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Salesforce makes push for diversity in technology

Salesforce is maneuvering into industry leadership, making a diverse IT community a priority. Its product development strategy seems to have been crafted with such diversity in mind.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is on a mission, a socially progressive mission to advance equality and diversity in technology companies wherever and however possible, but specifically within his own backyard -- one of the largest tech companies in the world.

Everyone must decide what personal action they will take to make the world more equal, he told an audience of female technologists at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston in 2016. Such action is needed, he said, not only in the technology industry, but also in schools; and it needs to include racial equality and LGBT rights, along with gender parity.

Salesforce almost abandoned plans to place a Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis several years ago when a religious freedom law threatened the legal protection of LGBT employees. Fortune also placed Salesforce at No. 19 on its 2018 Best Workplaces for Diversity Top 100 list. And since 2017, the company has employed a chief equality officer -- Tony Prophet -- on its leadership team.

Increased equality means increased diversity, and here is where Benioff's commitment pays off: In 2014, Scientific American summarized years of studies demonstrating that both gender diversity and racial diversity in project teams yield better results. A Harvard study the same year validated the same result for research teams.

IT's poor track record

While it's become a cultural cliche that IT is more ethnically diverse than most professions, it wasn't always that way, and female inclusion in IT roles has actually declined significantly over the past generation.

While it's become a cultural cliche that IT is more ethnically diverse than most professions, it wasn't always that way, and female inclusion in IT roles has actually declined significantly over the past generation. Specifically, the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported in 2015 that women make up only 25% of the IT workforce -- down from 35% in the 1990s.

At Google, Facebook and Twitter, women make up 25% to 30% of the workforce -- compared to 47% nationally overall -- but women in technology roles at these companies account for less than 20% of all employees.

The same disparity can be seen in technical education. In the mid-1980s, per the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 37% of all computer science degrees were awarded to women; today, it's less than 18%.

Reducing barriers by democratizing development

Salesforce has been championing equality and diversity in technology development and the workforce for years, cultivating both ethnic and gender inclusiveness. But, lately, it has championed the democratization of enterprise development in parallel, and that opens the door for diversity of another kind -- cognitive.

Recently, Salesforce doubled down on that push toward low-code/codeless development. Its Lightning platform, which was touted as "the future of app development," received a major tool upgrade at Dreamforce 2018 with the unveiling of no-code app creation from spreadsheets and a no-code workflow builder.

The entire point of the company's Force/Lightning PaaS has been to place the power of app development in the hands of any member of the enterprise with the mind and will to use it -- whether or not they have a computer science degree or certification as a coder.

This matters for several reasons.

Salesforce has positioned itself as a haven for frustrated employees who need an app or workflow to support something they do and don't have the budget or time to farm it out to IT. Microsoft Access met this need a decade ago, but that led to the proliferation of tiny, rogue databases permeating the enterprise, creating more confusion than cohesion. By centralizing a build-your-own-app process in a PaaS system, Salesforce has injected continuity, security, scalability and a common administrative model into what was once a Wild West practice.

On top of this, turning app development over to the user who needs the app removes one of the greatest barriers to app development success in IT history: the mismatch between what the user asked for and what IT delivered. Entire methodologies have arisen around solving this perennial disconnect, and low-code/codeless app development, in principle, removes it from the process.

Finally -- and, by far, most importantly -- conventional application development attracts thinkers of a certain cognitive style and work ethic: The stereotype of the modern app developer is a cultural cliche largely because it's so spot on. There's a profile that covers many, if not most, successful app coders today; and while it's effective, it isn't especially diverse.

The Salesforce intuition is that greater cognitive diversity arises in app development when a wide range of thinking styles can be turned directly to the task of generating apps and workflows, transcending the more narrowly focused cognitive style of the head-down developer. The strong ROI numbers the company reports for customers using the Lightning platform bear this out.

How is Salesforce doing, diversity-wise?

As of this past December, per Prophet's annual equality update, just more than 30% of Salesforce's workforce is female. A little more than 20% of its executive leadership -- at the vice president level and above -- are women. Roughly 10% of the workforce is made up of members of minority groups.

And progress is evident in its new hires in Futureforce (the Salesforce programs dedicated to training employees for new roles of the future), almost half of which were either women or minority -- an almost 5% bump from the previous year. And the Salesforce board of directors, with 13 members total, includes three women and three minority members.

Lightning app development is likewise making substantial gains. A 2018 IDC study reported that companies using Lightning for app development were averaging productivity gains and revenue benefits of almost $9 million, with a 63% faster lifecycle. This suggests that a growing number of nontechnical thinkers are getting into the app development process.

In the IT world, there's still some way to go in the pursuit of diversity in technology, but Salesforce is taking a leadership role. The democratization of app design and development generates more inclusion, not just ethnically and in terms of gender, but in cognitive diversity.

This was last published in February 2019

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