Diversity in tech – why it matters and what we are doing about it

ProtonMail started as a globally distributed team and against common advice, we stayed distributed. Three years later, here are some of the things we have learned about diversity in tech.

Diversity in tech is an important and sometimes controversial topic these days. Although it wasn’t done by design, ProtonMail has evolved to become a fairly diverse company, with more than a dozen nationalities represented on our team. We have definitely learned a few lessons along the way, and today we’d like to share some of them.

Diversity = Better talent

In the tech industry, talent is by far the most valuable commodity. For most tech companies, talent is the primary factor determining success and failure, as well as the largest operating cost. In order to succeed, we need to attract and retain the best talent. What we have discovered is that hiring the top talent is very much a numbers game. Simply put, for both tech and non-tech roles, the best people are rare, and if you want to only hire the best, you need to draw from the largest possible talent pool.

If ProtonMail had grown like a typical Swiss company, only hiring candidates from Switzerland, we never would have been able to find enough talent to drive our growth. By hiring globally, and disregarding which country a candidate is from, we increased our potential hiring pool from 8 million to 7 billion. A diverse workplace also helps to attract applicants. More applicants means we can hire more candidates, while simultaneously being more selective.

Higher reliability and lower risk

Having team members 10 time zones apart ensures that for site reliability operations, there is almost always somebody around at any given hour of the day. This dramatically reduces our response time to any incidents that occur, and ensures that we’re never caught “asleep at the wheel” because, like our global user base, ProtonMail never sleeps.

A distributed team also reduces risks, because we don’t rely too extensively on any one country, and no government has an excessive amount of leverage over our operations. This is a form of insurance that helps to ensure that we cannot be easily coerced into acting against the best interests of the ProtonMail community.

Diversity = Better Ideas

Having a team consisting of people with more varied backgrounds also means that we get a more diverse set of ideas flowing through the company. This in turn allows us to be more innovative. It also helps ensure that ProtonMail is intuitive and user friendly for a larger proportion of the world. Having more nationalities on the team means that we have more shared experiences with a larger fraction of our users, ultimately leading to a better user experience.

What we’re doing to improve team diversity

From our direct experience, we believe firmly that the best tech companies are also the ones that are the most diverse, and we’re committed to doing more to increase ProtonMail’s diversity in the future. One of the initiatives we are supporting is Project Integration, a Geneva based non-profit with an unique mission. Project Integration seeks to simultaneously address two problems, the shortage of skilled IT workers and the European refugee crisis. Project Integration approaches this problem by offering free programming courses to refugees in Switzerland.

We believe this is a great approach, as economic integration through high quality employment is the key to integrating refugees successfully. As we have witnessed ourselves at ProtonMail, there is a large shortage of skilled programmers and training more software engineers will be crucial for driving future economic growth. In order to support Project Integration, we are donating server resources and also advising on the course curriculum. We are also interviewing Project Integration students for internship and full time positions at ProtonMail.

Looking back, we know that community driven efforts can in fact succeed and grow to change the world. Indeed, ProtonMail’s 2014 crowdfunding campaign reached five times our fundraising goal and helped us further develop our vision. Project Integration is looking to do the same and has started a crowdfunding campaign to help fund their courses for refugees. You can get involved with Project Integration through their crowdfunding campaign here.

A Project Integration course in Geneva, Switzerland.

In addition to our work with Project Integration, we are also working on improving our gender ratio. Women make up half of the world’s available talent pool, but currently make up only 20% of ProtonMail’s full time workforce, so there is still a lot of room for improvement. We’re committed to making ProtonMail a diverse workplace where all are welcome. If you are interested working with us on building a better Internet, please consider joining us!

For more information about open positions at ProtonMail, please visit our careers page.

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team


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About the Author

Irina M

Irina is part of ProtonMail's communication team. With a background in graphic design and digital communications, she strongly supports the protection of private data and wishes to help build a safer internet for generations to come.


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39 comments on “Diversity in tech – why it matters and what we are doing about it

  • I’ve been following (and using!) ProtonMail shortly after you started and I just remember my first impression was, “this group just gets it.” Here we are Oct 2017 and I find myself still impressed. I’m impressed at your tech chops, at your business sense, at your passion for encryption, diversity, responsibility, and on and on. So, thank you! And keep it up!

