All Of Us: How Being in the Military Shaped My View of Diversity

John Pritchard shares his personal experience with gender at work.

by Christie Chew

posted on 03-18-2019

Just ahead of National Women’s Month, six of our Adobe leaders served as delegates to The MAKERS Conference, joining 600 other leaders in critical conversations about gender at work. This year’s conference theme was #AllOfUs, the message being that it takes every individual, both men and women, to drive positive change for women in society.

We talked to John Pritchard, senior director, Adobe I/O, who is also an executive sponsor for our Adobe Veterans employee network, about how his experience in the military has shaped his thoughts on diversity and inclusion, his personal experience with gender at work, and his takeaways from the conference.

How do you think about diversity/inclusion?

I always think of the story in the book, “Wisdom of Crowds,” where they talk about this US submarine that was lost in the Atlantic in 1968. The navy knows the last location they heard from them but that’s it, so they send out search and rescue teams 20 miles wide and many thousands of feet deep, but they can’t find anything.

The commander who gets assigned to lead the recovery effort makes the decision to form a nontraditional team to try to figure out where this submarine is. He gets mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – a mixed up crew, and gives each of them a little bit of data on what was known and asks them to pick where they think the submarine probably is. He ends up taking all of their input and averages out everything and the submarine ends up being within 220 yards of where they predicted it would be.

It’s a classic story on how diverse teams lead you to better solutions, often ones you otherwise wouldn’t know you’d find. I love this story because it’s emblematic of how the collective judgement of diverse teams can compensate for the bias of small groups.

How did your experience in the military shape/influence your thoughts about diversity?

I joined the US army right out of high school and was an enlisted medic in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and ended up serving in the first gulf war. It was during my military training that I first observed the concept of color. I arrived at basic training and one of the first things that a drill sergeant said was that there are only two colors that you’re going to be concerned about at this point moving forward – one is green, which is the color you’re going to wear, and the other is red, which is the color we all bleed.

It was this realization that whatever had happened to get us to this point, moving forward our lives had fundamentally changed, because we had just become part of something much larger. We’re all the same in many ways no matter what our background or origin is.

In the war, I ended up being deployed with military from Pakistan, Egypt, and France, and it was my first time meeting people from a different country. I had a similar experience of thinking we were all completely different – we speak different languages, have different color of skin, and have different backgrounds, but we were all in uniforms and that really created a unifying theme: we’re all chartered to accomplish the same thing.

What’s been your personal experience with gender at work?

When I started working in a corporate environment, I was struck by how different things were from the military. Everyone seemed to be mirror images of each other – they all looked the same and at the time they were predominantly male and white. I was struck by how much everyone agreed with each other and also how little they challenged each other. It was a really interesting feeling – being taken out of one of the more diverse experiences of my life and being thrown into one of the least diverse experiences of my life early in my software engineering career.

Later on in my career in product development, I started to get a really deep appreciation for how diversity on a team leads to a better product. The collective judgement of a diverse group can compensate for the bias of a small group. You gain competitive advantage with people coming from different experiences and backgrounds. I think there’s a long road left in terms of change with gender at work, but I am starting to see more female engineering leaders in senior roles, which is a huge step forward from where we were five years ago.

What advice would you give to other business leaders who want to build a corporate culture that nurtures and thrives on diversity?

A trap that a lot of leaders make is how they staff their direct team. Often, they’ll be working on an effort and they’ll identify a set of skills they’re looking for, create a role around those skill sets, and recruit for that. What we often don’t do is consider the team that we’re trying to form – how much of a mix in perspectives do you have on that team and have you identified gaps in those perspectives in addition to gaps in skill sets – essentially are you setup to compensate for small group bias? From there, you can define the role that you’re trying to search for, because it’s probably a more specific type of talent that you’re trying to identify than just skill sets. It might make the search a lot harder, but I think it makes you much more mindful of the team you’re trying to form.

The theme of MAKERS this year was “All of Us.” What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?

My biggest takeaway from the Makers Conference is how important role models are, especially for women. When we’re young and thinking about all the things we want to do or be in life, we’re so influenced by what we see to know what’s possible and what’s not. This remains so important, even as you mature into your career. We’re often looking at what’s possible by who’s ahead of us. This doesn’t mean we won’t chart new ground, but I do think role models can be a huge source of encouragement to others to see feasible goals and know they can achieve them.

Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, Adobe Culture, Career Advice, Community, Future of Work