If you’ve ever had someone say something nice about a thing you made, you know how great it feels. It’s a combination of validation, and respect, and recognition, and it’s truly wonderful. The only thing better is when someone offers kind words about who you are. That’s some intoxicating stuff.
That’s why I’m really wary of some praise I’ve gotten lately. The gist of it is, amidst the ongoing conversations about inclusion and diversity in tech, a few people very kindly pointed to me as an example of a guy who “gets it”, or is doing some things right. I want to dispel that notion a bit.
This isn’t some play at false modesty; I’m not a humble man. It’s an important explanation because the narrative of “he’s one of the good guys” is a dangerous concept when it comes to the work of fixing what’s wrong in the tech industry.
The Door Is Closed
Here’s the thing: The tech industry is deeply unfair about who it lets into the industry, who it lets profit from its success, and who it uses or exploits in order to succeed. This truth is well known. But these wrongs are not caused by a moustache-twirling evil caricature of a man sitting with his feet up on his desk in a dark lair.
Similarly, the work of fixing this industry is not being done by one (or even a few) heroic figures, who make the right choices all the time and act nobly in all things and thus cause everything to be okay. The burden is unduly borne by those who are being excluded: women, people of color, older people, disabled people, and those who are members of more than one of these groups or the many other underrepresented groups in our industry. And we can include the even larger group of people who aren’t totally excluded but whose potential for career advancement or economic reward are greatly constrained. Along with the many sincere and committed allies in more privileged groups, it’s an enormous group of people trying to fix tech. And we’re all flawed, prone to error, or simply off our game sometimes.
Why We Can’t Afford To Have Good Guys
With the requisite context in place, it’s easier to understand why any of us who are praised or recognized as “Good Guys” have to not believe the hype, no matter how seductive the idea of such praise may be.
If fixing tech becomes the domain of just those who are perfect avatars of the ideal activist, none of us will ever be ready to participate. Worse, if we require (seeming) perfection or ideal traits in all of those whom we recognize, we make the overall movement vulnerable to being attacked when any of us is revealed to have our inevitable human flaws and foibles.
I am not some kind of martyr; I’m proud of the little bits of work I’ve tried to do to improve tech. And I am truly appreciative that people who know me have come to expect that I’ll speak up on issues when I can. There’s no higher compliment I could be paid.
But I’m a regular guy, just like most of the people who read this site are regular folks. I am dedicated to improving the deep and pervasive sexism in our industry. I am also a man who doesn’t do his share of work around the house. I disproportionately foist the burden of childcare on to my wife, despite the fact that she is, in addition to the best person I’ve ever met, an actual Woman In Technology.
At a broader, less personal level, I’ve been in rooms when men were making sexist or exclusionary jokes and said nothing. Though it’s been a few years since it happened, I can still feel the shame of knowing I should have said something and having done nothing. More recently, I’ve sat in meeting rooms, even board rooms, where everyone present was a man, and I spoke too quietly or too cautiously about the exclusion taking place. I still get nervous to bring it up, too often taking advantage of my privileged ability to be silent.
When women have taken the time to point out obvious imbalances to me, I’ve more than once been reluctant to listen, instead preferring to keep myself centered in the conversation. If I do eventually come around and realize what I could do better, I’m sometimes slow to credit those who were patient enough to correct me, even though it shouldn’t be their responsibility to do so. When articulating issues of exclusion for women, I am too prone to overlooking or omitting the specific considerations that impact women from underrepresented minority groups, contributing to their erasure from consideration and conversation.
In my own business, when media stories cover work that I participate in, I’m not insistent enough on making sure my cofounder gets proper credit and prominence. When speaking at events, I’ve participated in all-male panels even though I am committed to not doing so, because I wasn’t mindful enough to think about it beforehand.
Above all, I don’t use my platform and my voice consistently enough to advocate for those who are excluded. These are just a few examples of where I don’t do enough in regard to including women in tech. I could add hundreds more examples here, or make similar lists of what I overlook in regard to exclusion because of race, or disability, or age, or sexual/gender identity, or citizenship/immigration status, or many other considerations.
This Is Not A Confession
I don’t recite this litany of errors as some sort of catalogue of my sins. I regret getting so many things wrong, but I’m not kept up by it at night as long as I keep trying to do better. What’s important to realize here is that we can this much wrong and still have an impact.
Most of my errors are due to simple ignorance and arrogance. And most of my learning has been due to the kindness of people, often strangers, who want to see me do the right thing. This isn’t some unique power I possess. Honestly, you’re probably more humble than me, and if this site’s analytics are right, most of you are more educated than me, too. You can do things I could only dream of.
So I end where I began. It really does feel wonderful to have someone you’ve never met take the time to say that I model “a lot of positive ally behaviors”! I am thankful for the great many kindnesses I encounter in trying to help out. But I want to make clear to the people I’m lucky enough to connect to that I didn’t, and still don’t, have any idea what the hell I’m doing. I’m not (yet!) good at it. It’s just that the work of fixing this industry, of making it as good as we all deserve, is such an enormous project that we’ve got room for those of us who screw it up and stumble around and sometimes, despite that, make progress.
The next time you hear someone is “one of the good ones”, be skeptical. Don’t believe it. Because the truth is, we’re all that good. Especially when we help each other get better.