Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

431: DEI at thoughtbot with Geronda Wollack-Spiller

July 14th, 2022

Geronda Wollack-Spiller is the DEI Program Manager at thoughtbot.

Chad talks with Geronda about implementing a successful Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program at the company by providing a culture of belonging, the challenges, in particular, the tech industry faces, and acknowledging that many of us work in spaces where when we're bringing someone onto a team who has underrepresented identities, they might be the only one. How do we create a space that's as inclusive as possible?

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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Geronda Wollack-Spiller, the DEI Program Manager at thoughtbot. Geronda, thank you so much for joining me.

GERONDA: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

CHAD: In honor of Pride Month, we're doing something extra special for this episode in addition to just having you as an extra special guest. We're recording live in front of thoughtbot remotely. We've got a whole bunch of people watching. I can hear them cheering off in the distance for you as you make your debut on the podcast.

GERONDA: [laughs]

CHAD: Thanks for joining me.

GERONDA: Thank you. Nice. [laughs]

CHAD: So you joined thoughtbot as our first ever DEI program manager back...when was it?

GERONDA: Oh, April, yeah, April fourth.

CHAD: It's been a whirlwind few months. Thank you already for all of the contributions that you've made to the company already.

GERONDA: Oh, thank you. No problem.

CHAD: Tell us a little bit about your role. And then I can provide some fill-in terms of what we were thinking when we added this. But let's start with sharing a little bit about your role.

GERONDA: A lot of my role is it's a lot of understanding the processes that we have, people operations processes, and really thinking about how do we provide more of a...or improve our ability to provide a culture of belonging. And so a lot of what I do is I will partner across with people operations, and I'll look at things like promotions, and who are we promoting? Who are we hiring? Improvements to performance management processes. How are we giving feedback? Who are our managers?

And a lot of what I'll do, too, is execute against the goals that were set by our DEI Council before I had joined, which the council is great. And I'll look to see are there different ways that we should be looking at goals? So one of the things that I'm doing right now is I'm building out a multi-year roadmap for DEI. And I'm incorporating a lot of the goals that the council has already put together, which has been super great. And I want to create a space that feels like a safer or brave space for anyone to come to me with concerns, questions, suggestions.

And I partner a lot with different groups to be able to understand their needs and make sure that we are voicing and amplifying historically marginalized groups but also providing a lot of the education around what DEI means and how we can do that in our everyday jobs. So I am co-chair of the DEI Council. I support that council to take on different projects, build out task force, work with everyone across the company to contribute, and infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion within the company. So that's a lot of what I do. [laughs] Other things involved, but that gives you kind of a high level of my role.

CHAD: Yeah, that's great. I've talked before on the show about the DEI Council in a few different episodes, mostly in passing. And overall, when we started on...the concept of a council came from some consultants that we had worked with previously to do an audit. They provided us with a few different suggestions about how we could continue on from that audit and take action.

And one of the things, especially with our geographic studios, the way that we used to be organized the idea of one person from each of those studios coming together on a council to work together and then bring the work back to their studios for action really resonated with us as a structure that could work pretty well for us given the structure. We've obviously since gone completely remote. And the council is no longer specifically tied to those individual teams or those offices that we no longer have.

But the council is still that, a group of people from a wide array across the company who come together and focus on and organize our work around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we saw the opportunity in your role to have someone provide continuity and organization and experience to the council to help make it even more effective at thoughtbot. And I think we're just getting started with that. But I think it's been very positive overall, your addition, and like I said at the top of the show, thank you again for your contribution so far.

GERONDA: [laughs] No problem. Thank you for hiring me. Thanks.

CHAD: [laughs] Well, speaking of hiring, you've done a few different things over the years. And I'm curious; you started in more general human resources roles. Was it a goal from the beginning of your career to move into a DEI role, or did that evolve along the way?

GERONDA: Ooh, interesting question. Yeah, it actually evolved along the way. I thought I would be an HR project manager and I would be leading projects across global companies. And when I started in my career, I was an HR operations analyst, and I was doing a lot of the HR product management. But what I discovered is every single time that I would be in a role, I kept looking at things from a DEI lens without realizing that I was. And then, as I started continuing to do that, I fell in love with it. And I was like, okay, this is my place of where I want to be.

