How Do You Work in Tech Without Losing Your Soul? (The 2022 Weird Economy Vibes Version)
Let's review this question again, one year later
Let’s imagine, for this ten-minute read before your next meeting, that you and I are in a forest. It’s night time, 200 billion trillion stars scatter across the sky, a small fire crackles, and Beyoncé’s ‘Break My Soul’ imbues the air. It plays from one of our phones we tossed in the mossy grass somewhere. We haven’t talked in a while, or maybe we’ve never met, and it feels weird to ask “how are you doing” even though we both crave screen-less conversation. Instead, I offer you some CBD gummies and a glass of water. We laugh at the thought of pouring the water over our heads, pretending to wash away the pressure, the burnout, the layoffs, the rescinded job offers, the “is this a recession yet?” news alerts, the rogue supreme court, the shitshow of emails/decks/bugs/calendar invites you need to respond to but haven’t yet, the nervous uncertainty and imposter syndrome and creeping hopelessness that appears at 3am, the simplicity sprints, the spicy all-hands commands that “this is a time when moving fast really matters,” and “there are probably a bunch of people at this company who shouldn’t be here.” Our phones buzz with a notification tracking celebrity private jet usage and while the CO2 pollution data is not surprising, it’s still astonishing, which makes us wonder whether data transparency can still be a useful tool for accountability? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Maybe we should drink the water instead, while it lasts.
Despite all this, it’s nice to be back here, writing to you in this context. I launched this newsletter one year ago, exploring a question someone had asked me: “How do you remain in the tech industry without losing your soul?” Solidarity, my friend! I still wonder, will probably always wonder, whether it’s possible to develop technology without losing my values, my imagination, my friends, myself. When I shared that post, which was frightening as hell, it received more views in the first week than I had expected, but I’m not going to share the number because who cares, what mattered was that there were other people out there on this lonely world wild web wondering the same question, and I felt less alone. I hope that this space, even if in small ways, can help you feel less alone too, and that it keeps cracking open the unspoken dialogue between us, which is the first step towards any sort of systemic change. Thank you for reading and subscribing and sharing with your colleagues and friends. Thank you for your messages. Thank you for letting me say the quiet parts loud. It gives me the courage to keep writing, and I hope it gives you the courage to say the quiet parts loud too.
I’m returning to that soul question because I worry that the economic headwinds, the panicked rush to preserve capital, and overall weird economy vibes puts us at greater risk of losing our souls, our values, our connection to what people value and how that’s changing, our imagination, ourselves. I’ve seen recessions break hearts and crush teams. I’ve seen it pull people down the scarcity-mindset-rabbit-hole that flattens human beings into revenue streams and growth hacking schemes. I’ve seen it create more opportunities for platform abuse and harm to occur, with fewer protections in place to mitigate it. When fear is driving the car, it moves companies down paths that can take years to recover from as they putter along the ~*your trust is important to us*~ road. Of course, agility and focus are critical ~*in these times*~, but adding more notifications, ads, and growth hacking schemes that will only distract your users and reduce their effectiveness as a human being is not the answer.
I wonder if this moment is a signal that our values about technology, and how we want to engage and not engage with it, is changing at a fundamental level. We’re tired of the privacy-invading ad networks, and we DGAF if that’s going to cost you $10 billion. We’re tired of sifting our thumbs through menus on menus on menus just to find that meditation video to massage our headaches. We’re tired of the neglect for basic accessibility guidelines. We’re tired of the pop-ups asking us to help improve your product by filling out your boring survey. (Don’t you know enough about us already?) We’re tired of not having any control over whether we can turn off the autoplay videos that blast so loud that we must apologize to everyone around us. We’re tired of your DEI campaigns when most of your executive leadership embodies overrepresented identities, and the core use cases of your product reflect that too. We’re tired, but mostly, I think we’re really fucking bored by it all. And if artificial intelligence truly is a consciousness, I think it’s tired and bored by the way we’ve designed this whole shindig too.
When the White Rabbit comes sprinting into your meetings, urging you to move fast, survey, and growth hack, that’s when returning your attention to the people, communities, and environments most impacted by your product becomes most critical. This sounds obvious, or maybe it doesn’t, but amid economic headwinds, performance pressures, and layoffs, it gets harder to stay in tune with this, and I think it’s important to actively remember that before you start your work day. I hope, however, that returning your attention to the people, communities, and environments most impacted does not look like a boring two-hour-video-call-sprint where everyone obsesses over the number of times people tapped a button while you move digital post-it notes around and theorize over how that number can increase +0.2 percent. (Do you want those CBD gummies yet?)
