5 Tips for Starting a Conversation About DEI at Work from Datadog’s Denise Dekker
Denise Dekker has several chapters of her memoir already planned. There's the story of her time as a line cook at a vegan restaurant in San Francisco, a section on her nine years as a buyer for an organic produce company, and definitely a chapter on "speaking two languages fluently: American English and Scots English," jokes the longtime Oakland resident who is originally from Edinburgh.
Denise is someone who has a lot of interests, as her future memoir chapters suggest, and the passion and curiosity to keep pursuing them. In addition to her professional pursuits, she's also an amateur DJ—"I love house music and 90s hip hop," she says—a masterful crocheter, and, thanks to quarantine, a newly-minted pro at making sourdough bread.
After a long career in sustainable agriculture, she decided she was ready for something new, so she went back to school. "I'd never finished my undergraduate degree, so I figured that was a good starting point," says Denise, who took an intro to programming class that she says "just sort of got [her]."
"I'm a maker," explains Denise. "I like to figure out problems, to be immersed in things, so I decided to go for a major in computer science." She graduated with her bachelor's in computer science from Mills College, where she focused on theoretical frameworks, and went on to do a stint at women-focused bootcamp Hackbright Academy to shore up her hard skills.
She found the right fit for her interests and values during an interview with cloud monitoring company Datadog. "I wanted to work for a company with a product that did something cool, that helps people improve their quality of life in some way, and Datadog felt like a really great fit from the beginning. Everyone I talked to was just the nicest, most welcoming person," says Denise.
And this year, two years into her tenure at Datadog working as a tier two solutions engineer in the company's technical solutions organization, Denise realized she wanted to make sure her workplace was welcoming for everyone.
Creating space for everyone to succeed
Denise is fully aware of the fact that while completely transitioning industries decades into her career required lots of hard work and determination, she had an easier time than other people might. "There's a lot of privilege in being able to do that," she says. "My husband was able to support us for years [of me] not working, and that's not available to everyone."
But Denise also knows that the best workplace is one that has pathways to entry and inclusion for people of all different backgrounds, from other women and late-to-CS applicants like her, to people of different racial and economic backgrounds. "Something I've learned on a very, very deep level this year is that for Black and indigenous people of color, having a work environment that feels safe and supportive is just so important and so necessary," she says.
Denise started talking to a few colleagues about how to make sure that her team's environment reflected that, and they decided to form an employee-led affinity group. It started with a slide deck and one-off conversations with senior leaders on the Technical Solutions team, and has recently become a group with regular meetings and an agenda that is on track to support DEI within the department by helping to build a welcoming environment for all employees, a pathway to hiring for diverse candidates, promotion support for diverse employees, and representation at all levels of the Technical Solutions team.
DEI work is something Denise has always supported, though she says it wasn't until she took classes in college on systems of oppression that she realized the depth of the injustice people of color were facing. "Having more of the details, it shouldn't even be a question of why we're trying to break down these barriers," she says. She gives an analogy from her background in sustainable agriculture that emphasizes the benefit in doing this work: "When you're growing crops, monocropping doesn't give anything back to the soil, it doesn't help with pest control. I am firmly in the camp that diversity provides an opportunity to work with different people, observe different ideas, and to have more empathy and humility in your work."
5 steps to starting a DEI conversation on your team
Wherever you and your company are at in terms of acknowledging gaps in creating an inclusive environment, Denise has a few ideas for how to approach those conversations.
1. Do your reading. Particularly if you're new to organizing and/or allyship. "There's some really great reading material out there that just takes you through step-by-step," says Denise, who recommends materials on how to lead and engage from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, Third Sector New England, and the voting protocol Fist to Five.
2. Network. Find other people who are thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, too, and figure out how you can work together to advance your goals. "The cool part has been meeting people across my team that I had never met before," says Denise.
3. Prioritize. Get your core group together and determine what you'll focus on. "What's important for us is keeping the scope of what we know and working locally to improve what we have and what we know we can affect," says Denise. For her group, they're focused on creating "an organization location," explains Denise, "or a place that people can recognize as somewhere they can come if they have questions, if they want to be involved, and to really elevate underrepresented voices."
4. Recruit senior employees to get needed buy-in and foster legitimacy. "For us, having the support of senior management has been really instrumental in moving the group forward," says Denise. She recommends having one-on-one conversations with leaders across your team or department. Ideally, those leaders would be thrilled to talk more about DEI, but if you're meeting resistance, Denise suggests that you "just keep building the bridges, keep talking, keep finding people who are equally as passionate as you."
5. Encourage everyone. Denise highlights how important it is to create a welcoming environment for everyone to come learn more about what DEI means at work, no matter how far along in their allyship journey they may be. "We want to welcome people with questions. There are no wrong questions. When questions are coming from a genuine place of not understanding and wanting to learn, then bring them; let's talk about them," says Denise.
If you're interested in learning more about inclusion and open roles at Datadog, go here.