So even though I was doing projects related to HR, if I would do recruiting operations, I would look at okay, well, who are we actually targeting, and who are we hiring? And what are the opportunities and gaps? Then I worked in the education space, and I would look at, well, how are we, what types of demographics are we bringing to the schools? So I would do things in my role that were very diversity, equity, inclusion-focused even though I was an HR product manager or in operations.

And I started realizing I really loved more of the diversity, equity, and inclusion side of things. So instead of continuing to get roles in HR, I was like, I have to get a role in DEI because that's where my passion lended itself more so. I made that decision from my last company that the next role I have, I will not take it unless it's DEI-focused. So it developed and evolved over time.

CHAD: Some people might have the thought...I have to confess sometimes I've also had this thought as like, why can't just DEI be weaved through everything HR does or through everything everybody thinks about all of the time? Why do you need a specific DEI person at a company? And I've come to understand that it's hard to do that. [laughter] But I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that.

GERONDA: It is challenging because you also have to think of it as everybody is in a different place with diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But there are some people who are incredibly passionate about it. And then there are others that are aware of it, but they may want to just kind of focus on their job. Or they might think, well, we just need to treat everybody the same. Like, why is that so hard?

So because everyone's in different places in their level of understanding and the importance of it, it does get tricky to think of things in that lens, especially in your day-to-day job. Your priorities change consistently. So you might be working on a project here. But then you're now shifting to a new team, and you're shifting to all these different places. And it does become challenging to keep it top of mind for a lot of people in the company.

And so I think that the overall almost resolution to that is the more that you start to continue to talk about it, the more that you have accountability. And you're training people like leadership and managers and everyone to be aware of what it means, and what the language is, and how you can think of these things. It takes time, but then it slowly starts to get easier. Sometimes there is an understandable fear of I don't know where to begin, and I don't know what I don't know. I don't want to make a mistake. I don't know how to look at this. And should I be looking at this?

But I think that when there is a lot of the understanding from the leadership level, and it goes down to managers, and you start to infuse it across different spaces, it does come a little bit easier. So I'll say what I like a lot of what thoughtbot does is there's a lot of open communication and transparency around things like goals, around hiring, and trainings that we maybe want to offer. So I do think it can be hard. I don't think that you can also get every single person involved in an expertise level. And you shouldn't expect anyone to be an expert, but starting to think about their job and how this could impact themselves or others, it does take some time.

CHAD: And I already alluded to this earlier, but I think we have an additional challenge which is because the majority of us are all on client work all the time and consultants, that through-line, that continuity of when we identify something, really having someone who can be that continuous force, an organization as people rotate through the council or as people's workload with client work or attention ebbs and flows. I think that that is one of the additional challenges that we have that you help with.

GERONDA: Yeah. And the rotations on the council are super helpful as well and then creating a space for anyone to come to you with questions. I like that we have this anonymous forum where you can submit a question if you're not comfortable asking it publicly, whether it's you want to learn more or something's going on that you want to talk through. I think that's also very, very helpful.

And just continuously educating and giving the space for the practical implementation of what you're trying and what you're doing will also give you a little bit more of that comfortability rather than learning about something and then hoping that you're doing it well. So it's challenging, but we'll get there, and it's worth it. [laughs] And every company has these types of challenges, so it's not unique.

CHAD: So you didn't originally start off working in the tech space. And so I'm curious what you've learned or seen that either is good or bad about the tech space in particular, what challenges this industry has. And it is Pride Month, so I guess there's a lens, particularly of LGBTQ+ challenges. Is tech particularly challenging?

GERONDA: Yeah, I think as an industry, it's particularly challenging. So I worked in education, as I mentioned. I worked in the optometry industry, which I will say has very significant challenges just for the industry itself. But tech is challenging. I think there are moves that are being made in tech. But what I'm starting to notice in terms of challenges for the LGBTQ+ community is a lot of things where there is this sometimes perception, depending on how visible you may be, that you are qualified and not qualified.