  • Why do tech companies feel the need to be so political nowadays?
    How about just focusing on making a good product? Is that really too much to ask?

    • This is not a political statement. Hiring the best talent is key to building a good product, which is why we are working on increasing the number of applicants for our open positions by searching more widely for candidates.

  • Thank you for Informing us.
    The Problem with “Diversity” is that it suggests you will hire the most “Diverse” people in regards to skin color & gender – not thought & skill.

    So for me, this is actually good to know because I will not buy any of the Pro Accounts or send customers this way…

    I’m sorry to say this because I was a really big fan of ProtonMail till now…, but a company that will prioritize the right skin color or gender above merit in its hiring process is nothing I can suggest to customers or use for myself… Its just racism and bigotry!

    • It is important for ProtonMail to hire the best talent in order to succeed in our mission to protect privacy, and as discussed in the blog post above, expanding the potential talent pool which we can hire from is an important part of that, and will lead to a better and more secure service.

  • ProtonMail is compromised.

    They ban accounts with fabricated evidence (i actually tested this one a new account which had zero sent messages) and fabricated a story and pinged ProtonMail on twitter. They insta banned it, even though the account is brand new.

  • Dear ProtonMail Team, c/o Irina M.
    Kindly consider the following about diversity in “tech”: Technology and Infomation are too important for humankind to be left solely in the hands of engineers and/or “techies”. Diversity, thus, means engaging users with all different skillful capacities necessary to build, maintain, expand and multiply users’ experience on a daily basis. It will be very useful to engage you in a discussion about real diversity – i.e., how to bring people (men and women, 50/50) of different backgrounds together in a service (which is not “tech” alone) for the benefit of all human beings – and most of us are not, and will not, be “techies”. Let me dare and suggest that your announced opening to diversity will not impose any preconceived borders. As previously communicated, I remain interested and available to engage ProtonMail in open dialogue. Thanks for listening, Rubens.

    • If you would read this carefully you’d see that there is nothing political about this blog post. We do not want to take any sides or offend anyone. We are just open to hiring the most passionate and talented people, regardless of where they come from.

      • Feminism is political and this is what you’re doing. Protonmail is following left wing narrative. The best doesn’t men diversity. It’s being unfair. If you want the best people should have to compete against one another to quality for a job. As a minority I would find it highly offended if I was hired due to my skin color not but my skills or credentials.
        Protonmail is becoming like google just a different twist following the feminism and Islam agenda to destroy the west.
        I will be looking for alternatives and will be suggesting my friends to do the same.

        • There is nothing in this article that implies we do not always hire the best of the best. We always hire the best of the available talent, but we are working to expand the size of the talent pool that we can hire from.

  • Irina and ProtonMail-

    Thank you for your blog post on diversity.

    Yes, geographic diversity may help ensure the U.S. Department Of Justice (USDOJ) doesn’t have much influence on ProtonMail. Remember, Gmail = USDOJ email. USDOJ lawyers can sift through your Gmail any old time they feel like it. The media reports the FBI also uses loopholes to search your Gmail.

    “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” – that’s what you may hear when they find something in your Gmail, and they store your Gmail for many years (significantly, they won’t divulge how long the USDOJ retains your Gmail). Diversity and encryption should help keep ProtnMail users safe.

    On October 10, USDOJ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a public speech announcing new USDOJ plans to weaken encryption at U.S. tech companies. Even high-level NSA programs like X-KEYSCORE have been used against civilians to illegally get their data for the USDOJ. This happened to Kim Dotcom in New Zealand. No civilian can say they are immune to similar treatment.

    ProtonMail – stay strong and diversified!

    • Some team members are employed as contractors. We also have legal entities in many countries for the purposes of paying employees.

  • I think there is some confusion here regarding the term ‘diversity’ and general globalization of labor.

    Diversity is a highly politically charged term, you can’t just reply to comments here and say it is not political. For most people it is very political, so please can you address that in your replies rather than telling them they are wrong when they have a very valid and common viewpoint.

    Most people associate diversity with ‘positive discrimination’, for some people this is ‘anti racist/sexist’ and for other people it is completely racist and sexist!

    It is a shame you had to get involved in this debate and take a side, now you just alienated half of your customers. Society is politically very polarized at the moment.

