I’m sitting on the hard floor of my living room, watching Luna, my nine-week-old puppy, nibble her baby wolf teeth into the glass corners of my laptop screen. It’s cute, the way she doesn’t give a shit about my laptop, how she has no idea what a laptop does, or that it comes from one of the most powerful industries on the planet. I dream of trading spaces with Luna for a brief moment, to feel what she feels–no stress or OKRs or growth-hacking or re-orgs or pitch decks or social media–just tiny bits of glass scraping against her teeth. As I watch her mouth crunch into the screen, it is no longer merely a dream, but a realization that tiny bits of glass scraping against teeth is precisely how it feels to work in tech right now.
The first question submitted to this Q&A forum asks, “How do you remain in the tech industry without losing your soul?” Thank you to the courageous person who submitted this question. I suspect it’s a question that resides within many of us but it doesn’t always feel safe to say it aloud. After all, we work in an industry that offers the immense privilege of financial stability. Whenever I’m asked, “Why did you decide to work in tech?” My mind oscillates back-and-forth on which type of response to give. Should I recite the words expected from me? Because-I-wanted-to-humanize-technology-through-design! Or should I reply with a more honest answer: As a designer, did I even have a choice? In the US, the economy was deciding for me. After growing up watching my sleep-deprived father try to change his career as the industry shifted from manufacturing to tech and service, to amassing $115,000 of student loan debt on my twenty-first birthday, to losing my print design jobs in the midst of a recession, tech was the pathway towards financial stability. But as I reflect on the last decade, the last year, I can’t help but notice the unsettling realities of how the industry has exacerbated inequality, mental health issues, threats to democracy, Internet addictions, and strain in my relationships. Will we look back on this time and say that technology caused more harm than good? Is it possible to steer the industry in a more ethical direction when shareholder value conquers all? How do we remain in the tech industry without losing our souls? Have I already lost mine?
My short (unsatisfying) response: Honestly, I don’t know. I believe it’s a question that only we as individuals can answer for ourselves, and it may very well be a question that we grapple with for the rest of our careers. But my longer response is more nuanced, rooted in patterns I’ve observed while working in the industry, from startups to big tech. I hope that these patterns offer clarity as we navigate towards what it is our soul desires, which in turn, might help us see where we can steer our own workplaces towards a more ethical roadmap.
We’re at risk of losing our soul when we stop listening to it.
As tech makers, we, too, are addicted to the technology that we create. The screens. The emails. The calendar pings. Meetings. Metrics. Tweets. Chats. I remember helping a colleague stand up after they ran headfirst into a wall, their eyes buried into their phone as they raced from meeting to meeting. I can count several occasions when I tried to hold a conversation with a colleague over video chat, only to realize they didn’t hear a word I said, entangled in the distraction of chats and re-org emails. And I remember doing the same thing to them. In an industry rife with unhealthy urgency, unchecked ambition, and endless distraction, it becomes harder and harder to listen to ourselves, to each other, and to the real communities and families impacted by what we create. And when this failure to listen happens industry-wide, it can manifest in products that confuse, overwhelm, pressure, exclude, and harm–even when that’s not what we intended.
I could write about the power of meditation, and while a meditative practice can be helpful, I’ll spare you, because I believe that reclaiming our ability to listen requires more than meditation. It requires us to confront the hard truths about ourselves–why we don’t listen to our intuition, the temptations and distractions that pull us away from it, and why we don’t say no. Maybe the best thing for your soul is to take a break, or keep doing what you’re doing, or conduct more research, or change jobs, or transfer an opportunity to someone else, or take a course, or support someone on their journey in tech, or get a puppy, or maybe it is to leave the industry altogether. Your colleagues, managers, or investors may try to lure you towards an immediate answer, but only you know the truth that will best serve your principles, creativity, and wellbeing. No matter the direction, it starts with asking the hard questions and having patience with ourselves as we figure it out. Otherwise, our connection to our souls will feel like a shitty Internet connection or static on the radio.
We’re at risk of losing our soul when we demand perfection and ‘quick wins’, instead of creating an inclusive space to acknowledge the brokenness.
I long for the day when it feels safe and easy for all of us working in tech to say ‘we made a mistake’ or ‘no, this quick win solution will not fix this’ or ‘there are perspectives missing from this room.’ I try to speak up about these uncomfortable truths whenever possible, but when I’m the only woman in the room, or my voice gets interrupted or corrected, or I’m asked, “Lauren, can you take notes?” or the conversation exclusively centers on profit, speed, scaling, winning, my soul withers. There is no ‘quick win’ solution to fix the brokenness that we’re a part of and have created. And the more we fail to acknowledge the brokenness, the longer it will take to steer the industry (and, perhaps, our souls) towards a more ethical direction.
But to honestly acknowledge this, we have to give ourselves and each other (especially colleagues that are at higher risk of retaliation and discrimination) the permission and unyielding support to speak into the brokenness, no matter how uncomfortable it is to confront. Additionally, this requires us to be aware of our positionality, to assess where we can afford to take a risk to speak up when others may not have the same affordance. And, in turn, maybe where we shouldn’t speak up just yet, as it may cause too much risk for ourselves or others. Either way, if we don’t assess where we can bring cracks of light into the brokenness, if we don’t steer our conversations towards truth–in all of its tiny bits of broken glass–we’re at risk of perpetuating more harm than good.
Also, while I have you here, let’s agree to abolish the phrase ‘quick wins’, now and forevermore.
We’re at risk of losing our soul when we say yes to everything.
There are plenty of incentive structures in the industry that tempt us to say yes to every opportunity that comes our way. Sure, I’ll guess I’ll go for that promotion because that’s the next clear step in front of me. Sure, I guess we’ll keep centering our success metrics on growth because that’s what was asked of us. Sure, I’ll volunteer for that DEI or wellbeing initiative, because I’ll be well-supported in this work, right? And before you know it, the ‘yes’ chips away at your soul, leaving you to wonder why you said yes in the first place.
What are your principles? Boundaries? What tradeoffs are you willing to make? What tradeoffs are you not willing to make? What companies are you willing to work for, and on what terms? What companies are you not willing to work for? If you’re saying yes to every opportunity, then who gets left out? Our soul demands restraint. But it takes courage to practice restraint when every structure incentivizes us to scale, grow, climb, accumulate. Do we value anything outside of growth? Don’t get me wrong, saying yes can open doors and lead us towards financial stability, but in a capitalist society, a ‘yes’ comes with a cost. Are you willing to make that cost? If it is a yes, what are your principles and boundaries around that yes? Where will you draw the line? What will you seek to resist? Refer back to #1 to find out. It’s easy to say yes, but your soul may not like it.
I know I promised to keep these essays brief, but this question called for exploration and depth, so thank you for reading this far. I hope that it offers clarity towards what it is your soul desires while working in an industry that bites.
Time to take Luna outside before she pees on the laptop.
Your fellow soul-in-searching,