Thoughtful tech: how far does your ethical responsibility stretch for the tech your devs create?


Adelina and Caroline

Adelina and Caroline

In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, Caroline Lewko dicsusses setting values and culture in organisations, and Adelina Chalmers provides practical examples of how developers can influence upstream.


Caroline: Well, thank you to those of you who are interested in ethics. Thank you very much for coming out to our talk, much appreciated. So, I bet you’re wondering why we want to talk about ethics. So, as you know, you’ve heard, I’ve been in the technology space and building developer programs for a lot of years. I’ve been building communities for well over 20 years. I’ve been building developer programs for, my company is 14 years old, and I feel guilty. I really do.

In the early days, I used to put on events for, this was pre-iPhone days and I was putting on events for developers about “How do we make apps more sticky?” Well, guess what? We did that, and now you go around the dinner table and nobody talks to each other, and I’m feeling really, really guilty about that. And when I looked around at what else I could do in this community, it’s like I really want to start talking about ethics and how we can be more thoughtful in the technology we produce. And I’ll talk a little bit more about how we can sort of bring that around to developer relations.

So, the first thing I’d like to talk about is when we’re talking about developers and developer relations, it’s like what drives developers? And really what it is, is it’s pride. And again, a really good way, it’s the ability to go, “I made that. Have you seen how cool that is? I made that.” That’s really what drives us to build things and to keep growing. It’s pride being able to say you did something that was really wonderful. So, if that’s driving us and if we’re thinking about ethics, but if we’re not thinking thoughtfully about what we’re building, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, and I mean, these are some really serious issues. So, the one I talked about where you’re with a family and nobody talks to each other, is one of them. It’s a huge issue in our society right now. But the Volkswagen problem that happened, there’s a ton of fraud that’s in the industry. What about the superhuman mail application that was out there that was spying on people, let alone, all the other pieces that are spying on folks right now? What about the MAX 737? Somebody had to know about that and never really spoke up about it, right? And those are all issues that happen when we’re not being thoughtful or thinking about ethics in what we’re building. And then it becomes, “Oh, crap. “I made that. “I’m part of that responsibility.” Or for those of us in dev rel, it’s like, “Holy crap, they made that with our tools.” How does that make you feel? That’s when it starts to become really personal.

So, what do we do about it? And I think any time there’s an issue, you always have to take a look at what the root cause is. And there’s a number of different root causes for tech not being thoughtful and ethics not being followed. Here’s a couple of things that have come out just in the news lately. There’s a lot of complex undertakings, a lot of projects are getting more complex. This one was about Boeing 737, it’s like what combination of inexperience and ego and lack of cultural understanding. Always wanting to release products, there’s always some shareholder going, “I want my shares to go up this next quarter so you guys better hurry up and put something out there.” And a lot of little self control. There’s a number of other things too and I often ask this question when I give talks, “Do you think coding is easier today or is it harder today?” In a lot of ways it’s a lot easier today because we’ve got a lot of great tools out there. There’s a lot of that abstracted code so things are easier to learn. There’s communities, there’s evangelists, there’s developer relations. But I argue, too, that I think coding is a lot harder today for exactly those same reasons because there’s more tools, there’s more competition, projects are rushed to get finished, the expectation of time to market has shrunk a lot, and there’s more choice.

So, I would argue, coding is actually harder today than it was for just those reasons. A couple other things when we look at causation and root cause is developers as a whole, and even dev rel as a whole, tends to be quite immature, lack of experience. If you take a look at, I mean, these are some of the survey results that came from Stack Overflow, one-third learned to code in the last nine years and a lot of them don’t have a lot of business experience either, so there’s a lack of context and a lack of just knowing how to interact, especially within a big corporate environment.

This was a particular survey that Stack Overflow did in 2018 when they asked about ethics. Overall, what really was summed up was developers, there was over 73 or 79%, it’s almost 80% of developers that believe they have an obligation to think about ethics in the code that they deliver. However, when they were asked about, “So, how would you report on this? And what would you actually do?” Most don’t know how to report it and they don’t know how to handle it. But there was an interesting quote that came out of there that said, “Developers can actually be the last line of defense against unethical code.” Wow.

OK. So, we’ve got an understanding of what some of this root cause is which is inexperience, unreasonable deadlines, unreasonable shareholder expectations, incomplete information. Often, whether it’s about the project that you’re building within projects, we don’t often know what the executive is thinking if the incomplete information doesn’t get drilled down. And really a culture lacking in psychological safety, feeling very uncomfortable to speak up. OK, we got that, we got what the root causes and what some of the things are, what can we do about it? And when I think about developer relations and why I want to bring this issue to you is, we know that one of the biggest… characteristics of being good in dev rel is empathy. So, I think we bring empathy to the table, right? We are also a group that’s often known to bring issues, we’re a group that sits in the middle of everything and talks to everybody, so we’re in a good position to be able to bring some of those issues forward.

