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Heidi Musser on Enabling Belonging Through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Heidi Musser about enabling belonging through diversity, equity and inclusion overcoming unconscious biases, avoiding micro-aggressions and advancing the agile community.

Key Takeaways

  • We must never forget that we design and build technology for people,
  • Being "the only" is a lonely and sometimes difficult position to be in
  • Belonging is the outcome of diversity, equity and inclusion
  • We all have unconscious biases which can be overcome through knowledge and deliberate practice
  • We need to embrace change now more than ever and have confidence in the hope that embracing change, we can harness it for good


Shane Hastie: Hey, folks. Before we get into today's podcast, I wanted to share that InfoQ's International Software Development Conference, Qcon, will be back in San Francisco from October 2 to 6. QCon will share real world technical talks from innovative senior software development practitioners on applying emerging patterns and practices to address current challenges. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I've got the privilege of sitting down with Heidi Musser. Heidi is the outgoing chair of the Agile Alliance and has a much, much bigger story to tell. So I'm going to just start and say, Heidi, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Heidi Musser: Thanks so much for inviting me.

Shane Hastie: Tell us a little bit about your background. Who's Heidi and how did you get to where you are today?

Introductions [01:00]

One step at a time would be the correct answer to that. A little bit about me, I'm a native Detroiter. I was born and raised in the city of Detroit and was the first person in my family that had the opportunity to go off to university, and I graduated with a degree in accounting from Michigan State. I actually attended college on an athletic scholarship, which was quite unusual in the 1970s. Title IX was passed in 1972, so I'm first generation Title IX. I played volleyball. And years ago, my feet actually lifted off the ground when I jumped! But most importantly, I graduated with a degree in accounting and my first job out of college, I worked in finance. I worked in public sector finance as a chief financial officer, and it was during that, the most amazing thing happened to me.

I had a chance to attend a conference, Government Finance Officers Association, the most boring conference in the world. It was being held in my hometown at Cobo Hall in Detroit. The keynote speaker was the Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, and that's when she had retired from the Pentagon and she was traveling and speaking and she was talking about the rate of change and she talked about nanoseconds. We all know that light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. So a nanosecond, one-billionth of that is approximately 11 point, I don't know, eight, four inches. It's slightly less than 12 inches.

Well, after she spoke, I went up and I met her and she gave me her business card and four nanoseconds. I still have those nanoseconds. In fact, I made a commitment to give one of those to Linda Rising the next time I see her, and those are really my most prized possessions of everything I own in my entire estate, my nanoseconds.

But the important thing was Grace Hopper inspired me to start a career in technology, and I heard her. Aftwards, I met her. And of course, for those listening that don't know Grace Hopper, she invented that little thing called the compiler, quite the pioneer herself. But it was through that meeting that I decided to get into technology. So I left my career in public sector finance and I joined a software company, a small startup company. I grew up in System/3X architecture, and I became a chief product officer for this software company; this company developed and sold solutions, technology solutions to state and local government. So that's why I started my career in technology. I can still code in RPG 400, but you probably do not want me to do that.

So after working for several startups, I then left that company and worked as a chief operating officer at a consultancy, a technology consulting company. And then I joined a high-flying dot-com, Commerce One. They're no longer around. They crashed in the dot-com crash. It was an amazing job, and I had a chance to work out in Silicon Valley. And when Commerce One went belly up, I joined corporate America and I worked in healthcare, and then I was recruited away by a big financial services company where I served as a Chief Information Officer, Chief Compliance Officer and Chief Risk Officer. So I've actually held five different C-level positions in my career, and I have worked in six different business models. So I think I've crossed all of those.

And I'm trying to retire, but I've been not incredibly successful with that. It seems like I've discovered a new secret superpower. I've actually edited six books over the last five years since I've retired, and I'm being challenged by one of those authors to maybe even write my own book, but I'm still thinking about that. So that's a little bit about Heidi.

