A woman who sued Twitter for gender discrimination explains how she's made sure her own startup avoids the 'toxic' trap that many tech firms fall into

  • Years after filing a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits against Twitter, ex-employee Tina Huang cofounded DevOps platform Transposit and now heads an engineering team where 42% of team-members are women. 
  • Huang said she and her cofounder were very deliberate about their methods of hiring, which has contributed to the ability to build diverse teams. 
  • She also rejects the idea that quantitative measures of success removes bias from the interview process, because "code in itself is highly subjective."
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The tech industry has long been reckoning with how it treats women, culminating in books, viral blog posts, and firings. A slew of high-profile tech companies and VC firms have also been served gender discrimination lawsuits, including Twitter.

One of the plaintiffs was Tina Huang, who filed a claim against Twitter in 2015 on behalf of herself and about 135 other women engineers who felt they were being passed up for leadership positions. Although that suit stalled — in 2018, a California court ruled that it could not move forward as class-action — Huang's career did not. In 2016, she founded developer startup Transposit with cofounder Adam Leventhal to make it easier for developers to juggle different APIs across multiple platforms.  

The firm just raised a $35 million Series B round in September at a $135 million valuation, according to Pitchbook, as it expands into broader IT services.

Huang, a long-time engineer who worked at Apple and Google along with a handful of smaller firms, has been deliberate along the way about making sure that Transposit avoids some of the patterns she's experienced at other tech companies. 

"My entire career — up until Transposit — I was a woman in a category with a ton of male colleagues," Huang told Business Insider. "And it was always an uneven burden on women learning how to adjust their communication style to live in a male dominated world." 

Here's how the company thinks about diversity and hiring: 

Diversity starts early in a company. 

As chief technology officer at Transposit, Huang oversees a 19-person engineering team, where 42% of team members are women. Comparatively, the tech teams at Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft linger between 20% and 23% women, according to Statista. While the startup is working off a dramatically smaller employee base than those tech giants, Huang expects that it will outperform the industry as it continues hiring, retaining, and promoting women.

From the very beginning, Transposit made a point to avoid some of the hiring practices that can sometimes lead companies to be less diverse. 

"It's a very common theme where a bunch of ex-Googlers all banded together to start a company, a bunch of ex-Twitter people, or ex-Facebook," Huang said. 

The problem with this approach, Huang said, is that someone's network at one of those big firms will often reflect that company's low diversity. Sure, Huang knew a lot of brilliant technologists from her time at Twitter, Google, and Apple, but her own network admittedly skewed white and male, so Transposit decided to use a recruiting firm to find talent in order to cast as wide a net as possible.

"If early on you have more gender equality, then both sides have to learn to adapt," she said.

Transposit has also embraced the idea of "culture add" instead of the classic notion of "culture fit," meaning that [TK quick explanation of the difference between the two].

Also, Huang said that in her tech career she experienced a culture in which the person who won an argument was often the loudest person in the room. 

"Honestly, it's just toxic for a lot of the women who are in those debates and discussions because it's sort of whoever is pushing harder and harder, yelling about their statement, is sort of getting ahead," Huang said. "But secondly, we know for a fact that that biases against women."

By bringing more women on board early on and fostering diverse communication styles, Transposit believes it can circumvent these situations.

'Code in itself is highly subjective.'

One of Transposit's core values — creating a culture of pragmatism — has roots in Huang's education: She studied humanities at the University of Chicago after her bachelor's degree in computer science from MIT and a stint at Apple. Huang said she weaves in tenants of pragmatism (in which a theory or idea is proven true if it works) when she's interviewing candidates.

"For me, it was largely an attempt to change the conversation around how we select for engineers," she said.

Many companies will try to eliminate bias in selecting candidates by picking one tangible criteria and only focusing on that. For example, focusing solely on someone's coding evaluation. Huang, however, says this in itself can be biased, because "code in itself is highly subjective."

When companies think they're only measuring candidates by quantitative measures, they "don't even acknowledge that there's an aspect of subjectivity there, [they] can end up not not being as aware of where biases could be," Huang said.

Haung said she'll ask hires to contextualize their code, explaining things like why that particular code was needed, what was deadline to get it done, and what the end goal for the product was and the role that code played to achieve it. That context not only helps her figure out how talented they are as engineers, but also helps the company as a whole.

"I genuinely believe," she said, "That your engineering team can act faster, execute faster and build the right product for the customer if they're able to think about technology, not just the lines of code, [but] also the end goal."

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