So, how do we do it? Well, let’s just put up something on our site that says, “I agree to do no harm.” Is that going to make a big issue? You know, some people will go, “Yeah, I’m going to sign this.” It’s like our code of conduct. It’s great to have code of conducts but there’s other things that we need to be doing too so we’re actually living this. We’ve all heard probably what’s happened with GitHub the last little while, right? We can go and protest and great, there’s great people, like Don. Thank you for actually leaving his job in protest. We can do that too.

Here was something that came out from an IEEE news site where a technologist was asking, “Would you actually quit a tech project “over ethical concerns?” So, I’m really pleased these issues are coming out, people are starting to talk about them and some people would quit, you know. There’s an organization in Silicon Valley that’s made up of some of the folks that have come out of Facebook and Google that are going, “Holy crap,” they feel guilty like me, right, like, “We created some of these monsters.” They’ve actually started to put in place some design guidelines for applications which I think is really cool. So, go and check it out, where there’s a whole guidelines on here’s what can happen if you’re, you should look through some of these design guidelines when you’re creating applications to, again, be really thoughtful about what you’re doing because it can cause issues like addiction, et cetera.

A lot of it also comes down to culture and for those of you who follow Ben Horowitz, he’s one of the big valley venture capitalist, and also has written a couple of books, but he’s recently written a book on culture. But it’s a lot of what we already know. So, culture is not created by top-down and “Here’s what our culture is. It’s written on the walls and everybody follows it.” Culture is really about what happens everyday, day-to-day in business, and culture can change from the bottom-up. So, it’s important to know that you and the people in your organization can make those changes in culture by what you do. At the end of day somebody needs to speak up! Somebody needs to feel comfortable enough to speak up and talk about what these issues are and say it’s not right. So, at this point, what I’m going to do is turn it over to my good friend, Adelina, who’s known as The Geek Whisperer, who really helps a lot of companies talk about this psychological safety and she’s going to give you a few tips on how you can make a difference in your own organization. .

Adelina: Thank you. Well, someone still needs to be able to stand up and say, “No, this is not OK. “This is not going to work.” But in order to do that with the community of developers we have, you have to be able to do it internally with your engineers and leadership. Caroline mentioned things like tight deadlines, lack of experience, and psychological safety as some of the issues that contributed to MAX 737, or the superhuman email tracker, or Volkswagen and their fraud. But what is psychological safety? It’s one of the, if you’re in a meeting with your boss and you worry about reprisal for speaking your mind, or telling them, “This is not OK. “This is not ethical,” then it means you don’t have psychological safety within your team, or with your boss, or with your peers. If, however, you know you can have constructive disagreement, then you can say freely, “I was wrong. “You are right. “I made a mistake last week. “This is not OK what we’re doing right here.” And you know your career is not in jeopardy, you won’t be shunned by colleagues or bosses because you spoke up. But if psychological safety is a feeling of trust that you can disagree with people without repercussions, how can you create it in other people?

One of the key ways that you can create psychological safety with your colleagues is for you to start doing it yourself, even if leadership aren’t doing it yet. Caroline was talking about culture is what people do day in, day out, and yes, it’s often hard to change the culture from the bottom-up. Here’s a very simple way you can create psychological safety with your own family, friends, and colleagues at work. If someone says to you something you don’t want to hear, or something with which you disagree, or something that they don’t like about you, “Mary, you’re difficult to work with,” most people, in fact, from experience, because I’ve done this lots of times and I’m speaking all of it from experience, 99% of people react either by saying, “Well, you’re no cheesecake to work with either. You’re very difficult too.” That’s one reaction which is actually a defense. Or they start going, “What do you mean? “This is not right. “You are rubbish, you are rubbish. You are bad.” And then they start trying to run away from the problem and deflect to something different. This is because it’s a biological reaction. It’s a normal reaction to defend ourselves.

However, this is the reason why people don’t raise their hand and say, “This is not right,” because they’re worried about the reaction of the bosses, and the colleagues, and everyone else. And one of the key ways you can change that yourself within your own team, within the developer community you work with, is the moment someone says something you don’t want to hear, or even if they bring a personal attack, instead of defending or having a fight reaction, become curious about what is it, the depth of that feedback, where do they come from with this, what’s going on there. If I were to summarize this concept in a very, very cliche and annoying slide-type presentation, I would say that “You would genuinely say, ‘Thank you so much for telling us we suck!'” But not in a cynical way, but in a “Oh gosh, OK, thank you for coming out with this because I realize this was very difficult for you.” And then become curious about what is it that made them say that. Delve into the details. How did we suck? When did we suck? How much did we suck? What was the suckiest part of it all? And then you will see people start feeling, “Wow, it really is OK to say what I think around here.”

So, if I were to summarize this tiny little thing you can do in your day-to-day is that become grateful the moment someone says something you don’t like, and overtly grateful by saying, “Thank you for raising this. It must have been very hard for you to tell me that I suck.” And then become curious about the details and say to them, especially when they tell you something you don’t like, or you don’t want to hear, or when they bring up problems and errors that they committed. Nobody wants to be the guy or gal who’s shouted at in the office because you brought that issue everybody else knows about and talks about around the water cooler, but nobody will tell Martin about it. Martin is not a real person, by the way, as far as I know. Not in my world.

