deconstructing/reconstructing tech's culture
one word(le) at a time
Happy lunar new year. How we doing? I’m alright. A little tired at times, living underneath the wintery gray blanket of Seattle, of the hellaciously roaring ‘20s, but I’m drinking water, taking walks with the pups, working on new projects, feeling excited about the launch of a new website, and playing that game we’re all playing, you know, the one that recently got swallowed up by our Pac-Man economy. I thought, if you’re up for it, we could play another game, one that might help set us up for the year of the tiger. It’s kinda like Wordle, maybe better. I’ll let you decide.
Open up the trash fire of your work inbox – I know, I know it’s the last thing you want to do right now – but I’m here to make this shit fun. Find an email, a document, maybe a slide deck, a Figma file, whatever has words in it. The more mission statements, the better. The more OKRRRRs, the better. Make a copy, just for you. Find the highlighter tool. Pick the color hot pink. Bright, wild, luxurious hot pink. Got it? Good.
Now look at the document. I mean, really look at it. Or use a screen reader if that’s more accessible. Whenever you come across one of the following words, highlight it.
Disrupt / Disruption
Penetration rate / Penetrate
Assume ownership / Owned
Are they highlighted? Cool.
Now hit the delete button.
It’s okay. It’s just between us. Don’t worry about finding a replacement word for now. Look at the empty space where the word used to be. Let it breathe. Let it open. Let it heal. Don’t look back.
Find a different highlighter color. Let’s go with yellow. Sparkling lemon Lysol yellow. Now look back at the document. Whenever you come across one of the following words, highlight it.
How much yellow do you see? Did the page just churn into lemonade? What’s the word before the word you highlighted? After it? What’s the sentence or paragraph that surrounds the word?
Scale. In tech, I see this word oozing all over the page, so much so that I’ve become numb to it. I find that I gloss over it. If you look back at the document again, you might find that you accidentally skipped a highlight or two on this word. I want to return our attention to it. I want this word to jump out at us, catching hold of the part of us that wonders whether scaling really is the right move for all of us. In some cases, in some contexts, scaling may very well be the right move, but whether it is or isn’t, whenever I see this word, I want to stop in my tracks and ask: Who will gain? Who will lose? What might become lost? Were there non-tech solutions that were working just fine before technology entered the scene? Is technology truly helpful here? Is the word ‘scale’ positioned beside the words, ‘multi-billion-dollar-business?’ In which case, perhaps there should be a ‘d’ to the end of ‘scale’ making it ‘scaled,’ past tense. Let the word scale be a cautionary tale, that if you let it bleed, you may find yourself pressured to bandage it with a new word. Trust.
First. Is your product truly first to market? Or might it be firsting?
DEI. Is there specificity here? Specific objectives, key results, actions, resources. Or are these words performing the same dance from June 2020? What specific organizational practices still need to change? And are these changes set up to be adequately resourced and supported in equitable ways? I keep re-reading this 2020 MIT Technology Review article from sociologist Amber Hamilton and how an analysis of 63 statements showed that US tech companies repeatedly placed responsibility for racial injustice on Black people.
Wellbeing. Is this word in the context of employee-led wellbeing efforts? Individual wellbeing plans? Maybe it’s in the context of a day off? Take a look at this new research on the corporate playbooks being used to combat organizational trauma and why they’re not enough. It was conducted by Hmnty Cntrd and dscout, reported by design professionals living in the US, where the first line states, ‘the American workplace is a traumatized workplace.’ Whew. I had to take a breath while reading this report, but also, let’s thank the high heavens for research like this. Share it if you feel it. If it’s safe, hold space for a conversation about it among your team. Might your organization be open to hiring external support from trauma-informed experts? Are employee-led wellbeing efforts and short-term fixes really enough to tackle this problem? Or could it be making the problem worse? (My future eighty-year-old witchy self is now coming through, and she wants to say, “My dear friends, I’ve come to warn you that this shit needs to be taken way more seriously than it is.”)
Empathy. Oh, empathy. We owe you an apology. More than an apology. We made you a fine feast, a delicious duck with crisp apples and jeweled rice, then we ate your plate, teeth grinding, mouths drooling. Then we spit it out and congratulated ourselves at how fast we chewed it up. We used you. We abused you. We squeezed you through a manufactured tube until your sweet, pure juice turned into toxic water that not even hummingbirds want to be around. Can we ever repair our relationship? Can we ever hold reverence for your true meaning? It depends on what we’re willing to sacrifice. Our urge to say yes to everything. The pressures we put on ourselves that only make us more focused on ourselves. The wild hubris to think that we ever knew you. The corporate perks that separate us from you. At the very least, dear empathy, we owe you honesty.
Trust and accountability. And vulnerability and courage. If we’re going to say these words, then we’ve gotta be willing to talk about the messy parts of our process, the messy parts of ourselves. The mistakes. The lessons. The courage to advocate for the resources and structures and laws we’ll need to put these words into action. The courage to challenge the incentive structures that urge us to scale until musicians pull out their content because we let misinformation spread and gave people like Joe Rogan–or as my sister calls him, the mosquito from A Bug’s Life that zaps into the light–a platform without enough accountability. How do we ensure we don’t mistreat trust and accountability like we mistreated empathy?
Now find a third highlighter color. Green. Bright, shimmering, fresh as a lime dipped in cold sparking water green. Whenever you come across one of the following words, highlight it.
How much green do you see on the page? Could there be more? Could one of these words replace one of the words you deleted from step one? Where there is green, is there specificity? In what context are these words being used? Within your own personal and organizational OKRRRS, what measures will you take to ensure these words don’t fall into the yellow zone?
What language is this document in? English? Are your meetings in English when there are team members who communicate with a native language that is not English? Are your research reports English-only when a participant communicated in Español? Kiswahili? 한국어? हिन्दी? Sign language? If we have any hope of including more languages within the technology we create, then we’ve gotta start including it within our documents and rituals.
YOU’VE REACHED THE END.
Or the beginning, of deconstructing and reconstructing your organization’s culture. Maybe you play this game multi-player next time? With your team? I’d love to hear what you learn.
“But why can't the language for creativity be the language of regeneration? You killed that poem, we say. You're a killer. You came into that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I'm wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience, a target audience. "Good for you, man" a man once said to me at a party, "you're making a killing with poetry. You're knockin' em dead.”
– Ocean Vuong, Vương Quốc Vinh, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
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