February 22, 2017
Over these last couple of days, I’ve taken an interest in the case of Susan J. Fowler, the Uber site reliability engineer who left after a year at one of the world’s largest tech companies over sexual harassment concerns, and who has since written about it online.
I think it’s great that we’re having a serious discussion now about sexual harassment in the workplace. Ms. Fowler and all the other women who have left tech because of this pervasive amped-up alpha male culture that often pervades tech, and it is our responsibility to condemn harassment in all its forms and sustain that discussion so that they can reap the justice they deserve.
That said, I do think we need to have a more serious discussion about culture in general. No, this is not just about how accountability should go all the way to Travis Kalanick or how he instigated Uber’s Amazon-esque culture of win-at-all-costs ruthlessness, nor how we need to have a sustained discussion that leads to results rather than more talk. Rather, we need to have a very serious discussion about the kinds of values we must uphold in building these corporate cultures, and how we ultimately choose to uphold and live with them.
THE CULTURAL MEMORY OF TECH, AGAIN
Last year, I delivered a talk at AlterConf San Francisco called “Outside Looking In: Working to Reshape the Cultural Memory of Tech“. During those nerve-wracking twenty minutes up on the podium, I went on about how the products and communities we build are colored by the cultural experiences of a small set of early adopters and key users, and how we end up blindly observing the norms set by those users because we want to participate in the social life of those projects. (The video is available on my website, though if you’d prefer a direct link, here you go. 🙂)
Now, I seriously don’t want to unload my own personal beef against tech companies in general, but I think it’s only fair to do so since when it comes to discussing corporate cultures, I’d like to think that all bets are off. And as all bets are off especially when it comes to talking about the place of minorities, women and all other underrepresented people in tech, I might as well.
While I didn’t mention it explicitly in the presentation, those observations are also applicable to the workplace cultures of Silicon Valley and tech in general, where these products are built by those very same people. These are the people who ultimately set the tone for how tech is adopted by the wider world in general, and we have to be cognizant of the fact that these people have an outsized influence relative to you and me as to how that platform will evolve and grow. There’s a reason why El País accused Facebook of overseeing a hiearchy of death with Safety Check, with developed countries (and the U.S. especially) at the top, you know.
Whether you like it or not, whether you see it or not, the shared experiences of that initial group of people who built that product will reverberate throughout that product. Inasmuch as we want to defend tech as being blind and meritocratic, I’m sorry, but it simply isn’t. And this is especially manifest in the workplace.
THE CULTURAL MEMORY OF TECH WORK
We complain a lot about the tech pipeline. Granted, there are fewer women, blacks and Hispanics in technical disciplines, but the lack of diversity in tech, at companies and organizations big and small, cannot be blamed on the pipeline alone. I am seriously inclined to believe that the issue is less of supply and more of inherent design — to extend the metaphor of the pipeline, the issue isn’t the oil that flows through, but rather with the engineers who built the pipeline in the first place and its ultimate design.
One of the more common threads I’ve seen in the discussion over why Susan J. Fowler was unable to thrive at Uber was because of how the company’s culture has been set. I strongly disagree with this notion that “cultures are discovered” — you seriously think Travis Kalanick miraculously “discovered” that the way forward for Uber is through sheer arrogance and the need to win at all costs? Cultures aren’t “discovered” when people have been warning us that Uber’s arrogance is the source for many of their problems and that their culture will make or break them. That is obviously filtered from the top down, values notwithstanding.
But how? The pipeline often involves getting people who are just like us, which is as far as “discovery” will take us. The brogrammer culture of companies like Uber, among others, is predicated on finding people who will easily fit into, as Jodi Dean put it when talking about segmentation and isolation on the Internet, those “bubbles of opinion with which they already agree“.
Or, simply put, it’s “culture fit” — an idea we can’t even implement properly because it ultimately devolves into finding people who are just like us, “meritocracy” be damned.
Once a culture is set, it can be extremely difficult for those of us not of the mold to stay. I for one ended up departing from my first job due to “culture fit”, even if I did my job well. We are on the outside looking in, unable to stay, let alone get in because we could never make it past through the gates, which in turn reinforces the already-dominant culture found at those companies for better or worse.
(N.B.: If you think minority technical hires have it hard when it comes to the pipeline, wait until you get to non-technical hires in tech, where the criteria for getting the job I feel is often way less objective.)
GOOD FIGHTS AND FIGHT SONGS
If there’s one thing that gives tech cultures staying power, it’s one simple thing: complacency.
For the most part, we allow the existing cultural imprints of a community, a product, etc. to exist because we don’t want to rock the boat too much. As I mentioned earlier, with online communities the main motivator often (but not always) is our want to participate in the social life of these communities and to truly feel like we’re one with them. The same could be said with the workplace, and when we do try to rock the boat, it ultimately descends into lip service that doesn’t change the fundamental reality on the ground.
And yet, when the dominant group complains that “you’re making too much noise and you should do something about it“, how far do you think their intransigence will get us?
My biggest fear is that Susan J. Fowler’s plight and the plight of all the other women who have complained of harassment over the years is that our continuous paying of lip service to their plight will delegitimize what they’re fighting for. Simply put, we’ve done our fair share and we shouldn’t do more, and the issue should take its course for better or worse. But we can’t deny that something is afoot and that underrepresented people in tech are disproportionately paying the price for it.
Honestly, I think tech’s boat, and SV’s boat in particular, hasn’t been rocked enough. We see this with all the lip service “diversity” has been given but with very little to show for it in terms of meaningful action. Perhaps we must start rocking the boat harder so people will come and listen, and only by sustaining a meaningful discussion on the salient issues anchoring diversity (or the lack thereof) in tech could we actually convince people about how important this fight is.
I seriously hope though, all things considered, that the discussion isn’t over before it has even begun.