The tech industry may be dominating the economy, but now it must win hearts and minds

Thirty-plus years after Bill Gates called for a computer in every home and nearly 20 years after John Doerr insisted to everyone within earshot that the “Internet is underhyped”, tech has infiltrated all corners of the developed world and become part of the fabric of society.

In only a couple of decades, tech has joined entertainment, sports and politics as Thanksgiving dinner topics of conversation; it’s changing adjacent economic sectors; and its impact is top of mind to global leaders.

It’s become a really big thing. And, we’re still long from fulfilling its promise.

Yet, we seem trapped in small debates about the latest dumb tweet/Medium post/selfie; a 22-year-old CEO who acted like a 22-year-old; the latest from the Google bus wars; and, so on.

But, you know what? This isn’t the fault of clickbait journalism, Schadenfreude or even the random guy who posts miserable opinions. Those are symptoms.

At a high level, this comes from a disconnect between the high impact that we have locally, nationally and worldwide and the relative amount of leadership that we provide outside of building and selling products. Maybe this is because there are many more battles to be won and we come from a culture that can’t be satisfied by the current version of whatever you’ve just created. But, make no mistake, we’ve made it. We’ve got what we’ve wanted and now it feels like we’re the Robert Redford character at the end of The Candidate.

When you create massive economic success and build products that become ingrained in people’s lives, you get lots of attention of all kinds. This has been true in the United States for as long as we have had newspapers.

[The Roaring Twenties was the last time we had as much economic disparity as we do today. A whole new kind of journalism sprung up then just to cover new wealth, the emergence of Hollywood, and innovators like Charles Lindbergh. Called ‘jazz journalism‘, the style thrived on controversy and a focused on the sordid — with an emphasis on photography instead of words…. Sound familiar?  (Also note the media’s role as portrayed in Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street)]

The attention that we now get runs the spectrums from intelligent to vapid and fawning to cynical. We want better, we can push for better, but we can’t expect better. Not with our success. Not with all of the unified self-congratulations around disruptions. And, not until we stop pretending that the Valley is just one big plucky start-up so consumed in its own geekery that the outside world is a big distraction.

Take the example of the industry’s impact on the Bay Area. The world is watching us and we’re largely letting the Bryan Goldbergs and a photo of graffiti lead the conversation about complex economic disparity issues.

Or, consider that despite countless painful lessons learned over and over again regarding consumer privacy by consumer Internet companies, an emergent company worth multiple billions of dollars can still act cavalier towards a known security hole.

Or, wonder how questions about diversity are mostly avoided or, when answered, responses are convoluted at best.

The reverberations of this are being played out by media in Washington, DC, London, Tokyo, São Paulo and so on in an international game of telephone that only deepen caricatures and lead to further distortions. Business and political leaders there then form opinions about our industry. So do consumers.

My experience suggests that the vast majority of people in the tech industry truly want to change the world for the better and that’s a big reason why they got into tech in the first place. They are good people. Smart people.

We just need to get all the good, smart people to recognize that, as one wise Valley veteran told me, if the Valley crashes out again, we are currently on a path toward being perceived as charlatans, or if the success continues, we’ll be seen as modern-day Robber Barons. We can certainly do better, and I expect that we will. It just needs to start happening soon.

The most critical place to start is by asserting greater long-term thinking that we expect from the best companies in the industry. Don’t get distracted by the Twitter fight of the day. At the same time, don’t get distracted by the vacuum of your own company’s daily machinations. Think about where you and your company want to be in a decade. This place will require friendly places to live for your employees. Wonder whether having good relationships with policymakers will be important to your company’s success. And think about the steps that you need to take to have open and constructive conversations with them. Consider how workplace diversity will allow you to compete in a world where your products are used by those from all walks of life. (For an extreme long view, check out the 10,000 year clock project.)

Then begin to get engaged and, at least, be forthright and direct in conversations about the issues the industry is facing. Reid Hoffman’s recent words on diversity are a great example. From there, recognize that small but symbolic acts are largely what is damning the industry and be willing to take some more on your own whether you get credit for them or not (today’s $1.5 million agreement between tech companies using private busses and the SFMTA is a strong start). They will eventually add up. Then, find an area of interest to lead on. It can be focused. It can be broad. It can be locally based or international. You can go alone or you can join others. Just recognize that winners lead.*

Lastly, whether you are fresh off a flight and are settling down for your first week at Pinterest or whether you’ve been in the industry for decades as a mid-level engineer, recognize that the world considers you a winner. Billions would love to be in your shoes. We (including us at Pramana) should all aspire to be good winners that are grateful, humble, generous and self-aware about success. We’ll be more successful and it will make our industry’s wins more enjoyable for both those of us in it and those observing it. And, when we inevitably fail at times, the world will be more forgiving.

*Here are some good examples:

  • The work of Zynga.org.
  • Hunter Walk’s suggestions on getting involved SF.

  • The perspective and recommendations of Jason Calacanis.
  • About everything that Ron Conway does.
  • Mark Zuckerberg’s donations.
  • Tipping Point – which fights poverty in the Bay Area and is supported by a good number of people in the tech community. (And is having a benefit concert on January 21).
  • Twitter’s continued defense of user rights.
  • And, both Biz Stone’s charitable efforts and his words (from 2010):

“Entrepreneurs are realizing that they don’t need to wait until they have big piles of money to start helping others in need. In fact, the earlier you align your company with social causes, the better. With an early start, the results can have more impact over time.”

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Thank you to my Pramana partners for their edits and insights on this post.

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