    • We don’t believe diversity should be a political issue. However, if we assume that it is, our position on this is still very clear. As a company, we are committed to hiring the best possible talent, regardless of gender, race, nationality, etc. This means we are in favor of globalization of labor because searching for talent in more countries allows us to attract more candidates, which allows us to be more selective, which in turn raises the level of the talent on our team, and leads to a better product.

      • “As a company, we are committed to hiring the best possible talent, regardless of gender, race, nationality, etc.”

        Congratulations on not being racists and sexists! I don’t know why you assumed your customers might think you were?

        “Women make up half of the world’s available talent pool, but currently make up only 20% of ProtonMail’s full time workforce, so there is still a lot of room for improvement”

        This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Are Protonmail saying that they have been actively discriminating against woman up to this point? If not, then we can only conclude that 20% is a fair/natural percentage for woman who want to work for them and are the “best possible talent”.

        Maybe we should round woman up in the street and demand that they apply for more IT jobs, they obviously don’t know what they want… or the evil forces of the patriarchy are intercepting their job applications and making the answers silly 🙂

        It’s great Protonmail is trying to do positive things, but it seems they have not thought it through very well.

          • In short you want decrease number of men preferably white men in your company.
            It is not 2016 anymore, it is 2017 and everybody knows what diversity means. It means less white, less men, less Asians and less Jews. If you continue to virtue signal in public I will be cancelling my account and also company account I administer for.

          • It’s 2017 and diversity means many different things for many different people. We don’t have quotas and we always hire the best candidate, regardless of gender or race.

  • >but currently make up only 20% of ProtonMail’s full time workforce

    what gender ratio exactly do you want to have? because 20% is pretty good for tech.
    I suggest you read the now infamous memo of James Damore. Most of it will probably not apply to you for now,
    however this article suggests that it might do so in the future. There are some valid questions in the memo that
    you need to ask yourself as a company.

  • I find this incredibly disappointing.

    If in the course of hiring based on merit you end up with a bunch of white or Asian heterosexual males, then so be it. What the eff does this have to do with quality of product, privacy, security, or really anything at all?

    Whoever decided on this course of action should be fired immediately.

    Why? Because when you institute this sort of policy you will begin filling your organization with people who DO NOT think in terms of merit. Whatever the case is now, once you virtue-signal diversity quotas and they become an explicit goal, people who prioritize this over quality or merit will infect your company.

    There are no exceptions to this dynamic, and you cannot tech-weenie/white-knight your way out of the consequences.

    It’s called organizational convergence, and it’s a foolish thing to enable. Example: A female named Irina, hired on merit but obsessed with diversity, advocates immediately for female quotas.

    • There is nothing in this blog post that implies we have quotas or that we are not hiring based on merit. We always hire the best candidate.

  • Reading this made me sad. You totally killed idea of great e-mail service with this diversity bullshit. Was it really that necessary to make such extreme political statements?

    • The intention was not to make a political statement, we don’t actually see how politics has anything to do with it. The statement we are making is simply that in order to hire the best people in the world, we need to expand the pool of candidates that we search from.

      • “we don’t actually see how politics has anything to do with it”

        Well, then I daresay your are either downright liars or morons. But, frankly, I have never really trusted you for a variety of reasons. Now, at last, the cat’s out of he bag. THANK YOU and GOODBYE !

        PS : Greetings to Soros & Co.

        • Hiring the best talent should not be a politically charged subject. Expanding our hiring beyond Western Europe is all about talent, and has nothing to do with race or gender stats.

  • Keep doing this great job. We all know you’re going to face opposition when trying to change things, it’s always been this way. And don’t listen to the trolls, they’re the most vocal while many support you in silence.

  • (In the summary I am clearer) Honestly I don’t believe on a gender focus, I mean that how one can improve the gender ratio if on IT there is a unbalanced gender ratio, the only way is hiring thinking in gender above other things, but it would be impossible to have a balanced numbers in the company, but doing that is go against the available talent, I mean yes the womens are about the half of candidates if we refer to candidates in terms of absolute population of the world but unfortunately in this sector there are far fewer women than men, so in tech companies there always tend to be fewer women

    In Summary: When I hear gender focus it always worries me that the tech companies make more focus on gender that in the person itself just for wanting to match the percentages as much as possible without taking into account the gender distribution of the sector in which they move