Don’t Be Evil: Engineering Culture, Infrastructure, and Politics

I’m going to over-quote from this great piece on engineering culture and tech ethics.

We certainly do “try to do politics by changing infrastructure.” For good, and for bad.

Engineering culture is about making the product. If you make the product work, that’s all you’ve got to do to fulfill the ethical warrant of your profession. The ethics of engineering are an ethics of: Does it work? If you make something that works, you’ve done the ethical thing. It’s up to other people to figure out the social mission for your object. It’s like the famous line from the Tom Lehrer song: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.

That’s what they do. They tweak infrastructure. It’s a little bit like an ancient Roman trying to shape public debate by reconfiguring the Forum. “We’ll have seven new entrances instead of six, and the debate will change.”

The engineering world doesn’t have a conception of how to intervene in debate that isn’t infrastructural.

Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

At Burning Man, what you’re rehearsing is project-based collaborative labor. Engineers flowing in from the Valley are literally acting out the social structures on which Valley engineering depends. But they can do something at Burning Man that they can’t do in the Valley: they can own the project. They can experience total “flow” with a team of their own choosing. In the desert, in weirdly perfect conditions, they can do what the firm promises them but can’t quite deliver.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

One of the legacies of the counterculture, particularly on the left, is the idea that expression is action. This idea has haunted those of us on the left for a long time.

But one of the reasons that the Tea Party came to power was that they organized—they built institutions. So the challenge for those of us who want a different world is not to simply trust that the expressive variety that the internet permits is the key to freedom. Rather, we need to seek a kind of freedom that involves people not like us, that builds institutions that support people not like us—not just ones that help gratify our desires to find new partners or build better micro-worlds.

Source: Don’t Be Evil

Use what you make and default to open

My team at Automattic, Flow Patrol, is ”building testing culture in continuous delivery”.

More and more, we work in places where continuous development is championed, MVPs are common, pre-release testing is limited, and the pressure is on to constantly redefine features in newer, faster, better ways. Updates happen constantly, without notice, and the way things work shifts under our feet more often than not. This kind of fast-paced, constant change moves the web forward and challenges traditional testing practices. Let’s talk about how testing is changing and how we can build a better, stronger culture of testing.

The Flow Patrol team continuously dogfoods what we make with our own creaking humanity in mind. Universal design, design for real life, neurodiversity, and the social model of disability inform us as we continuously confront what we make as users, as people with lives and backstories, aches and pains, and bad days. Continuous development requires continuous outspoken humanity. We’re designated dissenters, public editors, and ombudsfolk advocating for users.

A few years ago, I stepped back from coding and my role as a lead developer of WordPress. I did so to let new perspectives control the levers, to recover mind and body after stressful years in a public hot seat, and to become a user again. Knowing the gory details behind the making is asymmetrical information that can distance you from your audience. With expertise comes callouses and desensitization. I shed my old roles and their privileges and experienced what we wrought anew.

With relentless coding out of my life, I became a relentless user of everything we make. As a developer, a lot of my usage of our products was testing. Test flows aren’t the same as authentic user flows. They’re shallow and canned. Real outcomes aren’t on the line. Although we run our company using what we make, our flows are particular, ingrained, and augmented. I jumped out of our company flows and immersed myself in the flows of our users. I sought authentic user flows and experiences in the field and brought them into my daily life. I made those patterns mine. I made those frustrations mine. I made those goals and outcomes mine. I immersed myself in perspective and bashed myself against our products and processes. I documented everything along the way, down to individual screenshots and interactions. I shared my dogfooding sessions live with my coworkers, frankly communicating my frustrations as a user. I shared how my neurological disease, chronic pain, and autistic operating system affected my relationship with the things we make.

Microsoft, SAP, Automattic and others are investing in neurodiversity, the social model of disabilitydesign for real life, and equity literacy. We’re hiring for diversity of perspective and trying to actualize the aspiration of making inclusion the new normal. We’re humans making things for and with other humans. When our teams reflect the real world and we use what we make, we build better products and reach more people.

Much of what Flow Patrol does at Automattic and WordPress is public to the world. When we share and collaborate in the commons, we create serendipity. We are responsible for humanizing flow in the systems we inhabit. We do that best when we default to open.

Using what you make and defaulting to open are useful not just in tech and industry, but in education as well. Agile, inclusive, self-organizing teams designing and making for the riot of diversity that is real life is a future for both work and education. The best of inclusive hacker culture coupled with the social model for minds and bodies is powerful. To fulfill the promise of a public education that is “free, life-changing, and available to everyone”, adopt a hacker mindset of flexible improvisation and passion-based maker learning and a social model mindset of inclusion and acceptance.

Embrace the open schoolhouse; use what you make; default to open.

Building creative culture at work and in the classroom

I’ve been working in distributed, self-organizing teams for a couple of decades and change. I’ve worked in startups, big corporations, and distributed open source teams. For the past twelve years, I have been at Automattic. Over the years, we have iterated fully-distributed work and creative culture into a 800 person company that has managed to survive over a decade, have low turnover, and rate well among freelancers.

The Top Companies WNW Creatives Would Kill to Work for Full-Time — Free Range

One of my driving motivations for helping build one of the first distributed companies was accessibility. I wanted a place to work compatible with my autistic operating system and my anxiety. Distributed work where I can work from the comfort of home and communicate mostly via text suits me well. It suits other neurodivergent and disabled folks too. Distributed work is a good base for building a culture compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability.

I’d like to share a peek at our culture using the writing of my co-workers and of journalists. The practices of distributed companies have lessons for classrooms, particularly regarding accessibility and inclusive communication. Bring your own comfort, backchannels, and psychological safety are important notions that benefit teams of adult creatives as well as teams of creative kids. We parents and teachers must recognize that kids need digital skills if they’re going to thrive in a digital world. We can develop those skills in an inclusive way that uses technology not for remediation and assessment, but for collaboration. Communicate, collaborate, iterate, and launch. The best of inclusive hacker culture coupled with the social model and equity literacy is powerful. To fulfill the promise of a public education that is “free, life-changing, and available to everyone“, adopt a hacker mindset of flexible improvisation and passion-based maker learning and a social model mindset of inclusion and acceptance. When we use technology to collaborate in default-to-open cultures, we create serendipity.

The results were remarkable. The employees who had used the tool became 31% more likely to find coworkers with expertise relevant to meeting job goals. Those employees also became 88% more likely to accurately identify who could put them in contact with the right experts. They made these gains by observing what their coworkers talked about on Jive-n and with whom. The group that had no access to the tool showed no improvement on either measure over the same period.

Since then we have studied internal social tools in various work settings, including banking, insurance, telecommunications, e-commerce, atmospheric science, and computing. The mounting evidence is clear: These tools can promote employee collaboration and knowledge sharing across silos. They can help employees make faster decisions, develop more innovative ideas for products and services, and become more engaged in their work and their companies.

Over the past two decades organizations have sought some of these benefits through knowledge management databases, but with limited success. That’s because determining who has expertise and understanding the context in which it was created are important parts of knowledge sharing. Databases do not provide that type of information and connection. Social tools do.

Source: What Managers Need to Know About Slack, Yammer, and Chatter

How we communicate

How we hire

How we organize (kinda)

How we include

And how it all applies to education

The business world is changing. It seems I’m riding the wave. High.