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InfoQ Homepage News DOES 2019: Michael Winslow and Leslie Chapman on the Black Employees Network Engineers at Comcast

DOES 2019: Michael Winslow and Leslie Chapman on the Black Employees Network Engineers at Comcast

Comcast presented several talks at the 2019 DevOps Enterprise Summit. Michael Scott Winslow, director software development and engineering, and Leslie Chapman, distinguished engineer, presented a DevOps Confession about how challenging it is to feel fully included and to emerge as a successful technology leader when we belong to a diverse and minority group. Winslow also facilitated a workshop with Roshani Lapinksi, senior manager, software development and engineering, called "Technically Speaking", a Comcast initiative whose original purpose was to encourage Black engineers to prepare to speak at conferences. 

InfoQ interviewed Michael Scott Winslow and Leslie Chapman about their role and the many initiatives they lead to make inclusion real every day at Comcast.

InfoQ: Leslie, how long have you been working with Comcast and can you tell us about the journey that led you to becoming a successful technology leader?

Leslie Chapman: I've been at Comcast since 2006, so I'm approaching my 14th year. My journey starts before Comcast. My first job out of college was working at Honeywell on batch process systems. After that, I worked with Teradyne where I developed device drivers for semiconductor test equipment. So, when I joined Comcast, the coolest thing was that I could finally explain to my parents what I did for a living because nobody understands what batch processing or semiconductor test equipment are. 

One of the things that I love most about working for Comcast, and I think that's what led to my success, is the fact that I write software that are so tangible and meaningful to our customers. We currently have over 30 million devices in customers' homes and the software I develop are shared by millions of people and families. Knowing that these families interact, after a long day at work, with my software to relax is to me so incredibly rewarding. I've always been really motivated by how our product impacts our customers, and that has made me a better engineer. I am also a customer, so I'm always thinking about how important it is for me to be able to enjoy my shows on TV, therefore I want to give the same experience to our customers.

I am now a distinguished engineer and technology leader, because I have decided to remain an individual contributor. One of the things that I also love about Comcast, is the fact that they allow you to do just that, because we believe that there are many other ways to lead people and influence the organization than becoming a people manager.


InfoQ: What message do you want to share with others minority groups aspiring to be part of the STEM community?

Chapman: I'm very passionate about getting young women into STEM. I do a lot of volunteering to support it. My message to women is if you have an interest and passion for it, follow that passion. It's important also because there are many young men and women, especially minorities, who don't see a lot of other women and minorities in STEM, so they think perhaps that it's not for them, or that they couldn't excel at it. That's why my message is always just do it if you have a passion for it, and it's the best decision you can make for yourself and for the community. It's also very rewarding because we get to write software that millions of people use every day. I also support these groups by volunteering with organizations outside of Comcast, such as Tech Girls and Black Girls Code, and within Comcast where I am one of the leads of a mentorship program.


InfoQ: Michael, you are director at Comcast. What has your journey as a highly successful technology leader been like?

Michael Scott Winslow: I joined Comcast almost seven years ago when I started as a contractor. One thing I noticed was this idea that you had contractors and then you had full time employees, and I rejected that idea. So, I constantly tested the waters, and broke the rules quite often to make sure we didn't create silos and divides between people and organizations. Around that time, I met a couple of people within Comcast who started embracing the DevOps movement, which resonated with me because I’ve often seen the operations person sitting right there but they didn't talk to me directly; they just say "Hand me your code" and then they punch my code back to me saying "It doesn't run on our systems".

So, I took the same approach, trying to break down the silos in my organization, and I found like-minded DevOps individuals to not only just preach DevOps, but find ways to practice it in context. So, I believe what led me to a highly successful career ascension and position at Comcast was this idea and approach that I constantly embraced and worked to bring people together to create better products. I rarely concentrated on my own career; rather I concentrated on other people working together, and the rest came to me.


InfoQ: Did you apply the same approach you took with development and operations to your business stakeholders?

