Category Archives: Techquity

A Simple Yes Would Do

It is unfortunate that this past May Facebook felt compelled to invite members from conservative media leadership to join a discussion  of  bias against conservative content. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are a demonstrably impressive duo when it comes to leading technology driven companies. In this space however, I believe both Zuck and Ms. Sandberg are operating outside of their wheelhouse. It’s not their fault.  Silicon Valley has a history of accomplished folk leaving the relatively safe and focused confines of the tech sector to insert themselves into others.

Those of us in the peanut gallery see that more often than not these folks by way of their resources have significant voices and/or roles in areas including education and feminism. It is not always the case that they should have these voices.

Silicon Valley is a community chocked full of the smartest – a universal definition of smart would be helpful here – people in the room.  At least that is what we are repeatedly told. Furthermore, they are so smart it only makes sense to for them to branch out into other areas, to bring their smarts to bear on those areas and resolve issues within them, e.g. to change the world.

It is true that in certain areas of ability there are incredibly smart people at work here in the valley. The challenge for these folks however, is to recognize where mastery of subject matter in a space is a pre-requisite to actually solving problems – there are those spaces where there is no problem as we think of them, they are what they are – in those spaces.  Many times immersing one’s self in a space for a brief but intense period is not enough. In some cases, considerable time observing over the course of years, and deliberation should occur before jumping into the fray.

In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg, armed with money and good intentions  donated 100 million dollars to the Newark, New Jersey school district in the hopes of improving schools there. The outcomes after this announcement are well documented  (Russakoff). Similarly,  Sandberg with her 2013 book Lean In, and subsequent organization of the same name found herself in the center of a dialogue around feminism as it was relevant both in and out of the workplace. Some from the academy weighed in with their critiques (Hooks) and (Rottenberg).

I mention these examples because education reform and feminism are social issues obvious in their need for improvement; they are also incredibly complex once you look behind their respective curtains. They need more than good intentions, interest in the space, and financial resources. Actual experience, and ability in large system transformation is required.

Then there is the political media space kerfuffle Facebook found itself involved in. In political media there are no simple immutable issues around which to rally. Everything is highly subjective and in the end, it is a space where there is no pleasing anyone.

After his meeting with the conservatives Zuckerberg indicated there would be an investigation. What the hell for ? In that moment, the right had already won or at least already scored before Zuckerberg and Sandberg had even suited up.  I have to assume that for an instant the Facebook folks forgot to recognize the fact that their company is a publicly traded one.Surely, the market would reflect its desires for Facebook to become more friendly to the right by way of the stock price no ? Maybe this was a loss of what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”.

To no one’s surprise the investigation that Zuck said would go forward came back and declared there was no bias. Again, Facebook missed the point of this exercise.  All the right wanted with this shot across the bow was to draw some attention to their complaint. The conservative right of the last 3o years or so has become quite adept at playing the long game when it comes to media (Lakoff). Furthermore there has been and will always be bias in media. We need to get past thinking all media HAS to be ideologically neutral. In Europe, the Far East,  Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world the media and news don’t hide the fact that they have biases. It is the responsibility of the consuming public to account for these  biases . Goodness, Zuck has heard of Fox News hasn’t he ?

Just for fun let’s imagine for a moment  that we were in the room during the meeting. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are asked directly if there is any bias in how they curate content. Instead of setting the expectation they would twist themselves into knots determining  whether there was any, and, to prove a true understanding of  real-world media. Both should have visualized Occam’s Razor in their mind’s eye and simply answered yes.

Works Cited

Russakoff, DaleThe Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In.” The Feminist Wire. N.p., 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 June 2016.
Rottenberg, Catherine. “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.” Cultural Studies 28.3 (2013): 418-37. Print.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe, 2005. Print.

Post Script:

Zuckerberg and Sandberg have, to their credit, continued their evolution. Zuckerberg and his wife have started a school in Menlo Park working with educators, we’ll see. Sandberg, after the sudden loss of her husband last year, has begun seeing feminism through the lens of be being a single mother.

IBM and Hairdryers, who knew

Musical accompaniment included here

Poor IBM. They seem to have found themselves in a bit of hot water  or is it steam around their recent advertising which managed to spawn a “Hack the Hairdryer” meme and earn the ire of some.

The irony in all of this is that IBM has a WOMAN, Gina Rometty, an electrical engineer running the company. Having worked in corporate space myself, I have to imagine final approval had to have been made somewhere near the top, and that maybe even a woman was involved. If such is the case, it shows how hard and builtin this sort of thinking is AND how hard it is to avoid making mistakes.