And what I mean by that is for the trans community or the transgender community, in particular, it can be very challenging because you may not what they call pass as the gender that you are looking to reassign yourself to. So if you are male, and I hear this a lot from other people, is if I'm male and I want to transition to female, I may still be going through the process. So when somebody looks at me, I might still present masculine features. And there is this misconception or this uncomfortability that I may not be qualified to do a job.

So in the tech space as well, it's really hard during the hiring process sometimes to be taken seriously because of how you might look or how you might present yourself. I will say that in a lot of spaces, the culture in a company in tech what I've noticed is it has this generally casual feeling to it and a sense of you can come in, and you'll be taken seriously. And you can meet with different groups.

But I think what I've noticed is when you're trying to get into tech, there are not a lot of people that are similar to you. And it's really hard to find those types of people because not everyone's going to be out. There are assumptions that are made that if a woman's hair is short, she must be lesbian. So we misgender people.

And when going into the tech space, I think that there's a hesitation because you don't necessarily see a customer base similar to you or other team members similar to you. There could be those things like mental health challenges because you don't know if you can come out in a space, or you don't know if you're going to come out, and that could affect your role.

So a lot of times, you'll hear and what I've been hearing in the tech space, is those who are transgender are usually the only ones on a team that are transgender. If you look at also for the LGBTQ+ community, you have to also consider the varying identities that come with a person. So an experience for a Black woman who is queer could be very different than a white male who is gay. So there are those different identities.

So the vulnerability piece, and in the hiring process, and going into tech, you already hear what's going on and the challenges that are happening for the community. So you may be hesitant or might be a little bit fearful of what that would look like. I think in the tech space as well, a lot of executive leaders or managers are predominantly cis-gendered white males. So when you see that, and there's not as much representation at the top, you kind of have that sense, and you wonder, is this a place that I feel like I can belong and have a generally safe experience?

And then the skill set, too, I think what I've been hearing, and what I've been reading and just researching, and what I've been noticing just speaking to other people is the promotion opportunity for those in the community feels like you have to work much harder to get known and be visible because a lot of times, you may want to promote people that are similar to you. So if you have teams that are more cisgendered White males, you may find that those teams are not as diverse. And the industry itself, I do feel like it is becoming more diverse. I think Lesbians Who Tech, for example, was a conference that I'm so glad that you let me attend because -- [laughter]

CHAD: I didn't let you. That's not permission, or rather I encouraged you to attend.


GERONDA: Better wording. Thank you, Chad. You encouraged me to attend, and you're encouraging me to attend the one in October. But just seeing in my experience and looking at the tech space, I wasn't sure what the demographic would look like. But going to that conference and then going to the one...I'm in Seattle, Washington, and there was a local one in Seattle, Washington. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gay men, lesbians, transgender, and I didn't even realize that there were so many of us in the community in that space. And it was fantastic and amazing to see.

But I think visibility is another piece that we're struggling with because you want to be able to amplify those voices and give those opportunities. So that's what I'm seeing a lot in the tech space. I do think that we're improving in those areas. But those are the challenges that I see in that space.

CHAD: To go back to one thing that you said, this idea of being the only one puts people in a difficult position. And I think because tech as an industry is not that diverse, to begin with, you end up with that in a lot of different identities, not just LGBTQ+. If you are historically underrepresented or have historically underrepresented identities, it's really likely that you're going to be the only one and especially the intersection of your identities. If you have multiple underrepresented identities, then it's very likely that you might be the only one.

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CHAD: As leaders, as companies, as a community that wants to do better, let's solve it all right now, Geronda.

GERONDA: [laughs]

CHAD: No, we're not going to solve it all now. But what are some acknowledging that many of us work in spaces where we might not have...or when we're bringing someone onto the team who has underrepresented identities, they might be the only one. How do we make a space that's as inclusive as possible for that person?

