Tackling taboo topics at this year’s TTC Hackathon

Olwen Davies 19th May 2021

When it comes to inclusion and diversity, there is always more to be done.

That’s because to be human is to exist not only as individuals, but in pairs, in groups, in pre-determined demographics, in societies, and at this point of history, in code. Each label assigned to us attracts different levels of unconscious bias and scrutiny. This evolves into a judgement, a judgement which is often formed in isolation of wider contributing factors.

Sometimes these judgements are kind, fair and empathic. Other times, they can be selective, harmful, and prejudicial. Decisions that fall into this second group can be especially detrimental when scaled – algorithmic bias for instance.

At ECS, we advocate the former. We encourage our team to take positive steps to listen to the voices of others and reflect on one’s own part in building an inclusive and diverse culture. In the words of Mike Gorard, ECS Chief of Staff, a good measure of inclusion is “everyone at ECS having a voice, a voice that is heard and listened to. It is about each individual at ECS being confident of their voice and confident they will have it heard, included and listened to”.

The problem is, if you’ve experienced the feeling of exclusion, or have been made to feel some topics are taboo, you may not have the confidence to speak up. You may also fear a negative consequence should you choose to do so – such as verbal abuse, loss of your job or denial of a future promotion or being treated differently by you colleagues.

Let’s take the topic of wages as an example.

How confident are you to discuss thorny topics like where your salary sits versus your peers?

How would you raise and seek to nip in the bud misunderstandings, inappropriate behaviour or microaggressions in the workplace?

ECS joined the Tech Talent Charter (TTC) just in time to participate in their April/May Hackathon and as luck would have it, I was put in a team discussing how to have and manage tough conversations.

The Tech Talent Charter ethos is to promote organisations to share experiences in their non-commercial living bank of resources “Open playbook”. This is a collaborative means of devising practical solutions and has promoted fast results as organisations are able to apply a version of what has worked for others.


Here is a snippet of the Open Playbook Guiding Principles:

Open Playbook Guiding Principles (Tech Talent Charter Hackathon Guidelines)

Practical. Our aim will always be to provide a practical list of recommendations that companies are using to drive greater inclusion and diversity in tech roles and to signpost other materials, best practices, etc.

There is no ‘silver bullet’. We believe a one-off initiative approach cannot achieve systemic change; in many cases will do harm. An effective, sustainable solution must cover all aspects of a company – the culture, the processes and the people.

Each organisation is unique. We do not propose that any company simply ‘cut and paste’ recommendations from this Open Playbook (or any other resource) to solve their own unique situation and wait for their measure of inclusion and diversity statistics to change.

Living. The Open Playbook is intended to be a living resource for Signatories to continue to add to as they create and discover new ideas that work.

What is the TTC Hackathon?

TTC hackathons are a regular non-technical initiative, where individuals from varied organisations put the TTC ethos into practice by collaborating in teams to produce practical toolkits, showing ways to work through pressing D&I challenges. These toolkits end up supporting and extending the Open Playbook.


My experience of the 2021 TTC Hackathon

“I grew in confidence, feeling free of the “but will it work, be performant and meet the requirements” doubts that I often carry when working on code-based solutions.”

Being assigned to “Team 2: “How to have and manage tough D&I conversations at work” was a great chance to investigate how to foster a culture where:

  • Contentious topics are on the table,
  • Concerns are raised freely, and,
  • People are driven to have those tough conversations as soon as possible amongst colleagues.

Any team experiencing a shock resignation can vouch that the pain of losing a valued colleague out of the blue is greater than the awkwardness of difficult conversations.

The hackathon required an 8 to 10-hour commitment to a self-managing team over four weeks. The personal benefit has been working with D&I experts from other sectors, hearing and seeing different viewpoints and expectations. It was fun to discuss difficult topics and let ideas and creativity flow. It was a more open approach than most technical projects I work on, where there is generally a set product or solution to work towards from the start. I grew in confidence, feeling free of the “but will it work, be performant and meet the requirements” doubts that I often carry when working on code-based solutions.


