Engineers are fixing Silicon Valley
A little over a year ago, I quit the tech journalism beat. And every day I thank God that I did.
It’s depressing enough to be a mere consumer of journalism right now, never mind a producer. It’s struggle enough to see newspaper headlines about Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg enabling neo-nazis or the FSB without punching a wall. I can’t fathom how soul-crushing it must be to actually have to call those fuckers, or their functionaries, and listen politely as they repeat their disingenuous excuses for hastening the end of civilization.
And, by Christ, there’s not enough pity in the world for the poor journalistic souls who have to report on whatever shitty thing Travis Kalanick does at his next company.
Then for six or seven months after quitting, I also stopped using almost all digital tech. I downgraded to a dumb phone, I deleted my accounts with all non-essential online services, I removed pretty much everything from the cloud and for a while I even stopped streaming movies and music.
Looking back now it seems pretty clear I was utterly burned out and sick of Silicon Valley to the point where I wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of it. Part of that sickness was likely the inevitable consequence of having covered the same industry for almost two decades. Mostly though it stemmed from my acute sadness at how tech brociopaths had taken something that used to delight me – world changing innovation and technology – and turned it into an industry that was so unrelentingly toxic.
So I got out. Good for me.
Now, 18 months on, I’m slowly starting to pay attention to tech again. Critically, though, I’m not paying attention to it as a journalist, but rather as a consumer. When a couple of weeks ago I finally caved to work pressures and bought myself a semi-smart phone, I did so with zero clue about the state of the art beyond what reviews on sites like CNET and Gizmodo told me. I installed apps for car rentals and cloud storage with wide eyed naivety and zero baggage about what horrible thing the CEO of the company behind those services might have said or done that week. In other words, I interacted with Silicon Valley in the same way as billions of people around the world do every day: Not via the machinations of its executives but by the innovations of its engineers.
Seeing the tech industry through those fresh eyes is refreshing and wonderful: While I’ve been away the ecosystem wars (Apple vs Google vs Amazon) have given us astonishing advances in voice recognition and the early stages of artificial intelligence. Image recognition has warped ahead, while plain old search has become freakishly good at understanding context and intent. Amazon can now deliver packages up the Himalayas.
Meanwhile, all across the world, small teams of engineers at tiny startups have been busy developing tools that are finally delivering on all the promises technology made us a couple of decades ago before they became fixated on disruption for disruption’s sake. That is, they’re making us healthier, happier and more connected while – at an engineering level at least – trying to intelligently combat trolls, fraudsters, harassers and other bad faith actors.
Here’s my point: While I and other tech writers were focused on the genuine awfulness of people like Travis Kalanick and (Pando investor) Peter Thiel, or the moral cowardice of Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Dorsey et al, the engineers were continuing to do their jobs to stunning effect.
So it’s heartening, and perhaps unsurprising, to see those same engineers increasingly acting as a moral counterweight to the greed and selfishness of their bosses. It was an engineer – Susan Fowler – who led the internal revolt that finally ousted Kalanick. It’s engineers inside Microsoft and Amazon who are demanding that their innovations not be used to wage war or separate children from their families. It’s Google engineers who are most vocally protesting the company’s plans to build a censored search engine for China. It’s engineers who are behind the Tech Won’t Build it movement in which engineers pledge not to develop tools for making war or fueling hate.
Similarly it’s more often female engineers than female (or male) executives who – through organizations like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code Girls - are pushing for true equality and diversity in the tech workplace.
More importantly, it's working. The tech bros are paying attention, and even changing course. Perhaps they’ve suddenly realized something that should have been obvious from the start: They can’t get obscenely rich without engineers willing to build all their magical toys.
I’m out of the tech predictions business, but looking at the astonishing advances made by Valley engineers and the enormous power they have over the behavior of their bosses, it’s hard not to think we’re seeing the start of a new era in Silicon Valley. If the past decade gave us the “cult of the founder” – where investors, users and employees, were forced to bend to the whims of the Kalanicks and Dorseys no matter how much evil they did – perhaps the next decade will be remembered for the resurgence and reiteration of the cult of the engineers.
I say ‘resurgence’ because Silicon Valley, and the tech industry generally, was built around the cult of the engineer. It was engineers who started it all, and engineers who have been quietly working away as their bosses (many of whom would struggle to write, or even read, a line of usable code) take all the credit and most of the spoils.
I say ‘reiteration’ because in the early days of Silicon Valley those engineers were almost exclusively white and male. That’s already not the case this time around and, if the trend continues, the talent pool is only going to get more diverse as it gets more powerful.
For the first time in years, I feel a glimmer of hope about the direction that the tech industry is taking.