Winslow: Absolutely! I am a fierce believer that if you're working on something that the business doesn't understand, you better not be working on it for long. If you know that you're working on something that the business doesn't need or if they don't know what you're working on or why, that's a problem. 

In our talk titled "What all leadership should know about microservices", we deliberately took an approach where we break down microservices to make it understandable to anybody. We don't speak in confusing ways, we don't make assumptions that everybody in the audience already knows microservices, because we believe that the communication gap and absence of common language contribute to creating the divide between engineers and the business. Engineers today can't leave the business out of technology.


InfoQ: Michael, you and Leslie presented a DevOps Confession. You read someone's anonymized story, sharing how challenging it is to feel fully included and to emerge as a successful technology leader in a DevOps culture when we belong to minority groups. You talked about the BENgineers movement at Comcast. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Winslow & Chapman: At Comcast, we have eight ERGs (Employees Resource Groups) and each supports under-represented groups. We have the Women In Tech, the Young Professionals, the Asia-Pacific group, the Black Employees, the LGBTQ, My Abilities, Unidos and the Military group. 

Within the Black Employee Network (BEN) ERG, we had Black employees from various professional backgrounds. It felt as if something was missing for our Black engineers, so we created a sub-group called the BENgineers, for Black Employee Network Engineers. It was a subgroup at the time, but today we are pretty much side by side with the other ERGs, with 150 Black engineer members.

The BENgineers have a direct communication line with leadership. In addition, each of these groups has an executive sponsor assigned to them. The BENgineers' executive sponsor, as an example, is Ranga Muvavarirwa, VP, entertainment technology, who presented "The Art of the Possible: Transformation at Comcast" at DOES.  Being an ERG executive sponsor is an official assignment that they report on to their own boss. It's part of their day to day job, and it's not something they can put at the bottom of their backlog or delegate.

These ERGs were originally grassroot efforts. So, while Ranga Muvavarirwa is the BENgineers' executive sponsor, the community pretty much runs itself autonomously and the executive sponsor acts more like a servant-leaders. In many cases, the executive sponsor is there to influence or unblock, if there's anything that the group can't move forward with. The executive sponsor would then bring the CTO in as needed. 


InfoQ: Michael, with Roshani Lapinksi and Chuck Mountz, you facilitated a workshop at DOES 2019 titled "Comcast's New Approach to Diversity in Tech" where you introduced "Technically Speaking", a Comcast initiative to encourage diversity to attend and speak at major global technology conferences. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Winslow: It all started here at DOES 2018 when I submitted a talk that got turned down, which happens of course. I noticed that there wasn't any Black speaker in the Featured Speakers line-up. So, I decided to nevertheless attend the conference and I spoke with Gene Kim about how we could change this and welcome more Black engineer speakers. Gene and the programming committee were amazing and wanted to work with me to immediately make this happen.

I flew back to Philadelphia, engaged our 150 BENgineers and together we worked on getting them to fill out more Call For Papers. That was the highest priority because only a small number of BENgineers actually fill CFPs for various reasons. We kicked off workshops called "Technically Speaking" to help our 150 BENgineers train on how to fill a CFP, how to go through the Comcast speakers' bureau, how to translate technical knowledge and thoughts onto a deck and how to present to a large audience. 


InfoQ: Could you share an example of the type of impact the BENgineers have had on the Comcast culture of inclusion? 

Winslow & Chapman: We have programs in place at Comcast who are working on getting better at measuring the outcome of our ERGs on our employees and on the business, just like in any other large organization. In addition, we can see a lot more individual anecdotal success stories; we see Black women and men who have worked really hard towards being promoted. We also see more BENgineers submitting CFP or speaking in pairs at conferences to support and mentor each other. 

One of the greatest successes we are proud of is this year is the increase in CFP submitted; we had 13 Comcast Black engineers who have been accepted and who have spoken at global conferences. 

Comcast's BENgineers group has been nominated for the Philly award in the "Culture Builder of the Year" category, where anyone can cast a vote for them and their amazing accomplishment. 

Like I mentioned at the DevOps Confession this year: "Change will not happen if you have a lot of observers and not a lot of practitioners"

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