The importance of data: what gets measured gets done

 In this episode of in:tech, we talk to campaigner, business leader, advocate, and mentor Amali de Alwis MBE. Amali is the CEO of Subak and former CEO of Code First Girls. She holds a variety of board positions and is a founding member and long-time supporter of the Tech Talent Charter.

Amali shares her experience promoting diversity in tech as an advocate and as an employer. She explains why data and measurement play such a key role in creating meaningful change and how start-ups can think about embedding D&I from the ground up.

Listen to the podcast episode here or on Global Player


The transcript of this episode

Note: in:tech transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.

Rebecca Donnelly:

You're listening to in:tech, the diversity and inclusion podcast from the Tech Talent Charter with me your host, Rebecca Donnelly. This podcast is for business leaders, people leaders, and diversity leaders who want to make their organisations more inclusive, more diverse, and more equitable, but need some help, advice, or inspiration wherever they are on that journey.

In each episode, we speak to leading names from across the technology sector who share their practical insights on how organisations can deliver on their D&I commitments.

Well, if you are looking for inspiration on how to be a better advocate for diversity in tech, you have come to the right place. As in this episode of in:tech, we are joined by an absolute force of nature who has spent her career as a tireless enabler for women in tech.

As a campaigner, CEO, advocate and mentor, she's the Chief Executive Officer of climate and data ecosystem organisation, Subak, former CEO of Code First Girls. She holds board positions with the Institute of Coding, Cajigo, Ada. National College for Digital Skills and the Raspberry Pi Foundation, as well as being a founding member and longtime supporter of the Tech Talent Charter - Amali de Alwis MBE.

Amali, welcome to in:tech.

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Hello there, Rebecca. What a pleasure to be joining. I can't believe, you know, to be able to join this thinking about Tech Talent Charter and the journey it's been. It's really exciting.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Well, it's brilliant to have you. You have such an incredible track record in promoting diversity and tech. Not just as an advocate, but as a CEO and an employer.

Can you start, just tell us a little bit of your story. How did you find yourself in this space? When did you first realise there was a problem and that you wanted to do something about it?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

It's a difficult one to draw a start point around because whilst my kind of official career to diversity started with Code First Girls, I was the code first girl.

I was that little girl who loved science, loved tech, loved building things, had a sort of an inner plan to basically be MacGyver and go off on adventures and do things. Then started my studies, was thinking about becoming an engineer, studied STEM subjects. The reality was that the further I went on that journey, the smaller those numbers of women that I would see around me.

When it came to Code First Girls, not only that opportunity as far as my career to be able to step in and take a leadership role for the first time, but do something which I just connected deeply with was really exciting.

Rebecca Donnelly:

You are part of the founding team of the Tech Talent Charter, and our CEO Debbie Forster credits you with the phrase what gets measured, gets done, which is one of her favourite sayings.

Can you tell us why data plays such an important role in driving diversity and inclusion?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I'm a little bit biased on the data side. I'm a little bit of a data geek. So my early career I spent some time as a quant analyst at a big brand of research company called TNS. One of the things that drew me to that role, but then one thing I learned from there was how critical data is to just underpinning your arguments and to help you really get some indication of how a strategy's going to land, what might people expect, and the importance of listening to people's voices and opinions as part of that. And then thinking about how you can use that to shape your strategy, shape your direction.

When we started talking about Tech Talent Charter, it just felt like a no brainer. Interesting to think about now, but this was pre gender pay gap reporting. We were just starting on that journey, especially thinking about women and payrolls and sort of percentages in companies and these types of things.

One of the things we realised in those early conversations with Debbie, with Sinead, with all the others who joined for that, was that there was just this shortage of information. There was a lot of anecdotal, this is what happened to me or we think these are the numbers here, or some data from, let's say a US Harvard Business Review study.

But as far as UK led data into UK organisations, what they were doing, where they were going, that was still really light on the ground. I think for a lot of individuals, myself included, starting to tackle these challenges, we realised that in order to know, what you needed to set your goals around, you needed to know where you stood.

It wasn't about making people feel guilty, it wasn't about shaming people with small numbers. Everyone has small numbers. We're all starting from scratch. But at least to be able to understand what is the delta between where you are and where you want to get to, that's where the data can really help you with that.

