In October 2013 after leaving the Grace Hopper conference, the world’s largest gathering of women in computing, Tracy was on a mission to find out the actual number of women on engineering teams. With no public data available from tech companies, Tracy wrote a Medium blog post asking for transparency and created a GitHub repository to track the numbers.
“In raw numbers, are there actually more technical women in industry now than before? Is the percentage of women in engineering going up? What’s working? Is anything? Does anybody know?” — Tracy Chou
200+ contributors later, her project forced big tech companies to come forward with their diversity data and even caught the attention of Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and CEO at Alphabet.
Today, Tracy is exploring and advising a range of new projects across the startup world, civic tech, and diversity activism.
In 2013 you wrote a Medium blog post asking tech companies to share their diversity data, now fast forward to June 2018 Pride Month where those same tech giants are publicizing their commitment to diversity — what do you make of these celebrations when thinking back to five years ago?
I’m both surprised and glad that the topic of diversity and inclusion has had so much staying power. It felt buzzy then, but something that might also be forgotten quickly. It’s impressive how much we are continuing to talk about diversity, and how much companies have made a show of their commitment to it. However, while there has been much expressed intent, the lack of follow-through and the lack of results is disheartening and worrisome, particularly as it’s starting to inspire not just fatigue but backlash.
Tell me about Project Include. How is it making a difference in diversity and inclusion for the tech sector? Is the community continuing to grow?
Project Include is a non-profit I co-founded in 2016 with seven other women in tech, including Ellen Pao and Freada Kapor Klein, focusing on diversity and inclusion in tech startups. We came together in the hopes of pushing the diversity movement beyond conversation towards solutions. For the people who wanted to do the right thing, we wanted to help them translate that intention into action.
Our initial launch was an online handbook of recommendations, organized in thematic areas ranging from defining and implementing culture, to hiring, training, and resolving conflict. More than just specific tactics, though, we included guidance on how to think about diversity: inclusively and intersectionally (diversity beyond gender diversity), comprehensively (in terms of overarching strategy), and with accountability (by measuring data and setting targets).
Based on strong positive feedback and interest from the community, we also introduced the Startup Include program to work with cohorts of startups on implementing d&i recommendations and creating data benchmarks. We’re inspired by the commitment and progress we’ve seen from an increasing number of tech startups and excited that the community is indeed growing.
You co-founded #MovingForward, an open-source directory to highlight VC discrimination and harassment policies, earlier this year — what inspired you to start this project?
The tech industry’s lack of diversity is closely linked to the venture capital industry’s own lack of diversity; it’s all a connected ecosystem. A homogeneous pool of VCs, gating access to capital and networks, back a homogeneous pool of founders, who hire a homogenous pool of early employees. In the end, the people who benefit the most in the case of startup success are drawn from the same homogeneous pool, and they are the ones who continue on to become investors or startup founders or execs or early employees elsewhere, perpetuating the cycle.
Examining the VC–founder dynamic more closely, the lack of diversity is troubling because of the negligent or even actively destructive behavior that comes with it: negligent when VCs let their bias affect their decision and deal-making, actively destructive when they take advantage of lopsided power dynamics to harass or otherwise mistreat founders. In 2017, the #MeToo movement exposed this latter pattern clearly.
In addition to the power imbalance that comes from founders seeking the capital that VCs control, they often operate in a grey zone of social and professional relationships. Before an investor has put money into a company, there is no official business relationship, and default policies that might govern colleague or third party business partner interactions don’t apply by default. The goal with #MovingForward is to encourage VC firms to explicitly define acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior and provide a mechanism of accountability to founders. It is only a first step towards diversity and inclusion, but it is at least a forcing function for firms to consider these issues and commit to better behavior.
Rewinding back to February 2015, why did you decide to join U.S. Digital Service? What did you work on while you were here?
I was inspired to join the U.S. Digital Service because I wanted to serve the country, and I saw an opportunity to use my technology skillsets and experiences for leveraged impact. Plus, the folks in the U.S. Digital Service are incredible: creative and talented, hard-working and motivated by service, and wonderfully diverse; who wouldn’t want to work with such a team?
At USDS, I worked on the discovery sprint for the Small Business Administration, where we took a close look at the agency’s digital services and wrote a comprehensive report of personnel, technical, and process recommendations. Though small for a federal agency, the SBA still has a sizable surface area of services across the “3Cs” of capital, contracting, and consulting. Even just within the Office of Government Contracting, for example, the SBA runs different websites for small business search and each of the certifications for Women Owned Small Business, HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zones), and the 8(a) Business Development Program, while syncing data from other agencies like the General Services Administration. Our Discovery Sprint team surveyed all these programs and helped to design a strategy for building the digital capacity of the SBA, including specific recommendations on technology best practices — things like version control, agile development, open source databases and frameworks, and cloud deployment — and a sample timeline and checkpoints to use with potential software contractors in building out a consolidated and updated version of the SBA’s digital presence.
What would you tell someone who is thinking of serving a tour of duty with USDS?
Serving a tour of duty with USDS is not only good for the country but also a great opportunity for you as a technologist: it’s a chance to learn about how the federal government works to deliver on its commitment to the people of the United States, to see the complexity and challenges as well as the potential for a future of efficient, convenient digital government.
What are you looking forward to most?
I’m personally looking forward to exploring some new startup ideas and getting to meet new communities and learn about new industries and technologies as I explore.
“It’s not about how can we maximize digital ad space or make conversion rates better, but how we can use technology to really make a difference in someone’s life.”
“Everyone I worked with at USDS brought talent, a can-do spirit and a belief that together we could make the country better.”
“But when you serve at USDS, you wake up every day, serve your country, and have the opportunity to change the lives of millions of Americans.”
“Everyone is here because they care about people and they want to change things for the better. They're not just coming for a paycheck and that makes a huge difference in the work environment.”
“Honestly, it was a leap of faith more than informed decision. I packed my things and moved to DC knowing no one in the city. Turns out it was a fantastic decision.”
“Improving the aging technology that government and its services runs on was an extremely compelling goal.”
“Making sure we can improve, design, and iterate on a printed piece of paper, while explaining policy in a more human-centered way was a challenge I wasn’t expecting.”
“I’ve been involved with so many things I am proud of, but probably the most meaningful contribution is making the civil service stronger.”