James Governor recently published a post titled, “Only One Thing Matters Today.” That one thing was the devastation in Puerto Rico. And then the horrific terrorist attack in Las Vegas became another one thing in a seemingly ongoing river of one things.
James is right, though. Only one thing does matter. That thing is humanity.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past year, not only as a member of the technology industry, but as a member of the larger community around me.
Does the work we choose to do add to the betterment of society or is it simply done in the myopia of financial profit?
Few industries throughout history have had the revolutionary ability to shape society like technology. Yet, in too many cases, technology has focused on the 1%. Not the economic 1%, but the 1% who inhabit the industry’s own bubble. It’s a bubble that puts billions of dollars into applications that make squeezing already squeezed juice more automated, into building countless copycat technologies, and into disruption that is, at often best, nothing more than a feature to an existing product.
Listen, I get it. You’ve got to place a lot of chips on the table for that one spin that lands on 21 red. The reality is, most of the other chips are placed on companies and technologies that honestly don’t matter. Nobody cares if they succeed or fail because they don’t contribute a damn thing to make the world a better place.
As technologists, as humans, we should want to make tech that matters. Not just to a banker or people like us, but to other humans around the world. How many smart calendaring apps do we need? How much better could the world be if the tech industry put its brain power, work ethic and financial investment toward the common good, not just the good of those within its own bubble?
For all the talk about how the future generation wants to be part of something bigger, a lot of the choices that are made don’t reflect that aspiration. What could they have built or done for an economically depressed town instead of making it easier for someone to park their Tesla (a company which is thinking bigger about its role in the world around it)? How is it that artificial intelligence and machine learning can change my flight to reroute me when the weather’s bad, but can’t tell me that a terrorist has been stockpiling weapons?
It matters who you work with and what they work for. The companies that figure this out will benefit enormously. If a company like Proctor & Gamble or McDonald’s said they were going to change the world with their product, we’d openly laugh at them. But the tech industry says it can do just that with every press release. And it can. But those world changers are few and far between, the rare seismic innovation unicorns in a pasture of horses pre-destined for the glue factory.
This idea of thinking and acting in the interests of the greater world around us was top of mind last week when I attended my seventh Monktoberfest in Portland, Maine. This gathering has become the conference where many of the conversations the tech industry needs to have are happening. The single track talks force you to think not just of what you do, but how what you do impacts the world around you. They are conversations that should be happening at more than a two day conference.
Because there are too many “just one things” today. The organizations you work for, the products you make, the ideas you invest in…now, more than ever, they need to matter.
Where that starts is in the principles and values you personally hold, as well as those held and communicated by the organizations you associate with. Bryan Cantrill, CTO at Joyent, spoke passionately on this topic at the conference, using the Declaration of Independence as an example of the power of principle.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
“What would we have done if our nation’s founders had not made those principles so clear?,” Cantrill asked. “The fact that the principle is there is the shining light for America. People die for a principle, not a nation. It behooves an organization as much as a nation, to elucidate its principles.”
What does your company stand for? Are its principles embedded in the organization’s DNA? More importantly, are they principles that matter — not just to investors, but to the betterment of humanity? If you don’t know, hire someone to help you find it.
Every company can and should stand for something bigger than the products it sells. It’s not how you do it, it’s having a larger perspective and seeing your company and your work through the wider lens of human history and activity. It’s something that needs to be baked deep into your personal and corporate mission — deeper than a donate-and-move-on tactic.
Running ad or social media campaigns? Carve out a slice each week to focus on a cause or organization aligned to your mission. Rolling in profit? That one’s easy: roll a percentage each quarter to your cause (some corporations are already doing this). Don’t know what to do when the next “one thing” happens? Dedicate your existing marketing outreach platforms to support efforts to help those in immediate need. if you’re a startup, pledge a percentage of your equity to a charity (if you get acquired, you’ll still be able to honor your commitment to your company’s mission). Want to shoot bigger? Make it your company’s mission to save a city from poverty.
There’s been a dark cloud sitting over the country for the past year. I sense that cloud is starting to dissipate, that the positive, warming rays of sunshine are breaking through. It’s time for everyone to wake up.
(Image: Robert “r0ml” Lefkowitz, chief architect, Warby Parker, laying down knowledge at Monktoberfest 2017)