247: Diversity, Differentiation, Value(s) with Tim Deeson

While passing through London in late 2016, I sat down with Tim Deeson, lead at the Deeson agency. We talked about the history of his company, delivering value with Drupal is more than delivering code, and Tim's revelations and action regarding diversity at his company and in the tech industry.

Resources / Mentioned

  • White men in digital - our privilege is blinding - Deeson blog, September, 2016
  • A progress update on creating inclusive teams at Deeson - Deeson blog, January, 2017
  • The ten actions Tim and Deeson committed to in 2016 to improve diversity in their company:
    • Begin annual salary audits to check for bias and rectify imbalances
    • Report on our progress when we do our quarterly planning
    • Implicit bias training for everyone
    • Stop attending conferences that don’t have a credible Code of Conduct
    • During hiring, take a more nuanced view on whether a developer has made open source contributions
    • Stop participating in all male conference panels
    • Improve our Careers page, including clarity on parental leave
    • Stop asking for previous salary during hiring – it can perpetuate pay inequality
    • Create dialogue and feedback channels within the company to offer better support
    • Stay informed and signpost groups working in the industry

Conversation Video

[Full Conversation Transcript]

The Deeson Origin Story

jam: Tim Deeson, you run what’s now called the Deeson Agency. Is that right?

Tim: Yes, that’s our social media name, but just “Deeson.”

jam: Deeson.

Tim: Yes.

jam: What’s the history of Deeson?

Tim: Deeson is a family business. It was started by my grandfather in the ‘50s, and was a contract publishing company. In 2001, we started the digital agency and that’s the main part of business, but we, actually, still have a small publishing company, too.

jam: You and I talked several years ago now on the podcast about the origins of the business and coming from print to digital and all of those things, but it’s really one of those stories about like, “Yes, I can build a website, Dad!”

Tim: Yes. I came back from backpacking and a family friend, when I lived in San Francisco, a family friend who worked for Apple, he taught me how to hack around with Macs and stuff. I kind of came from backpacking, needed some money. This was kind of in pre-CSS days, actually, I started making websites, kept picking up clients and kind of went from there. In about 2007, we started doing Drupal.

jam: Pre-CSS.

Tim: Yes. This was Adobe GoLive ... CSS was just starting to come out there.

jam: Do you still write your HTML in all caps?

Tim: Yes. I don’t write HTML anymore.

jam: Do you still use spacer gifs?

Tim: Yes, and I shrink a massive table and it’s mostly made of one-pixel gifs That’s the only way I know, unfortunately. CSS passed me by.

jam: They let you do the managing now.

Tim: Yes. More the spreadsheets and the blog posts, probably more where my talents lie, in reality.

Delivering Value with Drupal

jam: Can you talk about the difference between delivering code or delivering Drupal and delivering value higher up the value chain?

Tim: Yes. I guess, I always look at these things as kind of nested, you know, often clients don’t necessarily have a strategy that they work to. Looking – things like Drupal are tools that nested within a strategy, you can deliver value because they have certain attributes, but it’s starting, for me, to the top or the bottom to understand if we want to grow sales in Europe, for example. It’s, then, looking at ways to do digital channel to that and how – what’s a cost effective long-term way of delivering their sales reliably and where does that keep stacking up.

jam: “I want a website” or “I have a website” is no longer transformational, right?

Tim: No. Absolutely. We work really hard with clients to make sure that they understand what’s the business change. We always treat our projects and change management and transformational projects--no one actually wants a website. What they want is happier customers or better-informed surgeons. We’re always looking at the KPIs that will actually measure the business impact of the platform that we’re going to build rather than who should be biggest on a home page or is a carousel a good thing or a bad thing? Whenever we get into those debates, we know that we’ve lost sight of the some key goals that, for the business, are the things that really matter.

jam: The flipside of that coin is delivering websites, whether Drupal or whatever, is also not necessarily a differentiator anymore.

Move up the Chain

Tim: No. Certainly not. Digital agencies, generally, are fighting a kind of commoditization. We think about agency work as kind of, “Do it for me”, “Help me think” or “Think for me”.