We build technology for people – never lose sight of the people we are building products for [04:52]

But the interesting thing is probably the most important lesson I ever learned about technology, I learned when I worked in that first software company back in the '80s. It was on my first business trip ever. But what I learned is that people are more important than technology. I do believe that that's still true today. And technology has changed a lot, but at the end of the day, we are designing technology solutions for people. People consume technology, and we must never ever forget the importance of people in terms of how we design technology, in terms of how we work in our companies.

I happen to subscribe to a thought that my favorite management guru, Peter Drucker, he said this many years ago, and he said that, "the purpose of an organization is to enable ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things". I studied Peter Drucker when I earned my executive master's degree back in the late '80s, and I couldn't agree more. In all of my roles as a leader, I've always approached these roles believing that my primary role is to enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. And that's probably what led me into being involved in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging many, many years ago. It's been one of my passions throughout my career. So that's just a little bit about Heidi.

Shane Hastie: Thank you. The point you made to me when we were chatting beforehand was you've spent most of your career in fact being the only. What insights has that given you and what has it meant to be the only?

Being "the only" and trying to fit in [06:33]

Heidi Musser: The only, for me, and this wasn't in my first job out of college but certainly when I got into tech. For me, I was typically the only person in the room who looked like me. What that mostly meant is that I was the only female in the room. And it also meant in my case - I also happened to be gay and I have been out my entire career - but it also meant that I was very likely the only lesbian in the room. Now, the femaleness, we were talking about breaking glass ceilings back in the 1980s, not like we are today, but the gay thing, that was not safe to talk about that. So for me, being the only meant that I was spending a lot of energy trying to fit in, trying to ensure that my voice was being heard and doing it in a way that was not threatening to those I was with.

Now, this is a podcast so you can't see me. I'm a very tall, athletic, confident woman. And when I started my career, we used to wear those shoes, clearly designed by a man, called pumps, so I was quite a bit taller. When I walk in a room and I take some space; I have some presence about me. And being the only, how would I manage that presence? How do I manage that presence and energy so that I can be a part of and collaborate with and not create a sense of concern or not be a threat to anyone? Early in my career, I spent a fair amount of cycles having to learn how to navigate that in a positive way, in a positive, healthy way.

Shane Hastie: DEI and B, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Belonging is the outcome we want.

Belonging is the outcome of diversity, equity and inclusion [08:29]

Heidi Musser: Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, right? So B, that's a new letter that we've added recently, belonging. I believe absolutely that the diversity, the equity, inclusion - those are things we can measure but they're not the goal. Belonging is the outcome of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We invest. We desire. It's important to have diversity, equity, inclusion so that we can have belonging.

So what do I mean by that? Diversity is getting invited to the table. We want different people at the table. Equity, it means that everyone that's actually at the table actually has the opportunity to speak so you're not just the token. You don't want to really be the token. Inclusion is having your voice actually be heard. So you've been invited to the table, you have the opportunity to speak at the table, and people listen to you. They actually listen to you when you lean in to speak.

Well, belonging, it takes that one step further. It's actually being admired and respected for who you are, for your unique contributions. And that belonging leads to the social opportunities, the connections, the ability to collaborate, the invitation to collaborate with colleagues, to be a part of, not be separate from. Not tolerated but respected, to be valued for who you are. And it's only when we have belonging where people literally are bringing their whole selves to work every day. Without belonging, people that look different from the others have to make decisions about what is safe to bring into the room and what is safe to leave outside of the room.

So belonging is when we can really bring our whole selves to work every day, and it's the outcome. If diversity, equity, inclusion, if our investments in diversity, equity, inclusion do not lead to belonging, then we're failing. We're failing each other because the outcome, what we're trying to get to is belonging.

Shane Hastie: I see us still struggling. What are the steps we can take? How do we get there?

Resistance to DEI&B efforts comes from fear and a lack of knowledge [10:47]

Heidi Musser: Well, again, one step at a time. The business case for investments in DEI and B are amazing. There's so much data out there. Diverse boards, diverse C-level executives, companies with more diverse executives have better profitability, better return on investment. There are so many studies that have been done over the past 20 years that demonstrate this. Higher profitability, higher market penetration, better product adoption, all of that stuff has been measured and continues to be measured, and yet there tends to still be some resistance.