This latest misstep also underlines the limitations of a “diversity” based model stood up as the solution for improving the “numbers” of  under-represented groups within a given community. Thinking about it, where is the master list for these groups, I mean gee whiz, someone ought to know right ? Or maybe that is the problem; we aren’t being specific enough about what group we intend to help.

We need to go back to first principles and determine what diversity really means. If we really want to see a change,answering that question honestly might help to determine what the tech community is really capable of not to mention being a really good first step.

We also need to address the thinking of communities , after all, and especially with the millennial generation, it’s all about communities.This means community leaders and members need to dust off that little used self-reflection skill set (or maybe develop one) and come to  a true  understanding of why a hair-dryer was chosen as opposed to a lawnmower. While we’re at it, lets update our notion of “meritocracy”  and add the word “equity” to our conversations as well.

 

Odds are this revolution WON”T be televised; no disrespect intended brother Gil-Scott

Nope it won’t be televised, but it may be postponed because Facebook was down. Sometimes we can be so trifling. And WE know who WE are… 😉

I sent the following (although here, somewhat abridged) to a list serve I am on:

I am writing as it seems that we are again having an industry-wide conversation about diversity…egads!!!!

This is, if my memory serves me correctly, the third or fourth time in my career that I have seen diversity come up in the valley. As I recall, there was an uptick of discussion and awareness around the lack of “diversity” in tech  3 years ago, roughly around the turn the century , again in the mid-nineties, and I am pretty sure I recall one in the late 80s.

I’d like to share some thinking i have over the course of my career around all of this

Reality vs folklore 

I wonder if *we* need to collectively look a little more closely at the reality of the valley vs. the folklore of the valley which serves as the official “history”.

Part of that reality is the genesis of valley culture and where it came from. Who was present early and what influence that has had on the look and feel of the valley today ? or in a more verbose fashion;Since the valley started as sort of a loose collection of interests and personalities, who was there early on, and how much did that set of players influence and color what we know today as the valley ? Hint: it was all dominant culture folks

I contend that as much as the valley tries to paint itself 1) as uber-enlightened 2) meritocratic and 3) purely market driven, we in the black and latino communities should look more critically at the valley considering both the past and current narratives which serve to characterize it. 

Who is asking the right questions  ?

The latest round of media coverage for  “our” problem (I love how this is collectively our problem now; and counter that notion with some recent commentary by Chris Rock ) seems to always ask how we can improve diversity. Without fail of course, there are plenty of embedded experts, usually from the dominant culture working in valley, who have what sound to be reasonable answers which focus on solutions advocating diversity based approaches. I offer that we have been through this wash-rinse-repeate cycle several times

What’s the old saw: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”. To wit,putting a new skin on “diversity” and redeploying it with the expectation of significantly different results as compared to previous diversity efforts seems to qualify as an example of the insanity described above

I remember some years back when Jesse Jackson came to town demanding more diversity. An HP exec wondered publicly what Jesse was talking about because as far as he (a white male) could see the valley was diverse, meaning he saw non-whites working in tech companies. 

That’s the rub; there is some diversity in the valley, just not for blacks and latinos.

Language IS important

I used to believe that the ideas and concepts around an initiative were the most important components bar none. I have come to realize over the years that the language used in articulating these same ideas and concepts is AT LEAST as important as the ideas and concepts themselves. Chalk it up to being an engineer all these years. I figure it’s better late than never for some things 🙂

Equity and Inclusion -> Diversity

With all of the above in mind, during last couple of years in which  I have been active in the social justice space around education. I have learned that more important than diversity, is the notion of “equity and inclusion”. Attack the challenges from a perspective and/or programs which aim to improve equity and inclusion in the social justice sense.For me, diversity is at it’s core, a qualitative approach and measure of change in this context, i.e. a number.

Working towards greater equity and inclusion requires a more holistic approach to effecting change in a community; it has the constituent characteristics which include examining systems, structures , individual beliefs and behaviors as they pertain to attitudes, norms, operations and hopefully capacity for change within a community.

Working towards greater equity and inclusion however, is a long game strategy, and does not “scale” as quickly as using a diversity based approach. This makes things even more challenging as the valley is not famous for patience, or slow incremental moves towards scale. 

Additionally,at the end of the day, if all of this work does not include real self reflection by the dominant culture of itself on a personal level, OR in other words, real work in white privilege and entitlement along  with work on systems and structures we will find ourselves witnessing deployment of the usual diversity based approaches, and we know how effective those have been

I wonder,