Since the surprise victory of Donald Trump, a great wave of soul-searching has engulfed the tech industry about what role it played in both his rise and the deepening divides in American society.
There is Facebook’s famous “red vs. blue” feeds that serve up an endless diet of agitprop and fake news; there are Twitter’s infamous legions of trollbots; and of course, there are the hackers, Wikileaks and revelations of state sponsorship.
Beyond the purely tactical elements, tech’s widening cultural gap with the rest of the country has helped exacerbate these divides. Like other prestige industries (ex. journalism, media or finance), tech has become an aspirational career destination for the young, highly mobile, well-connected and expensively-educated, with all of the homogeneity those categories bring with them. For those who can break into it, the tech industry can provide a good living, exciting and intellectually engaging work, and reasonable job security. For those with the appetite for risk (and probably a family safety net), tech entrepreneurship can even offer the possibility, however small, of fabulous wealth.
For most Americans, however, the tech industry remains distant, vaguely and ominously powerful, and utterly out of reach.
The tech boom everyone talks about has been great for four or five metro areas, but pretty irrelevant or even destructive outside of them. For all of the enormous value Amazon alone has created, it has permanently displaced tens of thousands of steady jobs in physical retail distributed widely throughout the country. Local malls are dying. Facebook and Google have vacuumed up all the dollars in advertising while major newspapers wither and close. From healthcare and warehouses to law and transportation, tech is automating and making redundant heretofore reliable livelihoods at a rapid clip. From Hillbilly Elegy to Chris Arnade, we hear a steady drumbeat of uncertainty about what kind of jobs are going to be an engine for social mobility in our era, let alone be a foundation for the middle class.
I don’t have comprehensive answers to all of that. But I can think of one thing that sure might help.
Silicon Valley needs more courage — to hire
Entrepreneurship coaching; co-working space sponsorship; partnership roadshows; venture capital. Big Tech seems to do everything it can to encourage the expansion of the tech industry except for the most obvious: hiring people outside of the big tech hubs.
Decoupling employees from a single physical location and letting them work wherever they like (call it “remote working,” “distributed teams,” or whatever you want) is like any disruptive workplace technology — it starts small, and isn’t widely accepted yet. But it’s growing. Remote arrangements are already here, and more prevalent than people think. In many companies, it’s still mostly limited to either a fortunate few or to those with enough political juice to make it happen. But that’s going to change.
Our work is electronic and our relationships are too
The recurring objection to remote workers is that in-person, face-to-face, human communication is irreplaceably special, and that purely electronically mediated communication results in diminished collaboration, which is the secret sauce of any good tech company. In other words, “it just doesn’t work.”
Setting aside just how odd this objection is for most software companies to make, I’ll admit that this is partially true — talking to other humans in-person, face-to-face, has uniquely valuable communicative value. But it also results in a tremendous waste of productive time and energy. There are the meetings, the small talk about sportsball, the lunch breaks and all the things in between that leave everyone itching to get away from the office as soon as possible. Co-located teams may form strong bonds, but they can just as easily realize that they hate each other, and that working in proximity is a chore. Personal affinities matter tremendously when you’re working side-by-side; when those relationships are negotiated via distance, I’ve found that they can be much more productive by de-emphasizing the need to all like each other.
(That isn’t to say that close ties don’t also form with distance teams. I was part of one very tightly-knit PM team which was completely distributed between Chapel Hill, Austin, Des Moines, Boston and San Francisco.)
The ultimate irony is how many people commute 30-60 minutes to an office just to do most of their communication with colleagues via email, IM, Slack or phone.
The economics of remote teams are a slam-dunk
There is just no beating the economic case for remote workers and teams: they save a company money and employees time, make employees happier, and are a more sound public policy choice.
The tradeoff in company costs between an employee working from an expensive central location versus their (free) home office is pretty straightforward. But compound those savings by considering salary differences.
Just one example: according to Glassdoor, a product marketing manager in San Francisco that you’d hire for $115k can be hired in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for $85k. Speaking from experience, that $85k in Winston-Salem (a beautiful and charming city that I encourage you all to visit) goes much further than a pure cost-of-living comparison with SF implies when you consider the intangible benefits. Even factoring in bimonthly or quarterly trips to headquarters (assuming there is one), both the company and employee come out much further ahead.
Now consider it from the employee’s perspective. S/he isn’t forced to contemplate a risky relocation to work in a growing, exciting industry. There’s little or no commute (one of the single biggest factors in employee morale) and much greater flexibility around balancing work, life and family. By extending this freedom, the company cultivates happier, more productive employees, who are also far less likely to churn than in a big metro.
As a matter of public policy, forcing high-earning knowledge workers to cluster in a small geographic area creates a perfect storm for housing, transportation, minimum wage and land use policy, as any number of big coastal cities can attest. As experiential consumption choices, these cities can still be an attractive deal for 20-somethings right out of college, but the value equation begins to shift rapidly as they age. Buying a house and starting a family while also saving for retirement becomes a daunting challenge for all but the very wealthy few. This feeds the divisive strains of inequality, housing insecurity and stress that destabilize everything from local politics to civic life.
Tech and Diversification
As I said before, tech companies setting up teams in far-flung cities and towns and hiring individual contributors in home workspaces is not a solution to all of America’s employment challenges. But it could be a part of one, and it’s an idea whose time has come.
Having worked in multiple roles in tech for a number of years, I’ve confidently come to two conclusions about the tech industry: one, that some of America’s best, brightest and most creative minds are working in it; and two, that it utterly ignores a tremendous amount of talent that lacks access to the industry. This works to the detriment of individual companies, the tech industry, and our society as a whole.
Diversity in the tech industry is often framed as an issue about access to adequate job training (like coding), which is true, but also very incomplete. It’s also an issue of knowing what jobs exist in the tech industry in the first place. This is a major mystery when you live outside of the three or four cities with a lot of tech people. When I first began working at IBM, most of my friends and family were confused, because I’m not a software engineer — what else would one do there, they wondered? For what it’s worth, very few people I knew growing up, in college or in grad school (all in the southeast) had any connection to the tech industry whatsoever.
Fast Company recently revealed that Google alone has spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on its diversity efforts in the last two years, and hasn’t changed its racial diversity numbers even one point. But Google is hardly alone in its glaring lack of racial diversity:
Make no mistake — it’s the organizational and hiring practices of big tech companies that are mostly to blame for these numbers, not demographics. While the Bay Area has hollowed out its black community for decades, hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the population there. Rather, the same organizational reluctance to hire candidates that don’t fit a very particular profile (which usually happens to be a white or asian person) also resists calls to expand to other geographic areas.
More and more, the tech industry is resembling a gated community reserved for those whose inherited privileges grant them access to it. This fits neatly within a broader narrative of economic exclusion and inequality that is corroding the fabric of American society and which helps propel a toxic populist strain in our politics.
By embracing its own democratizing products to expand opportunity to wherever talent exists, Big Tech can strike a meaningful blow against this trend while also creating stronger companies and a more civically engaged workforce. This disruption is coming — who will lead it?