[MEN]TOR: Robbie McKinstry (he/him) – Research Scientist, HashiCorp

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I find that working for a remote-first company is a very ethical and humane approach to labor — it allows the employees to schedule work around the rest of their lives, instead of scheduling their lives around work.

What do you do?

I work in industrial research for HashiCorp. HashiCorp provides software to ease companies’ transition into the cloud-native world. My job as a research scientist is to tackle problems which don’t have a known solution. About 50% of my time is spent coding, and 50% of my time is spent in design, writing, and communication. Lately, I’ve been working in cloud security, but I bounce around from discipline to discipline.

What keeps you passionate in the tech industry?

My favorite thing about computer science is being exposed to new problems and models — different abstract challenges and puzzles, and finding creating solutions to them. In my experience, this happens often in the tech industry, especially in my role as a researcher. Often times someone will describe a problem to me, and I’ll say “oh that reminds me of this other problem!” Not too long ago this happened at work; the breakthrough in our current research project came when I was able to draw from an economics and game theory class I took in college and let others know the security problem we’ve been working on is analogous. Being able to learn a wide variety of subjects and apply each topic to a new, unique, and engaging problem is what keeps me passionate about tech.

What do you like about the company you currently run/work for?

I’ve always felt that HashiCorp approach to developer tooling was divergent from existing tools in a positive way. Our founds always seemed to understand the pain points of developers and have insights into how to remove them. Additionally, I find that working for a remote-first company is a very ethical and humane approach to labor — it allows the employees to schedule work around the rest of their lives, instead of scheduling their lives around work. An effect of this is that management has one fewer mechanism of control to exert over the lives of their employees — in some sense, it allows the worker to take back control over how their time is spent, since you can pick and choose your hours and your setting as long as the work is completed on time. Lastly, the people I work with at HashiCorp are truly an inspiration, both for their technical prowess and their interpersonal skills.

What are some initiatives that your company is taking to create a more inclusive workplace?

HashiCorp offers a Diversity Scholarship to encourage underrepresented groups to attend our conference. The Developer Advocate team organizes it each year, and I’m very glad the scholarship came from a place of genuine care and not from a marketing stance. Additionally, we have an internal Social Impact Fund, where employees can pick their favorite 501(c)(3) charitable organization to receive a corporate donation. Our employees select a number of excellent, deserving organizations working in diversity, including Black Girls Code, Vets Who Code, and non-technical groups like RAICES, SPLC, and Planned Parenthood.

What does being an ally to underrepresented folks in tech mean to you?

I (controversially) subscribe to the Fixed State Ally Model, meaning that I believe it’s important to unreservedly identify oneself with the cause of Feminism and equality (for all underrepresented peoples). It’s critically important to acknowledge the equal treatment for women is a civil rights issue. While it’s true that diverse teams produce better products and make for a happier workplace, that shouldn’t be your motivation — you should fight for equality because women are *people*, and no person deserves to be held back by their natural identity.

I think being an ally means treating everyone fairly, calling out systems and individuals who act unfairly, and building equitable programs to correct for unfairness inherent in our current system.

What is the importance of making sure the tech community is inclusive?

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the toxic men in tech and how the projects they shepherd will be negatively impacted by their absence (Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman come to mind). However, this focus on the men is erred: we should instead be focusing on the much greater impact which *would* have come from the vast number of people who didn’t contribute to the project because of the toxicity at the helm. When we exclude people, we eliminate their ability to make a positive impact. Beyond this, we harm them in the process.

Nobody benefits from making tech exclusive, neither the included nor the excluded. This holds for Open Source, product development, management, and education. Inclusivity is just one facet of “working together”. We can’t build a more wholesome, collaborative world if not everyone gets a seat at the table when it’s designed.

A lot of people are afraid to publicly learn, but it’s important to be transparent about moments of unlearning. This shows others it’s okay to admit your wrongs in order to grow. Can you share one or more “a-ha!” moments you’ve had where you realized “this is wrong” or “this way of thinking is biased”?

