Tech culture, unions and the blind spot of meritocracy

A conversation with Xavier Denis, former software engineer at Shopify


March 30, 2018

I went to McGill university with Xavier Denis (@xldenis), where we both studied computer science and helped organise McGill’s first major hackathon in 2014 (McHacks). Soon after graduating, Xavier started working for Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify on the Production Engineering team. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation we had on March 1, 2018, soon before he had quit his job.

We talked about: tech company culture, the unpopularity of unions, why startups seem so appealing, the failure of open source, what Foucault can teach us about meritocracy, and where we go from here. Italicised remarks are mine.

If you’d prefer to listen to the audio version (which, admittedly, isn’t the best quality), here you go:

Tech company culture

W[Discussing a blog post titled Why I Quit Google to Work for Myself, which was #1 on Hacker News the day before.]

XI don’t know if it’s just my social bubble that is talking about this a lot, or if it’s this actual trend more broadly in the industry, but it seems like a lot more people are starting to question tech and basically call out the bullshit that tech companies sell.

WYeah, I read the article, but I was a little disappointed by it. It seemed like the guy was on his way to a more profound realisation but then he just stops, he’s like, I’m just going to do an indie software thing. I mean, it’s fine, it’s something, but it was a little disappointing.

XI had the same thought. The way I saw, it was interesting that he saw through the way that Google pulls the wool over your eyes. The part that I thought was important was him realising that there was a business relationship between him and Google. I think that that’s the trap that a lot of people fall into with tech companies, in thinking that they’re a family above all else.

Which is one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about today: tech companies being predatory toward new graduates. Because companies will go after fresh graduates who are looking for their first job who are generally very stressed and don’t understand how all of this works. In my case, I was given a 72-hour expiring offer. I’ve heard from other people that they give 24-hour expiring offers as well. Which is just taking advantage of the fact that these young graduates don’t realise that that’s totally unreasonable, and it’s just putting them in a position where it’s a now-or-never kind of thing. And it’s like, well, this isn’t my dream job, but it’s a good job and I have 24 hours to decide so I might as well go with it.

But then, on top of that, what they do is they move you to a city like Ottawa where pretty much no one has any sort of social network because no one lives there. And then they replace everything with the company. This is a common theme throughout a lot of tech companies. If you talk to people at tech companies, all their friends are from the company, they date within the company, they go to the company events, they hang out at the offices on the weekend, all that kind of stuff. The company has completely supplanted any kind of social circle outside of the company.

Recently, I met up with some people at Facebook in Austin and it’s the same deal. They’ve been in Austin for 6 months and they don’t know a single person outside of Facebook.

WThat reminds me of that Dave Eggers book The Circle. Which isn’t necessarily a great book. It was based on Google. And it’s just the exact same thing where your whole life is supposed to be within the company.

XYeah, and it’s crazy because the end result is that you also breed hyper loyal people, because they have nothing outside the company and they won’t dare to challenge you for the same reason. I’ve heard people say, I don’t want to leave because I don’t know what I would do.

WWhich sounds a little bit like a cult.

XIt is kind of culty, right? You get a lot of culty behaviours, I think, in tech companies. At the very least, a founder cult. I know Google—they have their town halls or whatever and Shopify does the same thing, and probably a lot of other tech companies do as well.

WYeah, I do remember when I was at Google and they had that town hall thing— TGIF—and for me it was kind of cool? It was like, I’m part of such a cool thing where I get to see Larry and Sergey just chatting and Sergey’s like drunk half the time. I was like this is so cool! I just thought it was fun. And I guess they make all these things seem fun so you never stop to think about: what is the actual goal.

XExactly. Yeah which is kind of what’s echoed in that article [about quitting Google]. Which is that by surrounding you with all these amenities, you don’t stop to consider that at the end of the day this is an economic and political relationship and that “fun” is a tool.