Rebecca Donnelly:

We talk at the Tech Talent Charter a lot about awareness to action. How important is data in spurring leadership teams and broader teams across a business into actually taking action. What are those kind of pivotal triggers that cause an organisation to want to take action, and what role does data play in that?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I think in a way, looking at the DEI sort of growth journey of an organisation, it's not actually that different when you talk about setting any other targets for your business. So whether you're setting targets around employee retention or your profit that year, or your turnover or whatever else. I think the critical thing is always remember that with a lot of those types of targets, you set the targets, you have a bit of a punt based on maybe what you've done before or you take a first punt if you're doing something new.

And it's not that you have all the answers before you do it. You figure out what your target is, you set your goal, and then you work towards that and you unpick how you might want to put in place the right tactics and strategies to achieve that. I think this is where the data becomes really critical for any business, which is it just allows you to see, what's your dip stick? Where are you starting from right now? And then you can start thinking about what are the different interventions you can put in place? Then looking at how those numbers change with those interventions and over time. I think especially thinking about your DEI targets, your goals, what you might want to achieve as a business.

This is an ongoing thing. There's never really an end to it in the same way that there isn't an end to how much, I dunno, revenue do you build for an organisation? You set just new goals depending on your strategies, what you're trying to achieve, and you work out what the tactics are and how do you need to mobilise people to help you achieve that.

Rebecca Donnely:

I'd love to get a bit more specific. I know it's gonna differ from every organisation in terms of how big they are and what they do, but where's a good place to start? What data should people listening to this podcast be trying to capture and trying to set targets around? Where's a good place to start?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I mean, one of the key things, some companies obviously have this already, which is their people, right?

How many people do you have in your company? What types of role do they have? What are they being paid? How often are they being promoted? You can start then to really understand what your corporate behaviour is, what's the behaviour of your company as far as how you progress and how you support people in that company as they go through their journey.

The other thing are just to start mapping out what do you currently have in place? So again, this is also a form of data collection, which is what policies you have in place. If you've got, let's say paternity and maternity policies, how many of them are being taken up? Where are people making use of that? How long are they using those things for?

I think with anything that you put in place as far as a strategy to address some sort of DEI challenge, setting some sort of target, setting some sort of goal and thinking about how you're going to measure that success is really important, and especially when you're thinking about whether it's large or small companies, you're talking about people's time, people's money, people's resource. You want to make sure that is being employed effectively and that whatever those interventions are effective in their uses, that sort of lever as well. The data becomes really critical to just make sure that you're measuring the right things there.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Have you seen a greater acceptance of the need to capture and track that data over the last 10 years perhaps? And how have things changed in that time, do you think?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

A hundred percent.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Well, that's encouraging.

Amali de Alwis MBE:

It really has. There is a separate question about whether or not we think the numbers are changing quickly enough but thinking about having gender pay gap reporting, that was a huge thing. We had that firstly on a voluntary basis, and now companies with a certain size are required to report on that. I remember when we were having some of those early conversations with companies about sharing their data, and this was very much under tight privacy.

They weren't being attributed against the data that they collected. It was purely for them to be able to see, and then it was being aggregated, anonymised to be able to get a feel at the landscape. But the amount of skittishness in those early days, people were really nervous about this because number one, that they were worried about what if someone hears about it.

Privacy is always a sort of concern, but the other thing was actually that shining their light back and taking a look in the mirror. A lot of organisations were comfortable with that. I can understand that no one wants to see their flaws as an organisation. But at the same time, unless you see that, how are you in any way going to be able to put in place the right measures to actually start tackling those things?

I think it requires a certain amount of humbleness and just honesty and say, look, we're not good with this, but we want to be better, and we're starting here.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Do you think part of that is just acknowledging the greater awareness about the fact that so many organisations are on this same journey? It's perhaps not such a big thing for a company to face up to now because they know that all of their peers are doing the same thing?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

It certainly helps, but I do think that there's an element of what's the current and what's the stick in here? In this instance, the government's policy around making those numbers a requirement was the stick that was required. We have seen effective carrot mechanisms. So you look at things like 30% club and those types of things.

