I left the tech world about four years ago. I’d done content and product management in the Ed-tech space, and database and content repository work in B2B publishing before that. I had lots and lots of friends who were Ruby developers and graphic designers and IAs and PMPs and JQuery wizards and user engagement czars. I left because nothing we were working on seemed to matter.
To me. Some of my colleagues were satisfied by the intellectual challenge. Some liked the paycheck and the gadget perks (I did too!). Some sincerely believed they were helping “improve learner outcomes through a data-driven approach to transparency and accountability.” Bless their hearts. I couldn’t be a believer, and I burned out.
I stopped making meetings and slide decks and started rebuilding houses with my hands in New Orleans. I went to help out at a friend’s school for profoundly impoverished, profoundly resilient children in Sarnath, Varanasi, India, where a chalk tablet and a piece of paper was high-tech, and my most valuable skill was my ability to hold a urine-soaked tot on my lap and smile. So hackneyed, so artisanal, amirite?
Whatever. I didn’t set out to save anyone but myself, and it worked. My life has meaning. I spend time with the people I enjoy. I make a tenth of what I used to make, and it is sufficient.
But sometimes I check in on my previous life. Apparently the devices are even thinner now, and there are more ways to date people and buy stuff, though the apps are increasingly undistinguishable from one another. There are new ways to crush, collect, consume, smash. Reports are beautiful. Fonts abound. Things scale at speed. Virtual reality is hot. The topics the stray remaining tech folks in my TL are talking about are things that nobody else is talking about. No offense, but it’s boring.
Don’t get me wrong. Laying tile is also tedious. And consuming experiences, eating one’s way across the world with a laptop and a credit card, that’s not a moral high ground. That’s not my claim.
In fact, I’m not making a claim at all. More like a plea.
Please start working on things that matter. Please start working with people instead of for them. Please start working without an IPO or an acquisition as your end goal.
I need cell phone service that is affordable for myself and my neighbors. I need good, reliable, sharable data on police shootings and targeted arrest patterns. I need clean water and affordable solar panel batteries. I need a way for the girls at the school in India to make a little money so that their fathers don’t marry them off at age 14. I need, desperately, an effective way to teach basic critical thinking and civics skills. I need a tool to stop incredibly brutal targeted harassment on social media. I need restorative justice. I need people who work in the oil fields and the coal mines and the fast food restaurants to have a better way to make a living. I need an app that zaps misinformation.
You need those things too. But some of you don’t know that, because you aren’t looking outside your valleys and canyons to see the rest of us. And some of you do know it, but you don’t know what to do. You are where I was, at the top of the world, feeling powerless.
Here’s what to do:
1. Hire more African American and/or Latinx techies, especially women. They will broaden your perspective and improve your products.
2. Move away from the Bay Area and NYC. Move mindfully, so as not to displace the people who already live in the place you’re about to discover. Adapt to local customs, except when the local customs are racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
3. Work fewer hours. Use the time you save to make connections — peer connections, not “do-gooder” connections — with your new neighbors.
4. Save more money by buying less stuff. Share your wealth, because having less to protect will make you feel so much less afraid.
5. Have a screen fast. See what the world looks like without a box around it, without Gorilla glass. This is a stretch goal, I know.
6. Critique yourself. Forgive yourself. Rinse. Repeat.
7. Then do what you need to do, and it will matter. I promise.