Now, I think the resistance is twofold. I think one part of it is fear, and I think the other part of it is ignorance. Let me take those one each. Fear is about - that comes from a place of the pie is fixed, and if you get a bigger piece, I get a smaller piece. The fear comes from, if you get it then I don't. Probably not rational but a very human response. It's kind of like Dr. Carol Dweck talks about fixed versus growth mindset. If you have a fixed mindset. It puts things in terms of there's only so much and if you get it, then I don't, therefore I don't want you to have it. Whatever we're talking about, whether we're talking about money, opportunity, food, anything that we think is scarce. If we have a growth mindset, we're probably not afraid because there's more for all of us. If we all do better, the pie is bigger and we all grow and we all benefit from that. But I do believe that there's an awful lot of fear that paralyzes folks from embracing what is possible.

Unconscious bias and micro-aggressions [12:43]

I think the other part of it I mentioned was the word ignorance. By ignorance, I literally mean lack of knowledge. I don't mean it as a derogatory term. I mean literally, lack of knowledge. So I do believe that in addition to addressing fear, we also have to educate, and we need to educate people about things like unconscious bias, which by the way, we all have. All human beings have it. This is not just something that only men have or only women have. We all have unconscious bias. And education about microaggressions. A good day for me is a day when I don't say something that is a microaggression. Microaggressions, an example of a microaggression is, "Heidi, we're glad to have you on the team. We need the voice of the lesbian community to further develop this product." Well, I really wish I was the voice of the entire lesbian community. Actually, I don't wish that at all! I'm one of millions. I am not the voice of the entire community. I'm Heidi. And so a microaggression, that's an example of a microaggression.

And even those of us with some education about it, it's very easy to slip into statements of that nature. Well-intentioned. A microaggression I hear frequently is, "Well, my neighbors are not white, I can't be racist." It's like, well, I heard what you said, but I don't understand what you mean, but that's an example of a microaggression as well.

I think that fear and ignorance are the two pillars that keep the system of the lack of diversity. They keep the walls of discrimination and these things in place. I think those two pillars of fear and ignorance, and I think both need to be addressed, not just one. Both of those things really need to be addressed.

Shane Hastie: I don't want to say we as a community, as an industry, but let's hone in on an organization that you and I have both been very, very deeply involved in, the Agile Alliance. How is the agile movement, the agile community, the flagship of that community tackling belonging?

How the Agile Alliance is addressing these issues [14:55]

Heidi Musser: Well, a couple of different ways. That's a great question, Shane. First of all, this is just core to the Agile manifesto itself. Agile is about uncovering better ways of doing things and helping others to do it. It's about people. It's about humane, sustainable; creating humane and sustainable ways where we can grow our craft and collaborate together. And two of the problems the signatories were trying to solve when the manifesto was written were about improving software craftsmanship, developing better software, but doing it more humanely. So, wow, whenever we talk about agile, this is at our core, it's about people. Agile is a movement. It's about investing in people and giving them the skills to thrive, to realize their full potential, to develop amazing technology solutions for the people that are consuming it. So I think it's just part and parcel of that.

But more directly, Agile Alliance has, for over a dozen years, invested in initiatives to further educate people about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And not only that, but even as an organization, we've been investing in, and really as we grow globally, ensuring that we're creating access for everyone. Conversations that we have at a Board level, there's an annual membership fee to join the alliance. A topic of conversation we'll be having at the October Board meeting will be now that we're more global, should we have a sliding scale based on location because we have a global community? And even though $49 USD might be reasonable for a person in North America, it's probably not reasonable for a person in Africa, in the continent of Africa.

So really having conversations, meaningful conversations about how to ensure accessibility - because that's another part of diversity. When I talked about what do DEI and B mean, accessibility is being able to get into that building so that if you're invited to the table, you could actually get into the building. So accessibility is a big part of it.

Today, Agile Alliance has several initiatives. Agile in Color is one, and we've been featuring education and opportunities to learn more about this, at least - I think Dr. Dave Cornelius was a part of the community back in Agile 2018 and talked about what does diversity, equity, inclusion look like from his perspective, from his point of view. So we've been investing in this for a very long time.

