Making technical language more inclusive at Salesforce - it matters

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 12, 2021
Summary:
Salesforce is undertaking a project to make its technical language more inclusive, by building new tools to replace terms that reinforce stereotypes and cause harm.

Image of colourful letters of the alphabet
(Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay )

Language matters and it provides a great deal of context for history and for culture. It's not something that should be treated as trivial and companies have a responsibility to try and ensure that the language that they use is free from bias, harm and is as inclusive as possible. 

For some time Salesforce has been trying to make sure the language it uses for marketing purposes does just that, guided by its Inclusive Marketing Principles. However, after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer last year, Salesforce employees brought attention to how the company's technical language sometimes reinforces negative stereotypes and is causing harm. 

This is important not only for Salesforce employees, which have a right to be protected from such technical language on a day to day basis, but also for the thousands of customers that use the vendor's products. 

Equality and inclusiveness are core to the Salesforce ethos, and the company has an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology that is responsible for tackling such issues when they are brought to the fore. Senior Director of Product Management for the Office, Rob Katz, explains: 

It is our responsibility to ensure that how we build the tools that are used by our customers, and our customers' customers, is intentionally and thoughtfully created and designed to be used by everyone - so that our software is inclusive. The end result is that everybody has the ability to use the software and do what we think technology can do - make the world a more open and inclusive place.

The reason why the Office of Ethical and Humane Use took this on is that it's figuring out the right way to change the technical content and the technical code so that it does reflect that value of equality.

Unfortunately, the way that we designed these software tools, it was unintentionally using the concepts of white and black. For instance, where ‘white' was those who are allowed to see certain messages and ‘black' for those who were not permitted to see those messages - in the sense of whitelist and blacklist.

This is common terminology in many organizations, but it's not hard to understand why such language should evolve and be more sensitive and inclusive. For example, Salesforce is also assessing how it can change the ‘master and slave' terminology that is often used for the relationship between a primary and secondary server. Katz adds: 

It became obvious to us that those terms were creating unintended harm to our own employees, to ourselves, to our customers and our stakeholders, and it didn't reflect the intent behind the words. But it's not about the intent, it's about the impact - and the impact is that this creates exclusion and a feeling of harm. 

So we asked ourselves, what can we do to change these terms in a way that is intentional, open and transparent, so that our code and our technical content reflects that value of equality? 

Scaling systemic change

Katz has been working with Orlando Lugo, Program Manager at Salesforce's Office of Ethical and Humane Use, who upon joining the company last year was asked to benchmark Salesforce against others in the industry, to get a sense of how it was performing and how the industry is adapting. In addition, Lugo helped form an Inclusive Language Advisory Board, which was made up of members from the vendor's Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Lugo says: 

These ERG groups are all around the world, our office is small, so they've really helped us broaden our scope and we are able to get a lot of advice from them throughout this whole process. 

Lugo and Katz were also receiving feedback from a groundswell of employees that were asking questions last summer about why the company was using terms such as ‘whitelist' and ‘blacklist'. Salesforce has also started collaborating with Google, Twitter and Microsoft on how technical language could become more inclusive. 

Putting this into action isn't easy, however, Especially when you consider the size of Salesforce and that the company has decades worth of old code, some of which has been acquired from other organizations. So whilst the project started with a simple Google Sheet that took stock of the company's content repository, assessing who was going to make changes, Katz and Lugo had bigger plans around building tools to drive systemic change. Katz explains: 

Orlando and I have been systemising the groundswell of support and taking that commitment to racial equality and justice at the company level and turning it into a programme. And I am proud of the ‘boring' parts of the programme, because the ‘boring' parts are important. 

What we have been doing is building tools that scan our content and scan our code at the point of check in. So that as a developer, when I am writing new code, and I unintentionally include a non-inclusive term, I get a warning. A little pop up that says ‘this term is non-inclusive for these reasons'. It's a little bit of lightweight education, not shaming, just education. So it may prompt you to change ‘whitelist' to ‘allow list', ‘blacklist' to ‘block list'. 

The other tooling we're building is - is it already in the code? Salesforce is 22 years old, there's a lot of lines of code. So we're scanning existing code, and cutting tickets to the responsible teams, so they can remediate the instances of non-inclusive language. And we are tracking their progress so that we can report up against that racial inequality and justice strategy. It's hard, it's non-linear, but it has been very rewarding. When we go and talk to teams they say, ‘Of course I want to do that', and it's like ‘Okay great, here are the tools to make that happen'. 

Results

This project began back in June 2020 and Salesforce has already changed over 90 percent of its customer facing instances in its technical content. And it is now tracking towards changing five terms this year - whitelist, blacklist, blackout, brownout and slave. It is also going to begin work to remediate the term ‘master', but this is slightly more challenging given that it is used in a wider range of contexts. But Katz is keen to make sure that change happens with the term ‘master' too. 

Salesforce is offering the following options for the term ‘master':

  • When used to express prioritization or hierarchy, use: Main, Primary, Principle

  • When used as a source of replication, use: Source, Main

  • When used to express control, use: Leader or Leading, Active, Controller

For companies that read this and recognize that they too should be making language more inclusive, Katz says that the key is to make sure the changes are wide in scope. He says: 

The groundswell of support and the interest in making changes by a spreadsheet was great at the time. And certainly got us a long way. But we now regret the spreadsheet in some ways, because it makes it harder to track progress. I don't want to let perfect be the enemy of good, but if you are going to do systemic change like this inside of a technical organization, building the right tooling and mechanisms and processes is super important so that you can scale it up.

Lugo also gives a wonderful summary of why this is so important for organizations to do. He says: 

This work is really about changing culture and changing practices. Changing how we think about language. We use colours that identify skin tones very often in technical language and those terms based on feedback cause reinforced negative stereotypes and reinforced implicit bias. 

That realization and having that top of mind changes how we think about language going forward. And if we can do that with not just the words that identify skin tone, we can do that with words that have negative historical connotations too. It's about having a culture of empathy throughout the entire company. 

My take

I said to Lugo and Katz on our call that five years ago this was a conversation that I would never have been having with a technology company. It just wasn't on anyone's radar and it certainly wasn't a priority. It gives me hope that companies like Salesforce are taking this seriously - because the impact that it will have on huge sections of society are not insignificant. And I hope people realize that this isn't about just ‘doing a good thing', this will also have positive outcomes for Salesforce as a business. I'd be willing to bet that it results in greater wellbeing amongst its employees, that it becomes easier to attract and retain talent, and that Salesforce ends up building better products as a result. Too many organizations shy away from this hard work, but it will be to their detriment over the long term.