How we got started

At the start of the hackathon, each team is provided a rough first draft of the roadmap and the mission is to add to, refine, and quality assure the list of recommendations.

The materials are blogs and articles describing successes and pitfalls from varied organisations, covering the gamut of protected characteristics split into the following topics.

The set of resources is categorised into the following:

  • Education – what bias is, how to identify it and how to mitigate against it
  • Allyship – Provide allies with permission to advocate and tools to do this.  Create a safe environment for employees to challenge the status quo and tools to do this.
  • Avenues to speak up – A channel should be independent, impartial, and informal to give employees a forum to surface microaggressions as they arise.
  • Finally equip people to deal with resistance to change and to counter suspicion of D&I initiatives.

It has been a great reference to learn from, reference and check in with.

To help focus our unstructured discussions midway through the four-week period, we did three things:

  • Agreed on the topics that mattered when promoting a culture which fosters conversations,
  • Split the stages into these topics,
  • Went off to add detail individually.

By week three, we had a structure and the start of a slide deck. Looking back through the resources, I gained confidence seeing our stages were the same as those defined in the Institute of Business Ethics Speak Up Toolkit. 


What I loved about the TTC Hackathon

The creative aspect of this hackathon intrigued me, and I am really proud that our end product is full of facts but also gives a few highly visual and practical ways to think about difficult conversations.  We had the generous offer of a highly visual tool “UNCK! HOUSE” which uses the concept of rooms of a house as parameters for uncomfortable conversations.

This came from Xann Schwinn and Tsilala Brock who run the UNCK! Snapshop site specifically about difficult conversations, alongside their work as start-up founders.


Behind the scenes look

Here is a brief preview of part of our toolkit which breaks down aspects of the shared conversation.


What this means:

  1. Most stages in a conversation only differ slightly for a manager or leader to the experiences of an employee. Each may be speaking from the “Heads” or “Tails” side of a coin.
  2. It is useful to flip a coin figuratively, to look from the others viewpoint. With this in mind, “Heads or Tails” is a useful checkpoint to stop and ask the other to confirm your understanding of their viewpoint.
  3. Culture is key to enabling conversations and conversations feed back into the culture:
  • Respectful ways of communicating are expected,
  • Actions are agreed,
  • The organisation bank of resources grows where new issues are discovered.

We have now submitted our toolkit, once feedback is incorporated, we can start to trial and use the product.


Closing Remarks

I’ve had a thoroughly enlightening and uplifting experience! Anyone interested should reach out to TTC, watch their events, and definitely sign up for the next TTC hackathon. I am also proud of ECS for becoming a TTC Signatory organisation and committing to drive greater inclusion and diversity in tech. By becoming part of an industry collective, we are helping TTC with their goal of organisations coming together and joining forces to make real meaningful change happen.

If you’ve been inspired to get involved in a future Hackathon, you’ll be pleased to know a ‘Startups and ScaleUps’ edition will be launching in June. This Hackathon will have a specific focus on employer products for start-up and scale-up environments, with four focus areas:

  1. Team 1: Cultivating an inclusive culture
  2. Team 2: Reward and retention
  3. Team 3: Hiring diverse tech talent: accessing all of the talent pool (ie. attraction strategies, job advertisements, pathways offered etc)
  4. Team 4: Hiring diverse tech talent: assessing talent (shortlisting and selection methods, alternatives to interviews, hiring managers etc)

You can register your interest here.



More about the authors:

Olwen (she/her) is a Delivery Consultant at ECS. Technology allowed her to work 100% whilst fulfilling single parent responsibilities, albeit with creative childcare solutions. She is an advocate for Diversity in Tech, appreciating opportunities to get familiar with other cultures and backgrounds and knowing the importance of diverse experience in product development – “if the sector is disproportionately representative of any single sector how can we avoid that echo chamber in tech development and create products suited to a breadth of consumers.”

Introduction co-written by Eloisa Tovee.

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