“I’m outraged! I’m going to write an app about this!”
A large number of people are about to be viciously targeted because of their skin color, sexual/gender identity, and religious background by the federal government in a more relentless and explicit way than we have seen in recent history. Motivated individuals, emboldened by their victory, are not waiting for the government.
I am a product/engineer person and I’m surrounded by them. We see a problem and we try to find a solution using skills we’ve painstakingly built up. We want to help and we want to use all this talent to do it. This is a good impulse. Now lets fire up our editors…
Before you jump in, I want you to ask yourself: do you just swoop into a domain you are unfamiliar with and start building something? Have you found doing that to be particularly useful or productive? Have others?
The first and most important step in problem solving is understanding the problem. If you’ve done any amount of real-world product development in your day job, you have to know how important it is to know the potential users of your solution and their needs.
Listen and learn
You do research, you find your audience, you ask questions, you try to understand the problems, you throw together prototypes, you pivot when things don’t work. You listen to your users and learn. Start there.
If your goal is to build something that helps vulnerable groups, those are your users. You have to show up, listen, empathize, develop real relationships with them, and then get to work.
Skipping these steps is easy, and it’s why so much tech looks like it was built for white men ages 18–35 with some disposable income. I’m one of those, and I can tell when I am being catered to. People build things for the problems that they know, and it’s yet another enormous reason why tech’s lack of diversity is such a huge issue.
Speaking of which, it’s time to talk about what you are doing right now.
Never confuse your own ethics with the company you work for.
There will be an entirely rational inclination by tech firms and companies in general to try to remain neutral or work with the next administration. They will do this until it costs them more than it is worth. Two things:
- You should hasten the time it takes for that break-even point — this could mean not contributing your labor, money, or attention to their endeavors
- You do not abdicate your responsibility to be a moral person when you go to work.
This isn’t an abstract concern, IBM was instrumental in making the Holocaust feasible and, as far as I can tell, has never apologized for it. Keep that in mind while you are building products that collect personal information or you are entertaining a government contract.
It has never been easier to find another job as a tech person. You should avoid companies where you feel your ethics will be compromised and leave if you are capable of doing so. They do not deserve your talent, respect, or loyalty.
A limited number of companies are going to take a real stand against the ruthless bigotry of the new administration, and they should be applauded and supported. There is either going to be a concerted effort to limit the power of the new administration in the tech sector, or there is not. Choose carefully what you spend your money on, recommend to others, and what you work on.
Your next step: show up
White supremacists are a minority in this country. We are the majority. Yet a combination of institutional hurtles, voter suppression, and hubris/complacency has handed the federal government over to bigots and their feckless enablers.
Showing up matters. Absent the protests this week, the whole news cycle would have been completely dominated with establishment characters talking about how they are going to work with the new administration and give it “the benefit of the doubt”, as if it had somehow earned such a thing.
- Find a group to organize with that shares your values
- If you can’t find one, make one.
- Meet up in real life, repeatedly, and organize
- Practice secure communications, prefer in-person communication
- Solidarity: be there for that group and your community, make real commitments and stick to them