Tackling power and privilege in tech

Back in 2016, when I announced our first diversity meetup at ElasticON, I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the sea of challenges we are all facing now in 2020. Since then, we have all watched opposing forces meet in the public arena.

We’ve seen movements like #metoo, Black Lives Matter, climate strikes, and innumerable protests in support of free and democratic process around the world bring together millions of people to lend their voices to the disadvantaged and the marginalized in spite of an international landscape that in many cases continues to consolidate power around the select few, rather than the diverse many.

If that wasn’t enough, 2020 gave us the COVID-19 pandemic. Does life feel a little bit like the this is fine meme to you?

This is fine!

It certainly does to me. We doomscroll our way through the news, absorbing setback after setback, and wonder if we’re really just sitting in a burning house, pretending to drink our tea.

One thing working at Elastic has taught me is this: it is the nature of things to change. Years ago, we made the decision to take our user conference on the road, moving away from one giant conference to a series of tour stops that brought our ElasticON experience to meet our users where they were: in São Paulo, Seoul, San Francisco, and beyond.

We were diversifying our experience, even then. Now COVID has pushed us to diversify it even further with an ElasticON experience that is for everyone, available in every geography, and broadcast in every timezone. Silver linings, I suppose. I know we all wish that we could meet face to face instead of being holed up in our cities and homes, but as we began to plan, it became abundantly clear to me that we couldn’t just talk about what we’re working on, but how we believe that work should take place. Now, more than ever, when you’re given a platform, no matter how big or small that platform is, to choose not to use it to advance a more just and equitable world is naive at best, negligent in the middle, and harmful at worst. Change is a rising tide, but groundswell never happens by accident: it is because we commit our voices and our hearts to making a more just workplace. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke about the moral arc of the universe, and how it bends towards justice, but it’s humans who do the work of the bending.

It’s clear to me that the best moment the tech community had to resolve the industry’s diversity issues would have been decades ago; the next best moment is right now. So often we talk about these things in the macro, but lately, what’s been top of mind for me is the fact that individuals have more power than they ever could have imagined: that when one of us speaks up for a more just workplace, those words have a ripple effect that carries forward.

This year, we sought out folks who have used their voices in that way. At ElasticON Global we brought together a group of leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences for a panel discussion on power and privilege in technology, moderated by our very own Karen Penn, principal of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and Elastic Cares. The panel included:

  • Anjuan Simmons: Author, Speaker, and Engineering Coach, Help Scout
  • Heather Savory: Non-executive Director and Business Advisor, UK Parliament's Information Authority
  • Madhura Chopda: Director of Engineering, SIEM, Elastic
  • Gary Smyth: VP, Cloud Inside Sales, Elastic

Each of these folks spoke to their personal experiences of encountering bias and discrimination in the workplace, and shared their own approaches to overcoming these obstacles.

I think Anjuan said it best in his closing remarks:

DEI work asks us to do something that no other parts of our jobs require: change society to make it better. This requires pushing back against the systematic ways that women, LGBTQ people, Black people, and so many other groups have been excluded from the immense wealth generated by the tech industry. However, I think everyone on this panel and watching us wants to make our mark in tech. That could be through some novel technology or process, but everything we work on today will be discontinued and have no users. I know that’s true of the software I wrote when I entered the industry almost 25 years ago. However, the people who invested in me all those years ago left a lasting impression that’s still with me today. I think the DEI is a great way to create an impact that lasts a lifetime. You can leave a mark that echoes through history.

Check out the recording to learn more about how you can help turn the tide.

I want to leave you with a final thought. One of my favorite books is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I won’t spoil it for any of you, but a character in the book pursuing the cause of equality is challenged by a cynic who is striving to preserve the status quo. Anyway, back to this character. He is told that his life and the effort he will make to pursue justice amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. In response, he says:

“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

I reflected earlier on how exhausting it feels to engage against what feels like insurmountable odds, but we must remember: change is a rising tide. We are more powerful than we know: like Anjuan said, our influence goes further than we can imagine.

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