Diversity is far more than race and gender [17:44]

But the important thing, what's really interesting about this is something that I've been learning about quite a bit over the past couple of years is the intersectionality. And what I mean by that is if we want to really achieve equity in the tech industry, we need to include more than race and gender. We need to include class and sexuality and ageism and disability and accessibility and maybe other key factors of identity that shapes our experiences differently. And we really need to dig deeper and understand that those differences are critical to promoting diversity and inclusion and change for individuals who have been historically excluded from computing education and careers. It's not the same for everyone.

Unconscious bias and discrimination are not the same for all women. It looks very different depending on a lot of other factors. So I think taking this intersectional lens is going to be critical to getting through the nuances and breaking through some of the things that are maybe holding back our diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging investments.

Shane Hastie: I was at the Agile Alliance Conference in Florida, and there was a really powerful session where the Alliance Board was responding to some of the genuine fears and concerns of the community. You want to talk us through what happened there and how that came about?

Events around Agile 2023 [19:20]

Heidi Musser: What a dark period in America about this. Orlando happens to be in the state of Florida. I'm speaking to a global audience here. And the state of Florida has really become a battleground for, politically, for a lot of societal and cultural issues. And over the past several years, lots of legislation has been passed at a state level. Books are being banned. And there literally is a law on the books that says that you must use the bathroom of the sex that you were at birth or you can be arrested. That literally is a law in the state of Florida.

While this led up to preceding the conference, several organizations, the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Equality Florida, which is an LGBTQ organization Human Rights Campaign, and the Latino community all issued travel advisories warning people of color, LGBTQ, and Latinos. They advised people if you're in any of those groups, to not travel in Florida because of the discrimination and hate going on in Florida. Before all this happened, and this is a very sad story, an LGBT member, a trans member of our community reached out to Agile Alliance and I actually spoke to this person back in December - a full seven months before the conference. And they posed the question, "Heidi, what is Agile Alliance doing to ensure my safety? Should I choose to travel to Orlando, to Florida for the conference?"

Shane, I need to tell you, this conversation brought me to tears. I spoke with this member for several hours, and we had ideas, shared ideas, and we went on to actually implement some of the ideas that we had discussed to ensure the safety. But the fact that in the year 2022, I was having a conversation with a person who was afraid for their life to travel in America, anywhere in America, about broke my heart. I never felt so helpless and humbled as a leader in my entire life. I literally just sat and cried with this person for some time.

We, in response to this, absolutely, we respect everyone. We always encourage everyone. You've got to take care of yourself first, safety first. Agile Alliance has had a code of conduct. I don't know exactly when we implemented it, but ensuring safety, both physical and psychological safety for our members at all of our events, whether they're virtual or face-to-face, is important. We take that very, very seriously.

But to just have this conversation to know that there are people, human beings anywhere in the world that are afraid for their lives. Orlando is the home of the Pulse nightclub where 55 people were murdered in a gay bar, a hate crime six years ago. Before I came down to the conference, my wife sat down with me, my wife of 33 years, she sat down with me and said, "Heidi, I know you're the Board chair. I know you're going to be visible. You're a leader in the community. Don't be a martyr. Please be safe." And that's what she said to me as she put me in a car and as I headed out to the airport to attend Agile 2023. That's saying something.

So that's some of what was leading up. That's real. That fear is real. There's a lot of hatred. There's a lot of hatred in the world right now, which is very sad.

Shane Hastie: What happened at that event? That to me as a participant, it was a moment of bringing people together and a community that showed care.

Heidi Musser: We had a town hall about midway through the conference that week in Orlando, and it was facilitated by an amazing facilitator, Paul Tevis, and we wanted to create the space for people to come together and ask questions, share their ideas, share their fears, share their concerns so that we can together continue to create safe spaces. And in fact, we're not done with that. Of course, people that attended the conference were able to attend that. We're going to have a couple of virtual town halls for those that were not able to attend. But these are real issues and these need to be characteristics. These are considerations where whenever there's an Agile Alliance event, we need to be working with local people on the ground to ensure safety, and we need to do everything in our power to provide that.