GERONDA: The big thing that I always like to say is try not to put all of the work on that person to solve it for themselves. And when they come in, I think what's really great and what I've seen work well is having that initial conversation with that person who's joining, get to know them first, and give them an opportunity to say, "If there's anything that you would love to have here or anything that you find challenging, I want you to feel that you can come to me. You can go to HR or DEI program manager, whoever."

So it's providing that space to say if you need support in feeling comfortable, whether it's in your job or just you as an individual, I want to offer that. And so please be as open as you can with me. And it's providing those different spaces to amplify the voice of that person. So, in meetings, if you're noticing maybe that they are more reserved or hesitant to speak, ask for their opinion if they're okay with that. Recognizing the great work that they've done, giving a lot of that recognition, and then also offering different ways that they can get the community that they want.

So what I love is that we have Slack, and we've started ERGs. And so that gives you a lot of opportunity. We have a Slack channel for the LGBTQ+ ERG. But we also have a private channel for LGBTQ so that we can talk about things that are working, not working, working well. And definitely getting their experience and looking for ways that you can involve them and recognize them and continuing to check in with them.

So regular one-on-one checking could just be how are things going? How are you feeling being a part of this team? What are some things that we can do differently to make you feel welcome? And that's a question that you can ask everybody so that it's not feeling like you're just targeting that one person. So asking those questions and checking in with that person is really helpful. And then, considering the people that are coming in, how are things like benefits being provided? So things like if somebody who's transgender comes in or an employee decides they want to transition, are we providing gender-affirming care as part of benefits?

So those are different ways that we can have them be included and offering up the things that we provide that could potentially be a community like Slack, like the DEI Council, like having those different conversations. And when you start to do things like this, like us doing this pride event, that is pretty significant. We didn't just slap a logo on LinkedIn and just say, "Oh, okay, Happy Pride." We had lightning talks. We get education. We learned about the community. You're having me on here to talk more about it. We're doing a big celebration.

And so that in itself is a pretty critical step. But it is checking in and learning about the person and asking pretty frequently their experience, how they're feeling, their needs, and then looking to increase that diversity over time on that team so that you're not feeling tokenized as that person and always being the only. So those are things that I would suggest.

CHAD: One maybe misconception or feeling that people might have...and I think it starts in the hiring process because you're not supposed to talk about these things in the hiring process. You're not allowed, at least in the United States, to ask someone their sexual orientation during the hiring process. Or if someone was transgender and you're interviewing them, it certainly should be a topic that you as a hiring manager don't bring up during the interview. So my sense is, and speaking personally but also broadly, it can then feel like you're not supposed to talk about those things once the person joins either. Why is that wrong?


GERONDA: So a couple of things I'll say about that is so if somebody brings it up, that can open up the conversation. I'm very open at the fact that I have a wife and that I'm lesbian. And I purposely do that, personally, to see what the reaction is going to be and what the company is going to offer. So I can determine if I feel like this is going to be a good space for me. I think that when you're having an interview, it's just like for anyone who may not be in the community. You don't really necessarily ask someone if they're married or "Are you having children?"

You don't necessarily ask like, "Do you fall in this community?" or "Talk about transgender." Because a lot of times, there is this feeling of I have no idea what this space is going to feel like for me. I'm not going to out myself, and you may even out somebody who may not be out in their professional or their personal life yet. And you want to provide that comfortable space. But you don't want to do that either because then that person and across other interviewing spectrums bias can amplify a lot. And you can mislabel someone's gender. You might use the wrong pronouns, and pronouns are always optional.

So I always say look at the person for their experience and what you want to learn more about relating to the job. Of course, you want to learn about them a little bit more personally as well. But it is more harm to try to identify their identity because that could lead to bias and could ultimately lead to discrimination because you don't know what that person's view is in the interview process either.

CHAD: But once someone joins your team and assuming that they're open about their identities, and this applies to all identities, I think, then quote, unquote "treating everybody the same or ignoring people's identities actually does the reverse of what people intend." It makes an environment where people feel like they don't belong, that the identities that they have or what are important to them aren't recognized. And so you're not recognizing the person's full self, and you're not accommodating it and trying to build an inclusive environment. It could actually backfire if you intentionally ignore people's identities, right?

