Defining Opportunities and Addressing Inequities — With Steve Gregos of Willowtree

AllVoices Team
AllVoices Team
August 4, 2022
8 Min Read
Defining Opportunities and Addressing Inequities — With Steve Gregos of Willowtree

This post is a part of our series, Culture Champions — Spotlighting the actionable advice, tips, tricks and learnings from top ERG leaders who are making a difference in their workplaces and communities.

Meet Steve Gregos (he/him/his); a Senior Software Engineer with 8 years of experience creating digital products for household names that delight. Steve spent more than 3 years founding and chairing various ERGs, partnering with local organizations to build a company Apprenticeship program, and is actively involved in advocating for the substance recovery community within the context of the workplace. Steve is passionate about mental health, ax-throwing, making music, photography, and gaming.

What was your journey to founding and chairing various ERGs?

  • For founding Trees without Degrees - There had been a few other people at the company that I had gravitated towards and we would always tell each other that we feel like we understand things better when we explain things to each other and often it was in a simpler and less-technical way. One person might not have known what an inner class was, but if we used concepts that were easier to understand by describing how it worked or where it lived in the codebase? Then we'd be speaking the same language. So we spent lots of time together and came to find out we all also didn't come from a CIS background, which is largely why we used different terminology than a lot of our peers. That was the seed of the ERG.
  • For chairing Trees with Different Needs - I'd just spoken at a conference called Heartifacts that focuses on the humans that work in technology. The talk was called Your ADHD Symptoms May Include and talked about the struggle for sobriety after developing an addiction to my medication. In that, becoming sober meant that I developed an aversion to pills for a while. Now I had to accept myself and my ADHD symptoms, while trying to learn how to change my life to live sober from stimulants. I didn't like the narrative that existed around having ADHD, and that talk challenges that narrative in a way that shows why some ADHD symptoms are worthy of conservation. After the talk, the DMs came pouring in with stories about people's kids who were on their journey to sobriety, people sharing their own journeys with sobriety. And there were questions too. What signs did I show when I had a stimulant problem? Was there anything that someone close had said to me that ended up making a huge impact on my recovery? A few months after giving this talk, the Chair position opened up, and I decided that the next step for me was to advocate for more than just ADHD and supportive recovery practices in the workplace.

As the Employee Resource Group Founder for Trees Without Degrees, why did you start this group?

When you enter into software engineering without a degree, there are a few challenges that you have early in your career. Knowing the technical terms for different concepts and structures comes by default with a CIS degree. Many without degrees don't have that technical precision, despite being able to complete a task that would implement those things if asked to demonstrate it. Then there's the fact that in software, you have to re-learn your trade a few times throughout your career as tools and languages change. If we relearn on the job every few years, why don't we hire more folks who taught themselves or went to coding boot camps?

There are jobs within the technology space that would require a degree-type of knowledge, but far too many jobs in tech require it than actually require it to perform the functions of the job. This adds an additional layer of inequities that are exponential for those marginalized in multiple ways. The industry as a whole seems to have, at best, an unnecessary bias towards degree qualifications and hiring resources being disproportionately spent towards universities. At worst, the industry has created an invisible barrier that hurts communities of color (especially Black) the most.

The other shared experience we identified early on was the polarity of reactions we experienced when someone heard we were software engineers without degrees. From someone outside the industry, they'll look at you like you're a witch or a wizard who's capable of multiverse travel to Middle Earth (which we are, but that's irrelevant). You'll usually get hit with a "wow, you must be really smart!". Then you get such a different reaction when someone within the industry hears you don't have a degree - it's hard to even get past the resume filters without one. This wasn't a unique experience to any one of us, and it was also not an experience unique to the place where we currently worked. So a group of us from across the company decided to test if the soil was right to begin developing a company Apprenticeship program. It was, and WillowTree’s apprenticeship program was born.

What are some of your accomplishments over the past year in the employee experience and how would you measure your impact with Trees with Different Needs ERG? When you were chairing and leading Trees Without Degrees what were some accomplishments you’d like to share?

Over the past year of chairing Trees with Different Needs, I’d been developing the ERG itself to function more effectively after my tenure had passed. This meant that we needed a team. I based our ERG structure in large part off of the recommendations from Catalyst’s 6-Volume ERG Guidebook.  This involved defining the different positions within the ERG, describing what duties, responsibilities, and powers lie with the different positions, and giving future leaders an idea of what skills they’ll both need for the job, and what skills they can hope to develop while in that position. I also needed to be able to explain how the different roles within the resource group interact with one another, interact with the group, interact with the organization at large, etc. Courtney Oakes was the group’s first Vice Chair, and Ashley Gibson was the group’s first Scribe.

Courtney’s term, she fostered a partnership with the Durhams Children’s Initiative, helped define role descriptions within the group, organized and led events, and was an advocate and mentor to members within the group. Courtney partnered with HR on behalf of the group, helped to give HR insight into the experiences of folks with different needs throughout the COVID pandemic, and helped build and define the relationship between the group and our Executive Sponsor.

Over Ashley’s term, she analyzed the different approaches to replacing ERG leadership and decided which approach was best for a group of our size. Because it’s not a one-size fits all, right? Some people prefer to interview, some people prefer to “campaign” for lack of a better word, some want to attain positions through volunteering, and some like to be voted in by the people. Ashley defined the framework for how our leadership gets replaced, what the timeline of the leadership transition looked like, and what support would be available for the new leaders after we’d rolled off. She also took ownership of streamlining the entire member onboarding experience - from getting them added to the appropriate groups, to giving them the tl;dr of the group, to helping them feel welcome, oftentimes in the very first interaction someone has with the group.

Creating opportunities for leadership, creating definition around those opportunities, and putting systems in place that amplify the membership’s voice and creating space that centers their experience. Helping provide feedback while the organization transitions from in-person to remote culture. Providing feedback on our benefits program. Sharing the group’s concerns on Return To Office plans. These are all ways that the group and business have been working together. We plan on measuring the effectiveness of the group’s focus through the Voice and Belonging scores of our yearly inclusion survey.

For Trees Without Degrees, we partnered with the business to build the company’s apprenticeship program. From HR policy, to starting benefits, to learning content, to support at the start of the program.

How are you celebrated and compensated as an ERG leader at WillowTree?

ERG leadership work comes up on promotion rubrics and is acknowledged as leadership experience. For me, becoming an ERG lead gave me access to opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I started my work with ERGs when I was very early on in my career. When you’re early in your career you don’t typically get access to activities like building teams, building mentorship programs, or building relationships with influencers across the organization.

Being able to engage in ERG leadership early on in my career gave me additional time building skills that I use now as a Senior Engineer and will rely on even more as a Director of Engineering. I’m celebrated with things like shoutouts, kudos, DMs, and just people saying “I saw your ADHD talk. It was awesome”.


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