“Do it for me”, is just do what exactly what you're told, and it’s very easy to make that kind of commoditized.

“Help me think”, starts to get into the UX and design side of the work. I want you to help me work out what the features are on the site.

“Think for me”, is the strategy. So, they’re coming to you with just a relatively short brief often of, “I need all of the the surgeons in Europe who do heart surgery to understand these training techniques. What are you going to do about it?” That’s where we, actually, can work with them on that kind of overall strategy which will have a strong digital element if they’ve come to us, but it’s an open brief, effectively.

jam: “Do it for me”, “Help me think”, or, “Think for me.” Okay.

Tim: We kind of look at that as a kind of commoditization curve, really, within the market where if you're just delivering exactly what you’ve been asked to deliver, then that’s very easy to niche or offshore, for example, and you're really competing on cost.

jam: Or Squarespace or Wix or wordpress.com, right?

Tim: Yes. And increasingly, those tools get more and more sophisticated that the client can actually deliver those solutions themselves. There’s not – you're not adding much value. You're not adding much intellectual value anymore, which means it’s, potentially, not going to be good for rates and retention.

jam: Right. So, not only do you have to deliver more value, but you have to differentiate, right?

Tim: Yes. Those things are often interlinked, but understanding what is the value that you really adding. Some of them is really hygiene value and reliable code, secure working platforms, but, increasingly, amongst the good agencies. There are not endless amounts, but there are certainly competitor agencies, it’s a significant kind of chunk that I would count as great agencies. How do you, then, differentiate amongst yourself, amongst those agencies, as well?

Diversity and Differentiation

jam: You and I have been talking a bit about one of the things that we might consider a differentiator. I was wondering if you could talk about your recent journey in the worlds that we’ll broadly define as diversity.

Tim: Yes. Probably about nine months ago, we were looking at DrupalCon Europe sponsorships, and it’s been an issue that has been in the back of my mind if do we really – are we representing the kind of communities that we’re part of? I had a kind of a niggle that probably things weren’t – it didn't feel right. Intuitively, I thought we’re probably not doing very well in this issue. It’s morally or ethically commercially initiated, it’s really important that we do improve. We came into DrupalCon, the sponsorship season, and we were looking at some sponsorships and Women in Drupal came up. “Yes, that sounds like – it would be really interesting and useful to support, really happy to do that.” I thought, “Okay. What does this actually mean? What’s the point of Women in Drupal as an event? I thought through that process of analysis. I started doing research where you start to reflect on how we performed as a company. It came to a realization that while we have the kind of positive, well intentioned kind of – “we’re not actively doing anything harmful” like kind of really quickly realized, I guess, we weren’t also doing anything proactively, constructively to kind of address what issues in the industry and certain issues that I can see much closer to home and within the company, too. We had a leadership team that the top four roles, with women – I need one in the top 10 of our roles was a woman. To me that doesn’t really sound like great gender balance if half the population are women, statistically, we kind of seem to be – have quite a quirk in there.

jam: Gender, of course, is not the only axis of diversity that you need to look at, right?

Tim: Yes. We were looking across the board, I guess, around race, sexuality ... There’s quite a few different characteristics that we realize it would be ... Society is at large, kind of has, historically, not performed well in terms of creating equal opportunities for people ... discrimination.

jam: Age is another one that, I think, is especially important. I've seen some organizations, large corporate organizations, get to that tough point economically, and then sort of fire everyone between senior management and middle management, because they’re the people in their 50s and they’re too expensive. Then, five years down the track, ten years down the track, make huge organizational mistakes, because there wasn’t a knowledge transfer, and they weren’t the people who’d gone through that mistake, the time that it happened 15 years before. There are so many ways. There have been a lot of studies about the economic and the business value of diversity. I have been part of teams – many different teams, I guess, I should say. I've felt, myself, that the more diverse a team you have, the better a solution that you can arrive to.

Talk about getting more value out of your business this way. I mean, that in a positive way.

