The Leaky Bucket and the Tech Pipeline Issue

The leaky tech pipeline issue has been well documented and largely acknowledged by the industry. As various companies struggle with how to attract more women and minorities in their hiring process and how to train their personnel in “tolerance” (please don’t call it this!), I’d propose that we examine this problem through the lens of growth hacking as I think there is much to be learned from this approach. In essence, the problem that growth hackers are trying to solve is identical: how do you attract and keep people using your product? The question that executives at tech companies ask is similar: how do you attract and maintain a diverse workforce?

So, first let’s break the problem down into the three distinct parts necessary to create sustainable growth:

  1. Acquisition: how do you attract new people?
  2. Activation: how do you onboard and engage new people so they develop an affinity to what you are doing?
  3. Retention: how do you keep people engaged with what you are doing?

These three parts have direct corollaries as it relates to hiring and maintaining a diverse workforce. Acquisition is your hiring process, activation is how you on-board new employees and retention is how you keep these new employees happy and engaged to avoid turnover. With growth hacking, the goal is to optimize across each of these stages starting with retention since attracting new people only to lose them through attrition results in wasted effort and a vastly lower growth trajectory.

Watch the related video:

The Leaky Bucket Issue

Let’s assume that you start with trying to attract as many diverse workers as possible, but for every hundred new diverse employees you hire, you lose ninety-nine. You’ll find yourself wasting a lot of time and money on recruitment efforts without gaining much diversity in your company. This is what’s known as the leaky bucket issue, and while this example is exaggerated, the principle still applies.

If the churn rate of diverse employees is too great, you won’t see sustainable growth as people are leaving your company at too high of a velocity. You need to first examine why people are leaving, shore up the leak, and only then move back up to the top of the funnel focus on recruitment. The question becomes, what do these new employees face once they have been hired? Are they motivated to stay? The facts are clear: in the tech industry women are two times as likely to leave as men, while black and latino employees were 3.5 times more likely to quit than their white or Asian peers.

Retention Requires More than Training and Affinity Groups

When examining retention, companies need to go back to the things that make employees happy, engaged and want to stay with a particular company. Factors that are often cited include:

  • A culture that makes them feel that they belong
  • Fair and equal rewards and compensation for their work
  • Recognition for their contributions
  • Challenging and interesting work
  • A path to upward mobility

Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence points to women and minorities leaving tech companies and even the tech industry at relatively higher rates. In some cases women face outright hostile environments in tech companies (as with Susan Fowler at Uber). In other cases, women and people of color are not provided with the same opportunities or are tasked with less challenging responsibilities despite having better education and training as others.

Just taking into consideration trends related to women and minorities in tech companies, we begin to uncover the main reasons these stats have emerged:

Certainly, these statistics are symptomatic of organizations and cultures that are not equally welcoming, fair, supportive of women and minorities. Until these underlying issues are addressed, tech companies can hire all the diverse candidates they want, but they still won’t build a diverse workforce since these companies continue to harbor conditions that force women and minorities to leave.

Facebook’s fifth annual diversity report highlights an example of failing to provide conditions that would more effectively keep diverse employees. The company stated modest gains in the number of women in their organization (with most in non-technical roles), yet when it comes to moving women into senior positions, the company made no progress at all, holding steady at 23%.

In defending the company’s progress, Facebook stated: “We’ve learned through trial and error that if we’re going to hire more people from a broader range of backgrounds, it’s not enough to simply show up at colleges and universities. We need to create practical training opportunities for these students to build on their academic experience.” Once again, Facebook shows that it is focusing on the acquisition part of the problem. Moreover, it is also seemingly blaming the lack of advancement on the shortcomings of women and people of color rather than so much as entertaining the possibility that the problem lies with the institution itself.  Yes, there can be work along the full pipeline leading into the workforce, but these companies must address their own shortcomings and churn issues along with making these external contributions.


How to Fix the Diversity Retention Problem in Tech

Fixing this issue requires work, planning and persistence. Many companies say they’d love to increase their diverse workforce but then don’t take the hard steps to actually make it happen. The short list of basic desires mentioned above are a great place to start to provide a foundation on which to build. It should be noted that addressing only one or even a few of these is not enough, and it will take continuous improvement to reach and maintain a desirable outcome.