I’m terrified of learning in public! You’re right, a lot of people feel this say, myself especially! I don’t know HOW MANY TIMES I’ve left a conversation at a D&I event and felt like I monopolized the conversation. I frequently have to go back the people in the conversation and apologize. I drown out the other voices. It’s important to listen, especially if I’m at a D&I event, since as a cis white male and not the focus of the event. That can be hard when I get so excited about the discussion, but it’s something I’m trying to pay better attention to. Truthfully, I know this will happen again in the future, but I’ve just got to keep improving!

What results have you seen from your tech equity and advocacy actions?

One of my traits is that I’m very candid with discussions about my mental health, particularly how I’ve struggled with it in the past. I don’t volunteer this information unless it’s relevant, and hopefully I don’t come off as if I’m seeking attention, but when brought up, I try to be earnest about how I’ve dealt with poor mental health and the steps I had to take to improve. One result of this is that there’s a huge number of people, more than I ever thought possible, who confide in me about their own struggles, not necessarily because they’re looking for sympathy or direction, but because they’re glad to be able to express themselves about something they tend to keep quiet about. I think my openness with mental health has yielded a lot of tangible fruit. It’s easier to tally up the number of therapists visited or tears shed following such a discussion than it is to measure the impacts of advocacy around URM advocacy.

Having said that, one result I’ve seen, which I take no credit for, is the growth of the Pitt Women in Computer Science Club. From the time Neha Abraham signed to the charter to the present day, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch each president of the club expand upon the ideas and efforts of the previous leader. The club went from having near-zero participation prior to Neha taking the reigns to what it is today. Presently, the women in the club are some of the top programmers at Pitt, actively mentoring younger members, landing killer internships and jobs, and functioning as an inclusive and friendly support group in a challenging environment.

Some research shows that it’s hard to have empathy and, in this case, practice tech advocacy without being exposed to some form of human suffering from someone different from yourself. Have you ever had an experience like this that has helped you to prioritize tech equity in your life and career today?

Honestly, nothing really stands out. I’ve had a number of friends tell me about instances of trouble they’ve had in tech, but I’ve always had to sympathize with them, since I can’t really relate. I’ve never had something like that happen, so I sympathize with my friends who have, but I can’t say I’ve ever gone through it, so it would be unfair of me to say I can empathize.

What is some advice you’d give to other men in tech, older or younger, who are seeking ways to be more inclusive with their actions?

I’d give three pieces of advice. First, I’d say read as much as you can about inclusivity and form your own opinions. Everyone has a different take on this stuff, and they’re not all great. I recommend the Geek Feminism Wiki for getting started.

Second, and I know this is talked to death, is to check your privilege. Most male allies can identify the obvious ways in which they’ve been privileged (like, wages, getting hired, whatever), but the more interesting ones to me are extremely subtle: being more likely to have people listen to you when you speak up, having people more likely to vote for your idea, unconsciously receiving better project assignments. Its when this happens that you have to be proactive about making way for URMs: make sure they get good project assignments, making sure they have their voices heard when they speak up, etc.

Thirdly, listen well. That doesn’t mean never talk, never offer your opinion. (I annoyingly ALWAYS have an opinion!) Instead, it means to make sure your friends can express themselves, and to make sure you’re actively listening and centering them in the conversation.

What is some advice you’d share with diversity-starved organizations?

I’d just tell them to get their asses in gear and make up for lost time. Being diversity-starved is just… nauseating. No one worth working with wants to work at such a place. D&I needs to be central, and if you’re diversity starved, then you’re not prioritizing it highly enough. I interviewed at a company once, every employee in the office was a white male. I asked what was up with this, and they said it was because they didn’t get any diverse applicants.

A few things are wrong with this. If your org is only white males, what diverse applicant will want to apply? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, if your pool isn’t diverse, you’re not doing enough to make it so. Go out of your way to target historically Black universities, sponsor clubs like Pitt WICS, and contribute to hackathons like She Innovates. That’s a requirement for being equitable — you can’t blame the candidates for your failure to build an inclusive org. Lastly, saying the pool of applicants is too homogeneous is too passive. It fails to acknowledge that recruiting is an active task. It’s not the case that applicants just roll in and resumes land on the manager’s desk. Applicants are sourced from current employees. If your employees are actively engaging in community organizations like Red Chair Pittsburgh, they’ll meet plenty of URMs looking to change jobs.



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