Why I’m Leaving the Golden Handcuffs of Silicon Valley Behind to Educate the World
The greatest secret of Silicon Valley: There’s meaningful work to be done, and it’s not all in the valley.
Silicon Valley is the land of the machine. If you’re not trying to make self-driving cars, self-conscious computers, or the next boring company, you’re not keeping up. Technology and the things we are capable of creating are advancing at unimaginable speeds. Things are moving so fast, in fact, that a majority of the world is unable to keep up. We saw the results of this lack of understanding in the previous US election, when this man was elected:
Being from Nebraska, a state known for its conservative political beliefs, the results of this year’s election put me in a strange position I’ve had trouble articulating to many people in the bay area — Do I assimilate to the culture I’m living in by alienating Trump supporters and pushing them away or do I risk alienating myself by standing up to recognize that there is a larger issue at hand here?
I am in no way supportive of the choice some my friends and family back home made when they voted for Trump, but no matter what side of the fence (wall?) you were on, you can’t deny anyone their right to vote. While we in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world see the future and understand what’s happening, not everyone does. Some people still believe in traditional ways of life, and that’s their right.
No matter how much you may disagree with the decision these people made, you can’t blame them for voting for what they understand and believe in. How can you expect someone to understand something they’ve never needed to deal with before — something that’s moving so fast that many people working in the field can’t fully keep up.
If I asked almost anyone I know in Silicon Valley how to change a flat tire, almost everyone would need to call a professional for help. However, being unable to do something as basic as changing a tire doesn’t make these people dumb, it just means they don’t understand—because they’ve probably never had to deal with it before.
The same goes for those people who voted for tradition in the previous election. Trust me, I know these people. I grew up with them. While I don’t agree with what happened or who some of them voted for, I know plenty of people you would probably love to grab a beer with that just don’t understand what’s happening. These people aren’t dumb, they just don’t understand the same things we in the tech community understand.
What these people do understand is that they’ve been working the same job their entire life, sometimes over generations, and now that job is gone — either because of outsourcing or, more than likely, automation. We’re talking about jobs that have fed their families and given them access to healthcare, jobs that have provided them shelter and clothing, and jobs that have allowed them to live modest, peaceful lives surrounded by the people they love. But now their jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back because corporate economics says automation is better for the bottom line — and that can be terrifying.
So before you belittle others for what you may consider to be their lack of intelligence, take a second to empathize with them.
“The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” — Robert F. Kennedy.
Despite what you may assume about the people on the other side of the fence, they’re not so different from you and I. At the end of the day, all they want is peace of mind, and not having a job to support themselves and their loved ones is frightening.
We, as technology leaders, need to help the world understand what’s happening so that the general population is informed enough to have educated discussions about these issues and capable of collectively figuring out the best way to move forward, together.
Until very recently I was an Experience Designer for R/GA’s team embedded at Google. For those of you who may not know, R/GA is a digital consulting agency for the Intelligence Age.
As a member of the Google embedded team, my job was to help our team oversee and manage the Google product ecosystem in order to make sure everything met Google standards as it went to market. This meant we needed to understand how each product strategically fit within the Google ecosystem now, how these products and team relationships would evolve, over time, and how the decisions being made by individual teams would affect Google’s business goals, as a whole—both now and in the future. Understanding this allowed our team to be confident that the decisions we were making would strategically move Google’s business forward.
I’m incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity and there’s no way I could possibly express my thanks to everyone involved through a simple post on Medium. However, the reason I’m leaving my job is because I’ve seen the inside of Silicon Valley, and I’ve seen the difference technology has made in the bay area — sometimes incredible, sometimes terrible.
While Silicon Valley may be flourishing economically, it often lacks the humanity necessary to drive global adoption. So instead, companies too often force their will on society, because they have the funding to do so without consequences. Historically we’ve referred to people who behave this way as tyrannical, authoritarian, or at the very best, unjust — in tech we call it disruption.
This will only get worse as automation takes the wheel. And we will have to adapt to these things in the very near future, it won’t be a matter of choice.
Creating The Future
While what I’ve written so far probably makes me sound pessimistic about what’s happening and what’s going to happen, you should know that I’m actually incredibly excited and optimistic about the future that is coming. However, I also see many people who don’t understand what is happening and are at risk of being left behind. For this reason, I feel like it is my responsibility, as a leader in the field of technology, to help others bridge the gap.
My experiences have allowed me to understand what’s happening, and have also given me what I believe to be a solid grasp on how it’s going to evolve. I’m even writing a book about automation and how we, as designers, can leverage our role to create a better, more inclusive future through well designed automated systems.
I believe it is our responsibility, as the people making these things, to also be advocates for an inclusive future, which means helping people make the transition. We can’t just force our will on the world and expect them to accept it without an understanding of how it will impact their lives. It’s time we bring these issues to light in order to have a larger discussion about what’s happening so that we can collectively figure out a way to make it work for everyone, not just a select few.
How To Make It Happen
A couple of the simplest ways to enable an inclusive transition include education, both to enable understanding for when it comes time to vote and to help workers learn how to work with these new technologies, and community support through technical training, investment in non-traditional or emerging markets, and extending network connections.
I’ve been doing my part to help educate others by mentoring student groups in both Nebraska and Colorado over the past few years. I also write for global design publications like InVision, uxdesign.cc, and Muzli to help others understand how to design these systems. Last year alone my writing reached millions across the globe through these opportunities.
In terms of training and network support, I do my best to supply mentorship to the students I work with, startups and companies that need help, and others I meet around the world through one-on-one conversations and consulting. I also speak in classrooms and conferences whenever I have the opportunity.
But doing this on the side just isn’t enough anymore. It’s time for me to get out from behind the screen and start pursuing this in real life. There’s no more trying to do it from behind a screen for this techie.
I’ve officially left my job and my next step is to help educate the world full-time. Together, I believe we can create the future we all deserve.
Thanks for reading. Here’s to a better future. Cheers.
To connect with me for separate reasons beyond all of this, you can reach me by emailing email@example.com or by pinging me just about anywhere on the internet @realjoet.