WYeah, exactly. We’re actually getting a piece for this issue about that, about like the “perks” of the industry and how their whole purpose is just to make you forget that you’re a worker. And something about the specific perks that tech has, I think they’re just like really really creepy, like this whole idea of unlimited vacation. I feel like that’s something special that tech has—you don’t really see that in other industries. And it’s really big among startups, where you get unlimited vacation, but also you get “paid, paid vacation”, which is what FullContact does, where they literally pay you $7,500 to take a vacation. And on one level, it’s like oh this is great, what a great pro-worker policy. But then you’re like, why is the work that shitty that you need to go on vacation just to erase your mind of it?

XIt’s actually even worse than that. Unlimited vacation has been shown that it leads to people taking less time off. Because it’s all about removing guidelines and leaving them implicit, where workers have to infer what reasonable vacation time is. And when you’re in that position, you’re always going to err on the side of caution, whereas if they just stated, like, you have 4 weeks of vacation or whatever, then everybody knows that you can take 4 weeks without feeling bad about it because you know you were given that much vacation.

WWhat I’m really curious about. All these things that we think of as specific to tech—are they specific to tech? Is there just something special in the water at tech companies, that makes them think they’re so different, that makes them treat workers so differently?

XI think it broadly has to do with the whole knowledge worker stuff. Maybe part of it is also just how profitable tech companies are. I remember there was some financial report that was quoting the profit figures per employee and Google was at something like a million in profit per employee. And most other industries are nowhere close to that. I think that leads to a weird environment, especially with regards to perks. Because perks, in a lot of ways, are just a cheaper way to inflate somebody’s perception of their salary. It’s cheaper to cater lunch for people than to give them money to buy those equivalent lunches. And it has like a greater emotional appeal than receiving like $50 a day or $10 a day or whatever for lunch. So a lot of it is that.

But I don’t think it’s intrinsic to tech in particular. I think that if tomorrow, some other industry had those same economic conditions, they would quickly replicate those same perk behaviours.

WI wonder if there’s some relation with the way people in tech think of themselves as different. Not everyone, right, but there’s still this idea that—like the whole Paul Graham idea that you’re in tech because when you were young you were focused on learning cool technologies and you didn’t think about popularity and because of that, when everyone else was partying you were studying the blade [this is a reference to a fairly ridiculous meme], and it’s like you put in the hours, and so you deserve it now, you deserve to be rewarded with these nice perks. All the food, all the vacations, whatever it is, because you’re just great? I don’t really know, it’s such a weird phenomenon.

XYeah, I wonder what the causal relation for that is. Has that whole cult of tech workers—did it appear after tech companies started becoming stupidly successful? Or is it basically like we make a billion dollars therefore we must have been really great. Is it a post-hoc justification sort of thing?

Unions

XThe other thing I found super interesting is talking about unions to tech workers. I’ve had this same discussion a lot of times where people essentially say, I don’t see why I should get more money, I’m happy with the salary I earn. Which I find very interesting because it’s not like you earning less money makes that money go to charity or to another employee. You’re just leaving money on the table for the board and shareholders. You don’t win. You strictly lose.

The common way of framing union discussions from tech companies is that they often say, “We think unions are good, but just not here”. Right? Like we have such a “special partnership” with our employees that a union just wouldn’t make sense here. It’s every company where a union wouldn’t make sense, right.

WThe other thing that I always think about when it comes to unions is because there’s this common perception that unionising is all about wages, that can actually work against tech. Because I think the biggest problem people have with tech is not wages, it’s conditions. It’s being forced to work really long hours on things that they don’t want to work on. And the Google guy [from the link at the beginning section], he was complaining about the promotion process being really untransparent and just really weird. And it’s like, if you have some sort of collective power in a union, you can fight back against that. It’s not necessarily just about wages. But at the same time the mainstream perception is that it’s only about wages and you’re selfish if you participate in something like that.

