NPR logo Successful Tech Requires An Old-Fashioned Skill: Organizing People

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Successful Tech Requires An Old-Fashioned Skill: Organizing People

People sit around a conference table.
iStockphoto
People sit around a conference table.
iStockphoto

There is a new educational fad taking off across America: Everyone needs to learn how to code. Moms should code, girls should code, kids in every classroom in America should code. There are boot camps for it, academies to learn it, leagues to teach it. All with the promise that code will set you free.

It is certainly true that understanding how technology works, if not having the skills to produce it ourselves, is essential to building an equitable society. Code is, in many ways, the 21st century means of production and knowing how it works is critical to 21st century citizenship.

But learning to write software is not enough. Code is only powerful once people put it to use. What do we have if the ability to write code is divorced from the skills to understand its impact in the world?

Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing of Code for America. Courtesy of Catherine Bracy hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Catherine Bracy

Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing of Code for America.

Courtesy of Catherine Bracy

As digital and networked technology becomes a central force in the global economy, the tech companies that generate true value will be the ones that understand the human and political elements of their business. Galvanizing users to drive success, advocating for policy that allows digital companies to thrive, and creating the internal conditions for small startups to become globally networked institutions (including managing a diverse workforce) will be essential for the future success of the industry. All of these goals will be driven not through writing more or better code but by understanding how to organize people.

When we think of the term "community organizer" many of us have a very specific image in our minds — scrappy activists knocking on doors in downtrodden neighborhoods, bullhorns and placards, protests and petitions. But the skills of an organizer are much more universal than that.

Organizing in general is the act of shaping disparate groups of people into one whole greater than the sum of its parts all pushing towards a common goal. The core principles of organizing — collaboration, building decentralized power, evocative storytelling and taking movements to scale — are principles baked into any network, including the Internet.

This is why many of us who have worked for social and political change see the Internet and the tools it makes possible as essential to our work. The Obama campaign was so successful at deploying digital tools because it was, first and foremost, a grassroots organizing effort. The tools and the organizing strategy went hand in hand.

As more and more tech companies are discovering, these skills are essential to protecting their business. Take, for example, the differences in approach by Uber and Airbnb. Airbnb has realized its very existence relies on the ability to organize customers and users into advocates and activists. Airbnb employs dozens of organizers who have been successful at driving policy changes friendly to the company.

On the other hand, Uber, which has historically relied less on grassroots organizing and consensus-building and more on brute force, is having a hard time remaining legal in many of the cities where it operates. In early summer 2014, it was banned in Germany, the latest in a spate of governments around the world — even tech-savvy Seoul — that have moved to outlaw the app.

The hiring of David Plouffe, President Obama's original campaign manager, to act as the company's policy chief doesn't seem to be helping much. Uber's lack of investment in organizing its drivers is backfiring. Many of them are protesting in light of what they call unfair labor practices. And their recent public relations meltdown (complete with comparing the company's problems to Ferguson, Mo.) isn't encouraging much support from its users either.

More than enough has been written about the misogyny, racism and general sense of exclusion in the tech industry. In large part these problems stem from a belief that investing in people, in human resources, isn't worth it. The code is the most important thing, engineers are lionized, and the other skills necessary to build strong companies — skills that are hallmarks of organizing like storytelling, consensus-building, coaching, and leadership — are deprioritized. This breeds bad culture, lack of self-awareness, and is at the root of the industry's problem of being able to attract a diverse workforce.

If you want to see what can happen at a company of hundreds of employees that thinks it doesn't need to focus on human resources, take a look at what happened at GitHub last year. The co-founder, Tom Preston-Werner has proudly asserted that "at GitHub we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or even work days. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code. We don't have expense account audits or an HR department." The lack of an HR department became a problem when Preston-Werner was pushed out of the company following a bizarre case of harassment involving a female employee.

GitHub survived this scandal, but for every GitHub there are others companies that fell apart amid stories of bad leadership. Without creating intentional systems that value inclusion and safety, insist on accountability for leadership, and promote personal and professional development it is hard to image widespread and long-term sustainable growth in the tech industry. It is certainly clear that without those intentional systems, companies will continue to struggle to become representative of society at large (i.e., their user base) — something that will be critical to long-term success.

Plouffe's hiring at Uber does indicate that the industry has started to wake up to the importance of engaging in policy rather than depending on the "move fast and break things" approach that was standard just a few years ago. Since the fight over SOPA and PIPA in 2011, tech companies (supported by traditional policy advocacy organizations like Engine Advocacy, Free Press, Fight for the Future and others) have been organizing themselves into lobbying forces to push policies from immigration reform to net neutrality.

In November, the fruits of organizing paid off when President Obama announced his unqualified support for net neutrality, inspired in large part by the four million comments filed by the public about the issue on the Federal Communications Commission's website. It remains to be seen whether the FCC will take the president's advice but it is clear that without a widespread grassroots organizing effort the only voices to be heard would be from the lobbyists supporting the telecom industry.

It is now taken for granted that we are living in a networked society. In fact, the shift from command-and-control hierarchies to decentralized networked structures is the defining phenomenon of our time. Of course this shift has been driven by the Internet, but the values underlying it are about much more than the technology.

Right now, the industry growing up on top of the Internet isn't harnessing the power of human networks and in an era defined by networks, technical skills and people skills are both important. It is time to stop fetishizing one while dangerously overlooking the other.

Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing of Code for America and ran the technology field office in San Francisco for President Obama's re-election campaign. She previously wrote for All Tech about the missing counts on women and people of color in the tech industry.

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