Mid-Career (Egad!) Reflections on Social Impact, Data, & Strategy: 5-ish Principles

Maybe it is because I am now 40 or going dry in 2019 is bringing more mental clarity- but lately, I find myself deep in thought wading through chapters of my life. My reflections include a special slice comprised of the past 15 years of professional experience. I feel blessed to have worked on many worthwhile and interesting projects and programs. A welcome tertiary benefit was getting to know many wonderful people along the journey. The line between colleagues and friends blurred a while back, and I believe we are richer for it. That “would you like to be stuck at an airport with this person” litmus test has been administered many times, and almost everyone passes. :)

I briefly considered writing my thoughts on what to impart to a younger version of myself on life and career. Beyond the cliché of such a dramatic declaration, three things held me back- (1) I like figuring out new spaces on my own and wonder how many fresh and free domains out there still truly exist; (2) I am not ready to embrace full-blown middle-age man mode; and (3) I find myself agreeing with most of the points made by Shane Rodgers’ post “The career advice I wish I had at 25” (H/T to the remarkable Veronica Cretu, who is also chock full of wisdom!) and also feel there is nothing I can add to Wait but Why’s visualizations of life as data blocks and the call to fill what remains with meaningful people and experiences in “The Tail End.

But perhaps there is a set of useful thoughts I can bring to the amorphous field I have chased and love called “social impact.” It didn’t quite exist when I was starting out in the late 1990s (NGOs only!), and the social sector will likely take on new forms and shapes in coming decades (it must!). Curiosity has long been my guide in pursuit of changing the world, with each leg of the trek answering some questions and mostly raising others. In retrospect, I rather like that my career path doesn’t fit neatly into a predefined box, though walking an undefined path always feels a little unnerving as things are unfolding. I haven’t fallen off any cliffs yet, and here are some “aha” moments and lessons learned for others working broadly on or in social impact, international development, and technology for development type initiatives. These are thoughts and lessons derived from ongoing conversations with myself (yes, this happens!) and with sensible colleagues, mentors, and confidants over the years. Some many resonate with you, or maybe not. But, these tenets will also serve as principles for how I will approach the second half of my professional life.

  1. Maintain Beginner’s Eye & Mindset

I have grown to love jumping headfirst into a new field or social issue that I know absolutely nothing about. This mode has been a hallmark of my career, starting with my days designing, implementing, and monitoring medical assistance programs in North Korea. The basic process is the same regardless of sector or field- devour as much existing information and context as possible, immerse yourself in the actual context, sit with things, struggle with them, and then chart a course of action. Quick iterative rounds of implementation and reflection are preferred methods of achieving progress.

I have successfully avoided the trap/tyranny of expertise by constantly cycling into new areas- in part a necessity really, because early in one’s career expertise is a thing in short supply. However, after navigating a few different fields and applying this approach, I still believe expertise is an ephemeral snapshot in time. An established set of knowledge is good for a moment, but hubris tries to keep expertise past its shelf-life. It takes humility to maintain beginner’s mind, and it is easier when you’re a rookie. If you believe you know nothing, do not accept things at face value, and are open to exploration- you will eventually find and add new value.

So what does this approach look like in practice? Be respectful of but do not defer to established and untested bodies of knowledge. Things grow stale. Every industry has them- particularly industries clustered around social issues and funding streams. The people and institutions who create these narratives rarely truly recognize this dynamic for the well-intended barrier to progress it can be. Narratives exist to simplify complexity (never mind the politics for a moment, we’ll get to that later). While simplified narratives may be useful for advocacy, they are not terribly useful for building and testing interventions and solutions. Test and probe all narratives. Keep asking why- you’ll eventually come to the point where no one can convincingly tell you why (usually sooner than later!). That is where you should start your exploration and journey.

But nothing is foolproof. Regardless of success or failure, consider all outcomes data points.

2. Ground Yourself, Before You Wreck Yourself

As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to get out of the small town I spent my formative years. It always felt small. I used to lament the fact that I was always one of a handful of Asian kids in school, but in retrospect, my childhood helped me better understand who I am, reject stereotypes, struggle with and define my own identity, and instilled empathy for injustice. Luckily, my career has afforded me the opportunity to see and experience a lot more of the world than the corner of New Jersey I grew up in. Anywhere I travel, I seek to understand as much of the place as I can, experience it directly, and feel my surroundings. If I can blend in as a local, even better. While my sense of adventure and curiosity initially drove me to spend more time “on the ground,” I quickly realized how essential this connection is for meaningful, honest, and ethical work in international settings. We should be building with not for communities, and really being connected to ground realities is the only stable foundation for not just ICT4D but for international development as a whole.