XYeah. For example I was looking up the NLRB rules for unionisation. So that’s the National Labour Relations Board, which is a US federal body that regulates corporate-union relations. Union employees have a right that non-union employees don’t have, which is actually something that’s pretty useful, called Weingarten Rights. Basically whenever you have to talk to a manager, if you’re a union employee you have the right to request another worker to be there with you. Which is useful to protect against defamation—whatever happens at meetings they can’t lie about it afterwards because you have somebody else who can back you up. And you can request this to be either a union rep or anyone else of your choosing. Basically it helps balance out the tables when a manager pulls you aside to talk to you about some shit.

But non-union employees specifically don’t have that right. You are not allowed to ask for somebody else to be in the room while you talk to a manager.

WDo you know of any tech companies, any well-known tech companies, that have any sort of union? The only one I know about is Lanetix, you know that company that just tried to fire all its employees [who tried to unionise], and that’s the only one I’ve heard of.

XI guess that depends on your definition of tech companies, because you have you have all those tech media companies, so like Vox has a union, doesn’t Vice have one even? There was some story about the founders being super anti-union and I think they lost in the end. I don’t think major tech companies have unions.

I also think what you were saying about framing the discussion about unions as primarily wage-driven is also important. I think that it’s a major problem toward unionisation in tech companies, because they’re basically saying, I already earn so many hundreds of thousands of dollars, I don’t need it.

But then at the same time you hear all these discussions around problems like inclusion and diversity and all these kinds of things, where basically the only tool that employees have is to just hope that management enacts policies that help. Whereas a union would just allow people to collectively ask for change.

WThat’s exactly it. I guess it’s a matter of changing the narrative. Because you know traditionally unions have really been mostly about better wages, and like better conditions too, but the [mostly] wages thing, because it’s mostly people in really low-wage industries.

XYeah, the idea of a high-wage union is fairly recent. Granted, unionised autoworkers could earn salaries of like $80,000 a year. And for a lot of specialised tradecraft also that was the case. I was reading an article in Catalyst [unfortunately, the article is paywalled] about the history of auto unions, and at one point it talks about machinists, and how for a long time they essentially viewed themselves as above the union because they had such a rare and prized role. So specialised that they didn’t need a union to earn their salary. And when the conditions changed and they actually incorporated a union, they actually made it dramatically more effective by being able to exert their power in the structure of production, because they had such a critical role in producing a car that when they stopped working—when one machinist stopped working—they actually crippled the factory. So they brought a lot of power to the union.

You have a similar thing in tech in that you don’t actually need that many people to even stop working to grind a whole company to a halt. In a lot of cases you just need like one release engineer to just decide like, I’m not going to do deploys today. And then it’s like, oh we just lost a whole day of productivity, or whatever. It’s surprisingly easy, I think, for tech companies to go on strike. You don’t even need the majority of people to do it.

WYeah, you just need like one or two really well-placed individuals, who can maybe change the deploy keys or something, the people who have access to really crucial things, where maybe the people in management don’t really know how to use this? Where they’re not aware of the process and they cant just parachute someone else in.

It seems like there’s so much potential for leverage among a few people, and it’s just such a shame that these people never really think of it, right? Because they’re just being paid so well that they never have to. And it never really occurs to them that they should be. And I guess it’s just the lack of class consciousness and the lack of understanding of history of unions and what is the point of unions.

XThe history of unions at least in the US has been very, I don’t want to say manipulated, but manipulated, in that you generally learn about unions as being a useless tool from this old era that’s totally corrupt now and serves no purpose and not with the times, kind of thing. And in general you never really learn about how unions are the reason we ended child labour or have the weekend or 40-hour work weeks or health and safety (OSHA), all that kind of stuff. All the organisations that have enabled people to live decent lives aren’t because the companies decided to get better.

i think in a lot of cases, tech companies could benefit from unions just from a lifestyle or workplace perspective—not workplace “safety” but for a similar kind of reason, because if you look at it, the tech industry has such a high rate of burnout. It’s like very very common to hear about people quitting fully after a couple of years. In a way that’s just what I’m doing. It just consumes people and a lot of these things could totally be fixed if employees actually had a way to impose conditions. It could be just saying hey, you shouldn’t be on call more than once a quarter. You should have an upper limit on how much time you spend on call or dealing with incidents or there should be a counterbalancing force to ticket-driven work and managers basically crushing you. In general I think there are a lot of places where people could ask for a better or healthier environment to work in.