Building a Welcoming Culture

Changing culture may be one of the most challenging initiatives for companies, but it is the ultimate foundation for bolstering retention. Creating an environment where women and minorities want to work is not just about trainings; it requires a shift in the behavior and mindset of the whole organization. The most egregious cultures may need to consider removing bad actors that are entrenched in the old way of thinking. This is often a tough decision, but a necessary one to start moving in a new direction. These shouldn’t be scapegoats but employees that are enforcing old behaviors and truly making it difficult to shift the company’s direction. Also, it should be noted, that they can be executives all the way down to the lowest levels of the company.

Training is important as well but must be followed up with enforcing actions and processes. It is important to be aware that managers are not the only ones that need this guidance in behaving appropriately to their fellow co-workers. Most importantly, when someone is accused of stepping out of line, it is important to hear these complaints, take them seriously, swiftly investigate and dole out punishment where necessary. Do not cover up or reassign staff to protect a bad actor — it’s never ok!

Establishing Rules for Equality

The process by which people are evaluated and rewarded must be fair. Start first by giving equal pay for the same job functions/levels. When making these changes, ensure that it is uniformly and consistently applied. Better yet, make this information openly available to all employees. Secondly, establish a transparent and easy-to-follow set of guidelines by which performance is evaluated. Look out for areas where bias can enter, such as subjective opinions on likability, pushiness, bossiness, etc. These are often areas that are exploited (consciously and subconsciously) to give negative reviews to women and minorities.

Another area that can be overlooked is awards and public recognition for contributions. This is an area that can sometimes be unregulated and made into a popularity contest. Be sure that who gets recognition is uniformly evaluated and assigned.


The first few weeks to months of an employee’s time with a company can set the tone for their entire tenure. During these initial weeks, additional support should be provided to underrepresented groups, particularly if the company is in the midst of a cultural shift or addressing inclusion issues. It is important to provide them with all the necessary information and resources to be successful, but be careful to have a good balance so that they are not smothered and prevented from fulfilling their primary duties.

Provide Professional Development and Training

Companies should ensure that women and minorities have equal access to professional development and training. Furthermore, they should ensure that these resources abide by the same levels of inclusion so as to avoid hostile environments that may discourage involvement.

Another critical element to professional success is mentorship. Companies should leverage both internal and external resources to provide mentorship. Startups like The Mentor Method and other platforms or consultants are available to support these efforts.

Support Groups and Resources

Support groups are a great way to provide a sense of support and belonging. Encourage others to form these groups or be a part of them. At the outset, you may not have enough people to fill these groups, so leverage the many industry groups that exist. Also, encourage allies to join and be a part of these groups to further expand the support and avoid possible marginalization.

Go the Extra Mile

In general, companies need to put the work in to make sure that female and minority tech workers are being fulfilled and welcomed in the workplace. It takes extra effort and attention, particularly if your company has had a bad track record before with retaining these employees. Some might argue that it’s not fair to go the extra mile for women and people of color, but companies already are doing so in their recruiting efforts so retention needs to follow suit. Also, the implicit biases inherent in the organization already are favoring some groups, it’s only fair that we tilt the needle of opportunity back into a more neutral territory.


Data, Groups and the Individual

A couple things to keep in mind when addressing these issues:

  1. As with any growth hacker, you must be data-driven and measure your results. As you make adjustments in each of these areas, be sure that these changes are actually having the desired impact. Combine qualitative and quantitative measures in this approach. Talking to your employees is a great way to know what is and isn’t working.
  2. As Dr. Freada Kapor has continually touted throughout her leadership in this movement, it is important to not lump all diversity into one bucket. The above proposal addresses common interests and basic desires, but be aware that there will be variances in the struggles and needs of each individual. Make sure that no one feels like a number and that their contributions matter.


Persistence Pays

I want to reiterate that this is not meant to be a simple problem or easy solution. We need to undo decades of implicit and explicit bias, and it starts by recognizing the problem and then acting. I also want to point out that the things I’ve pointed out here are by no means the exhaustive list of the things that should be done. Each company is different and so is every individual within it. As with growth hacking, what works in one situation may not work in another so it takes continual iteration and experimentation. Only you can find what works best for you and your employees.


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