That said, I have enjoyed and learned immensely from my experience in executive and senior management roles, but reality dictates that opportunities for real “ground” work and exposure decrease in supply as one’s career progresses. For most of us, you just can’t be the guy or gal delivering humanitarian assistance on the ground forever. But if we truly care about the lofty mission statements we espouse, there is no replacement for drawing directly from the context we are supposed to be shaping and guiding programmatic work in. If possible, become and stay a part of the community you are seeking to serve. Field assignments aren’t always practical, but I believe we must still find creative ways to stay close to the ground and keep our hands close to the technical details. Human-centered design became a rallying cry because this basic logical connection wasn’t happening organically. This isn’t a call for parachuting yourself into the field for poverty tourism, but a genuine desire to see more people break down the barriers that exist in our minds and to find as much ground to apply beginner’s eye and mindset.

You can’t jump unless your feet are firmly planted on the ground.

3. Political & Technical Challenges — Untangling Technology

In the field of international development and social impact, there is a time-honored tradition of treating every new technology as a panacea or “golden bullet.” These words are then carefully inserted early on in presentations and concept notes to imply that said new technology is in fact “not a panacea” but goes on to treat it as such in subsequent content.

This view of technology can be exhilarating. When we don’t understand the possibilities or limitations of something, we can misplace our hopes and desires on a new technology solution. It feels good, but hope alone doesn’t realize results. It is possible and optimal to strike a balance between the unfettered optimism a new technology inspires and a pragmatic realism that cuts to the core of what a new technology can do and the barriers that exist within the environment of implementation (political challenges) and the technology itself (technical challenges). Often technical challenges are confused with or even blamed for symptoms of longstanding political challenges- this helps no one. Sometimes nothing is better than something as a poorly designed technical solution can actually solidify and institutionalize the very inequalities and imbalances we are seeking to change.

However, there is an answer- albeit one that requires time and effort. We must treat technology like everything else in our daily lives. Query it. Try it out. Take it apart. Look at the components. Put it back together. Understand it. Mold it. Prototype something. Test it out. Never start with the end in mind- but wield technology as your toolkit. It is ok to leave something behind. It is ok to change course. Technology will never tell you “why,” but if you force it to, you will get back a variety of responses with limited utility. So quit asking vendors to come up with solutions and use cases. You need to come up with the why and purpose on your own- no one else can do that hard work for you. The innovation risk in international development shouldn’t be on the basics of technology but in the smart and tactful application of technology, and exponentially more difficult but worthwhile endeavor.

There’s often a bait and switch between the sales pitch for a new technology and its implementation. We as providers and consumers of technology for development have to be open and honest about what we know and more importantly what we don’t know. This clarity tempers unrealistic expectations and is the foundation for a good working relationship that can lead to positive change and results. If you can’t explain something simply, you need to sit with the concept longer. If you don’t want to understand the new technology in play, it’s good to be honest with yourself. At best, complexity is not thoughtfulness- at worst, it is obfuscation. Don’t buy or sell things you don’t understand. Technology can surely help and has a place in social impact, but let us leave performances to magicians and professional wrestlers.

Yesterday it was mobile. Today it’s blockchain. Tomorrow it will be some other new technology that excites the field in a similar way. There will always be a glut of hype- just like there will always be a shortage of meaningful thoughtful implementations. Try to avoid the former, add to the latter. It’s an uphill battle, but a meaningful one. There will always be a need and sweet spot for the smart use of technology for positive social impact. The world’s thorniest social challenges require all options on the table. Yes, the hype cycle exists, but we can both ride and break from the wave responsibly.

4. Follow the Data — Utility & Transparency as goals and process

Like technology, data requires unpacking. We benefit immensely from following the data, just like the rallying cry of “follow the money” in governance and transparency espouses. What’s the alternative? It is nearly impossible to assign value to data unless we are familiar with its intricate details and the journey it took from the ground. Most of the data we consume or are presented with is aggregate data, it’s really just a matter of degree. So simply accepting the data we are presented with is by default a large leap of faith.

