you need, where you're about to quit this program.

Give me that feedback all the time and allow me the opportunity to address it, and I'm willing to take that constructive criticism."Rizel flagged me the other day, like, "Demetris, hey. Here's some things that's going sideways right here." And what did I do, Rizel? Like, "I'm getting on the phone with you first thing on Monday morning."

And the I said, "Okay, let me make some tweaks and changes to it based on that." But like I said, a lot of people, especially organizations, especially those in a high growth mode, they're not willing to take that step back and really look and understand what's happening there. It's easier to just throw the quality bar thing out.

Lo: Right, and the quality bar, it's a myth, right? Because really any time I hear that, I'm like, "Oh, you telling on yourself." Because it's not even just having the infrastructure to support junior devs or junior black and brown devs, even. That is absolutely necessary. But it's also absolutely necessary that your managers know how to manage, and that's a separate skill from being really good at whatever section it is you manage. Right?

So a lot of times what ends up happening is a lot of tech companies or even open source communities or tech communities are, "Oh, I want my community or my organization to be more diverse," and they bring a bunch of people in. However, the environment is not suitable because the people who are already in the environment don't know how to be inclusive.

So if you end up with a manager who's never managed a person of color, never managed a queer person, never managed a black person, doesn't have the same life experience so they don't even understand and are speaking to you in a way that totally isolates you or alienates you, you're not going to have a good working relationship. That's outside of tech, that's any management thing.

So I feel like that's a piece that's lost on a lot of companies, not just tech companies when it comes to diversity issues and community organizers and managers. Which is you've got to also have leadership and management training, and that comes to that accountability piece that you're talking about.

Demetris: Yeah, definitely. Unconscious bias training throughout all of it. Even with this program we're doing, All In, the hiring managers for each of these teams, we want them to actually go through training as well because there's nothing worse than you being part of a program that's meant to increase diversity in tech, and then people treating you like you're the diversity hire. It comes off patronizing and all those good things there. Again like we're doing you a favor. So a lot of times it's that intent versus impact, they probably don't intend to do it but that's still the impact of how you're making others feel.

Rizel: Yeah. And I want to add, in terms of unconscious bias training, doing some real, genuine training. Not like those little videos and then you mark it complete, I'm like, "That's not enough training. Come on now."

Lo: No, no. The Adobe Flash movie from 1995, that's not getting it.

Demetris: I don't know if y'all heard my big sigh over here, but I want to finger snap to all of that.

Rizel: I do want to ask you another question, and that's about... Obviously I'm very aware of your work with All In and your efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in open source communities. But I want to hear from you, tell the audience about what you've been up to.

Demetris: Yeah, absolutely. So as you mentioned, I have started a new open source community called All In, and the premise of it is to open source diversity, equity and inclusion. The vision is to do that focusing on access, community, equity and data. Here's why we thought about open sourcing diversity and inclusion. If you think back to software development 30 or so odd years ago, it was very much everybody doing it in silos.

All of the companies were hiding behind patents and copyrights, they didn't want to share code, lose your competitive advantage. If somebody knew what the backend or frontend, I don't know, of that code looks like then that significantly reduces our value. And so what ended up happening was somebody said, "You know what? There's a different way to do it.

If we collectively work on this together, then we can actually have even better code, even better products, even more innovation." And so that's how open source was created. Now, fast forward, I started talking to people at open source earlier last year. Again, talking, talking, talking to as many people as I could, and what I saw was that people were working in silos, lots of efforts, lots of resources, money being thrown around, lots of training that you all were talking about. But no one was sharing strategies.

It was almost like, "If I share my strategy with you, you're going to then steal my strategy and go after that tight talent,"that we know is a fable, but, "that tight talent pool and we're going to lose our competitive advantage." And that just started sounding very similar to me, to how software development was done before the advent of open source. So I just thought about it, I said, "Well, if we collaborate on code, why can't we collaborate on inclusion?"

But you just start it with the question. So that's what All In is meant to do, is bring together an open source community so we are now collaborating on inclusion together, like we're all in. I can tell you, when I started talking to people and saying, "I want to get companies together where we're starting to discuss talent openly, where you might not be a good fit for my company, but I think they'd be a good fit for your company because you have these things.

You're more focused on AI, and that's what they really want to do. We're more focused on this thing right here, so if you've got any talent over there that you think would be a better fit because of what we do as a company, bring them over here."So everybody was like, "There's no way you're going to get companies to do that." Well, I had seven that said, "Actually we will," and so that's what we did for All In. We're on a 12 month pilot.

The first thing we're going to do, and we've already done, is we've executed the Open Source DEI Survey, that's the largest, most comprehensive across the open source industry. Everybody was using data from 2017 and I was like, "We need some more data. We don't even know what progress is, we don't know how we're going to measure ourselves, we don't know the areas of opportunity that we need to be focused on."

So we launched that, that's executed, we did it in partnership with the Linux Foundation. Then we also did a maintainers listening tour. Y'all were just talking about those trainings, I'm not a big fan of big corporate trainings. I don't know if I'm talking myself out of future employment opportunities, but whatever. I'm not a big fan of those that go out to everyone.

