On Being and Tech's Moral Reckoning

Back in November, I got to sit down with the amazing Krista Tippett for a lengthy interview in front of an incredibly warm crowd in Easton, MD. Now, that interview has been edited down and is available as the latest episode of Krista's hugely popular show, On Being.
I hope you'll take a listen — we cover the contemporary tech industry, the social impact of the major social networks, and even the bigger reckoning with how tech is changing our families and or kids and our relationships. I'm really proud of how this came out, and can't wait to hear what you think. And, of course, if you're interested in more on the topic, you can check out my Humane Tech series on Medium.

If you are interested, there's also a full, 90-minute unedited version of the conversation. With Krista and her team coming from Minneapolis, the Prince mentions you might expect from me are in the uncut version.

I'm at Fog Creek. And we're introducing Gomix!

Okay, here’s the story: I’m the new CEO of Fog Creek Software! And we have an awesome new tool called Gomix that just launched today, and you should go try it out and build the app of your dreams in a few minutes.

Want to know more? Okay, there’s more.

If you know me, you might be familiar with Fog Creek Software. Cofounded by Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor in 2000, it’s one of the most venerable and respected software companies in the world. I’ve known it from its earliest days, as both a customer and a fan, and have gotten to watch excitedly as they launched hugely influential tools like Trello (which Michael is now CEO of as an independent company) and Stack Overflow (also independent, and headed up by Joel as CEO). Fog Creek’s flagship product FogBugz has long been the best tool for helping teams make great software — I know because we used to use it to make Movable Type and TypePad back when I was helping get those products off the ground a decade ago.

Fog Creek product history

Built on Values

But Fog Creek is a lot more to me than just a company that’s made a bunch of hugely popular applications. What first resonated for me was reading Joel’s words in his seminal posts on tech culture, like the Joel Test. Though some of the references to old Windows software are a little bit dated now, the insights in Joel’s writing are so essential and timeless that they’ve become part of the canon that almost every developer is expected to read.

And what I found in these seminal documents of Fog Creek’s culture were a few simple statements of values that could be easily summarized:

  • Workers matter, deeply. The things they create, the environment they work in, and the ideas they imagine are worth protecting, respecting and honoring.

  • Technology and software are better when they’re accessible to more people. We need to build tools, platforms and organizations that prioritize the thoughtful dissemination of technical information, to stop coding from being an exclusionary priesthood for a small few.

  • We can build our values into our software. We aspire to having a point of view and to being thoughtful, and we can build tools that encourage other creations of technology to do the same.

What I found was that I had a chance not just to work with some of the most talented people in the world, but to do so in an environment that was actively countering the worst excesses and abuses of the tech industry. It’s no secret that I’ve become increasingly critical of the conventional tech world’s lack of focus on ethics, humanity, and inclusion.

But at a personal level, I realized I couldn’t in good conscience just criticize from afar. If the best way to criticize software is to make software, then the best way to criticize tech companies is to make a better tech company. And it turns out that one already exists. Even more fortunate, its brilliant and thoughtful founders Michael and Joel were willing to trust me to be the CEO of the company that have so carefully shepherded all these years.

And frankly, after challenges like shutting down ThinkUp earlier this year, I started reckoning a bit with how to be most effective in pushing the tech industry to be a little more thoughtful. This personal inflection point became clearer as the team at Activate released this year's Activate Outlook — seven years after we'd set out to create the leading strategy consulting company, I realized we'd not just succeeded, but done so to the degree where the team could now run effectively without me being involved day-to-day. Between stepping back to an advisory role at Activate and sharpening the focus of my work for the organizations whose boards I serve on, I was able to bring some clarity to the work in front of me.

I realized that I wanted to fully engage myself with a single, all-encompassing role that would use all my skills, and that Fog Creek's legacy of leading the industry made it the perfect place to try and push things forward again. So now, I have a simple answer if someone at a cocktail party asks what I do.

What do I do? I'm the CEO of a small software company in downtown Manhattan that’s as influential in the tech world as companies 1000 times our size. And we're trying to make awesome products that remind people how tech can be creative, thoughtful and humane.

