A Half-Female Software Development Team, Company Culture, and Unintended Consequences

This article represents my own opinions and does not reflect the views of Tableau.

“You can call us ‘you guys,’” said my team’s product manager on my second day at Tableau. I was at my first daily stand-up meeting with what was then the “Storytelling, Formatting, and Dashboards Team,” and I had stumbled when collectively addressing a group that was half women. Prior to joining this team and company, I had never had more than two female full-time teammates in the 11-plus years I had spent in the software industry.

I recently left this team, which today is called simply the “Formatting Team,” to work on a new project at Tableau. In the interim, my team had always remained close to gender parity. At one point my scrum team, a subset of my feature team, had 7 women and 2 men including myself. It’s easy to notice being a minority in one of the country’s most male-dominated fields.

I’ve seen few Tableau development teams that are even close to gender parity. The Formatting Team was an outlier, but I found it remarkable that we stayed an outlier for my entire time on it. Our team didn’t go out of our way to recruit women, but we retained our unusual gender balance anyway. Just as all-male and all-female groups tend to stay that way, perhaps it was the existing equilibrium that kept Formatting at gender parity for years.

Before joining Tableau I worked at Amazon.com from 2006–14. Five or six years ago, during the Q&A session that closes every all-hands meeting, a female employee stepped up to a microphone and asked Jeff Bezos if he would add honesty or respect to the company’s Leadership Principles. In a meandering Bill Clinton-style answer, he explained that it would be difficult to codify honesty or respect in writing and that existing principles already encapsulated what it meant to be honest and respectful in the workplace. By contrast, on my first day at Tableau, I was shown a list of core values which included “We are honest” and “We respect each other.” I often cite these two, along with “We work as a team,” as my favorite aspects of Tableau’s culture. These are values that through unintended consequences became excluded from Amazon’s culture while I worked there.

Some tech companies have chosen not to prioritize being honest, being respectful, or working as a team. Amazon’s 14 leadership principles have inspired countless articles and books praising them as means to a profitable end. Jeff Holden, an early Amazonian, helped craft Uber’s now-infamous cultural values that included “toe-stepping” (a willingness to compete even internally, rather than to work as a team) and “always be hustlin’.” Although books and news outlets venerate the maverick executives who break all the rules in the pursuit of success, I’ve seen firsthand that a diverse team of decent human beings can deliver great work in the long term.

I’m proud that Tableau has a Diversity and Inclusion group that has taught me a lot, such as the importance of “Inclusion” instead of the tokenism that often unintentionally follows from well-intentioned diversity programs. I started participating in D&I activities after seeing my vice president, a white man, talk about the group’s importance. Our culture also encourages support and empowerment with an underpinning of respect, not of intrusiveness. At Tableau, I have not seen anyone try to start pseudo-academic threads on internal mailing lists to justify male dominance in tech, for example. To the contrary, I’ve seen invitations to cultural celebrations and links to respectable journal articles. Our company sponsors the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and has sent scores of employees, male and female, as attendees and as presenters. We sponsor local Women in Tech events and demonstrate that the culture of tech won’t change on its own.

How did all this activism and cultural awareness affect the Formatting Team day to day? In terms of productivity, my team resembled most others I’ve worked with. We still got our work done and we had constructive, meaningful meetings for planning and retrospection. Our mixed-gender team was just as productive as the male-dominated teams I’ve worked on in the past — no more, no less. I’ve heard the stories about mixed-gender teams being more effective, but my experience shows that we were just as effective as our peers were. That’s still notable in an era where diversity advocates are still being falsely accused of lowering the hiring bar at tech companies.

There were certainly side effects to our team’s makeup that affected our non-work time. Casual conversation between parts of the team might veer from the day’s news to hair and shoes. I found myself watching Disney movies, Mean Girls, and even an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to better understand the cultural references my teammates made. That might sound unusual, but just look at the way tech news sites like GeekWire treat Star Wars, comic book movies, and Shark Tank as cultural keystones for techies, even though none of those have anything to do with writing software.

After three years of working with talented, honest, and respectful women at Tableau, I’ve learned a lot about corporate culture and its consequences. After the New York Times excoriated Amazon and Uber for their abusive corporate cultures, people who didn’t believe or who didn’t mind those reports continued to apply to work at both companies in droves. Anyone who’s read about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates knows that we excuse and even celebrate antisocial behavior if it results in a successful, dominant company. Tableau is not yet an 800-pound gorilla in its field, and although I as a shareholder want to continue to see it grow, I know that corporate growth and respect for one another can, and should, coexist.