Tim: Yes. During the research and I wrote a blogpost on this, did a lot of time for research I've done, because I found that wasn’t necessarily an easy starting point to say how do I become better informed on this issue kind of fairly quickly. Unconscious bias with something that I wasn’t really that aware of as a topic, but quickly...

jam: Well, it is called “unconscious” bias.

Tim: Yes. I guess I get some sort of pass in that. Yes. Really, it’s something unless you are aware of the fact that we all hold these biases unconsciously, and they influence our behavior, our decisions, how we interpret the world unless you're willing to proactively engage with that and think that, as an organization collectively, as well as an individual, this is something that’s going to be even if you're thinking, actually, “I'm not going to be actively trying not to discriminate.” Unless you're a little bit more aware of what could be going on underneath, some of the signals that you could be sending with some of the smaller decisions you could be making are going to be having an influence. That was something that I realized had an impact on our work. We do things that user experience research, design. That’s a very subjective processes where we’re making very subjective decisions all the time. Without that awareness of how those decisions could be influenced, we were probably making poorer quality decisions, we were making decisions that would be – I guess our default or comfort decisions without having really potentially understood the problems space or the possibilities of what we could be doing. That was something I felt, actually, as a company, we really should be training for unless some companies will have management in HR, in hiring roles, trained in unconscious bias; but, actually, it was something that I realized that we were creating solutions to be used in a wider world, often using significant parts of our judgment and evidence wherever we can. Judgment, even the decisions you make about where you're going to research, you're going to have an impact. That was something that I realized I felt really strongly that, actually, we would benefit from as a company. It would produce the quality of our work, but it would also create a fairer workplace, a fairer culture, I guess, too.

Is Diversity a UX Challenge?

jam: Actually, while you were saying that, I thought to myself thinking of this as a UX challenge might be a really useful paradigm. There are several things about UX that come to mind, completely and spontaneously now: Some great UX practitioners that I've met are the people who can walk into work every day and look at the same interface and never get comfortable with it. Never get used to that workflow that you have to do that one extra thing that’s really uncomfortable there. They’re never satisfied with that. I, and I think most people, just learn how to click through whatever you do in a day and get on with it. Fighting consciously against unconscious bias by remaining as open and as perceptive as possible, that sounds really great. Then, I suppose if you somehow designed it as a process, then you could then quite well – you could really proactively look for a great user experience of your organization, right?

Tim: Yes. It’s a good way to think of company culture and continuous improvement, and that process might say that you are kind of never done. This isn’t a problem that is going to go away. No matter what we do as a company, we can’t solve, the industry isn’t going to fix it or society isn’t going to fix overnight. The problem with that is it can lead to apathy or that kind of stagnation of like, “Yes, this is terrible. What are you going to do?” Then everyone moves on to the next thing. And actually, I guess what I realized is that it’s made up – there are millions of small things that made this up. Actually, you can nudge change by doing things that you can control. It’s not something that’s just – we’re not going to fix it overnight. That’s even more of a reason to do something, because it’s not that kind of problem. It’s not – we can’t just make a decision and make it go away.

jam: Nikki Stevens, keynoted Drupal Costa Rica 2016, and in her keynote, she talked about – it was largely about diversity, but also about community and software. She pointed out that any improvement that you can make, no matter how small, even if it’s only for your local community, makes the world better, makes Drupal, in our case, better. That’s a great point that no matter how small a change you make today, it still adds up to making a difference. I like that.

Tim: Yes. That could have an impact even if it positively impacts one person’s life. There is this ripple effect. It does prompt change and reflection in people that could influence the rest of their lives. That’s kind of – there’s something really powerful. It doesn’t often always get – it can get lost in the big company. You kind of - PR kind of spun version of how do you address this kind of thing. It loses the fact that there’s a very – there’s a evolutionary kind of iterative element to this that’s about raising awareness, like it’s not about people being often not be about people being bad or wrong. It’s about just how do you keep nudging this stuff in the right direction rather than just doing one thing and then disappearing for another five years.

jam: Compare being passively happily open to everyone and accepting of everything and “if you come to us, you’ll have a great experience!” Compare that, which I imagine your state was a year or two ago, to proactively “We want to make Deeson a better company, and one of the measurements that we are going to take for our company’s health and success is our diversity,” so, the passive versus the active.

