Ditch “Culture Fit”

A couple different talks at OSCON got me thinking about the unhealthy results of hiring on the basis of “culture fit”.


Slide from Casey West’s OSCON talk that says “Never in the history of my career has my ability to drink beer made me better at solving a business problem.”

What is company culture? Is it celebrating with co-workers around the company keg? Or would that exclude non-drinkers? Does your company value honest and direct feedback in meetings? Does that mean introverts and remote workers are talked over? Are long working hours and individual effort rewarded, to the point that people who value family are passed up for promotion?

Often times teams who don’t have a diverse network end up hiring people who have similar hobbies, backgrounds, and education. Companies need to avoid “group think” and focus on increasing diversity, because studies have shown that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to financially outperform other companies, and racially-diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform. Other studies have shown that diversity can lead to more internal conflict, but the end result is a more productive team.

How do you change your company culture to value a diverse team? It’s much more than simply hiring more diverse people or making people sit through an hour of unconscious bias training. At OSCON, Casey West talked about some examples of company culture that create an inclusive environment where diverse teams can thrive:

  • Blame-free teams
  • Knowledge sharing culture
  • Continuous learning
  • No judgement on asking questions
  • Continuous feedback
  • Curiosity about different cultures
  • Individually defined work-life balance
  • Valuing empathy

For example, if you have a culture where there’s no judgement on asking questions or raising issues and people are naturally curious about different cultures, it’s easy for a team member to suggest a new feature that might make your product appeal to a broader customer base. After years of analyzing teams, Google found that the most productive teams foster a sense of “psychological safety”, a shared belief in expressing ideas without fear of humiliation.

The other problem with “culture fit” is that it’s an unevenly applied standard. An example of this was Kevin Stewart’s OSCON talk called “Managing While Black”. When Kevin emulated the company culture of pushing back on unnecessary requirements and protecting his team, he was told to “work on his personal brand”. White coworkers were reading him as “the angry black guy.” When he dialed it back, he was told he was “so articulate”, which is a non-compliment that relies on the stereotype that all African Americans are either uneducated or recent immigrants.

In both cases, even though his project was successful, Kevin had his team (and his own responsibilities) scaled back. After years of watching less successful white coworkers get promoted, he was told by management that they simply didn’t “see him in a leadership role.” Whether or not people of color emulate the white leadership behavior and corporate culture around them, they are punished because their coworkers are biased towards white leaders.

As a woman in technical leadership positions, I’ve faced similar “culture fit” issues. I’ve been told by one manager that I needed to be the “one true technical voice” (meaning as a leader I need to shout over the mansplainy guys on my team). And yet, when I clearly articulate valid technical or resourcing concerns to management, I’m “dismissive” of their goals. When I was a maintainer in the Linux kernel and adamantly pushed back on a patch that wall-papered over technical debt, I was told by another maintainer to “calm down”. (If you don’t think that’s a gendered slur based on the stereotype that women are “too emotional”, try imagining telling Linus Torvalds to calm down when he gets passionate about technical debt.)

The point is, traditional “cultural fit” narratives and leadership behaviors only benefit the white cis males that created these cultural norms. Culture can be manipulated in the span of a couple years to enforce or change the status quo. For example, computer programming used to be dominated by women, before hiring “personality tests” biased for men who displayed “disinterest in people”.

We need to be deliberate about the company culture we cultivate. By hiring for empathy, looking for coworkers who are curious about different cultures, and rewarding leaders who don’t fit our preconceived notions, we create an inclusive work environment where people are free to be their authentic selves. Project Include has more resources and examples for people who are interested in changing their company’s culture.

Thanks for reading! If you want me to write more posts on diversity in tech, please consider donating to my Patreon.

SCALE: Improving Diversity with Maslow’s hierarchy

If you’re reading this, I’ve just given my keynote at the Southern CAlifornia Linux Expo (SCALE). This post serves to link to all the different studies and resources I talked about, as well as my slides with notes and photo attributions can be found here.

