Hacking Away Biases in Tech

One Silicon Valley startup takes a bold step toward diversity, equity, and inclusion with a hackathon aimed at eliminating bias in code.

“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect,” says author and media theorist Steven Johnson. 

This opportunity for ideation and connection is exactly why hackathons have a long-standing tradition of driving change in the technology industry. But hackathons are not only useful for software innovation. Today, they’re also a promising avenue for combating the serious problem of bias in technical language.

For example, the words “master” and “slave” have been used for decades in computing and other technical contexts, as references to situations where one process or entity controls another. Since 1976, the United States has issued more than 67,000 patents using these terms. 

There’s fundamentally no reason why more specific and non-offensive terms, like “primary” and “secondary,” can’t be used instead. And developers working on platforms like OpenZFS and Microsoft’s GitHub, as well as companies like Delphix, have been actively working to replace these terms. 

This past summer, the engineering organization at Delphix accelerated those efforts and took a bold step. They hosted a company-wide hackathon on Juneteenth to give employees an opportunity to make a positive impact concerning terms that are used daily. Although hackathons are commonplace in tech, the idea of focusing one on bias in code is meaningful in an industry that is not traditionally known for strong diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). 

For Delphix, the hackathon was an extension of the company’s core values. The event was infused with a tremendous amount of energy and led to tangible results—as well as three key lessons to share with the industry. 

A Moment in Time Can Spur Action

Coast to coast, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement blanketed the country following the death of George Floyd. Delphix employees responded to the moment with an urgent desire to contribute to positive change. Within days, the team leaped into action and organized the Inclusive Naming hackathon to change internal code.

“I felt like we needed to strike while the iron was hot, while people were talking about the issues and were engaged,” says Sebastien Roy, director of systems platform development. “It’s up to leaders to make clear to teams that they’re allowed—and encouraged—to take time away from work to participate, no matter how busy a time it is.”

Adds Manju Abraham, vice president of engineering operations: “That was the perfect time with the right momentum, energy, and sense of community. It was inspiring to see the sense of purpose people derived from it.” 

One Person Can Inspire Many

As the event was still in its early planning stages, Matthew Ahrens—a distinguished engineer at Delphix who is also the founder of the OpenZFS open source community—knew he had to act right away. He searched OpenZFS’s code base and, upon finding numerous instances of the term “slave,” replaced the word with “dependent.” 

“I wanted to change it before any more time passed,” Ahrens says. His action spurred debate within the developer community, and created an opportunity for open dialogue that helped set the stage for the hackathon. 

Organizations can thrive when allowing individuals to take the lead on identifying a purpose, guided by issues they care about. Whether it’s diversity or another issue, purpose should be about passion. 

“If folks are just working on their technical responsibilities without having a stake in their group, or their environment, then they're not going to be satisfied in their work,” Roy says. 

A Hackathon Is Just the Start

Already, 600 terms have been caught and updated in Delphix’s product code, QA code, DevOps code, documentation, and support knowledge base. And it has been a huge learning experience for everyone involved. 

“One of the things that came out of this initiative is people found the new terms more palatable,” says Senior Director of Program Management Karyn Ritter. “Those non-inclusive terms were not adding any value to the product or clarity to the code. It doesn't help explain something to call it a whitelist. What is a whitelist? Calling things by their plain names actually makes it clearer for everyone and doesn't subtly reinforce offensive concepts.”

But the need to continue improving DE&I in tech remains. For Delphix, the Inclusive Naming hackathon was a springboard to drive broader DE&I initiatives forward. 

"Diversity and inclusion are important issues, and we are striving to make a difference one thing at a time,” says Abraham. “This was something the entire engineering organization cared about. Even if it's a small contribution, it's one step forward." 

Read more stories about data-driven innovation in the 2020 issue of Data Company Magazine

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