Tim: Yes. It’s easy to think of, “I don’t consciously discriminate. Therefore, we don’t have a problem.” And just turn around and walk away. That was really the state...

jam: Tim doesn’t have a problem. You have a problem.

Tim: Exactly. It’s realizing that the problem is much more kind of insipid [insidious] in that in a way. It’s kind of that unconscious bias, I guess, is baked into us as a society and us, as humans, that we just carry these biases with us. That kind of blissful ignorance that we were kind of in before, I guess, “We’re sure we’re not actively doing anything kind of harmful, therefore, we’re fine.” Once I started to gain more awareness, I guess, and realize that that just didn't really cut it. That by even our unconscious actions or our kind of how our careers page was written, for example, would be sending strong signals to candidates about who was welcome or not within the company. If you have that stereotypical kind of startup ...

jam: “We want rock stars and ninjas and senior, super senior developers!”

Tim: Exactly. The photos of six guys who are paying pool, late at night, drinking beer is where you’ve probably started to send the message for people with families. They if don’t want to see their families any more than they’re ... It’s that kind, you just start to go, actually, maybe if you're a woman and you don’t want to spend the rest of your career surrounded only by men in their 20s, you’ve made an age point, you’ve already started to set it to indicate who’s welcome here, who fits in, who’s kind of the default and who are you. Thinking about how prominently you talk about parental leave, for example, because if you're not talking about parental leave, at all during recruitment, then you really are probably aiming at much of the younger end of the market. There are all these sorts of things. One thing I found is really interesting about – so, we just have a big push on open source contributions. Like if you're being hired for a technical role, we really want to see that you’ve been active in the open source community. What I realized how that could be quite discriminatory, potentially, is if you were, say, a single mum, you're not going to have had – potentially, you're not going to have had the time or the money to be doing loads of free work on open source code, because you're bringing up a family and working to support them.

jam: Or you might be a great developer of any age, or whatever, who had an employer who didn't include it or permit it at all. And you have a family or you have a hobby. You have an actual life (I wish I knew what that was like. No, I'm kidding.) That’s a great point. The idea of even how you – like what photos you put on your website to talk about your own company, that’s really...

Tim: And what language you use, does it feel like you're competitive, adversarial like you're going to be “top gun” style, or is it about we support people to do their very best. Some really interesting studies that show how that language, how that kind of language will be stereotypically responded to by men versus women, for example.

jam: Sure. In the very early days of Acquia, and I mean I've been in Acquia for eight years now, some of this ... now the statute of limitations has expired. We had “rock star”, “ninja” hiring language on that page. I know, because I had conversations with people at DrupalCon and what have you ... I had conversations with people at DrupalCon who had said - amazing people. People that would have been great at that phase at Acquia. “Oh, well, I don’t think – I couldn’t come as a rock star. I don’t think I could ever apply to Acquia.”

Tim: Yes. You end up with self-fulfilling prophecies. You hire more and more people like the people you have because it’s a marketing test. Your recruitment, your marketing appeals to a certain type of person, which means it attracts a certain type of person, which means you create a culture which has a certain type of person. That’s often could be a narrow slice of the variety of people that would have really much – bring a lot of benefit to the company, different perspectives that can stop the kind of very narrow groupthink, I think.

jam: To your point, because it’s unconscious bias, often ... “That sort of just happened to us and we don’t know why, because we would be really open to having everybody, right?”

