How Women Can Help Build Better Agile Teams


The IT industry is dominated by men. But you shouldn't hire more women just to lessen the gender gap. The ultimate goal is better teams, and it just so happens that hiring more women tends to help build better teams anyway. Companies should reexamine what traits they value in job candidates.

Let me start with a statement so obvious that I didn’t even bother to find relevant research, as I doubt anyone would object.

The IT industry is dominated by men.

(I told you; it’s obvious.)

I speak at different events, and one question I frequently ask audiences is what kind of team they’d like to work with in terms of gender diversity, given all possible choices. The exact answers vary depending on the culture—responses would be different in Scandinavia from in Poland—but it always boils down to one pattern: We’d like to have more women on our teams than we have right now.

Things get interesting when I start asking why. Not that I question the idea; it’s pretty much the opposite. I just want to understand what drives us. A very common story is that when women join teams, things get better. But when I ask people why, they say, “Oh, it’s just going better.” What exactly is going better? “Um . . . It’s hard to say, but it just feels like it is.”

I sure have a theory about what is happening, but let me get back to that in a moment.

The interesting discussion is not really whether we should have more women on our teams, but rather why don’t we have more of them already. A common argument I hear is that there are not enough good female candidates, and thus we do our best, but at the end of the day it is what it is.

By the way, there’s an ongoing debate about how much men being considered stronger and more successful in hard sciences is genetically driven and how much it is our culture that sets specific roles for women and men and makes it much harder to go against the mainstream.

My take on that is aligned with kanban principles: Start with what you have. I’m an expert in neither psychology nor anthropology. I prefer to accept the cultural context the way it is and do my best within that context.

However, I don’t subscribe to the view that there aren’t enough great women in software industry. I live in Poland, which isn’t nearly as advanced in promoting diversity as Scandinavian countries or nearly as politically correct as the US. On many accounts it is a more challenging culture for women. Yet still I don’t think there’s a shortage of great female candidates.

Lunar Logic, the company I lead, is almost 40 percent women. This number doubled over the last few years. We are a business that is supposed to earn money. We don’t hire people to make the world better. We hire them because we believe they’re the best.

Whenever I share that, I hear that normally few women apply for jobs in the software industry. My experience is different. For each open hiring process we’ve had over the past couple of years, we consistently get anything between a third and half of the applications from women.

I don’t say that it happens without any effort. I just say that there’s no magic involved. We reach out to local communities that coach and train women. We support events like Rails Girls that help to train our future employees. It doesn’t take lots of money or effort. It doesn’t come for free, either, though.

Another argument about why hiring women is hard is the quality, not the quantity, of applications. In other words, one can get half of the applications from women, but they would be worse than those from men.

This is the point where I go ballistic.

The way most companies think about hiring is utterly screwed up. Obviously, we look for the best possible candidates, and the way we define the best possible candidate typically means strong technical skills, focus on craftsmanship, strong communication skills, a drive to learn, etc.

What’s the problem with that? Only one. The times when software development was an individual effort are long gone. In fact, one focus of agile is team collaboration. Many agile practices address exactly that problem. And yet at the end of the day, we are completely blind to the invisible team dynamics that make or break team effectiveness, no matter how skilled individuals are or how rigidly the practices are followed.

In other words, we miss the point. We shouldn’t be paying attention to the trait an individual brings to the table, but what would their contributions be to the team’s effectiveness.

Research shows that the strongest factors contributing to collective intelligence are empathy, evenness of communication, and diversity of cognitive styles present in a team. Interestingly enough, none of them are directly related to skills we typically pay attention to when hiring candidates.

What’s more, if we treat these factors as indicators of collective intelligence, it is not a surprise that, statistically speaking, they favor women over men. A great deal of research on empathy shows that on average, women are more empathic than men. They typically aren’t as ego-driven, either, which helps to democratize communication within teams.

One nice exercise I sometimes use is to ask people to picture someone they know who is extremely ego-driven. The vast majority think of a man. If we use dominating conversations as a proxy for a big ego, again, men claim the lead. It is also true for being less respectful and interrupting others more.

Collective intelligence is so important because it serves as a fairly good indicator of effectiveness in the context of knowledge work. Our success metric isn’t a sheer number of lines of code we produce. The ultimate goal is our client’s happiness, and I’ve yet to see a client who measures value by the size of the codebase. We deliver value to our clients when we help them accomplish their goals and solve their problems.

On agile teams, collaboration is paramount. It is included in all the contexts agile touches: team organization, communication, working with clients, etc. The bottom line is that if we consider how effectively teams work and not focus on artificial individual context, we’ll end up with a very different assessment of what constitutes the best candidate. Suddenly a lack of great female candidates would not be a problem anymore.

I don’t try to say that technical skills are not important. They are. We don’t want a new hire to be a burden for the team. From that perspective, the key part is to be above the technical skills bar, wherever the bar is in a specific context. However, this shouldn’t be the ultimate decision-making factor unless you are hiring for a single-person team.

Once we understand that and use that as guidance in hiring, we’ll realize that there are lots of awesome female candidates out there. It’s just us who are blind.

One final thought. Because I occasionally get accused of a gender bias, I want to make one thing explicit. I don’t look at hiring more women as the ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is better teams. It just so happens that women tend to work better in that respect. It goes without saying that there are men who excel at that too. At the end of the day, it’s just a set of traits that help everyone around to get better.

If you understand what it takes to make your teams better, discussion about hiring women will be irrelevant. You’ll be hiring quite a lot of them—not solely because they are women, but because they are the best available candidates.

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.