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Twitter Chief Design Officer Dantley Davis on building the most diverse team in tech

Diversity helps design and build better products, Davis says.

Twitter Chief Design Officer Dantley Davis

In his more than two-decade career in tech, Dantley Davis has often been "the only brown person in the building." As Twitter's chief design officer, he wants to change that.

Photo: Twitter

When Dantley Davis worked as a designer at Netflix a few years back, he had an epiphany: For ages, "Star Wars" had been marketed as a sci-fi saga. But what if it could also be a princess story?

The notion that the same film or TV show could mean many different things to different audiences was in part born out of Davis' own upbringing as a military brat, growing up on bases around the globe, surrounded by folks who had a very different experience of the world, "Star Wars" included. "I knew that my affinity for the film was different from my friends who looked very different from me," Davis recently recalled.

Years later, Davis is bringing some of that same sensibility to product design at Twitter, where he has been the company's chief design officer for a little over a year. Just like "Star Wars" can be more than just a space opera, Twitter can be more than just a fix for news and sports junkies, he argued. It can be a space for the Black community, for instance, or a forum for astrology fans. "As we're working on new experiences, I have a team pause and consider all the different types of people that are using Twitter," Davis said.

Diversity helps a lot with that approach, which is why Davis has the goal to build the most diverse design team in tech, and ultimately turn Twitter into a model for diversity and inclusion. Many tech companies have pledged to do both in recent months, but as a Black designer working in tech for more than two decades, Davis knows from his own experience that those words don't always match companies' actions.

In a conversation with Protocol, he talked about the lessons learned from his own experience, and his belief that inclusion is about more than meeting quotas in diversity reports. He also reflected on Twitter's recent launch of a new audio tweet feature that was widely panned by accessibility advocates, and the lessons the company took away from it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Following the killing of George Floyd, many tech companies came out with statements in support of Black Lives Matter, and quite a few also promised to increase diversity within their own ranks. As a person of color who has worked in this industry for over two decades, was that a welcome reaction? Or did it make you think: Where were you all for the last 20 years?

A little bit of both. I saw and heard a pretty considerable desire for conversation and understanding. I think the video of George Floyd being killed hit people in ways that other tragic situations had not, unfortunately. And there are people, even in my own network, who reached out to me, asking me how I was doing, folks who I had not heard from in a while. I think that they were also in pain, just like Black people had been in pain for a long time.

I also saw a lot of performative gestures as well, which is almost worse than people just not saying anything. Some of these folks have not been supportive as it pertains to hiring and promotion, but then make performative gestures on social media. Those two things don't reconcile.

What should the industry do to actually facilitate change?

I have been in tech for over 20 years. I started working as a designer when I was a freshman in college, and I've been used to being the only one. The only brown person in the building, usually aside from folks in facilities. And the thing that's been most challenging is: Many of the actions that have been discussed over the last few months were known quantities years ago.

The notion that there's a pipeline problem is a myth. There's a relationship problem among hiring managers that are not women or people of color with those communities. Even though I'm Black, that doesn't mean that I'm just a magnet for all Black tech people. They don't just come knocking down my door because I happen to be the same hue of brown as them. I have to do the work as well.

Oftentimes, that's meant the weekends or evenings of reaching out to people, flying across the country, sometimes to different countries to meet with candidates, to understand who they are, what their motivations are and what they want in their next role.

Some folks just aren't doing the work, and then they're expecting different results. And so, my ask, over the last few years, and more pointedly in the last six to nine months, is to go do the work. Go, be with people. These days is even easier because it's all virtual. You don't have to get on a plane and fly to London or go to Chicago to have coffee with a candidate. You can do it over a videoconference call.

It's not all about recruitment, but also about creating a sense of acceptance and belonging among your workforce, right?

There is a shorthand that many designers who are of color or women have on my teams, because they've experienced some form of microaggression or some form of discrimination. When we have conversations about barriers, having your voice heard, I understand wholeheartedly, because I've experienced these things myself.