The appeal of startups

WI feel like a lot of the reason people quit their day jobs in big tech companies to do a startup is because they’re so unfulfilled by their work. And maybe this isn’t something that can necessarily be solved by a union, but I feel like a lot of it is just because the company is making them work on something that they just don’t care about. And that’s something where you need some kind of collective bargaining power if you want to change that on a systemic level. Because if you don’t feel like you can move to a better team or maybe there is no better team to move to because your company is like building some really shit thing, how do you actually change that unless all the employees—who presumably feel similarly—get together in some way, and then maybe the whole startup industry would be less inflated as a result?

I just keep reading all these posts on Twitter and Hacker News and Medium and whatever. Like, I’m quitting my boring day job at Google to go do a startup; I don’t really have an idea, but I got lots of money saved up and I want to do something! It’s like no, that’s a waste of time. Sorry I’m just like ranting about startups.

XNo, it’s right, and I think that motivates why companies have this whole mission kind of focus in tech. Every company strives to explain how they make the world better because the reality is, if they didn’t do that, no one would be able to last at their jobs. You have to be able to convince yourself that what you’re doing actually matters because people strive for meaning, right?

What you also see is that a lot of tech workers, at least fresh ones, want to be able to dive into tech problems without considering social impact or whatever. And then eventually that fails, eventually you realise that this is just the 15th web app I made in the past two years; it’s basically the same, it just it looks a little bit different. I notice the same phenomenon of people going like, oh this job is bullshit so I’m going to go start another bullshit company.

WBecause that’s all they know, right? Because there are so few models of good ethical tech companies that you’re just going to reproduce everything that you see. And you’re going to try and tweak it a little bit to make it better, but there’s so little radical questioning of the entire system. You’re just going to take the shitty patterns that you’ve experienced in your company, you’re going to fix one or two of them in your startup and that’s it. It’s still pretty much the same.

XI think also very few companies are intentionally designed. I think that a lot of them are the way they are by just like the random product of the circumstances of their arisal. Very few tech companies stop to think about the systems they’ve been building, and the consequences of that. So they never actually consider the social implications of the way they’re structuring their company or the way they’re structuring their product. They just kind of “go”, which won’t lead to fixing it.

WYeah, it just evolves over time, right? It’s incredible because that’s exactly what happens with Macromeasures [my own startup] where we just started off doing something and then a series of like small choices guided us down this path. And it’s not something we could have predicted.

And I feel like it’s always like that. There’s so little intentionality when it comes to these things because your path is determined by so many forces that you have no idea of, that you’re not in control of, and then because of that you’re just like a little boat in the ocean, and you don’t know where you’re going. And eventually you’re just like, i’m in the middle of nowhere, i don’t want to be here, but I’m stranded, and it’s just like, shit.

XI think there’s an interesting question, how do we reclaim tech’s emancipatory role? Because these problems have become so pervasive in the industry that how do you structure something so that you avoid these pitfalls and actually build something useful for society in a way that’s helpful for society? You could say that in some ways things like open source help with that, but I also don’t think that that’s a satisfactory answer. Because if anything, we’re being more and more dominated by closed source, right? It’s not like open source has actually changed much because we’re just moving towards closed ecosystems where one corporation controls your entire life.

WYeah, plus I mean the big problem with open source now is that so much of it is driven by these corporations. I’m struggling to think of any big project that doesn’t have developers who are paid by Google or Intel or whatever. It’s like, whatever potential that open source has, it’s been co-opted. The biggest problem, in my view, with open source is that it was really never connected to a larger political movement. It was always like, you know, let’s reimagine property rights when it comes to software, not really realising that property rights aren’t just specific to software, and that we have to reimagine them for everything if we’re going to reimagine them for software, and you have to also understand the entire like social foundation on which property rights rest. And it’s just always so limited.