This is important for all human beings, but it's certainly important for our members. A lot of great ideas, and there are things that were already informing our framework as we consider future venues for conferences, ensuring that we can provide safety. It's very, very important.

Shane Hastie: Stepping into the Agile Alliance, you have had six years I think on the board. This is the end of your term. You've been chair for two of those years.

Heidi Musser: Two years treasurer, two years chair.

Shane Hastie: Where is the Alliance going?

Looking to the future in the Agile Alliance [24:50]

Heidi Musser: I'm incredibly hopeful for so many different reasons. As we think about Agile, it is more relevant than ever the need to be Agile. It is more relevant than ever. Yes. On one hand, it seems like has agile become ubiquitous? It's become a household word. It is. That's not a bad thing. But wow, the accelerating rate of change in technology, it's going to get faster. It's almost incomprehensible! Think of what ChatGPT and generative AI are doing, and we all know that AI has been around I think since 1956. I think that the term was coined by a colleague of Alan Turing back in 1956, but in terms of where we are and the awareness and adoption curve, I am more excited and hopeful than ever! For organizations to thrive, to be successful, they have to embrace agility. It's a key leadership skill. Yes, Agile and software technology, also. It's all of it.

We've learned that Agile values, practices and principles are still critically important for software development and all the people that participate in it, ALL the people that participate in it - the product owners, the testers, all the people - not just the people writing the code but anyone that participates in this software development capability. This is critical for all of us, so we absolutely have to learn how to detect and respond to change. We have to learn the discipline of doing the simplest thing that works. We have to learn the value of respecting feedback loops. We have to learn how to empower people to make decisions, and we have to create environments where people can bring their whole selves to work every day.

I am incredibly hopeful for Agile, for both the younger generations, my great nieces and nephews, that generation, and for those of us that have been around this for 30 or 40 years already. I think it's relevant for all of us.

It's really interesting. I'm the kind of person, the optimist. When we see an impediment, when we see a challenge, what do we do? What do humans do? Well, some people ignore it, "That's not there at all". Some people, they run. They're gripped by fears like, "Oh, I can't confront that". Some people, well, maybe they try to tunnel under it. Some people, "I'm going to get this beast, I'm going to crawl over it". But how many of us have the courage to peek around the corner and see what other opportunity is created? Whenever an impediment emerges, I promise you there's one or more opportunities around the corner, and I think that Agile is more relevant than ever for not just the software development community, yes, for the software development community, but for businesses in general.

The pace of change is mind-boggling. There's more technology in this silly iPhone I'm holding in my hand than the first mainframe I worked on 45 years ago. When I was a student in college, we literally had to walk across campus in the snow, in the winter, to reserve space in the computer center in the future to only go back to our dorm rooms and then walk back when our space time was there. When we got in and we had the privilege of sitting at the punch card, typing in our programs, and we were delivered a deck of our punch cards and we would turn in our deck and get our grade based on, did it compile correctly? My gosh, there is 10 times the power, a hundred times the power on this silly iPhone than there was in that first computer I typed my very first program into back in, I don't know, 1980.

So the rate of change is accelerating, and to me, that's very exciting. Agile is more relevant than ever. Sometimes when I talk about this with executives and others, I'm reminded of a quote by Gary Hamel, and his quote is, "How in the age of rapid change do you create organizations that are as adaptable and as resilient as they are focused and efficient?" That quote comes from an article, I think it was Moon Shots for Management. It was in the Harvard Business Review probably back in, I think, 2009. So that article, that quote comes from 15 years ago, but how in the age of rapid change? Agility is the answer! Agile is a really big part of this. We need to embrace change now more than ever and have confidence in the hope that in embracing change, we can harness it for good. We can use this for good.

Shane Hastie: That's a great statement for us to end on. How do we harness change so that we can use it for good in the world? Heidi, thank you so much for your time today. If people do want to continue the conversation, where can they find you?

Heidi Musser: They can find me on LinkedIn, Heidi J. Musser.

Shane Hastie: And we'll include that in the show notes. Thanks so much.

Heidi Musser: Shane, thank you. Privilege to be here.


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