So I try and bring that connection to the conversations that we're having from a product perspective of leaning into the insight and intuition and gut instincts that a person of color might have about their community, or that women might have about their own life experiences.

In many cases, we reward white men in technology for leaning on their gut and leaning on their instincts. And we don't question the motives and the rationalization, or what informs those perspectives. But oftentimes, when it's a person of color or a woman, then there's a gatekeeper who they have to go and convince that this sensibility and focus is even worth considering, is even worth putting engineering dollars behind.

When it comes to designing products, what are companies missing out on if they don't listen to people from diverse backgrounds or have a diverse leadership?

I think one of the core superpowers of having diverse teams is that you have people on your teams that inherently understand your customers. And in an inclusive environment, you're listening to their point of view.

Those individuals are representative of a population of customers, and they understand those customers really well. So you get to a product-market fit a lot faster, and you might be able to understand how a certain community is hacking a product or using interesting workarounds to try and solve a problem that only someone in that community might understand.

By having a person on your team, they can speak to it. They can understand the nuances. They can even call bullshit on an experience that you as a nondiverse team might be working on that just doesn't resonate with people. I found through my career, whether as an individual contributor or as a manager, the more those points of views and perspectives I have on my team, the more closely I can create a product that actually resonates with people, and actually solves their problems. Otherwise, it is a total crapshoot. You're just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping it sticks.

Having diverse teams isn't just a thing to do to make us all feel good. It's actually solving a business problem: Bringing in people who understand your customers intimately so they can build products that align to the problems that we're trying to solve in the world.

Twitter recently faced some challenges of its own around inclusivity and accessibility with the launch of audio tweets. What happened there?

Audio tweets was an experiment that we created to help people use their voice to express themselves on Twitter. Members of the Twitter design team were seeing how voices within Black Twitter and in the Black community itself, as it related to social justice and conversation around issues around race, were not able to be heard in a way that was emotionally captivating, just because of the written nature of our platform. So we wanted to provide a new tool to enable those voices to resonate and connect with a broader population of people.

In the course of development, the question around accessibility was brought up by the designer working on it. But one of the things that we missed was actually having accessibility be inclusive in our process. This has since changed. But when we were working on the product, we had essentially accessibility shepherds. These were engineers and product folks who, because they're passionate about the space, in addition to their full-time job, also focused on accessibility as a secondary task to their core job.

With all this happening with work from home, and disruption in communication, what would usually be picked up in a Slack channel got missed, and we shipped something that shouldn't have been shipped without this conversation happening. We had a very public faux pas because of it, with the accessibility community feeling as if we were producing products that were not inclusive of their needs.

Now, the majority of the people who were working on the product were of color, and also very passionate about inclusivity in the product development process. They felt like it was important, because they've felt excluded in products their whole life, and they didn't want anyone else to feel that way. These people leaned into listening to a community after the criticism that we got and then went and worked with the rest of the company to make sure that this doesn't happen again, including getting headcount.

Now, we have a full-time accessibility team within product development, and that includes engineering and design. We also changed our product development process, so that accessibility is always considered during even the conceptualization of features.

This year has been incredibly challenging on many fronts. Six months into the pandemic, are there things that make you feel hopeful?

Over the last six months or so, I've seen some incredibly amazing and smart people on Twitter coming together to try and solve some of the biggest challenges that we're facing at the moment, whether it's been doctors and biologists trying to get their head around containment of the virus that's been affecting the world, or social justice activists working together with politicians to figure out ways to have police reform happen in our lifetime.

They're doing this independent of this product. We're just giving them a vehicle to have this conversation. My goal and hope for the next couple years is that we don't let them down.

I'm building the most diverse and inclusive design team in tech, which I then hope builds the most diverse and inclusive tech company, to enable humans to solve these problems, and come together in ways which we see the similarities that we have, and the shared connections that we have on this planet, versus the differences that currently divide us. And my hope is that through those conversations, in some small way, this little app with the little bird can make the world a bit better.

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