Coding a Better World

Cassi Johnson (l) and Sharon Kennedy Vickers. Photo Sarah Whiting

In 2016, Sharon Kennedy Vickers founded Code Switch, an annual hackathon that welcomes participants from backgrounds underrepresented in the tech field to brainstorm technological solutions to social issues. When Cassi Johnson attended the hackathon, she felt instantly at home. “[I knew that] this is the world I want to live in because it is so diverse; the vision was big.”

Inspired, Johnson asked Kennedy Vickers for career advice, and the two developed a mentorship. That continued when Kennedy Vickers became the chief information officer at the City of Saint Paul — the first Black woman hired in that department’s 40–year history — and Johnson was hired onto her team. Now the pair work together at Software for Good, building technology for mission-driven organizations. Kennedy Vickers is CEO and Johnson is director of product strategy.

On embodying strengths and reframing weaknesses

Sharon Kennedy Vickers: Through the years, Cassi and I have been able to build trust and mutual respect, which comes from having a strong understanding of racial dynamics at play in the workplace. I was able to see that Cassi deeply understood, and was doing the work around racial and gender equity, and that she was willing to use her privilege as a white woman to challenge inequities. Cassi is pushing me to lean into my strengths, and we are also very, very honest around each other’s areas for growth. That is one of the things that I like about our relationship; we are able to have direct communication.

Cassi Johnson: Our skill sets are complementary. I find that there are times where I am in a learning mode watching Sharon, and there are times when I am doing more pushing. Sharon has a strong vision and is more relational in leadership style. She empowers me around execution, operational planning, and organizational development, but [Sharon also pushes me to consider] my intuition and provide input on planning and strategy, whereas my default is “Tell me what to do, I’ll get it done.”

SKV: I am always dreaming and thinking about the big picture and want to create a different reality from what we currently have. Cassi provides that “here is the reality and the steps that we can take in order to get to this new reality that you have envisioned.” That grounding is important.

CJ: I really wanted [to work for] someone who approached leadership with coaching — [someone who wasn’t] intimidated by my skills, goals, and aspirations. Sharon has helped me build confidence that the skills and experiences I generated outside of the tech industry are transferable [to this field].

SKV: I’m the youngest of 12 siblings. My father listened to that thing that was deep within him [and] he led in that manner. My mother was a visionary and wanted to leave whatever space she entered better than she found it. That is how I developed my leadership style at a very young age, watching my mom and my dad lead our family, our business. The most important thing was leading with heart and centering people.

People ask me, “As a CIO or CEO, what is your biggest job?” It is to care for the people that work alongside me as well as the people [the organization is] serving.

On navigating racial and gender dynamics in tech

SKV: We need less mentoring and more sponsorship in the tech space. Women and people of color are over-mentored and under-sponsored. In tech, the people who need mentoring are white males. Mentorship is about learning and providing advice. Sponsorship is creating opportunities, vouching for and opening the doors for individuals — and white males need to be mentored on how to do that.

What we currently have is a technology space that is not reflective of the world in which we live. If we continue to have a tech space that is heavily male, we are going to continue to see widening inequality, climate challenges, and authoritarianism. We need more women, and more Black and brown spaces in tech, because tech has the potential for great positive impact and it also has the potential for harm. If we continue to have teams that are majority white and male, they will embed the same historical biases we see in our social and political systems into our technology. We see that happening with artificial intelligence.

CJ: With sponsorship, there can be more of giving up of power — there is more risk, or at least perceived risk. I think mentorship feels good. I love mentorship, but I think extending your network, as Sharon said, vouching for [someone to fill a certain role] and actually saying, “This is the person you need, and here’s why,” that is what is needed to break those dynamics that have been happening for decades across groups of white men.

Something that I have learned from Sharon and from my colleagues is that we write bias into code, we write culture into code. If we want products that work, if we want products that don’t do harm, we have to build them in a way that is culturally adaptive.

I think there is a lot of emphasis on demographic diversity. But I know when Sharon and I talk about that, we are talking [beyond representation] — not defaulting to whiteness and actively practicing cultural adaptation to ensure that the lived experience, the perspectives, the skills of all team members are valued.

SKV: I will be frank, being a Black woman in a leadership role in a tech space is a very difficult position to be in. Every day I am faced with challenges. Cassi is also faced with challenges as a woman in this tech space who does not have a tech background. However, we have both leveraged different parts of our identity to move through those challenges.

CJ: A lot of times on calls we try to [amplify one another], like, “As I heard Sharon say,” or “As Cassi said,” to address the dynamic that can happen if one of us says something [and it is not heard] but when a man says it later, everyone listens. It often happens that people lose sight of the fact that Sharon is the leader or I am the decision maker around money — people will still be talking to male employees on the side. There have been times I have pulled people aside or called people in to say, “You need to understand that the way you showed up there was disrespectful.”

SKV: In a lot of cases, it is really important for that message to come from Cassi as a white woman — for her to be able to call white males in and for them to hear that so that I as a Black woman who is experiencing the disrespect don’t have to do the emotional labor or experience further harm.

On pushing for equity in the workplace

CJ: We need leaders, not [only] in a diversity, equity, and inclusion role, who are managing employees, large budgets, and decisions around vendors, and who [prioritize equity] in every decision. Sometimes it can be a hard decision to challenge a policy or to push back. That work involves a lot of labor.

SKV: [At Saint Paul] we were able to diversify our workforce by understanding the civil service rules and where we could make changes to those rules so that they would be more inclusive of individuals who are early-career. The tech space has evolved since those rules were written, and so we were rewriting job descriptions and pushing for changes to some of the requirements for those positions.

CJ: [At Software for Good] we just completed our strategic planning work and have set a [goal] around changing the culture of software development. We plan to begin a process in January of digging into our standard practices of code review with a lens around identity privilege and looking at ways to ensure that the code review process [is equitable]. We would like to be able to contribute to the broader culture by dissecting some of our development practices and sharing culturally adaptive methods.

SKV: That is what I am most excited about at Software for Good — the ability to shift the [larger] tech culture. We have taken the time to envision the world that we want to create, [and now we are asking] what are the things that we need to do every day to live out those values? How do we evolve? We want to make tech a space that is inclusive and adaptive so that we can create a world where everyone has the ability to live fully and freely.