But the reality is that often it's a little bit of both and I think they both compliment each other and actually seeing the rise of, for example, the 30% club with the mandatory reporting. I think that's where you could see that sort of real power coming in at both how do we change organisations all the way through, and then also at board level, how do we effect change there?

Rebecca Donnelly:

When we talk about data, we think about large companies tracking data across hundreds and thousands of people, but through your role at Subak, you work with a lot of startups. What opportunities do startups have, perhaps that larger companies might struggle with from embedding diversity and inclusion from the start?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I think exactly that point, Rebecca, that you can do it from the start when you've got a team of 10. To have three people who are coming from minority backgrounds or four people, five people, isn't a big lift. It requires a bit of effort. That's much, much easier than if you've got 3000, 5,000, 10,000 people.

I think also just to set that narrative from the first instance around like these are the types of people that we have in our company, this is what we believe in, this is what we're willing to pin our colors to the mask around. That is around creating a great working environment for everyone who works here, and one where people can get the best out of the company and the company can get the best out of them.

It's also where you can do pilots really easily. So if you are struggling to recruit, can you take some really innovative approaches to thinking about where you go to recruit from, can you tap into some communities which are supporting diverse recruiting, diverse hires? There's a lot that you can do as a small company, which has the benefit of not being very expensive.

The agility of a small company helps in that instance.

Rebecca Donnelly:

I know that you say that every company is a tech company now, but startups in the tech space, do they have more of an opportunity than perhaps other industries because they're naturally more innovative and more risk taking?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

They definitely have a fantastic opportunity to do that.

I think there is a question about whether many of them do, you know? It's not easy starting a company. It's not easy growing a company. Anyone who works in organisations, you know this. If anything, in a startup, you're so much more strapped as far as your time, your money and resources that it can be something very easy to overlook.

But it is one of those things where I think a stitch in line, in this instance, really does save because smaller initiatives, small interventions early on, can just really set your plan about how you grow and how you want to do that. So for example, with Subak, we have a DEI sort of imperative as far as where we do our recruitment.

We go with making sure that we have a diverse portfolio of people who we have as far as the interviews. We have a fair structure. We try and not have information shared, which would bias people's consideration. We do single person interviews rather than group and panel where you can have group links playing apart.

All of these kinds of things you can do as a small organisation, but I think sometimes with a small organisation, the problem isn't so much what you do, but even just knowing what to do. I think just finding good resources like Tech Talent Charter, where people can find good advice, good direction, and effectively how do you do DEI on a shoestring?

There's lots of really great information out there, so I think people can take advantage of that.

Rebecca Donnelly:

While flipping it around to the other side then. You've also worked with many large organisations. What have you seen them do really well that's actually made a difference?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Thinking about, in my previous role at Microsoft, for example, every member of staff actually had a DEI target as part of their appraisals.

Whenever you had those conversations, it was part of what you were asked to do. They have different challenges. With any big company, it's consistency of rollout. Making sure that you're not just talking the talk, that you're walking the walk. That you know, trying to roll something out across the company, which is tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of people, and having consistency across that can be a real challenge.

But they do also have the additional benefit of just having huge amounts of resources available and being able to have people who can focus on this specifically, who can really think about employing this across tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people. And obviously the potential for impact then is also really significant because you really are talking about market swinging measures that you can take.

Rebecca Donnelly:

And setting the standard. You know, we were talking about awareness across different organisations knowing that their peers and other companies are doing the same thing. If they see someone like Microsoft doing it, that sets a standard, doesn't it?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Yeah, and a bit of a benchmark across countries as well.

So loads of different places are on very different journeys. All of our countries have different expectations if we talk about women of what women should be playing and what we should be doing in society. I think being able to bring in that best practice and learn from each other in a close context within a company can be really powerful.

Rebecca Donnelly:

You've given a lot of focus in your career to education and tech skills. How can companies and skills organisations, education institutions work better together?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I think sharing actually is one of the best ones. Shameless plug, if anyone wants to ever do any volunteering, go join Code Club or CoderDojo or Code First Girls. All of these organisations who do amazing work pulling in professionals who are working within sectors, tech sectors to actually support others and pass it on. That exchange is one of the most powerful things that you can do.