Here’s the video of the keynote:


In open source, we talk about meritocracy a lot. However, emphasizing meritocracy can actually lead to more bias against women:

It’s much better to actually acknowledge our biases and privilege. If you haven’t read it yet, Scalzi’s essay “White Straight Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting” is an excellent starting point for exploring the impact of privilege.

There are lots of different ways individuals can contribute to improving diversity. However, this talk focuses on the macro view of how we as open source community individuals can increase diversity.

The inspiration for the structure of this talk came from Abraham Maslow’s paper “A theory of human motivation.”

Level 1: Geek Homeostatis, or Deep Hack Mode

Maslow talked about the needs that are required to keep the body’s chemical systems functioning (homeostatis). Those needs include warmth, food, water, and excretion.

Trans people often face harassment that keeps them from being able to use restrooms without fear. In response, an open source project called Refuge Restroom was created to map safe and gender-neutral restrooms. The project has also been featured in hack sessions by TransH4CK, an organization dedicated to developing open source projects that help trans*, gender non conforming, agender and non binary people.

What does homeostatis mean for a geek? I posit that it means deep hack mode, that magical time when you can pour everything into your project. But what is required in order to get into deep hack mode?

The first requirement is uninterrupted time. In open source, we expect people to volunteer their unpaid time to further the goals of our software. As Ashe Dryden explains, not everyone has the privilege to dedicate a lot of time to open source. Carers of young children and elderly relatives have very little time to spare. Women and especially women of color are more likely to be carers. Next time a candidate doesn’t have many github contributions, consider whether they’re a minority who may be a carer with little time, instead of someone who simply doesn’t want to contribute to open source.

There are some companies that are trying to help techie moms. The Paypal Recharge program provides job opportunities for women who have taken a break from their career (perhaps to raise a child) and want to switch into a technology career. Etsy is piloting providing executive coaching to new mothers. There’s also the non-profit Mother Coders, which helps women with children get into technology careers.

The next thing you need for deep hack mode is some sort of computer. Even with computer ownership increasing dramatically in the United States, the census data shows a deep disparity in who gets to own computers. African American and Hispanics, along with people in low and middle income brackets are far less likely to own a computer.

Women are also less likely to own a computer until all the men in the household have a computer. The book Women Don’t Ask talks about a series of interviews with computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University. They found that many female students didn’t start programming until college because their male siblings were granted more time on the computer or kept the computer in their room.

Even then, we have to consider what kind of computer minorities and lower class people are likely to buy, if they don’t buy a used computer. There are a whole bunch of different non-profits that are working to improve access to computers in low income communities around the globe. Free Geek operates in the United States (Portland and Chicago). Kids on Computers and Computer Reach gives computers internationally. The Raspberry Pi organization is also working to provide cheap computers globally. Why not donate your old computer, or donate money to refurbish old systems or make new cheap ones?

Of course, you need electricity to power your computer, and you need internet access to participate in open source communities. According to the 2011 Indian Census, only 67% of households had electricity. This Chrome Dev Summit talk on India’s internet growth was very enlightening. Most of India (19% or 248.53 million people) are on mobile networks, usually on a 2G network with an average speed of 60 KB/second. It costs them around 17 hours of minimum wage pay to have a 500 MB data plan. This means Indian internet users are very bandwidth conscientious. As community members of open source web tools and  services, we have an obligation to help lower our bandwidth footprint.

Level 2: Security

I talked at length about the Petrie multiplier, which proves that an attack on sexism is not an attack on men. I also talked about the requirements for an effective Code of Conduct, and how rolling your own code of conduct without listening to inputs is like rolling your own cryptography. Instead of making shit up and having it blow up in your face, you could pay women in tech who already have experience in improving diversity. I recommend contacting Ashe Dryden, Frame Shift Consulting, or Safety First PDX.

Level 5: Self Actualization

I mentioned a whole bunch of cool people in my final slides, and the diversity programs they work on:

There’s a lot of awesome projects that you can contribute to. If you don’t have time, I recommend donating to the Software Freedom Conservancy and Outreachy.