I think a few people like Richard Stallman, they’ve questioned this a little bit, but not enough.

XI don’t think his questioning has gone far enough, yeah.

WYeah. Plus the other thing with Richard Stallman is that so few people take him seriously now just because of his own personal choices around not using proprietary software. It’s unfortunate.

XIt’s problematic, because he’s not like attached to the real world. His choices have led him to a position where others can’t empathise with his thought process. So basically he’s isolated from any potential movement to change things.

UberHealth

WSo Uber released this new product, UberHealth which basically lets like the healthcare industry—so not just emergency care but doctors appointments, whatever. It lets those people schedule Ubers to come pick up patients. It’s such a strange concept, the idea that Uber really really thinks that it should be the one solving this problem, of people getting to their doctors appointments or getting to the hospital.

XDid you know, [in the US] you don’t get charged for the emergency care they provide on site, you get charged for the ambulance ride back to the hospital. So some people will have the ambulance come, give first aid, and have somebody else drive them to the hospital to avoid that cost. I’ve seen multiple stories of people saying how they took an Uber to the hospital instead of getting an ambulance. Because in the US, an ambulance costs like a thousand dollars.

WI mean it’s just like interesting that Uber thinks that it should be the one to solve this? BUt I guess this is symptomatic of a for-profit healthcare system, but also a for-profit startup tech system in the first place. I mean obviously the better way of solving this is for one nationalised healthcare but also a better public transit system.

XYou heard about that whole Berkshire Hathaway Google healthcare thing?

WNo, what’s that?

XOh so it’s like Google Amazon Apple, big tech companies whatever, got together with Berkshire Hathaway, which is Warren Buffett’s company, that was going to be not for profit. So they recognised the need to not have a profit motive in the healthcare industry. And it’s going to be an insurance company and I think they’re also going to do generic drug manufacturing or whatever and basically cut the costs of medical services by removing the profit motive. But of course not doing it publicly, just, you know, privately-owned government.

WWell I guess it could be worse. It has some of the good parts of government, but without … the democratic accountability? Which is probably the most important part …

XYou’re just accountable to the largest corporations. No big deal.

WGod. That’s terrifying.

Startup drive

WOne thing I’ve thought about a lot is this idea of what drives you to do a startup? Right now it’s this promise of this weird sort of entrepreneurial fame where you just become known for becoming a good entrepreneur, where you have a Twitter account with 100,000 followers, your face on the cover of WIRED, and you get written about gushingly by all these tech journalists. And you obviously you make a lot of money.

But that’s something that’s just very historically contingent, very much based on present social circumstances. You can imagine an alternative world where people do startups because the end goal is the opposite—the end goal is to make it into a public service. The end goal is that it becomes nationalised, where the highest form of success is the government saying, well you’ve created a really good tech startup, we will now incorporate this into our public services somehow. And that should be the thing people strive for.

And when you think of it that way, it’s not that tech entrepreneurship in itself is bad. It’s that the end goal is creating this for-profit corporate monopoly, that’s the problem.

XI think I agree with you, but I also think that the two are sort of related in that, if you look at it, a lot of people have this drive to do startups but they don’t have ideas. It’s not even that they have this idea of something they want to build to make the world better and get rich in the process or just even to get rich, they want to go through these motions because they’ve been told—it’s sort of this existential thing—they’ve been told that this is how you will accomplish your life or give your life meaning or fulfil yourself. And part of that is also getting rich because [the concept of ] wealth as fulfillment is very present in our society. We’re told that being wealthy is good and desirable or whatever. I don’t even necessarily know that this startup drive would translate to a world like that where tech was in service to society. I think you could definitely get a similar phenomenon but I think that this drive is also very much attached to the present social circumstances. It’s like a manifestation of our society.

