Staffing for Diversity: The Business Case for an Inclusive Information Technology Workforce

Women, minorities and immigrants will make up a big part of the future information technology workforce. But as Southern Company has discovered, staffing for diversity isn't easy. Find out how the regional utility conglomerate has tried to make its workplace more welcoming.

If you were looking for someone to play the typical IT professional at Atlanta-based Southern Company, central casting would send David Traynor. He's 46 (the average age in Southern's IT shop). He's been with the southeastern regional utility conglomerate 24 years (median tenure is 18). He's white (like 80 percent of the staff). And he's male (solidly in the majority).

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Traynor first joined Southern's subsidiary Alabama Power fresh out of Texas A&M (where he majored in accounting and computer science) and eager to return to his Alabama roots. A self-described "nerd-geek," he was an accountant at Alabama Power before joining IT and has held a variety of technology roles within Southern since.

Today, Traynor's title is business excellence manager. He oversees tasks from competitive intelligence to environmental safety. But it's safe to say one of his most challenging—and critical—tasks is tracking efforts to make the IT department more diverse and inclusive. Traynor wants to make sure that he—the typical middle-aged, white guy who's spent a career at Southern—is no longer the face of IT.

Like many other IT groups, Southern's technology organization is feeling its way toward that elusive goal of diversity—striving to improve minority and female employee representation while creating an inclusive work environment for those different not only in ways you can see (such as age, sex and ethnicity), but also in ways that you can't (such as education, experience and upbringing). That's no small task when you're talking about a company where "different" once described someone who spent decades at Mississippi Power instead of Georgia Power or had a "Roll Tide" instead of a "Go Tigers" bumper sticker next to his Alabama license plate.

The motivation at Southern to develop a diverse workforce stems as much from demographic data as it does from the desire to stay out of legal trouble. (In 2000, Southern sidestepped a lawsuit alleging discrimination against black workers.) By 2010, business demand for technology will outstrip the supply of qualified IT professionals, according to Gartner. Southern CIO Becky Blalock can't just sit in her 13th floor office in downtown Atlanta, waiting for a few hundred new David Traynors to rush on over. The only way to keep pace is to cast a wider net for talent, bringing more women and minorities into the fold and seeking out more young graduates and mid-career hires than ever before.

Then there's the community Southern serves. Georgia, for example, is 66 percent white and 30 percent African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its Hispanic population is the 11th-largest in the country (and it's growing faster than all but two states), according to the civil rights organization the National Council of La Raza. Southern's staff must reflect the changing customer base in order to serve it, says Blalock.

Finally, IT leaders recognize that a diverse team can serve the business better than a collection of clones. "If we're all between the ages of 40 and 50 and went to Georgia Tech, we might all think the same way," says Traynor. "But if you get some younger people, females, minorities, those with some work experience outside of Southern, you're going to get some debate and innovation."

Blalock, Kristy Mapps, David Traynor, Zachery Byrd, Tanya Harvell, Mike Erickson, Rajeev Agarwal
Southern Company CIO Becky Blalock is building an IT team that is diverse by race, gender, age, education and culture. Clockwise from front: Blalock, Kristy Mapps, David Traynor, Zachery Byrd, Tanya Harvell, Mike Erickson, Rajeev Agarwal. All Photos by Ken Reid.

Not one of those drivers of diversity makes achieving it any easier, though. After five years of trying, Southern has discovered that diversity is hardly a straightforward goal. And missteps are to be expected. Diversity programs intended to lift up standout employees have inadvertently disenfranchised some seasoned veterans. Success requires tons of transparency to prevent such misunderstandings—and 360-degree communication clarity means more work. Making sure everyone on a team of 1,100 has a voice, particularly within Southern's historically "command-and-control" culture, is difficult.

"We had a hard time communicating what diversity is and isn't. I think we still struggle with it," admits Traynor. "We're just trying to get our arms around it and trying to change some of the things that need to change in our culture to make it happen."

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