Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Else Don''t We Know?

This post arrived today via email from the Google blog.

My thoughts?  It's brilliant. I want to make sure that you had the opportunity to see it as well. At the bottom of this post is a cut & paste from the original. Go ahead and take a look before continuing.

Now take another look, with a more critical eye.  Make some notes about what you might not have seen in the first pass that you caught in the second.  Compare your notes with mine when you're done.  I'll be interested to compare notes and join our thoughts.

The email begins with an anecdote guiding the reader to a comfortable place, a view of the business' well known work in the technology sector, and then invites you to step back in time for a behind-the-scenes look at a blatant mistake in the product's requirements analysis and development... except it's not referred to as mistake; we'll say that what was built was nearly perfect every case that the developers could imagine, but there was something of a silly oversight that any unwittingly and innocently biased group of us might have made in the same situation.  Since we all know that the very successful product works fine today, the email doesn't have to go much further to suggest that the author was quick to take action and capable enough to resolve it.

But consider this rhetorical question:  When Google made assumptions to accommodate the left-handed user, did they inadvertently overlook the case where the video was showing that things were actually upside-down?

Some arguments are simply unresolvable. Some issues are simply too heated at the time to survive taking a stand.  How does Google address race, gender, and other other imbalances of their employee demographics when compared to the general population?  Read carefully:  They don't.  Through some clever slight of hand, the topic has shifted. If it makes the reader feel that they care, however, they did change the gender of a conference room, showing responsiveness to their employees' concerns.

And the employee concerns? Look at how Google has invited their own employees to accept that this blindness of sorts is something that they each suffer from unknowingly, and look how they have been invited to check themselves and each other. The guilt or blame associated with discovering or being accused of bias is absolved by first accepting that we all suffer from this "original sin" of sorts and then by being open to addressing it as the company did itself.

All of this aside, on the first reading the Google release, did you get that warm fuzzy feeling?

Reading it again more critically, do you see the alchemy?  To me, it's beautiful... but I acknowledge that I might be blinded by my zen-biased reading.  Tell me, what did you see that I missed? There is certainly more...

Posted: 25 Sep 2014 08:00 AM PDT
When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.

This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people. In the workplace, for example, the halo effect can cause us to inflate performance ratings or in-group bias can lead us to overlook great talent.

Combatting our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Not only is that the right thing to do, but without a diverse workforce, there’s a pretty good chance that our products—just like that early YouTube app—won’t work for everyone. That means we need to make the unconscious, conscious.

The first step is education; we need to help people identify and understand their biases so that they can start to combat them. So we developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, in which more than 26,000 Googlers have taken part. And it’s made an impact: Participants were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias.

In addition to our workshop, we’re partnering with organizations like the Clayman Institute and the Ada Initiative to further research and awareness. We’re also taking action to ensure that the decisions we make at work—from promoting employees to marketing products—are objective and fair. Here are four ways we're working to reduce the influence of bias:

  • Gather facts. It’s hard to know you’re improving if you’re not measuring. We collect data on things like gender representation in our doodles and at our conferences.
  • Create a structure for making decisions. Define clear criteria to evaluate the merits of each option, and use them consistently. Using the same standards to evaluate all options can reduce bias. This is why we use structured interviews in hiring, applying the same selection and evaluation methods for all.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues. Who’s included and who’s excluded? In 2013, Googlers pointed out that of the dozens of conference rooms named after famous scientists, only a few were female. Was this our vision for the future? No. So we changed Ferdinand von Zeppelin to Florence Nightingale—along with many others—to create more balanced representation. Seemingly small changes can have big effects.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself—and your colleagues—accountable. We’re encouraging Googlers to call out bias. For example, we share a “bias busting checklist” at performance reviews, encouraging managers to examine their own biases and call out those of others.

As we shared back in May, we’re not where we should be when it comes to diversity. But in order to get there, we need to have this conversation. We have to figure out where our biases lie, and we have to combat them. Tackling unconscious bias at work is just one piece of making Google a diverse workplace, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to live up to our promise to build technology that makes life better for as many people as possible.

