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Tech Sector Values are Broken?
Due to my recent explorations of AI Ethics - specifically in the design field - I’ve been thinking more and more about values and what they mean to us. As a small-business owner, my personal values are of course heavily tied to the values of my company. But it’s also interesting, refreshing, and scary to question the values that you live by day to day. Values that you inherited from previous generations might not align with who you really are today or want to be in the future. Both individuals and companies have a responsibility to question and, if needed, align their values.
Thinking about values
Being a primarily one-man company, it’s easy to not think about the complicated corporate “stuff”. For me it’s one of the reasons I continue run my own company as small as I do; avoiding company politics. However, I do think it’s important for even one-man companies to consider what kind of company you want to run.
Business shouldn’t just deal with commercial things since a business is nothing more than a collection of people. If people have values, then a company should have values.
Some of the biggest companies in the world have had to realize the importance of values. It doesn’t matter what fancy words you have written on your entrance wall or how much you paid an agency to come up with your branding, your values are the combined values of all your employees. If these don’t align, you’re going to either have to change your staff until they do or re-align your company values to the people doing the work. I know this is a big statement, but stick with me.
“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them. If you’re willing to do that, then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.”
In a company blog post from January, Microsoft touted its pride in supporting ICE’s homeland security work. Now the Trump Administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy for people who cross the border illegally is making headlines for separating more than 2,300 children from their families. This caused more than 100 Microsoft employees to sign an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella.
“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” the letter says. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”
Microsoft internal letter to Satya Nadella
Similarly, Amazon employees are responding to the company’s decision to sell its Rekognition facial recognition software to police departments and government agencies. The technology uses AI to identity, track, and analyze faces in real time. Amazon claims it can recognize up to 100 people in one image and identity “people of interest”.
“Technology like ours is playing an increasingly critical role across many sectors of society,” the letter says. “What is clear to us is that our development and sales practices have yet to acknowledge the obligation that comes with this. Focusing solely on shareholder value is a race to the bottom and one that we will not participate in. We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights. As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build and a say in how it is used. We learn from history, and we understand how IBM’s systems were employed in the 1940s to help Hitler. IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late. We will not let that happen again.”
Because of the Internet’s transparency, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say one thing and do another. In the end, it all comes down to something all designers are should be familiar with - authenticity. Microsoft wants “to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.” Now while that sounds great, one has to ask whether that should come at any cost? Is Google’s statement “Don’t do evil” in line with their work for the US Military helping them analyze drone footage? Most agree that’s a solid no.
“At some point, I realized I could not in good faith recommend anyone join Google, knowing what I knew,” one resigning Google employee told Gizmodo in May. “I realized if I can’t recommend people join here, then why am I still here?” (In related news, the company quietly removed most mentions of its longtime “don’t be evil” motto from its company-wide code of conduct in late April or early May.)
There’s no one way to run a successful company
We all know that at the end of the day, the money needs to come in. While I’ve never had to take on clients I couldn’t align with, I’m aware not everyone is in the same position. Sometimes I turn down clients based on a gut feeling. I might loose a few dollars, but in the end, running my own business by my values is my choice. It’s my responsibility. If I had employees, the situation would obviously change. It wouldn’t be as black and white.
When I started working for myself, it felt easier to distinguish the companies I’d work with from the companies I wouldn’t. Now, there’s no longer a clear boundary between a given software company and, say, one of the American government’s more inhumane agencies. And as a small business owner, I’m not sure what to do with that. How do I screen a potential client for something I’d consider unethical—or worse, immoral? It doesn’t feel as clear-cut as sending over a list of questions similar to the ones I send conference organizers. Besides, when I’m speaking with a prospective client, can they tell me with certainty that their company’s not conducting business I’d find problematic?
Companies need to think about the business they are in and what legacy they want to leave. Ben Thompson did a great comparison of Apple and Amazon earlier this year of how they are polar opposites.
I mean it when I say these companies are the complete opposite: Apple sells products it makes; Amazon sells products made by anyone and everyone. Apple brags about focus; Amazon calls itself “The Everything Store.” Apple is a product company that struggles at services; Amazon is a services company that struggles at product. Apple has the highest margins and profits in the world; Amazon brags that other’s margin is their opportunity, and until recently, barely registered any profits at all. And, underlying all of this, Apple is an extreme example of a functional organization, and Amazon an extreme example of a divisional one.
You could argue that Apple isn’t struggling at services (nearly $30 billion per year) and that Amazon isn’t struggling at product (20 million Echo speakers in 2017), but the comparison is still valid. It proves that there’s no one way to run a successful company; no golden ticket, no shortcuts.
Apple as a model?
Apple has yet to be caught in the crossfire of employees not aligning with company values and views and that helps them.
According to Cook, Apple has always been about changing the world. It occurred to him a few years ago that Apple can’t accomplish that goal if it stays quiet on issues that impact the world. There’s no formula as to when Cook / Apple decides to speak on an issue. Instead, Cook thinks about whether Apple has a special expertise on an issue. If Apple can bring a certain knowledge to the discussion, then the company should become vocal. Cook listed five items for which Apple can bring a point of view: Education, Privacy, Human rights, Immigration and Environment.
I can’t help but think Apple’s stance on privacy wasn’t based on financials, but more on values. Decision making like this is starting to look wiser and wiser from a financial perspective as well. Our recent discussions about AI (Google Assistant, Photos, etc) brings to light how when your values as a company are compromised, you make the public nervous about your intentions. There is so much to sort out before releasing these products into the wild.
“Tech needs its talent, and its talent knows better than most of us the seismic changes technology… will unleash. It’s not all good, and we have to be people before profit-makers.”
What values are important to me?
What’s important to me is entirely different from what’s important to you. As Ethan mentions in his excellent post, Just Work, what may cause you to loose sleep is very different from what will cause me to stare at a bedroom ceiling.
The board of my company is 50/50 male to female. It’s me and my wife (our dog too, so I guess it’s 33% male and 67% female, 67% human and 33% dog) It’s not just because we’re married, it’s because it’s a smart business choice. A diverse board is better for business. The same goes for my freelance pool. I currently have four freelancers on contract - two males, two females (so there’s an opening for more dogs!)
Success isn’t measured by sales figures alone. While I may running long-term successful business, I also know there’s no reason for growth just for the sake of it. My values are more important to me than making yet another dollar (via Offscreen Values). They lead me to have a great work ethic, maintain strong business relationships, and produce great products. I just passed 10 years of running my own company and, hopefully, I have another good 30 years left.
What are you doing to last? Not to grow. Not to gain. Not to take. Not to win. But to last?
I’m a professional because I’m personal. Never loose sight of that. Professionalism comes from what you do and deliver - not by wearing a button-down shirt. If Mills can wear shorts to 10 Downing Street, surely I can wear a hoodie in a meeting. Talk with clients like you talk to your family, friends, and pets (via SNASK Manifesto). Be present, be attentive, be caring.