In early 2015, I volunteered to take part in a panel discussion about diversity in tech as part of the premier of “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap” at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the time, I was a Director of Engineering at Etsy, and a number of our engineers were featured in the movie. It would be my first time publicly representing my company.
There’s nothing quite like the realization that you’re way beyond your depth on a topic you’re about to discuss in front of hundreds of people. Especially a topic where gaffes are easy to come by. But thus began my real journey into Diversity and Inclusion. I say real journey because, while I had spent the prior two and half years participating in our transformation efforts—hiring and welcoming women onto my engineering teams—what my preparation revealed was how little I knew about what I was doing, how far I was falling short of my responsibilities as a leader, and how reliant I was on luck and privilege.
As I learned more, my sense of fairness felt violated. I have always understood the arbitrary nature of my circumstances. My job is something that was invented within my lifetime. I live in a moment where something I love to do is in high demand and pays extraordinarily well. Had I been born a handful of years earlier or in a different zip code, had I taken an interest in a different subject matter or been successfully pressured into a different career, the past 20 years would have played out much differently. And, while I had an awareness of all the fortune that had fallen my way, I was unable to see that not everyone who has wanted to participate in the riches of this technology movement has been able to.
Ultimately, what I took from this time was a deeply held belief and commitment to bringing about more equitable outcomes in my industry. Over the past five years I’ve invested in self-education and educating others. I’ve called out my engineers for bad behavior and been called out myself. I’ve developed and executed on Diversity and Inclusion strategies that have involved implementing pay equity, fairer promotion policies, inclusive hiring practices, and much more.
This work has defined the latest years of my career. At times it has felt like a calling. And I wish I could say that my strongly held beliefs and principles have enabled me to act with confidence and deftness throughout my time in this space. But I can’t. At every decision point along the way I’ve had doubt. I have wondered if I was making too big of a deal about someone’s behavior or if what I was asking was a good use of someone’s time. Is it OK to ask an engineer to spend two days renaming a piece of software to make it more inclusive? Should I give this person a $30,000 salary bump to bring them in line with their peers? Does that off-color joke warrant a response? My experience is that these questions, whose answers in hindsight can seem so obvious, rarely feel that way in the moment. Sometimes I would struggle with them for five to ten minutes. Sometimes hours or days.
Our work can be filled with doubt, uncertainty, and gray areas, and sometimes we feel paralyzed by this. I share all this to recognize that uncertainty—and equally, remind us of the need to face it directly. To acknowledge and live with doubt—but also to decide, to act, and at times, stand outside of established norms in order to create new ones, where equitable treatment and fair outcomes prevail.
Jason Wong is a Diversity and Inclusion coach and fractional VP of Engineering, formerly a Senior Director at Etsy. He is a major contributor to the Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring.