Tech practice in a post-capitalist world.
Corporations pay tech practitioners to focus their attention on tactical minutia, so when we are not heads-down slinging code or spinning wireframes, we’re heads-down debating the efficacy of various languages, design systems, or whether agile is a cult or a religion. I think it’s time for us to lift our heads and examine the larger issues that we face. What are the most important concerns for an interaction designer today? What are the biggest questions tech practitioners face?
In decades past, businesses shared a broad set of goals that included caring for their employees, their customers, and the towns and cities in which they operated. Over the years corporations have jettisoned all concerns for others, all care for the environment they operate in, and the society that nurtures and supports them. They have boiled their cares down to a single one: their own profits.
Make no mistake about it, your first job is to be a good ancestor.
Because tech professionals typically work for corporations, our days are guided by corporate interests, and practitioners often internalize the goals of the business as their own. In light of this, it comes as no surprise that tech practitioners wrestle with the compromises their jobs force them to make. They struggle to reconcile their care for their colleagues, their users, and their craft with the contradictory demands of their company’s management.
To me, the biggest and most important question we need to ask ourselves is: what is the tech practitioner’s primary goal?
Make no mistake about it, your first job is to be a good ancestor. You must create a better place for all the members of all the future generations to come. You need to consider the air, the water, the health of our complex social systems first and always. Only after those have been considered can you think about making money. If you don’t, nobody else will either. When that happens, you are far more likely to be a homeless, broken victim than a Zuckerberg or Ellison.
Your boss didn’t hire you because he or she wanted to be a good human.
If your main goal is making people’s lives better, you can also make money, but if your main goal is to make money, you ultimately find yourself making people’s lives miserable. And in the long term, making people miserable doesn’t make money.
Some might say that such care for social and economic outcomes should be the concern of others and tech practitioners should focus on the narrow task of creating successful software. We have certainly tried to do things that way for the past 30 or 40 years and all it has gotten us is rampant prejudice, hatred, social stagnation, and an economy that pumps money away from citizens and into the hands of thieves, charlatans, and unelected philanthropists.
Our goal is to make the user’s life more satisfying and happier. Our goal is not to make the corporation more productive. It is not to make the maximum amount of revenue. Our goal is specifically not to garner the largest audience, the greatest number of clicks, or to serve the broadest user community. Those goals belong to business people. Business people can achieve those goals and still leave pain and devastation in their wake. Those goals make a lot of money for investors, but one can make money by oppressing people and destroying lives, so those goals are not good goals.
Your boss didn’t hire you because he or she wanted to be a good human. They hired you because they want to make money. Don’t confuse their misguided capitalist mission with your mission: to make the lives of your users more satisfying.
If your goal is to be a successful practitioner in a leadership role, you need to choose a goal other than making money. Making money certainly attracts people, but it is a weak attraction that attracts weak people. Making civilization better and stronger attracts people in a deeper and more profound way. People want goals that are worthy of the effort needed to achieve them, and it’s our responsibility to set such goals and demonstrate our commitment to them.
Gresham’s Law says that bad currency forces out good currency. That is, once people in your organization begin to advocate for clicks and revenue, the needs of the user rapidly get relegated to lip service only. You need to proactively, loudly, aggressively advocate for the user.
When I started out in this business I was a lot more sympathetic to the needs of business, but I don’t see a reciprocal caring from business for the needs of tech practitioners, let alone for users. I no longer believe that it is our responsibility to winge on about shareholder value and ROI and Quarterly Revenues. That was done to a fault, and we, the makers and the doers, are paying for it, not the executives, investors, and the CEO class.
It’s past time for us to show the way.