GERONDA: Yes. So it can backfire if you ignore the identities, especially the identities that have been shared openly. So if I'm going to fill out a survey, let's say where identify myself as part of our hiring process, as a manager, I may not say, "Hey, I noticed that you checked off that you're transgender. How can I support you?" But it is going through the onboarding process and other areas to say here's what we offer from ERGs to benefits, to how we work, how we work as a team.

And if that person does disclose that they're transgender, or they're in the LGBTQ+ community, or they mention their culture or what have you, you can then direct them in the right places to say, "Oh, we actually do have this LGBTQ+ ERG if you're interested. I know you may be talked about it in the onboarding process. If you're open to it, you can definitely join us, and here's how." And then, over time, it is really thinking about you may not know the identities of your team but taking time to do things in practice that would touch upon all identities.

So when you're thinking about having team conversations, there may be somebody on your team who is neurodiverse. They might have autism, or they might have ADHD. And how you're communicating...then you start to think about meetings. Do you just do Google Meet meetings? Do you just do Typeform meetings? You have to think about different learning styles and for different identities. Like it's Pride Month right now, just saying Happy Pride Month to everybody. And they may then be open to sharing more about their identity and sharing the activities that are happening in Pride Month, and encouraging them to do things on the council.

So you want to make decisions that could think about different identities, even if you may not know what those identities are. And I also think it's being proactive and being ready that you might have those identities. So things like I had mentioned where you might be providing gender-affirming care, or you might look at your parental leave policies and other things that you have available for that.

So I would say without knowing the identity, I think over time, as you build trust that [inaudible 28:24] start to develop and come out. But it's also if somebody's coming to you in confidence with something, really taking that very, very seriously. If I, God forbid, came to you, Chad, and was like, "Chad, I'm coming out to you. I am lesbian, but I'm not comfortable with sharing with everybody else." I would trust that you wouldn't share that amongst other people. So that's another piece to that as well.

CHAD: Yeah, that's a really good point. I think as people in that position, in management positions, we need proper training around those kinds of situations to ensure that we handle them well. I think training is an important part of being a manager but also just DEI in general training and equipping everybody.

GERONDA: Yes. Having a common language across the board and a common understanding across the board is very important. Because when you think of diversity, equity, and inclusion, everybody may have varying understandings of what those mean. Some people may not know what those mean, and so having that common language across the board and understanding. And then yes, training, of course, and opportunities for you to then practice that training in spaces and getting feedback along the way.

CHAD: So I imagine that there are a lot of people listening who this is really important to them. It's an important topic or a place where they want to make improvement for themselves or their company. They might not have a lot of support or resources at their company. There might not be a DEI Council already. And I know every company is different. Every team is different. But are there some things that individuals or leaders might start thinking about or doing specifically if they're just getting started with this?

GERONDA: So if you're just getting started, I always say there are a lot of great resources out there for you to consider. So whether that's a book...LinkedIn has really great training on just understanding DEI and how to be an inclusive leader or work in an inclusive environment. But I would say a really great place to start is if you don't have this already, think about what your demographic looks like. And what are some things that other companies may be doing? So joining different channels and saying, "We're at the beginning stages. What are some things that we can do?"

But I think what's most helpful to start is you have to gauge where you are as a company and understand your people and the demographic and do something that allows for an open discussion and open forum to get perspectives from other people. So I know things like listening tours where you might talk to different departments or different teams. Or if a company is small enough like our company, you can meet with each person and then think about what are some common themes that you're seeing? That can also create a great space for that.

I'd also say you can put out a survey to see what the experience is. So if you are doing things like engagement surveys, you can absolutely include things in there about what do you think we're missing? What would you hope to see? But I think a lot of it is you have to understand your people and what you have available to you at the company and provide an opportunity for everyone to share their ideas and perspectives to that.

So what I've seen work really well is one, when you start to understand there has to also be this communication and this accountability at the leadership level to say, "This is why we're focusing on this. This is why we think it's important. We want to hear from you." And something that I thought was really unique and helpful is if your company is small enough or even if it's big enough, a lot of companies what they'll do is they'll have the CEO, or they'll have managers host these kinds of forums where you can meet with them, and you can share.