The other thing I think is really around sort of internal policies around skilling, up-skilling, re-skilling and skills for new people coming in. Running apprenticeship program so that you can be supporting people from non-university backgrounds to come into technology roles, supporting people from different types of schools. I remember having a chat with a very big, well known tech company a few years ago where they had a really tough conversation saying, look, how do we continue to "get the best people?" if we're only going to five different universities and they're not diverse.

Getting involved and really thinking about, look, if you are in a team, for example, who's recruiting tech talent, working with your recruitment team to make sure that those are coming from diverse sources, asking them for more variety of candidates, bringing in people who can have those conversations with them and introducing them to people who are smart and capable and bright, and coming from slightly non conventional backgrounds. That really helps to reset the idea of what is normal for a lot of people.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Let's think big picture here, and let's be optimistic. We've seen slow progress, but there has been progress. If you were feeling positive, what do you hope to see across the tech sector in the next three to five years?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Oh, goodness. Fairy wand territory.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Why not?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Why not? Why not? We have a really interesting situation in the UK at the moment where we have record low levels of unemployment, record high levels of people out of employment who are consciously out of employment, and also record vacancies as far as tech roles.

So basically we just need more people. What I would love to see, and again, talking from a slightly bias view, because I sit on ADA Colleges board, is an increase in apprenticeships and people from non-conventional backgrounds being supported come into tech roles. I would love to see companies continuing to invest in diverse recruitment and supporting people better.

I think this is one of the areas, especially under COVID-19, which really came to a light, which is it's not just about bringing people into the companies. How you then take care of people afterwards. The reality is, especially when we're talking about tech, we still see too much ugly behaviour as far as people being in bad environments where they're being bullied or they're being phased out of roles or being pushed out because they're women are from different backgrounds and then people have companies using gagging clauses and those types of things.

I would love to see those things go out the window and more work around just making sure that we create really good working environments for people in the very flexible, modern post COVID-19 way that we are talking about today.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Well, let's get practical then. In every episode of in:tech, we ask our guests to share some tangible advice that our listeners can take away and put into practice in three minutes, three weeks, and three months?

Firstly, that's something you can do right now within three minutes of listening to this podcast, and then some practical action you can take within three weeks to start putting that plan into place. And then finally, how in three months you can start to transform this into longer term impact.

Amali, where should people start on their diversity journey within their organisations? What can they do within three minutes of listening to this podcast?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I have been having a think about this, Rebecca, and I think one of the things, and you know, I keep an eye out obviously for what are the books and publications on the topic. Came across one recently published by a doctor Tony Malone, which is called Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the Practical Guide.

It's almost a dictionary, encyclopedia of DEI terms. This, I think if you're starting on your DEI journey within a company, often getting comfortable with some of the lingo can be one of the biggest challenges and understanding what some of those key issues are. So it's a really good just introductory text.

You can just read through it. It's not big or long, but just to give you a bit of a crib guide on what are some of these terminologies that you might hear. You can actually go on, I think it was, I saw it on Amazon and it was even free if you have a Kindle Unlimited account. But you can basically just go on in a few minutes and get a download of that.

Rebecca Donnelly:

So just start with educating yourself?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Essentially educating yourself, and just start reading about it. There is a huge amount of information out there, which is free as well. I don't feel tied to feeling out of place because the deep irony of tackling a subject, which is about inclusion and then people wanting to get into that, feeling excluded from that. The other thing I would say, there are lots of really friendly communities like Tech Talent Charter, which can kind of help with that as well.

Rebecca Donnelly:

I don't need to do any plugs for the Tech Talent Charter.

Amali de Alwis MBE:

[Laughing] No, I'm happy to do it.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Brilliant. People are educating themselves, becoming more comfortable with the terminology, building up the confidence to start talking about inclusion and diversity.

What can they do within three weeks to start putting a plan into place?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

So this will be another plug for TTC because it is about setting your goals. You can actually go and see some of that advice and download the handbook and stuff like that. I would highly recommend doing that, and then within those three weeks booking in a meeting with whoever is your key business stakeholder, to take them through what you have learned and what you would like to do as far as a future strategy to tackle these things.

