Changemakers: How Autodesk Is Flipping the Narrative on Diversity in Technology
Autodesk’s principal UX designer calls on Big Tech to challenge systemic barriers, starting with honest dialogue and equitable hiring.
The U.S. technology industry is well known for being monochromatic. Its workforce, particularly its technical talent, is made up of predominantly white men. And for an industry that prides itself on agility and constant innovation, change has been surprisingly difficult.
Industry leaders verbally affirm the well-established connection between diversity and product creativity, the lifeblood of technology. But they just haven’t been able to figure it out. Some argue that the fundamental issue is a “pipeline problem” — there aren’t enough women and people of color with the right tech credentials.
Omari Brandt, a principal UX designer for Autodesk, has a different answer. He thinks technology companies need to change the narrative by encouraging dialogue that moves beyond good intentions and ensures that new opportunities are created for all. And as a leader and technical expert at Autodesk, Brandt knows something about the issue.
Autodesk makes software for people who make things. The company is a leading global developer of design software for the architecture, engineering, construction, media and entertainment, and manufacturing industries. If you’ve ever driven a high-performance car, admired a towering skyscraper, used a smartphone, or watched a great film, chances are you’ve experienced what millions of users have built with Autodesk software.
At JFF, we’ve seen that Impact Employers like Autodesk favor potential over pedigree in their hiring processes. They recruit from diverse candidate pools and get involved in their communities to cultivate and draw talent from multiple pipelines. JFF’s Carey O’Connor recently spoke with Brandt about how he is helping Autodesk change the narrative about diversity tech talent — and become a company that leads the way with equity and opportunity.
You have a cool job title–principal UX designer. What does it mean?
(A brief chuckle.) My mother periodically asks me the same question: So what is it that do you do again?
UX is short for user experience design. It means designing and improving technology with the user’s experience in mind. We consider the user’s entire journey with a software product — why are they using this software? What steps will they take? What do they want from the experience? And we work with software engineers to ensure that the user experience is easy, pleasant, and effective.
As a principal UX designer for Autodesk, I am tasked with delivering learning, certification, and customer help solutions.
Today we’re digging in on the issue of racial diversity in tech. So let’s start with a basic question for you: How is it being a Black man in the tech industry?
I have always moved in a lot of predominantly white spaces. I am used to what that entails. It’s a necessary skill, a survival skill. At a core level, it can be the difference between life and death for Black men and women these days.
Knowing how people may react to you and being able to use that knowledge to tailor your approach can be very beneficial at work. But there are personal risks. You have to be careful that you do not compromise yourself as an individual.
Black people often don’t have the luxury to bring their whole selves to work. They have to create a separate identity when moving in predominantly white workplaces. Right or wrong, a Black man may be seen as intimidating or aggressive when articulating a point of view, without intending to be or even knowing it. And there are no positive outcomes when a Black person is perceived as aggressive at work.
How are you helping to change the narrative at Autodesk?
I am a leader in the Autodesk Black Network (ABN), one of the company’s seven employee resource groups. [Brandt is ABN’s global lead.] Being a Black person in corporate America can feel very lonely, very isolating. You may feel like people will judge your entire community based on your actions, which is a lot of pressure. The burden can feel even heavier if you think people are watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake so they can say, “I told you so.” The Imposter Syndrome is real. You have to act as if you deserve to be there. Remember that there is no one who is more capable than you are.
An employee resource group like ABN doesn’t solve everything, but it helps. It alleviates some of the feeling of isolation by giving you a community within the community. It also gives you a venue, a platform, to talk about systemic race issues in the workplace.
Being a part of the ABN this summer, especially after the killing of George Floyd over Memorial Day weekend, was essential. You can’t watch a man die, hear him repeatedly say he can’t breathe, hear him beg for his mother … and then let it all go on Monday morning. You can’t just forget.
We were all in a bad spot Memorial Day weekend. We needed to connect — to talk about what was going on as a company. That weekend was a catalyst for ABN and for me.
I am at the point in my career and in my life where I am tired of being frustrated. I am ready to take and see action. If you want me to be courageous, to take action, I’m going to take you up on it. If you say you are ready to have difficult conversations, let’s start.
After Memorial Day weekend, the ABN worked with Autodesk’s diversity and belonging and human resources teams, and with our executive sponsor, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost, to create a series of very real dialogues on racism at work. Being able to openly and honestly talk about what was happening was restorative. It helped our Black employees acknowledge and validate their feelings and for our coworkers to learn and understand.
We also held a company-wide listening session for the Autodesk community to hear from their Black coworkers about their experiences. It wasn’t a typical town hall where we were hearing from the majority. We were listening to and learning from our most underrepresented voices in the Autodesk community. It was powerful.
How are you translating these conversations into action?
As a company, we collectively realized over the summer that it is not enough to say what our values are. We have to put our values into practice. As James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” I take those words to heart. Many corporations say things about their values, but few actually take actions that match. Autodesk is trying to be different. We may not have all the answers, and we may stumble as we work our way through things. But we are trying together to make a difference.
A lot of our focus has been on opening the door for those who are entering the workforce. The ABN and our other employee resources groups have been working with diversity and belonging and human resources to shape Autodesk’s diversity and belonging strategy, which aims to build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable place to work for employees of all identities and backgrounds. Accomplishing Autodesk’s D&B goals will require individuals to act — to do something different than they have done in the past. Everyone loves diversity until it is time to be diverse — to make a call that affects you.
How can we help people act differently than they have done in the past?
We must help gatekeepers — hiring managers, recruiters, leaders — understand that they can both demolish and fortify structural barriers that create non-inclusive work environments.
For example, there is a bubble mentality within Silicon Valley that anything outside the bubble does not exist or is inferior. The bubble mentality extends to college recruiting. Tech companies always have a budget to recruit at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT…. But a lot of today’s diverse tech talent isn’t enrolled in those schools. We need to challenge the narrative that you can’t find top talent at colleges and universities outside Silicon Valley and outside a few “elite” schools on the coasts.
So if the tech industry wants to find diverse tech talent, they need to cast a wide net and go where the talent is. Autodesk is doing just that as part of the HBCU Partnership Challenge, a Congressional initiative to promote greater engagement and support between companies and historically Black colleges and universities. My alma mater — North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina — graduates more Black engineers than any school in the country. If you want to find talented Black engineers, go there.
Another example of a structural barrier is the common double-standard in hiring practices, particularly in the tech industry, that allows some populations to be hired based on perceived potential while Black talent must first demonstrate their experience before they will be hired.
As Mos Def wrote in a song lyric, “Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.? If I had I.D., I wouldn’t need I.D.” Hiring a diverse candidate is no riskier than hiring anyone else. We all need to remember someone once took a chance on us.
At the same time, that is just getting kids in the door. We have a lot of work to do.
Any advice for other tech companies wanting to be a part of the change and not the problem?
Stop studying the problem and act. One of the things that is so depressing about tech is that these are the smartest people in the world, but they can make things more complicated than necessary. If they want more Black people in tech, hire more Black people. It’s that simple.
They may have to do some things differently. It’s tough, but we can’t fix the problem until we accept our own agency in the current situation.