Face value is never face value. Have you ever wondered why a marathon is 26.2 miles? Seems official and like there would be a good reason for it, yes? Well, there isn’t. The original marathon in 490 BCE was about 25 miles, but during the London Olympics in 1908, the British royal family decided they wanted the race to end in front of the royal viewing box. No problem- tack on 1.2 miles to the route, and it’s been 26.2 miles since. Unreal, right?

Working the entirety of the data supply chain (setting indicators, running large-scale data collection, analysis, visualization, and engagement) has given me a tremendous amount of respect for but healthy skepticism of dashboards and indexes. With this said, I believe the measure of a dashboard or index is definitely not how slick something looks but in its utility and fit with purpose- there is always a place for a tight dashboard or index that is chock full of purpose. Like technology, all data is inherently political. There is always a motive in design that affects use and repackaging. Being aware of just how political data is gives us a shot to neutralize this dynamic- but alas, that is also political. The number of decision points involved on the path to the roll-up to a global indicator are mind-boggling. You have to dig pretty deep to get there, but all is not lost and the destination is worthy.

To counter this dynamic, transparency is one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal. Transparency both becomes the goal and the process to get to meaningful impact. And transparency coupled with critical thinking is a revolution in a box. Let Bertrand Russell be your guide. Humbly take your hits when the double-edged transparency sword cuts in your direction. It builds character and empathy. And that is why I appreciate well-documented methodology for the labor of love it is.

There may be resistance. Stand your ground. Open conversation and commitment to understanding why can always be justified. Like technology, we are just scratching the surface on the smart, sustained, meaningful, and responsible use of data for development. There is a lot of room to do good work in this space. Watch it. Continue to be a part of it. This is a slow revolution that is an important one.

5. The Resource Curse & Innovation

If we are honest with ourselves, the generational timeframes for social change we are often seeking should be acknowledged. It is hard to change minds, let alone have that sentiment translate into changed behavior. This is not to say there cannot be short-term gains or progress or possible ways to expedite change- but social change is not instantaneous and cannot bend to the whimsy or influx of resources. There will always be unexpected and unintended consequences. Attribution (for both “good” and “bad” outcomes) will always be a question for healthy debate.

Plentiful resources can make people impatient, pointlessly reckless, or straight up aimless. Resources in and of themselves are not good ideas or strategies. But maybe these are tales best left for another decade. On the flip side, not having enough resources (or inefficiently allocated resources) will lead to cutting of corners and rapidly achieve burnout. We need to play somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

I used to be far less strategic about how I budgeted my work and time, but I am recognizing that boring old budget discipline and thoughtfulness is crucial to creating more optimal conditions for innovation. The path to the future we are seeking starts with activities on the ground that demonstrate impact today. “We can’t even imagine what people will do with this thing…” is a cop-out masquerading as a humble cry for freeing up innovation; it is a farce. The best way to justify a moonshot, is to bring back a little piece of the moon. The idea of building and launching a rocket is far less appealing for most compared to dreaming of space.

I do believe that we typically can’t imagine all the things someone will do with a new platform or tool (hopefully “they” have asked for or need “it”), but those unexpected gains are best left for Step 2 and 3 even at the fastest clip on the innovation pathway. You can’t play with house money until you’ve won a few hands. Step 1 is to demonstrate real tangible value to get things moving- those inches are really hard. Only when we have made some progress can we think about how to scale or sustain said innovation. This is a nice segway to my final point.

5+. Sustaining Sustainability Starts with Self

Sustainability is not something that should only apply to products or organizations. It starts with individuals- you and me. I don’t have many regrets- but this one is high on my list. I wish I had taken better care of myself throughout my life and career. I wish I had grounded myself better.

Spend more time with friends, family, and loved ones. It’s easy to lose sight of why we do the things we do. Enjoy your hobbies- the more eclectic the better. Stop giving a shit about things that don’t matter. Exercise- the years I stopped running were easily the most stressful and unhealthy periods in my life. It’s easy to get trapped in the mode of putting work before yourself. This goes double for NGO and aid workers- you are not your work, lest the mission consume you and take a hit to its own sustainability.

Thanks for reading. I assume if you have made it this far, you are either someone I have worked with or have had the pleasure of getting to know through my work. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank all the people who have been a part of my professional journey- the colleagues who I rallied with, the mentors who shared their wisdom (I’m doing my best to pay it forward!), and the bosses who gave a kid from Jersey a shot.

So this is 40. Well, let’s see what you got.