WFor sure. And I think you’re right, a lot of people who are doing startups now, they’re not doing it because they really want to. For them, it just feels like the option they’re supposed to do. And if you transition somehow to a different world where there isn’t as much pressure to do startups, then a lot of these people would just not do startups. Which might just actually be for the better, if you think about it. It could be a good thing.

XYeah, I don’t know if you were still following this when it happened, but at one point, Y Combinator introduced an application for teams without ideas.

WYeah, I remember that.

XWhich seems very emblematic of the problem, right? It’s like, oh, ideas that make society better, that’s also the other half of the thing they say, because capitalism optimises for social good or whatever. Because people buy what’s good for society, I don’t know. But that’s a very common justification of these companies. But anyways, so apparently that’s the easy part, and the hardest part is finding people who can actually build it, which like, I don’t know. I don’t know if i necessarily buy that entirely. Because the end result is that a lot of these companies are really great at getting money from banks and financiers but don’t actually do anything we need.

WYeah. Do you remember Clinkle? That feels like ages ago. They raised what,$30 million? And then they just like collapsed. And they produced that vending machine and at one point they were literally handing out money on the street. It’s incredible, you can’t really make this up.

XThe whole Bodega thing, right? Did you follow that? Or Juicero, the $400 dollar juicing machine.

WOh god yeah. I think what this really points to is the limits of this entrepreneurial hubris. This very classic Y Combinator idea is that it’s just this specific type of person who is really good at entrepreneurship and they can do anything, right. You just need this kid who’s dropped out of college, this kid has been hacking for a long time, therefore, they can solve any problem in the world, because what the world is missing is people who can write LISP, or whatever. [The LISP mention is a reference to Paul Graham, whom I’ve written about before.]

Stereotypes and meritocracy

XThe other side effect of this is that, in a lot of ways, the traits we associate with successful startups in the first place are going to be—there’s going to be a toxic feedback loop, right? If we look at companies and they all have white male founders then we’re going to associate success with being like a white male founder. And that’s going to lead to excluding even more people from startups.

WYeah, that’s exactly the thing that Paul Graham got into so much trouble about, a few years ago, when he was like, “anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg could fool me”. And [although it was meant as a joke] he was being unusually honest there, because he’s right, it’s so easy for any investor to be fooled by what exists now [as a symbol of success]. And it’s one of those things where this idea of meritocracy—you see it in its most stark and truthful form. Because the whole idea of meritocracy, it’s not that you actually promote people or you give people money just because they have a lot of “merit”. It’s a system where you take on the existing conditions, and you apply this facade of meritocracy, where you let a few people who aren’t already in the power structures, you let them go up. But then the whole point is just to justify [the existing power structures].

I remember when Github had that rug, United Meritocracy of Github, and at the time I was like oh yeah that’s great, Github is indeed a meritocracy. But now, its just so obvious that it’s such a facade. And it’s like, what does meritocracy even mean? I think some people still believe in the idea that meritocracy is this thing that exists non-ironically. That there is this system where people just get promoted based on merit and they never really question where this idea of merit comes from in the first place.

XKeep in mind that on top of that, when they have this “meritocracy”, they never define “merit”. If you want to have a meritocracy, you obviously have to define what it means to have merit, and in that case, you can actually have a discussion about whether or not that’s fair. But the reality is they leave it implicit, again, giving management all the leverage in determining who is allowed a promotion and leaving employees to kind of guess.

WYeah, for sure. The idea of merit is totally bound up with existing power structures. You see this in open source programming a lot. I remember when I first started and there were so few visible women in the community and I just always associated being good at programming or being good a open source with all the white men I would see around. and I know that even subconsciously, whenever I saw a woman, I just assumed that she wasn’t as good. Just because she didn’t match the pattern.

