Are Hiring for Merit & Prioritizing Diversity Incompatible at a Fast-Growing Startup? (Answer: No)
Why I Initially Misunderstood Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman’s Comments But Still Find Them Disappointing
Update: Frank Slootman released a new statement on Monday 6/7. Added what I mentioned below was unfortunately not said in his earlier interview.
“The truth is that all individuals are not treated equally. No serious person can believe otherwise. All individuals don’t have the same opportunities, be it in the workplace or in society as a whole. This has long been the case, and it remains the case today. Sadly, racism, discrimination and prejudice are still common in our society. This reality is that corporate leaders like myself, and companies like Snowflake, must fight daily to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion help lead our thinking, and our actions.”
Original Post Below
The article title read “Snowflake CEO Says Diversity Goal is Secondary in Hiring Choices” and my immediate reaction was a flash of UGH, another Silicon Valley exec thinking diversity and the ‘quality bar’ is an OR instead of an AND!!! But then I watched the interview and was left with a slightly different read of his intentions, but one which still fell short of the moment.
The specific section starts at 12m45s (although the culture and workplace conversation begins closer to 8m30s with remote work questions) and I do think it’s worth checking out before you continue reading….
I don’t know Frank Slootman but my interpretation of what he was trying to convey is:
A. Snowflake’s diversity initiatives are focused on the programs they believe have meaningful specific outcomes consistent with our business goals. He gave an example of working with colleges and universities to help them shape student curriculums to increase employability of graduates.
HW: I hope they’re investing in colleges and universities that expansive in the populations they serve — such as community colleges. To do so would still be ‘on-mission’ just with a longterm-vision. My guess is that he dislikes lofty statements about intention if they’re not backed up with action and also thinks there’s a lot of “for show” projects being done by companies which don’t actually make impact.
B. Frank wants a more “moderated” way of talking about diversity and social issues that doesn’t stray too far from his mandate as CEO and the mission of his company.
HW: I wouldn’t enjoy a company that doesn’t let people bring their whole selves to work but also think companies don’t have to take a stance on every societal issue, even when asked by a subset of their employees to do so. I’m understanding his take here as not specific to diversity but in general reacting to his feelings about the last few years and company culture conversations.
C. Snowflake has lofty performance targets that they need to hit and part of achieving these outcomes is hiring great, talented people. Delaying hiring of qualified people because of that candidates’ attributes means slowing down growth which means putting his business health at risk.
HW: He missed a big opportunity to append statements about the efforts Snowflake does to expand their hiring pool and challenge traditional notions of who and how is judged “qualified.” Merit is always a loaded term if we don’t ask about why these systems seem to perpetuate the status quo.
To *not* mention this alongside the above statement is negligent if Snowflake actually cares about diversity, and where I think a lot of the questions about this interview are rightfully aimed. In some ways, the more glaring issue is what he didn’t say, than what he said.
Again, this is just my interpretation of what I think he was communicating, based upon watching the conversation (with the great Emily Chang) and having been around tech CEOs for a while. The article headline could leave some to believe that he literally threw diversity under the bus, which would be even further out on the WTF spectrum.
That said, he still falls short of what I’d hope to hear from a public company CEO and I think it’s fair, given the history of corporate America (err, America in general), to wonder if he finds all this stuff a distraction. But let me toss in my own advice and how this whole discussion impacts a seven person startup, not just a $70b public company
You should expect that hiring diverse candidates and building healthy DEI culture will take more time and resources, but that it also (A) sets you up to be a more successful company over time as you’ll be drawing from a wider pool of talent and broader set of ideas and (B) cultural debt is even harder to fix than technical debt, so have a DEI plan for your first 20 hires, and don’t wait until you’re 200 people.
Homebrew has published some guides on Diversity in Early Stage Startups and support all our founders thinking about this from Day One.