Embedding Inclusion in Product Design at Google - Crescendo Chats | Episode 3
Welcome to Crescendo Chats: Scaling Diversity & Inclusion. In this series, Crescendo co-founder Stefan Kollenberg hosts conversations with HR and diversity & inclusion practitioners, sharing valuable insights from their work.
This week’s conversation is with Sydney Coleman, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Programs and Product Marketing Manager at Google.
Listen to the podcast or read below for the edited transcript.
Interview with Sydney Coleman
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Programs and Product Marketing Manager
Tell Us About Yourself
Stefan: Let’s dive right in. Can you share a bit about yourself and what kind of work you do at Google?
Sydney: So I work on equity, diversity, and inclusion at Google in San Francisco. I am currently supporting our corporate engineering team, which is about 2,400 folks within Google, in creating programs that drive equitable hiring, retention, advancement, and overall working to build a culture of inclusion.
I also sit on a board in San Francisco for the US National Committee for UN Women, which is a leg of the UN focused on women’s issues globally.
Stefan: How did you get to this point? What were some of your past experiences?
Sydney: Originally I started in tech by starting in marketing. Before I got into tech I was in academia - I studied social psychology and became obsessed with examining systems of oppression, social identities, and how people’s identities contribute to power and privilege.
Once I joined the tech industry, it was apparent to me there’s a huge need for social justice activism in Silicon Valley. That led me to pursuing a career in marketing to work on some policies and drive D&I.
Eventually, I took a six month break and stepped out of the tech industry.
I thought deeply about what I care about and how I want to have the biggest impact. I ended up doing a ton of research, then open-sourcing it, on my approach to equity, diversity, and inclusion on a website. That was aimed at how to bring in corporate leaders, tech professionals, founders, and investors into D&I issues.
That’s what led me to join Google.
Stefan: What are some of the things you do at Google?
Sydney: So 20% of my role is dedicated to product inclusion. I’m a co-leader on an employee resource group at Google for women, which is called Women@.
Our mission is to partner with product teams across Alphabet and Google to make more inclusive products that value and represent the diversity of women everywhere.
Stefan: What’s been your biggest learning so far in your role?
Sydney: What I’m trying to learn now is the process of holding leaders accountable.
How do we hold leaders accountable for diversity, equity, and inclusion goals? There’s only a few companies that tie this to executive compensation. It’s always been a balance of the carrot or the stick - and what’s going to influence leaders.
But there’s also fear.
There’s a lot of risk associated with not having a diversity and inclusion strategy and not knowing how to handle these issues. So it’s thinking about the risks of ignoring D&I.
Stefan: Have you found examples that worked well for the carrot and the stick?
Sydney: One of the things I’m seeing now is when you’re working with leaders, particularly in tech which tends to be male-dominant, is bringing it to a personal level.
One of the things we’ve been doing across Google is diversity narratives for leadership, where people can see themselves in the D&I story whether it’s, for example, having a sibling with a disability or being a veteran themselves.
It’s important for people to understand this on a personal level.
Challenges You Faced
Stefan: That’s great. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced or mistakes you made?
Sydney: I think the biggest career mistake I’ve made was waiting for opportunities.
I always tell people that if you’re passionate about something, you have to go and get it. You have to create the role you’re hoping for - you can’t wait for it to be posted on a career site.
Rather than interview people and having a one-directional conversation, absorbing their knowledge, it’s really critical to bring something to the table.
For example, when I was job hunting during that six month period and learning about D&I, I would set up meetings with Chief Diversity Officers at different tech companies, and I would tell them “here’s what this startup is doing - it’s actually much better than your strategy”. Or, “Here’s this other approach someone else is taking at XYZ company”.
I didn’t have decades of experience, but everyone in D&I wants to know how they can have a bigger impact or what everyone else is doing - and they don’t have time to crowdsource that.
So I found that really helpful getting people’s attention.
Stefan: From a product inclusion standpoint, are there any learnings or challenges you can share?
Sydney: To give you a concrete example that came up recently, I was working with a team that launched a website and the antagonist was a white man - which I know they were cognizant of the racial implications of showing someone as a good guy or bad guy. But they kind of failed to consider the importance of their clothing.
