By Wendy K. Leigh
You might think a white male with a major position in a corporation hardly seems the role model for diversity. But Mark Budos, Vice President of Community and Data Engineering with the NBC News Digital technical team, managed to pull off an honest discussion on the issue of pervasive white male privilege in the world of technology when he led a Flash Talk session at the FullConTech Conference on the Microsoft Campus October 4th.
“So, I’m a white guy up here talking about diversity. That’s a fairly uncomfortable subject for me, I’ve got to be honest with you,” said Budos off the bat.
Facing issues head on, and not mincing words in the process, is a trademark of the man who co-founded the community-powered, collaborative journalism website Newsvine in 2005, which was acquired by NBC a few years later. Rather than speaking in the realm of concepts and goals, Budos gets real – fast.
Telling a story that happened just a few days earlier, he painted an unfolding picture of his search to fill some front-end engineer positions. A colleague in New York had recommended seven people for two open positions. As Mark opened up their LinkedIn profiles, it dawned on him that he was looking in a mirror of sorts.
“There were seven white males staring me in the face,” he realized.
That the scenario raised red flags is a reflection of Mark’s ongoing journey in exploring the issue of white privilege. Though he explained it as a continuing growth process, he did reveal that it’s now less about meeting quotas and making PR people happy and more about how diversity actually makes a business more productive and successful.
A consummate storyteller, Budos talked about a time when Comcast needed to move its corporate data center into the cloud. Gathering up the “who’s who” of its operation team, leaders in their fields with PhDs and Harvard diplomas, architecture groups, and engineers built a really complex system that now needed a transition.
After hitting road blocks, stone walls and any number of conflicting opinions, there was an almost palpable paralysis in the room. With a twinkle in his eye, Budos looked out over the conference crowd as he told his story, and acknowledged that he left out a little detail.
“Every single person in that room was white – whiter than a magnolia in a snowstorm.”
The responsibility for the project was later moved to a group in California with a female architect, and joined with a smaller team in Seattle that happened to be way more diverse, according to Budos: diverse in age, diverse in gender, diverse in ethnicity.
“To be honest with you,” he continued, “the ‘pedigree’ of these people was not as high as the original group … but within two months, we started to move services, and within about a year, we’d be completely moved out of our data center and into the cloud.”
Relating an MIT study, Budos revealed that when you work within a diverse group and talk to many different ethnicities, you tend to explain yourself better and communicate more effectively, even if it’s a little bit more uncomfortable at first. The communication is superior, he claimed, and you’re able to move forward. In these scenarios, you can actually see firsthand how diversity helps the workplace environment.
Statistics seem to bolster that theory. Mark quotes a Harvard Business Review article stating that companies that emphasize a diversity in their teams and in the work groups are 45 percent more likely to see year-over-year growth. Studies involving 1800 professionals and 40 case studies found that companies focusing on diversity saw a 75 percent higher likelihood of succeeding in new work areas and new business development.
In yet another story of personal experience and growth, Mark addressed the “train wreck” effect of the dot.com bubble burst in the early 2000s, when he was working with the Walt Disney Company. Because of cost-cutting measures and slashing half of the engineers on staff, they ended up with four women developers and a Chinese male developer who was in the process of getting his green card.
“To be honest, I was very, very skeptical that we would be able to move at the pace I wanted to move at,” admitted Mark, before then confessing that it turned out to be “probably the most productive two-year span of my entire career.”
Describing the women as patient, effective communicators, highly intelligent and highly motivated, he says that the arguing was also at a minimum.
“All we did,” said Mark, “is we just got shit done … we went through three pregnancies, we went through two green cards – and the productivity just kept going.”
It’s a journey for us all, he explained, and it’s going to take a long time before we have a level playing field for everyone. But that small group of individuals, still close friends of his years later, taught him something about diversity and how effective it can be in improving everyone’s career.