As studies say, diversity in the workplace is important. But how do you avoid building a team that consists of people similar to yourself? Oftentimes culture fit interviews turn into “does this person like beer as much as I like beer” or “do they ride their bicycle to work an adequate amount,” when in reality, we should be considering if they will provide a different viewpoint or life experience that can augment the team and challenge our status quo.

To prevent hiring only college grads of a certain gender and generation, our team tried adjusting the language in job postings and making a point to show up at recruiting events. However, this wasn’t enough, so we decided to get creative: we had one unused headcount and a desire to benefit the community.

We landed on creating an internship program unlike the others our company participates in, which serve college students exclusively. One that would allow us to expand the candidate pool, which consists of one predominant demographic. What about the folks who’ve changed careers midlife or are reentering the workforce after child-rearing? What about folks who have served but haven’t found a civilian job that fits their skillset? With this in mind, we got to work.

Our team is separated into three tiers, as is common with support teams. These are Business Support Engineers (BSE), Technical Support Engineers (TSE) and Developer Support Engineers (DSE). The role of BSE requires the least amount of specialized skills: ability to use a computer, empathy for end-users, and curiosity. They will learn how to functionally support our product, but prior experience in software or a formal education is not required.

Given our budget and conversations with the first candidate pool, we opted to have the role be a full-time position with a finite duration of six months. This is enough time for the BSE to get familiar with our software, learn how to use our support tools, and pick up miscellaneous skills of their choosing (e.g. developing with a REST API). The cost of this position fits in our budget and enables us to rotate in new BSEs approximately once every four months, with a little overlap.

With the position hammered out, the question became, how do we get candidates in the pipeline? Through our recruiting team we were paired with Work Source Oregon, a local nonprofit that offers programs and services for job seekers who need more skills and help matching them to employers. They helped us bring in some candidates with varied life experiences (working in retail, laying bricks, writing for magazines, among others), which is exactly what we wanted. We also shared the position with a local organization aimed at getting (and keeping) more women in tech, PDXWIT. It is a joy reading applications and talking with candidates who are excited about the role. It’s just too bad we can’t hire them all!

During a 1:1, one of our interns, Rosemary, told me that it sounded like selecting the BSE intern was like finding a worm. Yes, plenty of them exist, but how do you find what you’re looking for, in the dark? We made a point to avoid people who were already a perfect fit for other positions (TSE or DSE), since the position is likely finite. We wanted to hire people who have a goal (something as specific as becoming a front-end developer, or as vague as working in tech), but need some experience to get there. So far, we have found this in our three interns.

So who really benefits here? It’s mutual. Our company benefits on paper: an intern is less expensive than full-time staff and the program creates a pipeline for future open positions. Off-paper, these interns have more work experience and come armed with a thoughtful demeanor, which lends them the credibility needed to be silent leaders. The intern, at minimum, gets valuable experience working at a software company. Sometimes it’s small things, like realizing it’s not terrifying to answer support calls, to larger wins, like deftly handling a customer’s severity one issue. At the end of six months, we might have a suitable position open so we can hire the intern (hi, Dana!); even if we don’t, they can walk away with six months of industry experience and a bolsering of their technical skills.

Diversity in gender, race, culture and life experience is achievable with some creative thinking and company buy-in. The candidates are out there, waiting for someone to take a chance. Go out and find your worm!

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