You can ask them a ton of questions. You can share your ideas. You can share what you hope to achieve from this and just starting to get perspectives first. And that may, over time, start to evolve into a council or people wanting to do an ERG. But really get as much as you can from people and then learn a lot from that as well.

CHAD: That's great. I asked that question, and then it turns out it was one of the ones that someone submitted in the chat from a thoughtbot person.

GERONDA: [laughs]

CHAD: So I wanted to acknowledge that even though we overlapped the question, that question technically comes from Amy Wall, a developer at thoughtbot. Another question from Fernando is how can other employees support DEI people like you from a daily perspective?

GERONDA: Just take over my job. [laughter] No, I'm just kidding. So it's always helpful for me to have transparent conversations of where you are. If you want to help me, it's helpful to learn about your experience and come to me with things that you're seeing or ask me questions. Also, don't be afraid either to say, "I really don't know what this means or what this is. Can you help me?"

And it's also bringing learning as well because I'm not a developer, and I'm not a designer. [chuckles] I think that the work that our team does is fantastic. And they're super smart. And when I look at a lot of the things that are happening, like coding and conversations, although I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, it's really amazing to see. But from your perspective, there may be things that I am suggesting, like, oh, maybe we need to increase accessibility, and we do need to do these things. But be okay to challenge me and say, "I actually don't know that that's going to work well or not."

But I think to support me in my role, the more that I know of the challenges, and the more that I know about you individually, and the more that you continue to bring these things up from a DEI perspective is super helpful. So what I've noticed and what I've really loved about working here is we have those opportunities to have those very open, transparent conversations. And we can post about issues, and we can post about things that we want to change in our handbook.

And sometimes people come to me with questions. And I love that people come to me and say, "This is what I want to work on more. Do you have any suggestions?" That really helps me in my role because as much as I would love to know everything that's happening with every single person, it can be challenging. So be honest with me and just share what's going on and be willing to learn and share resources with me too. Yes, I'm a DEI practitioner, but that doesn't mean I know everything. I know it's very surprising to a lot of people right now that I don't know everything.

CHAD: [laughs]

GERONDA: But share things you're reading. Share things that you've noticed. That helps me a ton. So that's how I say you can help me. And thank you for that question, Fernando. I appreciate that.

CHAD: A thing I would add is recognizing that there are, especially at thoughtbot, multiple levels of ways that you can support and contribute to our efforts. So we try to identify on the council okay, this is the thing we want to work on. The council isn't intended to do everything. But so what we'll often do is we'll say, okay, we're going to gather a group of people in a task force, and we're going to work on this. I think that's another level of contribution.

So showing up for those participating in them when they arrive, and frankly, not signing on to too much because you spread yourself too thin and then can't do a good job doing everything that you want to do. So yeah, those are some tips that I would add. Geronda, thank you so much for joining me on the show. I really appreciate it.

GERONDA: Thank you for having me. I appreciate that.

CHAD: Happy Pride. [laughs]

GERONDA: Yes. Happy Pride. I'm so excited. I feel like I'm a little biased, but this is like my favorite month of the year. [laughter] Lots of fun celebrations. And of course, I recognize other holidays, and I think they are very important. But this one is generally very close to my heart. So thank you.

CHAD: Well, if folks want to follow along with you, get in touch with you, find out more, where are all the places that they can do that?

GERONDA: Yes. Follow me on LinkedIn, Geronda Wollack-Spiller. I'm on Twitter at @gerondaws. And I think those are the two best places to follow me. I'm most active on LinkedIn. And I usually respond there pretty heavily.

CHAD: We'll include those links in the show notes, which you can find attached to this episode. And you can subscribe to the show, find all those notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at If you have questions or comments, email us at You can find me on Twitter @cpytel.

This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

Thanks for listening. And thanks to all the thoughtbot people who were in the chat, and with the questions, and paid attention and listened to this episode. And see you next time.

GERONDA: Yes. [laughs]

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