(If that sounds good, we're hiring. And we welcome you, as you are, to join our team.)

Gomix brings back the fun of the “view source” web

Which brings me to our next chapter: Gomix. Many geeks of my cohort came of age building things on the desktop using HyperCard or Visual Basic, or by using View Source in their browser to tweak HTML pages that they uploaded to Geocities. The web’s gotten a lot more mature and a lot more powerful, but the immediacy of that kind of creation has been lost. Today, even if you’re a skilled developer, the starting point you’re working from is usually a pile of unassembled parts.

Gomix lets you start from a working app (or bot, or site, or whatever) and then remix it into exactly the app of your dreams. If you just want to change a button from blue to green, or add your logo, you can be running instantly. See a fun or smart Alexa skill or Slack bot? You can jump in, edit the responses to be the text you want, and have your own version running in just a few minutes.

For the past several years, I found that the overhead of provisioning servers, or trying to maintain a dev environment, or wrangling with version control took all the fun out of coding for me, to the point where I don’t just hack on things for fun anymore. I can’t imagine how much more intimidating it would be if I hadn’t spent many years coding.

Gomix fixes all that. Really. We’re still just getting started (you might have seen the earlier preview release under the name “HyperDev”) but we’re out in beta today and I think if you have ever edited a spreadsheet or just tweaked the HTML in a blog post, you’ll immediately understand how Gomix can help you create.

I hope you’ll give it a try, and along with the entire amazing team at Fog Creek, we’re excited to see what you create.

Forget “Why?”, it’s time to get to work.

There are going to be endless think-pieces and armchair analyses about why America elected Donald Trump as its next President. But you already know why.

Don’t waste a single moment listening to the hand-wringing of the pundit class about Why This Happened, or people on TV talking about What This Means. The most important thing is that we focus on the work that needs to be done now. While so many have been doing what it takes to protect the marginalized and to make society more just, we must increase our urgency on those efforts, even while we grieve over this formidable defeat.

It is completely understandable, and completely human, to be depressed, demoralized or overwhelmed by the enormity of this broad embrace of hateful rhetoric and divisive policy. These are battles that have always taken decades to fight, and progress has never been smooth and steady — we’ve always faced devastating setbacks. If you need to take time to mourn, then do. But it’s imperative that we use our anger, our despair, our disbelief to fuel an intense, focused and effective campaign to protect and support the marginalized.
And it has to start now.

new growth

There are concrete steps we can take immediately, which can set up habits that we can sustain for the years of struggle to come.

1. Show up, in your community.

Whether it’s issues like marriage equality, fighting climate change, or welcoming refugees and other immigrants, much of the progress we see starts at the local level, in our neighborhoods and cities and states. We’ll need to support and grow the organizations doing the work, and commit our time and energy to helping them accomplish their goals — simply donating our money will not be enough. There are a few key things to remember:

  • Organizations fighting for civil rights and social justice already exist in your community. Take the time, now, to research who is providing for essentials like food and water security, education, shelter, legal representation, and policy advocacy on behalf of people at risk.
  • Commit to showing up to help. We all have an overwhelming number of obligations to our lives, our families, our friends and to our work and careers. It’s hard to give up the one night a week we might spend hanging out, watching Netflix, but if that’s the night of the City Council meeting, or when your local elected official has a public hearing, it’s time to show up. Building real, sustainable infrastructure to protect those in need is a job that can’t only be done virtually, or remotely. We’ve got to show up.
  • Start fundraising, now. Once you’ve found the organizations doing the work in your community, commit what resources you can to supporting them, and begin helping them come up with ways to be sustainable over the long term. Local businesses are going to be key to providing necessary resources (whether that’s in-kind offerings or simply funding) and the time to capture their good intentions is right now while they’re still feeling the full weight of Trump’s win. If companies in your community say they want to do the right thing, give them the chance to.

2. Make stopping Trump a regular habit.

There are a few key steps we’ll all need to follow to prevent the gradual acceptance of Trump’s extreme and dangerous rhetoric.