This whole idea of meritocracy is one that just refuses to question its blind spots. This kind of reminds me of what Foucault says about madness. I recently had to do Foucault in one of my seminars, and one of the things that really struck me was just like this idea of madness as a blind spot because you can’t reason about it. Because the whole point of madness is that there is no reason. And it’s kind of like the same with meritocracy. You can’t really reason about what merit is because it’s so inextricably bound up with your own personal ideas of your merit. So if you want to understand merit, well you have to be intelligent enough to understand what it is. And you have to think you’re intelligent. I’m probably not explaining this well, but it’s just like something that you can’t rationally and empirically define.

XYeah. It’s very much attached to the individual person. Everybody’s idea of merit is very much attached to themselves and you can’t separate it into some sort of objective criteria to determine merit.

WYeah. And it’s always going to be linked to the situation you grew up in, right, like what you’re used to seeing. If you’re used to seeing a certain type of person at the top, then that’s always going to be your definition of merit. You can change that a bit, but you can’t completely unpack that and reverse it.

XYeah. It’s going to be reproducing the power structures you grew up and associate with.

WAll right, well, let’s not get all doom and gloom here. Is there anything good you would like to talk about. Anything positive that you see in tech today.

X[Long sigh]

I mean, the thing I see as positive is kind of doom and gloomy in itself. What I see as good is that more people are starting to question the narrative put forth by companies. And that doesn’t necessarily mean going full left wing but it’s just being conscious of the fact that these companies are playing a political game, and you have to challenge that. Even if you’re say that you don’t want to play, you’re already playing and losing that. So I think that’s a healthy thing for people to start doing, basically challenge whether these companies are good in the first place.

I see this starting to happen more broadly in that people are starting to doubt whether or not these tech companies actually serve their supposed purposes, whether it’s Facebook or Google. Even today, you know how Google, after that shooting in Florida, they said would ban gun sales?

WOh yeah I saw that, so now you can’t search for “gun” in Google shopping.

XYeah, except they’re banning keywords. A company that’s supposedly at the head of AI, that can understand all your problems, can’t ban a single subject. And watching people come to this realisation that maybe Google isn’t this all-powerful entity that solves every problem that we should look forward to for every solution, is kind of reassuring in a lot of ways.

I feel that there’s this broader movement that’s developing within tech, like Tech Solidarity led by Pinboard, and there’s people like Steve Klabnik who also build fairly radical tech communities, which is heartening to see. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think that tech—it’s all very minor, basically. It’s all very much on the fringes of tech companies and the tech industry. I don’t think that there’s any profound change in this regard that’s actively happening. Because people are still too bound up in it. But I think the winds are turning.

WI get that sense as well. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me after my most recent piece and while it was really great, really heartening to hear that—people were like, oh I identified with what you were saying and this all makes sense to me—a lot of them followed up with a question, which I couldn’t answer, which was like, what should do I know? And I’m like, I don’t know! And I think that’s the big problem, there isn’t a very clear path for people who are in tech who are disillusioned by it, to know what should they do. What can they actually do to make things better? So I don’t know, maybe that’s a question you want to expand on.

XI’ve thought the same thing a lot and people have asked me that same question a lot. And in a lot of ways, I dont have good answers. That’s kind of what I’m trying to figure out for myself, by leaving Shopify. And I want to find some way to mix tech and social good in a meaningful way. I don’t know yet what answer is going to look like.

But I also don’t think that’s strictly necessary. I think in a lot of ways, it’s good for people to accept the negative. Even if we don’t have the answer, people should be questioning it, because we’re not going to find the answer otherwise. Like we have to start off by realising that things are bad before we can actually figure out what good is going to look like.

I also think—tangentially—quite a few people in tech are questioning things, they just don’t say so publicly. The fraction of people who actually come out and express their opinions in front of more than one person is very very small. And I don’t know if that has to do with the fear of retaliation or whatever, political or other, or they just don’t want to deal with harassment essentially.

WI think we should probably wrap up here. This has been really good. Thank you so much.


author

Wendy Liu

Wendy Liu is a software developer and (reformed) startup founder who built the website you’re on right now. She studies inequality at LSE and is an economics editor for New Socialist. You can find her on Twitter @dellsystem.

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