Problem-Solving Symbiosis

Stephen Lindberg

Recently, our Raleigh office was invited to participate in a local program called District C. The program pairs high school student teams with businesses, giving them opportunities to tackle real problems. Emily Bahna (Managing Director in Raleigh) and I represented thoughtbot throughout the engagement. I was excited to participate because I believe working with real business partners can challenge students to get outside of their comfort zones. More importantly, it also provides an opportunity to level-up skills such as teamwork, conducting interviews, presenting, and speaking.

The two squads of students who worked with us were given the following prompt:

Jobs in the software design and software development industries tend to be occupied by white males. The Raleigh thoughtbot office is no exception. Emily and Stephen recognize the importance and value of having a diverse team, but they struggle to attract diverse candidates, especially female candidates.

At thoughtbot, we are committed to evaluating and improving our company in the areas of diversity and inclusion. This is true for employment opportunity, as well as in relation to the clients we work with and the communities we are a part of. The Raleigh office is the smallest of our six offices. We understand the importance of attracting a diverse group of candidates as we grow. The challenge we face is attracting a larger pool of qualified diverse candidates to apply for open positions, and we want to find a better way for underrepresented groups discover the opportunities and values of thoughtbot.

To get a better sense of our company, values, and perspectives, the students conducted an introductory interview with Emily and me to gather information which would help them as they started to formulate a plan. The topics of the questions were broad, ranging from our presence on social media to our office environment and community events we host and participate in. After the interview, the students conducted research and worked on the problem within their group. Eventually, they reached out to us in order to schedule a visit to our office. We were really impressed by the students’ dedication to an extracurricular program. They attend different schools and have other activities, but they made time to visit our space to ask more questions and see what our office was like. Visiting our space was helpful for them, as it gave them a chance to interview more thoughtbotters and see into our office culture firsthand. At our next meeting, the students showed us the results of their hard work by making pitches in front of their peers and an audience.

At Pitch Night, there was an amazing turnout of teachers, parents, alumni, and community members. Everyone was really interested and happy to be a part of this program. Alumni of previous District C programs spoke about how invaluable their experiences were - not just learning what problems businesses face or how to solve them, but how to build teams and work together. We sat on a panel with the students and listened as they pitched their ideas. The presentations were well-researched, organized, and full of strategies for us. We asked them tough questions about the assumptions they had at the beginning of the engagement and how they were challenged. The District C students seemed readily equipped to answer and admit where they had the most trouble. I was particularly impressed with how they handled these questions, because they are often a challenge for even our colleagues and clients.

We had several actionable takeaways from the presentations, including:

  • Find different recruiting channels which could increase candidate diversity.
  • Promote and sponsor minority and women tech clubs.
  • Create a more organized and inclusive office space.

A collective strategy proposed by both student squads was to commit to invest more time in our local community. They identified different groups that would benefit from our expertise or sponsorship, which would promote diversity in tech as a whole and increase our visibility as a company dedicated to diversity and inclusion. They recognized the trade-offs between short-term solutions and solutions that would help both our company and the community. It was a great example of starting with the problem. It was also a good reminder that change takes effort over the long term. A single hire or a single event will not be a sustainable solution, but engaging regularly with more diverse groups will. My hope is that the students found their time at District C both challenging and rewarding, and that what they learned and experienced helps them wherever life takes them.