I think that that is, again, just about making that commitment. Three weeks is a good amount of time to be able to just understand, look, what is it that we're trying to do as a business? To have a few conversations, to book in that conversation, to make that commitment and then obviously to go and sign up to the charter and get your senior stakeholder on board as the champion for that as well.

Rebecca Donnelly:

Then how about three months? If you've managed to engage your senior stakeholders, you've started on this journey, what could you expect to realistically achieve within three months?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

[The] first thing would be to make a bit of a roadmap. Like I said, DEI is not something which ends, right. This is a huge area. You can tackle a lot of different things, but I think just to have an initial thought around, okay, you've seen a little bit of that information about these are the kinds of things you might be tackling. Then to actually put in a little bit of a plan. What is it that we might want to do?

Then I would say within three months, generally what people start with is probably looking internally first, thinking about their own employees. I would say to run something like two working sessions with your internal team, maybe one on recruitment, one on retention, to really think about the approaches that you currently have with a new company and a bit of a brain dump. Look, this is what we do, these are the types of things we could be doing and then what might we then select that would work to do as far as something which is right for our business. And then setting some goals, target times, all of these types of things behind that as well. So three month, a little mini strategy kickoff I think can be really helpful.

Rebecca Donnelly:

This podcast is aimed at business leaders and diversity leaders, people, leaders, anyone who has the vested interest in this.

But in your experience of working with hundreds and possibly thousands of companies, where have you seen these programs be most successful? Who's been the driving force behind initiatives that have really worked?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

I think it has to cut all the way through. The grassroots stuff is great and I think you get a lot, especially from the younger members of the team around just making sure that they're very vocal with when they're not happy and when they don't feel included.

But it's gotta come from the top down as well. Whoever is, you'll C-Suite representative for this, whoever's willing to be the champion, whoever's willing to put, whether that's resource or money behind that, that's really critical. Then having had at the bottom interest and the top sign off to then start getting the middle involved. That's where the strategy and the planning really comes in. Because unless, for example, if you're looking at tech talent recruitment, for example, your recruiting engineers, you need to have not only your recruiter and the team, you need to have your head of engineering teams. You need to have the person who does probably your learning and development in that room.

So all of these people who have some sort of vested interest around why do we have certain people in that room and have some sort of decision input into who they have in that room, it's really critical to get them all together and get that buy-in.

Rebecca Donnelly:

I'd love to know your perspective on maintaining momentum.

We've talked about specific actions to kickstart your inclusion journey in your organisation, but we do hear from signatories a lot there can be a dropping off of interest, loss of momentum, get diversity fatigue. What can people do to combat that?

Amali de Alwis MBE:

One of the biggest things is just senior buy-in.

You don't want this to become something which is just a bit of a fad for the company. You know, you do it for six months, maybe a year. This has got to become part of your foundations. In the same way that you might look at, you're measuring salaries that you offer and benchmarking that , or you might be thinking about staff retention, or you might be thinking about your revenue targets for the year.

It's got to become just part of your habit, your annual, this is part of our strategy. It's always in there and we are measured in some way against that. Thinking about how you can incentivise good outcomes as well, I think it's really helpful.

Do you want to include this as part of your bonus structures? Do you want some sort of targets for all the senior leads in the team as well as the middle management leads, thinking about their responsibilities to that? Just making it part of what people are responsible for, I think is really critical.

Rebecca Donnelly:

And baking in that data measurement and review and seeing it as an ongoing process.

Amali de Alwis MBE:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Rebecca Donnelly:

That brings us to the end of this episode, so it's just left for me to say a huge thank you to our guest, Amali de Alwis MBE MBE, and of course to all of you for listening. If you'd like to find out more about the Tech Talent Charter, or anything we've talked about on this episode, you can find us at or on Twitter at @TechCharterUK.

If you like what you've heard today, you can subscribe to this podcast to be the first to hear about new episodes, and for more great insights from our incredible guests.

In the next episode, we speak to inclusion partner at insurance firm Beazley, Chelsea Sprong, on moving from awareness to action.

I'm Rebecca Donnelly. Please join me again on in:tech the diversity and inclusion podcast from the Tech Talent Charter.