Let this be a moment to meet face-to-face with users and non-users of your product as a multidisciplinary team (if it’s safe and respectful for everyone involved; be mindful of covid and monkeypox, don’t do intercepts, and compensate people for their time.) Why do this? Because you’ll need to mitigate the very real, high costs that you know will come if your team builds the wrong solution, which is more likely to happen when people are under pressure, and you really can’t afford to build the wrong solution right now or else the White Rabbit will swiftly and definitively break hearts and crush teams. Help your team make the time and space (ugly late-stage capitalism translation: create incentives for them) to sit down with people, face-to-face, and listen. And if this feels utterly impossible to do right now, and you don’t know when it will feel possible, or maybe you don’t even feel safe to ask, leverage your support network to help you consider your options. I’m thinking back to what I wrote a year ago, and how true, maybe more true, it feels today: we’re at risk of losing our souls (and the soul of the technology we’re building) when we stop listening.
Meeting face-to-face is also a way to hold yourself and your team accountable, which also gets harder to do in stressful times. The one thing I’ve consistently observed over the years–across corporations, nonprofits, startups, agencies, and universities–is that people get more motivated to fix <insert disjointed, overworked tech product> after they’ve met with someone directly and listened to their feedback, emotions, and questions. I’m also thinking of the 63 percent of people in the US who claimed in a McKinsey survey (I still think surveys sometimes suck and would love to see more data on this from other research methods) that they want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work. And we all know that disjointed, overworked products are usually, well, a product of disjointed, overworked teams. Break free from the screens (if safe) and sprints, my zoomies! Go outside and listen to people. You may find yourself more connected to the product you stare at all day long, and the very real impact of it.
Speaking of purpose, one of the things I’ve appreciated most about working in tech are all the incredible writers, poets, comedians, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, painters, chefs, parents, farmers, gardeners, printmakers, astrophysicists, furniture makers, yoga teachers, entrepreneurs, you name it, the people I’ve met who are amazing at their tech day jobs but their real joy and creativity comes from somewhere else. Working in tech remains a dream, in large part, because certain roles can provide the financial resources and health insurance to cultivate these skills when our brutal economy fails to provide the adequate support for it. But it’s worth noting that sponsored influencers are worth $8 billion today, with over two-million influencers worldwide making six-figure incomes. YouTube and TikTok eat a whopping 45 percent and 50 percent of the ad revenue that creators generate but with the variety (shitshow?) of tools out there, the creator economy, for better and worse, is illuminating pathways for workers across industries who may find that their souls don’t want them to remain in their industries at all. Besides, why stay when your boss is literally telling you, “there are probably a bunch of people at this company who shouldn’t be here,” while you watch TikTok eat their lunch? I don’t think The Great Resignation or a recession are the only conditions that hiring managers should watch out for in the future, but the day they realize they won’t be able to hire their best talent.
But if you want to work in tech and are still looking for ways to renew your soul, one of the best ways to do that is to support the emerging generation of tech workers. Last month, at Harbour.Space University in Barcelona, I taught ‘Design in a World of Chaos & Uncertainty’ to a hybrid classroom of design, engineering, and marketing students from over 20 countries. Through theatre-making activities, design exercises, and talented guest lecturers like Ramona Todoca, Lavet Adhiambo, and Shaheena Attarwala, we learned methods for alleviating fear and uncertainty in tech products today, how to develop institutional analyses, and how to advocate for ourselves in the workplace. From reimagining a neighborhood in Oman with greater walkability, to designing a way to share voice notes with your friends as you learn a new language on Duo Lingo, to redesigning digital health accessibility amid the gridlock of traffic in Indonesia, their projects sparked a radical space of hope and possibility.
Between you and me, I didn’t want to teach ye olde design-thinking-sprint-methodology. I wanted to teach new methods that can help us break free from the processes that won’t move us forward amid wild uncertainty and fast-changing values. I wanted to share stories about the mistakes I’ve made, the moral injury I’ve felt, and the institutional analyses I wish someone would’ve taught me before entering this tough, greedy ass industry. And I wanted to listen. “I didn’t expect this class to be so moving,” said one student. “Isn’t empathy common sense though?” asked another. If you’re interested in teaching at Harbour.Space for a couple of weeks or joining as a guest lecturer in one of my classes, I'd love to connect with you. Their brilliance and sense of community was refreshing, and I think I learned more from them than they learned from me.
Maybe that’s what our souls really want – to learn, to imagine, to listen, to break free, to share.
Your fellow soul-in-searching,
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