After the Trump administration’s two attempts at travel bans from select Muslim-majority countries, the pressure continues, as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson recently instructed all American embassies to enhance the scrutiny of visa applicants.
People in the tech community are pushing back, but not in a reactive manner – this is part of a larger trend toward deeper social and political engagement.
“This is about getting our industry to be more active,” said Brad Taylor, a Silicon Valley software engineer and founder of Tech Stands Up, a nonprofit that is pushing for greater social awareness.
“Our community hasn’t been as active as it should be, given the rhetoric that comes out of Silicon Valley about wanting to change the world, and promoting values such as diversity and inclusion.”
Mr. Taylor received a lot of attention recently for a rally held on “Pi Day” – March 14 – that urged individual tech workers, as well as corporate leaders, to take a stand on issues that might negatively affect society. The media focused on the rally’s connection to the proposed travel ban, but Mr. Taylor insists that Tech Stands Up is about much more than that.
“In fact, the event was scheduled before the first ban was in place,” he said. “It was intended to draw attention to the fact that, as an industry, we are going to have to figure out what role we play in social and technological disruption. This is not just about what Trump will do. This is about AI, driverless cars, and automation. These innovations will leave people behind.”
Power to the People
Mr. Taylor is right: it is expected that the disruption brought about by driverless cars alone will be huge, and affect not only the millions of people employed as drivers, but also related industries such as insurance and auto repair. Yet, as legions of non-technology workers’ jobs become vulnerable, software engineers themselves are rewarded, reaping the financial benefits of those same technologies that put others out of work.
“Tech workers have the power right now in Silicon Valley,” he said. “If you are an engineer, product manager, or designer, you have an enormous amount of leverage. Talented engineers can go to companies that reflect their values, and leave those that don’t.”
The trend is certainly toward a more activist tech community; the Tech Stands Up rally was well-attended, and featured almost two dozen speakers from civil society groups and tech companies.
On a larger scale, heavy-hitters such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Twitter, and Microsoft are on the record as opposing the travel ban. Sam Altman, president of startup incubator Y Combinator, has blogged that it was “Time to Take a Stand”, arguing, like Taylor, that “the tech community is powerful,” and that “we need to hear from the CEOs clearly and unequivocally.”
That said, it has yet to be seen whether large numbers of software engineers in Silicon Valley — many of whom are apolitical and individualistic — are comfortable adopting an activist role. It may be simply that they are unaware of their power, and how it could be leveraged.
The Social Contract
“When interviewing for a job we want people to ask: What’s your social contract?” Taylor said. “These are the kinds of questions that could be put forward – not how many ping pong tables a company has. A prospective engineer could ask, for example, if a company has adopted Salesforce.com’s one percent pledge.”
Salesforce.com’s Pledge 1% is a simple concept: a company donates one percent of either its product, equity, or employee time to causes that align with its values. Suzanne DiBianca, the Chief Philanthropy Officer at Salesforce.com, made clear during the recent New Orleans Entrepreneur Week that such initiatives have to be sincere, “It needs to be real,” she said. “Doing philanthropy for marketing purposes isn’t real philanthropy.”
However, it’s undeniable that as technology takes over every industry, the tech constituency finds itself in a unique historical position. The challenge is that its members have rarely been called upon to assume any responsibility bigger than a job well done.
“As technologists, we are focused too much on what can we do, and what are we going to do, and not enough on the social contract and responsibility,” said Taylor. “There are other things that come with leadership other than making products and money. We need to own up to that.”
Addressing Inequality Impacts of Tech
Taylor, who is 37 and came to Silicon Valley in 2006 from Indianapolis, has co-authored Tech Stands Up: A Manifesto, which asserts that the tech industry has a responsibility to invest time, money, and skills into the causes that people believe in.
The Manifesto encourages people to participate, empathize, and mobilize to promote social equity and inclusion; to protect at-risk employees, contractors, and neighbors; and to encourage tech companies to address the industry’s impact on economic inequality – in Silicon Valley, and around the world.
“We are at a pivotal moment in history in Silicon Valley,” said Taylor. “I think a lot of the Trump support was misdirected anger. People felt left behind from the globalization and the technological revolution, and all that anger that is now directed at Washington DC could easily be turned on us.”
For Taylor and his fellow activists, including more established groups like Silicon Valley Rising, it is critical that the tech community stand up for non-tech workers who support the industry – the cooks, baristas, janitors and drivers. It also means acknowledging that well-paid technology workers in Silicon Valley have had an inflationary effect on real estate, which is unpopular with many people who have been priced out of the market.
“We should be sticking up for the lower-wage workers who make an engineer’s life better at the office,” he said. “They are our coworkers, and should be paid enough money so that they can afford housing, and don’t have to do a three hour commute every day. They should have the same rights as engineers, and not be second class citizens.”
Strong Leadership Position
One thing the tech community has is money, and that can go a long way toward forcing change.
Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr and team messaging application Slack, along with Union Square Ventures partners Fred Wilson and Albert Wenger, have promised to match contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Lyft co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green have also promised a cumulative, four-year investment of four million dollars to the ACLU, while Michael Dearing, the founder of venture capital firm Harrison Metal, has started Entrepreneurs’ Liberty Link in Silicon Valley – or Project ELLIS – which is specifically designed to help smaller tech firms with immigration issues.
“Tech is taking over every industry – software is eating the world – and that puts us in a position of leadership,” said Taylor. “Let’s utilize our skills, and let’s do it how and where they’re needed the most.”