So they depicted the antagonist wearing a hoodie.
After further thought, we realized we don’t have to project a stereotype that people who wear hoodies are harmful, or perpetuate the belief that people that wear hoodies are unethical.
So product inclusion isn’t always cut and dry. You can think it’s just race or gender, but then there’s other things we really need to be thinking about like the implications of clothing. It’s constantly evolving, and a fascinating space.
Tell Us About Your Role at Google
Stefan: Interesting, thank you. What do you love most about your role?
Sydney: I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s definitely the people that I work with.
I was intimidated when I joined Google - it’s such a big company! But my team and my manager are really supportive. Even though I’m pretty new to Google, I feel like I have the autonomy to actually create change.
That pleasantly surprised me and I think without them I wouldn’t be as excited to do this work.
Stefan: So now we’re going to more focus on the product inclusion standpoint. Can you share some of the different projects you have going on in that role?
Sydney: We’re partnering with a few teams like Google Assistant, Search, and Maps to make sure that women’s voices are represented and that our products positively impact women’s lives.
As an example we’ve tossed around ideas like making it easier to find women-owned businesses in Maps or sharing alerts related to women’s health concerns.
Stefan: What were the processes you went through to get this role set up?
Sydney: I originally interviewed for a marketing role at Google. As I went through that process I was really transparent that there was this other ‘itch’ I have - that I am passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it turned out that they were able to open a role that’s 50% marketing and 50% D&I.
It’s crazy, but I like it because with marketing you can have quick wins - you can run a successful campaign and see the ROI. In diversity and inclusion, it’s definitely a long game and it’s going to take some time to reverse these systems that are inequitable.
Stefan: Awesome. What’s your vision for the future of this role? What do you have planned next?
Sydney: Right now I’m excited to sink my teeth into the different aspects of the business and learn as much as I can - both at Google and continuing to learn outside of Google as well because I think there’s a lot we can learn from really small startups doing great things.
So I guess my vision for the future is to always be learning and growing.
Stefan: Amazing. What are the recommendations you would give to anyone trying to build more inclusive products?
Sydney: If you have a homogeneous team and your users are diverse, there’s always going to be a disconnect. You’re going to need to bring in other people who have that perspective.
And then think of your users not just as the core user, but the people on the margins. It’s really about integrating that and understanding through user personas and accessibility testing.
Stefan: Are there any communities you go to for learning and support?
Sydney: So the Kapor Center in Oakland has a group called the Diversity Advocates Group - people across the country working on D&I projects.
Then there’s Project Include, which is Ellen Pao’s organization. They have incredible resources.
I’ve also developed a network of friends who work in the space and we share ideas and frustrations about D&I or the tech industry in general.
I also go to a ton of events - Tech Inclusion is probably one of my favourites. There’s also Lesbians Who Tech and a million others. You start to realize the D&I community is small, so it becomes a familiar group of the same 40 to 50 people working in the space.
Stefan: Awesome. We’re going to the lightning round - super quick questions. What’s your favourite quote?
Sydney: My dad always said to me “Easy on the people, hard on the problems”.
That’s been a really important reminder for me to focus on the “it” rather than the “we” - being solutions oriented.
As it pertains to D&I, I always remember this one from the Chief Diversity Office at Intel, Barbara Whye - “The maturity of a diversity and inclusion strategy is how it approaches intersectionality”.
Stefan: What motivates you in life?
Sydney: At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself and look yourself in the mirror - you have to be ok with how you’ve lived your life.
I can’t really have peace with myself if it doesn’t include advocating for other people and fighting for social justice. That’s my biggest motivator.
Stefan: What book or movie changed the way you look at the world?
Sydney: I’m reading Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. It’s teaching me how to embrace anger and use it as a tool for fighting oppression.
Stefan: What’s your favourite podcast?
Sydney: I really enjoy Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I like that she has all these spiritual leaders come in. I find the conversation super interesting.
Stefan: What’s the coolest tech product you’ve ever come across?
Sydney: Right now, it’s VR and VR’s ability to build empathy. You can truly walk a mile in someone’s shoes - when you put on the headset, you become that person.
Stefan: Awesome. And how can people connect with you to learn more about opportunities at Google?
Stefan: Thank you!
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