But then there’s another aspect to psychological safety and this aspect is this: a company or people have to listen to understand. A classic example of this came from GitHub. In the last few months they were in the media because they renewed a $200,000 contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement with United States. ICE, as they’re known, are known for perpetrating certain human rights violations but also, as GitHub engineers put it, “putting children in cages.” GitHub engineers asked GitHub leadership to cancel the $200,000 contract. GitHub leadership thought and said, “Well, we care about the same issues you care “and to show that, we’re not going to cancel the contract “but we’re going to give $500,000 to NGOs “that help with the immigrants that ICE is affecting.” If GitHub leadership had really taken the time to engage in meaningful listening to understand conversation with the staff, perhaps they would have discovered now they’re almost a million out of pocket because this is a lot more money than what they’re receiving from ICE, plus several staff will have left the company, plus the bad publicity, plus they didn’t actually manage to make the engineers happy. In fact, the engineers said, “You can’t offset human lives with money.” And also the engineers were even more upset because they said, “No donation can offset the damage “or the harm that ICE is perpetrating with our labor.” And that’s core, like Caroline said earlier, engineers and developers didn’t want the tools they created to be used to harm human beings.

So, a key part of psychological safety is being able to listen to understand, not just listen to respond. Understanding takes a willingness and curiosity to get in the shoes of the other person who’s trying to tell you something. Having an answer does not mean you understood. So, one of the other ways that within a company leadership can build psychological safety is to be overt and happy to talk about times when they failed and times when they were wrong. You, yourself, can do this with your developer teams or with the people that you work with everyday. If you’re the first person who goes, “I’m wrong. “I’m the person who did that. “I was wrong last week. “You were right,” people go, “Oh my god, this seems to be OK “and this seems to be all right. “I don’t have to be right all the time.” And part of the reason people, I think, often feel that they have to show that they’re right, or they have to show they always have an answer is because in school, if you think about it, you are shunned by the teacher and the students and laughed at if you got the answer wrong and even plastered with a bad grade afterwards.

When Caroline asked me to give this talk I was trying to think as an objective observer of dev rel in what role could dev rel do and have to be the last line of defense before unethical tech goes out there into the world. And I was thinking, for developers and engineers, dev rel could be a safe channel to leadership. Think of it this way, if some engineers of GitHub didn’t feel safe within their departments to speak up, dev rel could have gathered all of those numbers and all of that feedback. And also dev rel, in fact, did gather numbers and signatures, as far as I know, because recently just last week, there was an article in the paper that those 300 signatures from the dev rel community to the leadership at GitHub to reinforce the fact that they do want this ICE contract canceled. And now, I’d like to go back to Caroline and see if she has an important question to ask you. Thank you.

Caroline: Thanks, Adelina. So, what we wanted to do again was bring up the issues of ethics and help you start to be thoughtful about what you do and to see if there’s a way, again, that we can bring it into dev rel. And what Adelina was saying, it really starts at home, right? You’ve got to be able to practice it and walk the walk first before you can support it in other places and in other organizations. And when we looked, as well, at what dev rel can do, what you can do within your organization, it really comes down to how can we empower our own teams, and how can we empower the developers that we work with.

So, there is an opportunity to provide information like this, to provide training and guidelines, like the Humane Society, the Humane Technology group is doing with those design guidelines. So, maybe collectively, we can come up with some great questions that we say, “Before you go and create this tool, this experience, this piece of software, ask these questions.” So, maybe collectively, again, we don’t have all the answers, we’re kind of here to pose some more questions. There’s definitely some personal communication techniques that we can all learn, some of what Adelina has been telling us about. And I think if we, as a community, come at it going, “We strongly want ethics in the work that we do” and we form that strong community and you form those strong communities and what you have, we believe that if somebody wants to be that whistleblower, at least feel comfortable, they know that a community has their back, that there’s going to be other people that go, “Yeah, we believe in ethics too.” And there’s certainly more and more of this growing within our tech community where there are more protests, whether they’re internal or external.

So, I believe this has already started. I believe we just need to embrace it. I think there’s still techniques that we need to do and think about for ourselves within our own organizations, and I think we need to believe in, the future depends on our choices and we’ve got that empathy. So, unless you want your heart to fly away, pull it back. Pull it back and keep it here and let’s work together to be much more ethical in the software that we promote and with our tools that are being used. If you want to get a hold of us, I’m Caroline. This is Adelina. We’d love to spend more time talking about it and maybe there’s some sort of group that we can form. And maybe there’s some more Twitter conversations or later on today, I know there’s some sort of barcamp-style, if you’re interested in talking about this a little more, we would love to do that. So, go forth and be thoughtful about the technology in our community. Thank you.

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