  • Fight normalization in media. We’ll start to see the morning shows doing fluffy profiles of Melania and Ivanka almost immediately, along with “humanizing” articles and profiles of Trump following closely behind. These will be part of a concerted effort to make it seem as if Trump fits into a normal pattern of political practice in this country. We need to steadfastly, aggressively call out this threat by reminding media of his outrageous behavior and holding them accountable.
  • Build time into the schedule to undo Trump’s effects. We cannot stop the dangers of Trump’s presidency if we are reactive, only responding after he does something outrageous. We need to be proactive in preventing harm before it happens, and that requires a rhythm of civic participation, where we regularly do basic community-building acts like connecting with others around direct action or advocacy campaigns. Put it on your calendar, and pick 2 days a week where you set aside your lunch or forgo watching TV in the evening to contact elected officials, support candidates who will run for office, work with community organizations to support those in need, or simply talk to your friends and neighbors about the work that needs to be done.
  • If you can’t lead, then support those who do. Once President Obama’s term in office has ended, we’ll be blessed with getting back one of the most effective and respected community organizers who’s ever lived. But his work alone won’t be enough — we’ll need a thousand more leaders like him. Find the people in your community who are leading the charge, and ask them what they need. Nobody can do it alone, and not everybody has the time or interest to be the face in front of the crowd, but we can support those who do choose to stand up.
  • Pursue a strategy of containment as we make progress. There are a few narrow areas where Trump’s stated policies aren’t inherently destructive, such as his promise to rebuild American infrastructure. While we have to be hypervigilant for traditional inequities like redlining and destructive “urban renewal”, we can work to direct his efforts in such areas towards productive ends, so that the momentum and attention of Trump and his supporters is channeled toward the least dangerous goals possible. This strategy will also benefit from Trump’s illiteracy or incompetence in other areas of policy, which might draw him to focus on initiatives related to construction and infrastructure, where he is least weak. This doesn’t diminish his danger overall, but offers a possible productive outlet for what he’ll clearly see as a mandate to act.

This is what happens now.

This is what happens now.

Posted by Ill Doctrine on Wednesday, November 9, 2016

3. Take care of yourself and others.

This is going to take years of work, and there will be other demoralizing moments along the way. We’ll get tired and afraid and exhausted, and when we’re not, we’ll have to help those around us who are.

But the work to be done in fighting Donald Trump is not unprecedented. All of us who are targets of his rhetorical attacks and his proposed policies can look back at history and see times when we’ve faced down similar threats—and won. It is only because progress has been made that we feel so gutted by this loss. And this is not, as some would say, the last gasp of old oppressions, it is simply another dark milestone in a fight against injustice that will never end.

Today, though, I’m ready to get to work, and I’m committed to this fight for as long as it takes. I owe it to my child, and to my family, and to yours. I hope you’ll join me. We’ve got work to do.


It's more than just "teach kids to code"

I’m skeptical about “teach the kids to code!” as a panacea for all of society’s ills. Yet today, I’m at the White House to participate in a summit on Computer Science for All. Why would a skeptic still think it’s important to make computer science part of everyone’s education?

It’s almost impossible to overstate the breadth of cultural enthusiasm for the idea of teaching kids about computer science and computing. No matter where they sit on the political spectrum, leaders will proudly tout America’s high tech companies as the future of innovation and high tech companies as the future of opportunity and employment. Tech has become something of a secular religion in America, and as a result there’s been a rush toward enthusiastically advocating for technology education, without as much substantive and nuanced critique as the idea deserves.

The Myth of Perfect Tech Jobs

As someone who’s been making software and Internet technologies for 20 years, I’m skeptical about the enthusiasm that so many in the policy-making world have for saying, “let’s teach kids to code!” To start with the obvious elephant in the room, many of the people advocating for these programs aren’t particularly knowledgeable about technology, or the economics of today’s tech startups, in the first place. (Most people making policy haven’t yet realized that there is no “technology industry”.) And most of the technologists advocating for these programs aren’t particularly literate in how today’s educational systems work, or what constraints they face.

