Yammer joins Etsy, 37signals in funding Hacker School grants

We’re happy to announce that we’ve joined Etsy and 37signals in funding grants for women attending Hacker School this year. When Marc from Etsy asked us if we’d be interested in participating, we jumped at the chance.

Our funding for these grants mean that four more women will get the chance to spend three months in New York City hacking on open source projects and learning from their peers and the facilitators at Hacker School. We’re always happy seeing more programmers in the open source community; like planting a tree, it’s a small but concrete step which improves the world.

But these grants also send a public signal about something very important to us at Yammer: cognitive diversity. When people organize to solve a problem, they each bring to the table their own cognitive tools—worldviews, strategies, tactics, facts, skills, quirks, past experiences, hangups, etc.—all of which are inextricably linked with who they are and what they’ve done. But even the most well-traveled person has experienced only a tiny slice of the total, and some experiences cannot be shared: I can only guess at what being shorter is like, for example.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that groups with higher cognitive diversity—that is, those groups which bring more cognitive tools to the table—tend to out-perform other groups on decision-making and problem-solving tests. They consider more possible solutions and their diversity naturally decorrelates each individual’s own errors and biases. Ultimately, diverse groups build better products and better companies.

But technology startups and open source communities tend to be around 80% to 100% male. In terms of decision-making performance, it’s hard to see the current state of gender diversity as anything other than an industry-wide risk. Startups are seen as the greenhouses of innovation, and yet this is where we pay the opportunity cost of an engineering monoculture the most. How many more mainstream successes would we see if our engineering teams resembled the mainstream population? How much better would our decision-making process be if we could draw upon more cognitive tools?

As with any systemic, cultural problem, there are no easy answers for how to increase women’s participation in technology, startups, and open source. There is no diversity wand to wave at our hiring practices, no gender sprinkles for our company cultures. But this is a problem we cannot afford to ignore.

Yammer’s goal, broadly stated, is to help businesses become better businesses. Enabling horizontal collaboration inside companies works, in part, because it increases the cognitive diversity of groups by allowing them to pull in information, context, and skills from the company as a whole. In large part, Yammer’s success in this has been due to our cognitive diversity as a company, and funding these grants is our way of cultivating diversity in our own ecosystem.