Ep 84: Tarsha McCormick: Your Plan Might Not Be Your Destiny

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk interviewed enlightened leader, Tarsha McCormick, North American Head of Diversity and Inclusion, for Thoughtworks,  a global software consulting company,  created to drive a socially, economically fair and moral world, by bettering humanity through software.   With over 6000 employees, “we custom build large software applications for Fortune 100/500 companies, and help our customers solve some of their toughest business challenges,” according to Tarsha.  The company has won multiple awards as a top company for women in technology. “For us, diversity and inclusion are about righting some societal ‘wrongs’ – particularly as it relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Tarsha is the youngest of seven children.  Her parents emanated from southern parts of the United States in the 1930’s and “had to face a lot of segregation in the ‘Jim Crowe’ South.”  She also noted that “of all my siblings, I am the only one with a college degree. Statistically speaking the odds were against me.” Tarsha inadvertently entered the technology industry; came to fully understand how significant the industry would be; and is now “impassioned about diversity and inclusion in the technology space.”  She noted that her mission-oriented journey is an example of “just because it isn’t your plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t your destiny.”

In her early career, Tarsha was a social worker for the State of Illinois specializing in child welfare. With a political science undergraduate degree from Illinois State University, and a master’s degree in human resources management from Keller Graduate School of Management at DeVry University,   she subsequently carved out a path in human resources and workforce development, working for Hewitt, then joining Thoughtworks (“when we were under 100 employees”) almost twenty years ago. In her Thoughtworks journey she has “had the opportunity to wear many hats, roles from recruiter to generalist to benefits manager to HR manager.”  

Thoughtworks created a business division (the People Division) in Atlanta, Georgia and New York City.  Tasha moved to Georgia to the role of Human Resource Business Partner, responsible for The Americas in 2010. “We started having some of those tough conversations about inclusion, at Thoughtworks, that some employers shy away from --- privilege, and sexism, and race in America,” she said. “I helped the company put in organization around pay equity, and how we were looking at promotions.  We started to formalize employee resource groups.” In 2015 she accepted a promotion to become the company’s first Head of Diversity and Inclusion. “This was around the time we had hired some transgender employees. And we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Tarsha exclaimed. “We didn’t know how to support this group of employees. We had to get up to speed quickly. It was an eye-opening experience; we realized we had to be more intentional in our approach.”  This promotion allowed Tarsha to spearhead creating a diversity strategic plan and overall vision. “I was the first person in the role. I felt a little overwhelmed and scared!” Tarsha acknowledged that Thoughtworks was “probably at the forefront” of diversity work in the tech space, which has led the company to honors for its inclusion programs, including being named at the Grace Hopper 2018 Celebration of Women in Tech, as a leading company for women in technology. Retention of talent is a high priority.  “We want every employee to feel they have a voice. They belong.”

For high velocity recruiting, “talent doesn’t have a face or a background,” said Tarsha. “We don’t care if you are self-taught, went to a bootcamp, or went the more traditional route of a 4-year university.  If you have the aptitude, attitude and experience, then Thoughtworks can be a home for you.” To accelerate recruiting, Thoughtworks has significantly expanded the sources for its talent pipeline. “We look for candidates outside the computer science department,” as an example, when conducting college recruiting. They also attend tech conferences, visit schools without computer science curricula, visit historically black colleges and universities, meet with candidates from community colleges, and more. “Our employee referrals are a great source, as well.” Tarsha stressed that it is important to closely examine your recruiting process; “are you mitigating bias in the process?”

Tarsha emphasized that diversity does not stop with the recruitment of people with different backgrounds, different creeds/races/colors/ages/belief systems/socio-economic statuses.  Equally important is the concept of “inclusion.” She stressed that if colleagues “don’t feel like the workplace is supportive, if they don’t feel like it’s a place where they can be their authentic selves, where they can grow, and learn, then we aren’t going to retain them.”  At Thoughtworks, the company has created a place where “people feel they have a voice; that they matter.” The team has re-architected learning/development, benefits, communication methods/content and channels, and methods of promoting high potential employees, in new and more inclusive ways.  

Thoughtworks mantra is “once you learn more about a person, their background, their situation, it will hopefully broaden your perspective and you can empathize and sympathize.” To institutionalize best diversity practices, the company established employee-led resource groups for women’s interests, LGBTQ interests, and African Americans.  There is a consistent feedback mechanism to gauge employee needs. Prior to any major policy roll-out, interest groups are polled. “An example of that is when we rolled out a policy for gender transitioning on the job,” Tarsha said. “We hired an outside expert to come in and do some training, not only for our leadership team, but for all our employees. We had appropriate groups review the policy. We created the preferred pronoun buttons. We take them to our career fairs and have them available in all our offices. We want to be sure we are being respectful of people, and how they self-identify.”  To measure the success of its diversity/inclusion programs, Thoughtworks has important tools. One is a diversity survey administered annually to all employees, measuring reaction in 5 key areas. Another is “Measures of Success” --- a benchmark tracking of every program, over time.

For other companies motivated to establish or strengthen diversity and inclusion programs, Tarsha shared key advice.  As a first step, she recommended that any company start with a holistic assessment of the organization, to identify areas for enhancement, gaps, and key priorities. Then map those back to the strategic goals of the company. “You won’t be able to do everything, but if you prioritize what’s most important, you can start the work there.”  Then simply, methodically, progress from step to step. She also stressed that accurate data collection, and planning for it, should be part of your progress, including the selection of a flexible HR information system.

For individuals looking for new roles, Tarsha recommends asking a series of questions about any company they are considering joining, including:

  1. What are the diversity and inclusion policies?

  2. What are the backgrounds of leadership?

  3. Do they have leadership development opportunities, and how are candidates selected for those?

  4. What is the average tenure for an employee?

  5. Can I speak with other employees, at the company, about their experiences?

Tarsha emphasizes that this work cannot be done in a vacuum.  “I can create the vision, and the initiatives. But it takes all of us to live it and breathe it every day; and make people feel welcome and included.”  Tarsha wholeheartedly agrees with Diva Tech Talk. “One person can’t do everything. But everyone can do something!”

 Tarsha McCormick can be reached on Twitter at @tarsha_mcc and via email at tmccormi@thoughtworks.com.

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