Bringing Balance to “The Land of the Clones” 

Bringing Balance to

Bringing Balance to “The Land of the Clones” 

At Options we’re serious about building the best global technology organisation in our business. Creating balance across a number of fronts has been a cornerstone of that strategy.

These include a healthy demographic pyramid, leveraging the knowledge of world-class industry veterans alongside graduates fresh from college. Balance between customer support and engineering, process and automation, sales versus delivery, or geographically between our team in Belfast and the offices in key financial centres, London, Hong Kong and New York.

Gender balance is a central theme for us, because simply, we believe that firms with gender balanced teams drastically over perform in our sector.

I still remember my personal “Eureka” moment on this front, in a meeting with Terry Cunningham, a previous founder of Crystal Reports, during the SIFMA show in New York in 2006. At the time, we were struggling with the culture in Wombat Financial Software as that business scaled through twenty-five people spread across the globe.

Terry told a story about a pivotal moment in Crystal Reports’ history. They’d a hundred people in their office, predominately male, with an all-male engineering team. The culture had begun to stink (literally and metaphorically). An advisor pointed out the obvious and they embarked on a strategy to correct the gender imbalance, the impact was profound and the rest is history.

Around the same time, another conversation introduced me to the concept of “the land of the clones”. Simply, left to their own devices, engineers (and managers in general) will hire little clones of themselves, which unchecked can lead to extremely skewed and toxic team cultures. Steve Jobs assertion that “As hire As and Bs hire Cs” also applies, in which case folks hire weaker non-threatening versions of themselves.

In other words, great teams seldom happen by chance, nor does gender balance. Executive leadership needs to keep control of the hiring process and institute programs to get the desired outcome. Corrective action can be transformational in teams where things have become skewed.

Over the last few years in Options Technology we’ve been running a number of programs to address gender imbalance, which (let’s face it) were very in line with issues across the hedge fund and capital markets sector in general, as well as infrastructure IT.

In an honest reflection, we have been very successful in Belfast and with our graduate intake. Over the last few years, hires via the program have been running at 50:50 male vs female, with the proportion of successful female applicants higher than for the men.

Many of the women hired as graduates since we initiated the program in 2015 have had a profound impact on our firm and are rapidly progressing through the ranks.

As a final thought, one of the women who reviewed this post pointed out that transforming a company’s culture is not just about a recruitment strategy. Executive leadership has two further critical responsibilities.

– First and foremost, leadership must be inclusive and show respect to women in the organisation, give them a chance to shine and a place at the table;

– Unfortunately, at the beginning a few “haters” may need to go, or at least be severely reprimanded.

I can’t overemphasise the first point. Whether leaders like it or not, their organisations tend to be very sensitive to what they “do” and subconsciously adopt their prejudices. Leaders who think women (or any other group) make “lousy” engineers create cultures that reflect that view. Such prejudices can be subtle and appear in various forms, the belief that a firm should only hire technologists with a Computer Science degree, or even who have completed Third level education in the first place.

At Options, we have tried to go the extra mile to create an inclusive environment. We also struck gold with our choice of investor in Bregal Sagemount. We have a day of management presentations at the end of each board meeting. Last week, six young women, all of whom joined as graduates, got the chance to present their work to the board as part of these sessions. We are serious about giving all our young managers that quality of experience and exposure.

On the second point, some individuals in male only cultures have a difficult time accepting women, in fact, some people probably are drawn to male only teams precisely because of underlying issues and prejudices. Even where that isn’t the case it’s hard to escape a little bit of “locker-room” culture. Leadership may need to take firm action to allow the new culture to take root.

Disclaimer: Please note that we do not positively discriminate in the interview process; the success in recent years is more a product of receiving a lot more resumes from women as we’ve ramped up our relationships with the local universities. We have a constant need for high quality individuals and only hire a small proportion (< 3%) of people who come in for interview. Over the last two years, 40% of the applications we have attracted were from women, versus 60% from men.

We have more work to do in other areas of the business, notably more senior engineering hires where we are forced to hire from a skewed population; but we are making great progress transforming the land of the clones from the bottom up.

Danny Moore, Options Co-CEO and President.

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