But my skepticism starts at a lot more fundamental level than the literacy gap between policy, tech and education. Even though I do know how to code and I do love technology, I am intimately aware of the weaknesses of many of the signature companies that define tech culture, and those are the biggest concerns we need to address.

Many tech companies are still terrible at inclusion in their hiring, a weakness which is even more unacceptable given the diversity of the younger generations we’re educating today. Many of the biggest, most prominent companies in Silicon Valley—including giants like Apple and Google—have illegally colluded against their employees to depress wages, so even employees who do get past the exclusionary hiring processes won’t necessarily end up in an environment where they’ll be paid fairly or have equal opportunity to advance. If the effort to educate many more programmers succeeds, simple math tells us that a massive increase in the number of people qualified to work on technology would only drive down today’s high wages and outrageously generous benefits. (Say goodbye to the free massages!)

And at a more philosophical level, a proper public education, paid for by taxpayers, shouldn’t be oriented toward simply providing workers for a group of some of the wealthiest, most powerful companies to have ever existed.

That’s a pretty damning case against teaching kids to code? So why would somebody still favor the massive investment and cultural shift required to pull it off? Well, it’s the oldest excuse in the political realm, but we have to think about the children.

Going beyond CS

There’s a much more powerful vision of “computer science for all” that can address all of the concerns raised by the current state of technology and tech companies. Technology literacy, and a strong basis in computer science, can be a powerful way to empower the most marginalized, most needy people in society.

We simply have to commit to some broad principles about how we teach CS:

  • Teaching computational thinking: Aside from simply teaching how programming works, we need to ensure that young people can understand the way that human concerns are translated into problems that computers can help solve. Like media literacy or general critical thinking skills, we should provide this information as a necessary part of teaching students to understand the systems that run the world around them. It’s essential that concerns like ethics and systemic biases be incorporated into any education about technology systems.
  • Applied CS over theory: A lot of yesterday’s computer science programs emphasized abstract concepts that could often be hard to translate into practical impact. Given that more students have access to technology in their everyday lives than ever before, recontextualizing CS education to connect directly to the tools and devices they already use can ensure that what we’re teaching is relevant. By analogy, we’re going to need a lot more electricians than electrical engineers, even if we know that the two related disciplines are both important and valuable.
  • Jobs in every industry, not tech startups: While we shouldn’t add to curriculum simply to satisfy the demands of industry, it’s reasonable to want to make sure education can translate into real-world jobs. The vast majority of technology jobs, both today and in the future, are outside of the signature startups and tech titans of Silicon Valley, in technical roles in companies that are otherwise not seen as being primarily in “tech”. These jobs may not have the high profile of Google or Facebook, but companies with a longer track record are likely to be stable, more geographically distributed, and aligned with the career and life goals of a broader swath of the population. We can de-emphasize the high-risk startup style of tech employment in favor of a much more accommodating style that could be described as blue-collar coding.
  • It’s not about making more programmers: While a lot of young people who learn about computer science may choose to go into programming or engineering or related disciplines, we should not design curricula with the goal of turning everyone into a coder. Every industry, every creative discipline, every line of work from farming to fashion, engineering to english, management to marketing, can be improved by including insights provided by being deeply technologically literate. It’s possible to teach computer science in a way where it amplifies the interests and ambitions that young people have in any discipline, and unlocks their full potential in whatever field they find meaningful.

Being literate in technology and computer science has opened up an unimaginable set of lifelong opportunities for me. From meeting friends, to having a fulfilling career, to getting to speak at the White House again today, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. And I want as many people as possible to enjoy the same potential for new opportunities and a meaningful, fulfilling career.

As we commit to broadly teaching technology, we must do a better job of addressing all of the personal, social, cultural, and civic concerns that arise with technology’s transformation of our society. Teaching CS as simply a way of filling a pipeline of employees for giant high-tech companies is not enough. Indeed, if that’s all we succeed in doing, we’ll have failed. But if we can show a whole generation of young people that technology and computer science can be one of the tools they use to pursue their passions, and amplify their impact on the world, we’ll have made a worthy addition to the canon of material that students use as a basis for their life’s work. It’ll take years of concerted, continuous effort. So let’s get started.


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