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The Most Powerful Words in Tech Are “It Depends”

Musings on the problems of today and the solutions of tomorrow.

I wrote the cover story in Wired magazine this month. It’s called “Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry.” It’s a little weird to be trundling along as a leader at a software company and then to have my name on the cover of Wired, but there you have it. Thought leader, think thyself.

The piece is a long essay about how the tech industry has changed in the last few decades, especially around the web and Internet. It’s partly about how, in terms of ethics, we in tech didn’t adapt enough as we gained power. We’re still fighting the battles of 1997 but 2019 is a different place; namely, we’re in charge. And too many people want to lead and not enough want to listen.

In the interest of putting my money where my words are, I’m splitting my fee between four charities: Black Girls CODE, Vets Who Code, Vermont Drop-in and Human Utility. These are inclusive charities, run by women and/or people of color. Several teach people who are marginalized by tech-at-large how to wield some of the power of this industry in their own interests, and one uses a technology platform to directly reduce suffering.

I work in an industry that is full of “solutions providers.” Except I know, from the clients who come to Postlight needing help, how rarely any one off-the-shelf solution truly solves a problem. Very often the problem is redefined to fit the solution. That’s how a big part of the tech industry survives: It invents new problems and solves them. This isn’t a bad thing! At some level the entire World Wide Web is exactly that. It created the need for websites. That’s why I have a career.

But it does lead to solutionism. Whereas an experienced software person, whether product manager, designer, or engineer, is not someone with quick answers. They don’t have solutions. At most they have preferences. The best people are the ones who can say, “it depends.”

Because there’s no such thing as “right” with technology. There never will be. There’s no one single operating system, design system, front-end framework, word processor, web browser, programming language, spreadsheet application, audio format, video player, text editor, IDE, windowing interface, network protocol, package manager, diagramming tool, or calendar program. Culture changes, and code changes with it. Seeing that big picture is work.

After the article came out, someone I greatly respect, who’s been around the tech industry for decades, wrote an email with kind things to say. But, he asked, where’s the vision? Where’s the big picture? We’re just starting!

He’s right. Right now it feels like we’re all just swimming in a stream of risk and despair. Today I read that society will break down by 2050, which seems premature, but what do I know? It’s almost sensible to choose a negative worldview because cynicism always seems more “correct” than pessimism. And okay, we need to plan for the worst. But it’s not a sin to hope for the best. As my friend Maria Bustillos says, Sometimes there are good surprises!

But ultimately, if I’m going to stick around and create a world in which I want to live, or have my kids live, I have to say: “It depends.” Maybe we need to all move to Mars, or have more nuclear energy to balance the fossil fuels. Maybe there’s no easy solution to the challenges of the world and we’re actually all going to have to get by with less.

All I’m saying is that we do have the tools, in the world of technology, to change things. But the tools are not the latest, coolest things at hand. You won’t solve global warming on the blockchain. You won’t create a more just society with a better chat client.

What does seem to work, at least from my experience, is listening, saying “it depends,” and then building the best possible solution as quickly as possible, and watching what happens next.

That’s the part of tech I love. The part that’s a conversation, not a solution.

Paul Ford is the CEO of Postlight. Send him an email: [email protected].

Story published on Jun 4, 2019.