I'm more tactical. Diversity and inclusion, inclusion really happens at that team level. It's that day to day interactions within your teams, so I can go watch that training once a year and feel good about it for a couple days. But if I go back to my team and that's toxic, and is not inclusive communications and all those good things, you're not going to be moving the needle at all.

So you as a manager is who's responsible for creating that culture of inclusion with the team. That's the same thing that we've heard about maintainers and community leaders for open source communities. They are the ones that drive the inclusive culture within their communities, and so we wanted to hear from them. What's in the way? What's working? What's not working? What are the challenges? What they need to see? What support do they need?

Because if we don't get it where they feel comfortable with doing it, and they know how to drive it, it's never going to happen across the entire industry. So that's why we did the maintainers listening tour. The third part, where I was talking about earlier, is we did a 12 month pilot called All In For Students, where we went to those smaller universities, those ones that companies usually don't go to because there's not an ROI, and we got students from there.

We focused on students that they just needed a shot, going back to that hiring for potential. We know that your GPA sometimes isn't indicative of your ability and aptitude to succeed, especially in tech. We have so many people that don't even have undergraduate degrees. But what happens when you have that student that is commuting two hours to school every day because they can't afford to live on campus, they're full time caregivers, they're at home taking care of their grandparents, especially during a pandemic?

Full time parents, active duty military, that's how they're affording to go to school. You have people that are on scholarships, they have their own athletic scholarships and they actually have to train during the summer so they can't actually do an internship and never had the opportunity to do a summer internship. But these are those hard working students that come to school every single day, but life happens. We wanted those students.

Those that just needed that, that we knew that if we just cracked that door open a little bit for them, that they're going to take off and succeed. We didn't do an application process, anybody can write a good essay, right? If you know what I mean. Who has the time and the privilege of being able to actually do these essays? We actually went to the schools and said, "Look out in your classrooms, look out in your courses. Who needs a shot?" And whoever they sent to us, these schools, that's who we accepted into the program.

So we are working with these students during the Fall semester, they got introduction to open source, open source curriculum through the Linux Foundation. This semester they're doing 12 week open source projects through majorly hacking one of our partners. They are getting paid for the entire thing, so that they didn't have to worry about work and all those things.

We gave them resume training, Rizel was on a career panel with them so they can understand there's different career options and opportunities for them. The whole goal is that all students during this pilot will get a summer internship with one of our corporate partners. Again, these are companies that never step foot on these campuses, and now they are... This is how you expand the talent pool.

This is how you make an impact. Now, I can tell you, it has been a labor of love, I love every last one of them students. But we went all in, that was the name. We named it this for a reason. So if someone needs more interview training and coaching, we're getting it for them. We had someone that actually was in a very bad car accident and they had a concussion protocol over Christmas and all those things, and she said she couldn't do this semester because she's got a month before she's up on her concussion protocol.

A lot of programs were like, "Oh, you can't do the hour? Sorry, let's move on."But we went and met with her university professors and they said she's still showing up to class every day, even when she shouldn't be. I said, "We are going to figure out how to make this work for her. We are going to do a project at the end of the semester, when she's better, for her. Just for her."

So if we have to pay a little bit extra to do that with that partner, we'll do that even though they haven't even asked us for anything extra. So we are going to meet the students where they are and just give them every chance to succeed in all those things. So that's what All In is about, really excited about it. Anybody who wants to learn more about it go to AllInOpenSource.org.

Lo: Yes, please do. I love it. That is like you, meet them where they are. That is the harm reduction way. But also talking about a lot of people have these programs like this, but they don't provide the wrap around services and that's where you're talking about. The wrap around services is usually what is needed the most. If you're not taking the pressure off those sort of activities of daily living and those survival things that people have to deal with, you cannot get to these other pieces that you're trying to do within your program sometime. So many people miss that, so it's so wonderful to hear that y'all are thinking about that with All In Open Source. That is fantastic. I know you have to get out of here, but any last words before you go?

Demetris: Well, for one thing, I love that you all are in this space and you're doing this podcast. Something that you're starting to see a lot more of. It seems like companies, especially tech companies are like, "Oh, wait a minute. Our developers, our audiences, our potential customers, they are starting to be a lot more diverse." Whether it's generational, whether it's ethnicity, whether it's race, gender, sexual identity, orientation and all of those things, and so now there is more of a push that we have to hire people that can reach people where they are.

So you all have a demographic and you have a platform, and I am loving the way that you are using it and I want you to continue to give that opportunity to others as much as you can. We have to reach them, we have to give back. I told Rizel, I hope I can put it, you put it on Twitter so I think it's okay, "I'm scared, I've been doing all these video presentations, I'm scared they're going public." I was like, "Well, we're getting on the stage together at All Things Open."

Rizel: Yeah, I'm excited.

Demetris: So make sure that you are using your platform, and just helping so many others. So I am delighted to be here, and any time you want to hear me talk, talk, talk a lot, I am so here.

Lo: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Rizel: Yes. Thank you so much for coming, Demetris.