On leading change in the tech industry

12 August 2020
12 Aug 2020
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

A friend approached me recently with a question.

What do you think it takes to lead change in the field you’re working in? And what specific “fields” do you consider yourself to be a part of? What are the greatest opportunities for change right now?

I responded with a shorter version of this post. I thought I would elaborate here.

I consider myself involved in the technology industry, and in the startup ecosystem in the Bay Area and in the American Midwest, to a lesser extent in other places through acquaintances and friends. Tech and startups overlap in my life, so I’m going to use them interchangeably and just call them both “the tech industry.”

I think there are two kinds of change people should lead in the tech industry:

  1. Cultural change. Making it less toxic, more equitable to minorities, more open to the older generations. More tolerant of people who think differently and less tolerant of sexism and racism up and down the org chart. These are, I think, existential threats to the industry’s long term ambition and potential.
  2. Technical change. Building better tools for our work, advocating for new programming paradigms and operational workflows. Being at the forefront of interesting technical trends. This is the core of our work as technologists and inventors.

On cultural change, I think we need two kinds of people. We need advocates who have the courage to speak up and tell stories about injustices they’ve experienced, or problems they see around them, and we need people in the rest of the industry – developers, managers, hiring committees, CEOs – to listen to them and think critically about how these voices of reason might be drowned out in their company by the loud majority. I think we need both of these kinds of people, neither can do it alone.

Leading cultural change necessarily means shining light on problems we see within our own organizations and our own teams, and that’s tough. But like any task of growth, we will be better for it, and we should invite and celebrate these discussions in good faith, whenever possible.

It’s the responsibilities of the loudest voices in the industry, the C-suites and the powerful companies, to listen and amplify when this happens, rather than to ignore it or push it out. The consequences of ignorance always catch up to us, and in the end, humility is the only way forward.

We have problems. Our work ahead is to fix them, not to litigate who has stood further from it and watched.

Tech also bears the additional burden that, for better or worse, Silicon Valley builds the world’s infrastructure. Digital infrastructure isn’t just websites and apps now. It’s also emergency alert systems, politicians’ news-making platforms, it’s where people unravel their insecurities, and it’s the turf of international power struggles over dominance in commerce and political rhetoric. And we need advocates who are willing to not shut up about the importance of these responsibilities, and willing to put in the work to find a community of supporters who will see that we wield our power with the weight of responsibility we ought to wear.

This requires speaking up, in public, in our teams, and to our coworkers.

On technical change, I think innovation is led by teams of people, never alone. I think technology might be invented by individuals, but the ability to effect industry wide change in tech requires (1) lots of capital (2) a loud voice and (3) reputation. This means if you have a new invention, you need to find a corporate advocate, whether that’s you using your own tech at your own company on a new experiment, like Google using Flutter or Facebook using React; or whether it’s you convincing a larger company to use a new thing – big advocates get people to pay attention, and technical experiments like this are expensive from a risk standpoint.

Leading technical change also requires time. Good ideas in computing have taken at least two or three decades to be widely adopted and celebrated. Every popular implementation of a foundational idea in computer science – from object-oriented programming to advanced type inference systems to distributed and containerized computing – stands on prior art born and discovered decades before. Change asks for patience.

All of this is very high-level stuff. I think for both cultural and technical change, change in tech comes down to:

Keep your ears open and to the ground for voices and ideas that other people might not hear, that might be important. And if you think it’s important, find other advocates who care, and together, convince companies to care. Tech has deep pockets and lots of power, but the only way we can get that power to be wielded for good is by getting the people building those companies to care.

Change is atomic – the only way to change the tech community is to change individuals. Tech has transformed the world, I think, mostly for good. It would be a shame if we couldn’t transform ourselves for the better, too. That burden, to find the wisdom to change in ourselves, is on each of us.

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