Posted by Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations, and Brian Welle, Ph.D., Director of People Analytics

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"For the Children!"

I had a most unusual encounter in my driveway yesterday.  As I turned the corner, you could hardly miss him: A stranger with a clipboard moving from one door to the next, though the knee-length plaid shorts and bowtie were more of an affront visually. As I stepped out of my car and gathered my bag and my violin from the back seat, I heard the neighbor across the street shooing him away. As I turned to face the house, ...

"Hey, big guy!"

Over the years, the neighborhood seems to have become an open market for the door-to-door solicitors and evangelists.  Today's fare?  Magazine sales...

... for the children.

Over the years, I've encountered the door-to-door "help send me to college" magazine salesmen, but I hadn't heard the "for the children" pitch yet...

"I have a few minutes before I have to be in for dinner. Tell me more."

The organization he peddles for, I'm told, gives the children a chance -- children like him, deprived and disadvantaged, a fellow who tells me he was shot and had to learn to walk again -- and the organization, one that would give someone like him a chance when others like McDonalds might not.  So, might I not subscribe to some magazines my neighbors listed here have already done, showing their confidence and support, and then might I not receive a hand receipt just like this one on writing my check to this organization's name, not to the salesman himself?

"I'm sorry, but I don't need any magazines."

The exchange continued, each of us taking information the other had volunteered, attempting to turn it to our own advantage, until:

"I'm sorry, but like I said: I don't need any magazines."

"Look, no one wants the magazines; support the cause."

This fellow told me he could continue to press well past when my dinner would become cold. It seems I didn't have to tell him that I was willing to chat with him all evening, but who knows how many easy sales he'd miss that way?  He left...

... but not before this: "I like you.  I like your spirit and you're clearly talented.  Have you considered how much better you'd do for the children if you were selling something that we needed?"

"This organization gives folks like me a chance."

"Have you considered how many of these people you could help if you hired them and sold something people wanted?"

He wasn't going to hear it.  I told him that I would set aside the same amount of money as the cost of the subscriptions until he returned selling something we needed. He told me that he's not coming back.  So that was that.  I went inside and we took care of the children.

I'm not sure there's anything fundamentally special about the encounter except in review: After all, it's well understood that people sometimes aren't purchasing what they're actually buying or selling what they're offering, and there's nothing unusual about building connections and appealing to sympathies to gain advantage. So, what must have been on my mind for me to have responded as I did?  What did the exchange fish out?

What are your thoughts?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Once More Into the Fray

For Father's Day: A New Method for Torturing the Kids
I've resisted this one for quite a while...

It started with the mandolin -- everyone knows that story. And when I felt I needed a little variety or to explore outside the edges, I added a banjo, a guitar, and eventually even a bass guitar. Every so often I try to tune my voice with the guitar, too, and I do keep a harmonica in the car for when I'm stuck in traffic.

This, though, is something different.

The overarching intention hadn't changed: I want to see more amateur musicians practicing out in the wild. It didn't seem that that was going to happen unless I was part of the scene, so I picked up an instrument of my own and started. Along the way, I also picked up the notion that it would be wise to have one or two of each of the bluegrass band basic instruments on hand so that I could host and encourage the effort. With that, I also picked up the notion that I should at least be passable on each of those instruments so I could fill in on one if people dropped by with particular expertise or interest in another.

The fiddle, I figured, would be the last -- and a long way off before I would even consider it. The learning curve to "passable" -- or even "bearable" -- is comparatively huge.

Now here it is.

In retrospect -- or rationalizing backwards -- I couldn't have imagined the fiddle being my first instrument: there would simply be far, far too much for me to learn all at once.  Now with some fiddle tunes under my belt from the mandolin, why not try them out on a fiddle?

It's going to be a while before anyone else enjoys this as much as I do, but at least I've gotten out of my own way to give it a shot.