Tim: But no one applies which – that was kind of one of the points I made in the blog post was around the kind of pipeline problem. “It’s the pipeline. We don’t get applicants, so what can we do?” Actually, one of those issues is that partly you don’t get those applicants because you only appeal to one type of person. You’ve made it clear that it’s only a safe, welcoming place for certain types of people because every single piece of your marketing says that ... unintentionally and unconsciously. That was the other part, just by raising awareness, it’s very rarely a kind of right or wrong cultural decision to make about these things. It’s that raising the awareness and prompting the debates internally, started to change our culture in terms of growing awareness and how an impact of certain language or certain environment choices could have an impact to people. One of the things was the use of kind of “guy”s where we’re talking to a group of people that may or may not include all men.

jam: The word “guys”. You have just hit on one of my biggest pet peeves. Time out everyone. Land at London Heathrow, any day of the week, especially if you come from a big international flight and the Terminal 5 is really full, you have all those helpful people standing around yelling at you, right? An aircraft - 300, 800 adults, well enough dressed, tired, jetlagged, honestly, the last thing I want to hear – like how about, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Please go down this way.” I don’t need to be served, right? “Yes, excuse me. Everyone move this way.” All these things would be great. I'm sure there are other good options. Instead, what is it? “Guys, down this way. Yes. Guys, please, move along. Guys.”

Tim: Yes.

jam: It does my head in that “guys” is now the formal way to address a group. And thanks to Tim Deeson, I now know that this is like a symptom of this unconscious bias, as well.

Tim: Sometimes that debate can get derailed into do I find it offensive or not offensive? In my experience, people generally don’t. It’s actually about sending this really subtle, tiny signal that, actually, the default of people we’re talking to are men in these situations.

jam: Plus, I have to say that offense is, actually, not a yardstick to measure by, because it’s very subjective and very emotional and it doesn’t exactly matter. Stephen Fry talks a lot about the concept of “your offense is not my business”. That’s a really interesting point, as well.

Tim: I mean, what’s unfortunate about it is often it can kind of veer into this political correctness kind of issue.

jam: And apologies. So, we’re not talking about anything that needs apologizing for. You were doing something to fix it now, right?

Tim: Yes.

jam: I don’t like long, self-flagellating kind of conversations about this stuff either. That’s a fair point.

So where to now?

jam: Tell me, have you formulated a goal for Deeson in terms of diversity? Is there something – is there a simple statement that you’ve got?

Tim: The end of the book I published 10 things we were going to start doing, start doing basically. For example, only attending conferences that have a credible code of conduct, for example, to ensure that there was consideration of what we’re creating inclusive positive environment for all participants rather than - where in conferences, I mean, some of the reading I did ... If you don’t do the reading, it can sound kind of is this really that big a deal? But, particularly in the US, there’s been incredibly serious, incredibly common incidents to industry conferences where, actually, there is no real consideration paid to kind of large chunks of the audience collectively. We worked out ... I personally don’t believe in targeting percentages, for example, because it can create all sorts of problems. What I found was, actually, it was about the environment we were creating rather than about kind of absolute numbers. You can use percentages as a kind of dipstick of, “Does this feel it represents the communities we’re in” Actually, it was about if we make sure there our recruiting and marketing makes it clear that we’re a welcoming and inclusive environment to everyone, not just the people in a very small group or very narrow group, those kind of knock-on effects, I guess, the behaviors that we take and undertake rather than the kind of being particularly attached to specific outcomes. The outcomes will come through. What you don’t want, I guess, is just to try and force through once we hit certain percentages, then that’s what good looks like and can actually have a change in a few behaviors. That’s where you can end up with really troublesome – you're not going...

jam: Those are those old conversations about a token woman or a token of whathaveyou.

Tim: Exactly.

jam: Rather than a concrete statement or a concrete goal, would it be fair to say that you have a process that you are executing on every day and that your end goal is simply improvement on this area?

Tim: Yes. It’s the only way to think about it is continuous improvement and the awareness raising. It’s thinking about the kind of issues, having that awareness of issues just makes you prompt some conversations that don’t otherwise happen.

jam: Okay. I’ll link to that blogpost for sure. I’ll probably quote your 10 points in the post with this conversation.

Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really admire your moment of revelation, per se, but, especially that you're acting on it. It would be really cool if we check in again on this at an apropos moment.

Tim: Of course. Thanks so much for having me.

jam: Great. Thanks, Tim.

Tim: Cheers.