“The main thing that we felt was that we were very isolated from each other”
Away from the overwhelming herds of suits and blazers so typical at US tech conferences, a buzzing room at this year’s MongoDB World, hosted at the Hilton hotel in New York City, housed a refreshing and inspirational conference group: the Women and Trans Coders of MongoDB.
Diversity is a hot topic; it’s a necessary topic. While enterprise giants like Google and Microsoft enjoy often complimentary headlines surrounding their gender diversity efforts, it was intruiging to learn more about this initiative at a smaller, more purist hardcore database vendor.
“The main thing that we felt was that we were very isolated from each other,” Samantha Ritter, a 25-year-old engineer at MongoDB, who joined the company three years ago as an intern, told TechWeekEurope.
Diversity in tech
“There were very few female engineers at the company and we didn’t know each other. Some of us were on different teams and actually hadn’t met.
“When I started there were two female engineering interns with me, and we were the only female engineers. Well, actually, there was one full time engineer, but by the time I started she had left,” she laughed.
But three years later, things have changed, dramatically, for the good.
The MongoDB Women and Trans Coders group was started two years ago as a way to provide mentorship and a community for women and transgender engineers at the company.
“It wasn’t so much a problem specific to MongoDB as just a general diversity problem in technology,” Ritter continued.
“So by starting this group we had a way to connect with each other and provide ourselves with a community and mentorship.”
Life can be tough at a growing startup. Tight budgets and pressure to perform can lead to the talent pool being exceptionally small and exceptionally male, something that the women and trans workers at MongoDB had to tackle first hand.
“I think that a startup is a hard place to be as an engineer, as it goes through the shifting and hiring, and that’s especially true if you’re a female engineer,” said Ritter
But as MongoDB’s employee numbers grew, along with the number of women and trans engineers at the company, the time was right to take direct action in promoting diversity.
Unlike larger corporations, where diversity drives tend to come down from the top and HR departments, MongoDB’s own was started with the Women and Trans Coders group.
Tess Avitable, a 26-year-old engineer who worked at Microsoft before completing a PhD and moving to MongoDB, told TechWeekEurope: “Some larger enterprises have more resources for recruiting a diverse pool of candidates than a smaller company has. The larger companies are able to offer higher salaries to recruit more diverse candidates, and a company like ours doesn’t have that.
“But it’s also really nice, because it’s a little bit strange to have all the diversity initiatives starting with the women at the company.”
The group has had a knock-on impact, Tess explained, with MongoDB’s HR department now following suit and introducing diversity campaigns.
“Now that HR is starting it, it feels like it’s coming from the right place,” said Avitable.
“Just in the last couple of months, the HR department has formed a diversity committee to start brainstorming around these ideas, so while the Women and Trans Coders group just came out of the needs of women and trans engineers, now more initiatives are starting to come from HR.
“It’s great to see initiatives coming from other parts of the company. Even in recruiting now, they’re going to roll out an unconscious bias training program for everyone who interviews. So, the difference that I’ve seen even in the time that I’ve worked here is more initiatives around diversity coming from all parts of the company.”
Ritter agreed: “So now that we have enough women to form a group, it’s great that we have a network. Definitely, the situation has changed since I started.”
This year, MongoDB has also started a diversity scholarship scheme, with aims to break down the barriers that prevent underrepresented groups in tech from attending conferences. This includes, but is not limited to, people who identify as women, African American, Hispanic, LGBTQ, low-income, and people with disabilities who may not otherwise have the opportunity to attend MongoDB events.
Among the prizes are a three-month access to paid MongoDB university courses, and complimentary admissions to MongoDB World and pre-conference workshops.
For now, the group’s immediate aims are to provide mentorship and community for women and trans engineers at MongoDB, but the scheme is starting to reach outside of the company.
MongoDB couldn’t comment on the gender breakdown of its staff, but the company is already looking better off than many of its peers.
“We hosted a diversity discussion a few months ago at the company, as we were developing our company’s mission and values,” said Ritter
“This summer, a major project that we have is our women and trans coder internship mentoring, where all of our interns will also have an informal mentorship with a member of our women and trans coders group, to just have someone else to talk to for career advice and to feel part of the community.
“We’re also trying to do things that reach out in the community, like hosting this lunch, and sometimes we partner with local organisations in New York to do other networking events.”