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Anil Dash: Share Your Values and You’ll Share Success

About this talk

Anil Dash, co-founder of ThinkUp, explains how even the smallest details of our work shape not only our businesses, but the culture around us. This presents us with a unique opportunity, as he said, “When we say ‘somebody ought to do something,’ here’s a chance for us to show our values.”

Anil Dash, CEO, Fog Creek

Anil Dash is co-founder and CEO of ThinkUp, a new app that offers deeper insights into our social networks. Dash is also co-founder of Activate, the consultancy which defines strategy for the most important companies in technology and media. Described as a “blogging pioneer” by the New Yorker, he has published his blog continuously since 1999, earning recognition as a Webby honoree.

Dash is based in New York City, where he lives with his wife Alaina Browne and their son Malcolm. Dash is the only person who is quoted in both Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and in Toure’s Prince biography I Would Die 4 U, and has never played a round of golf, drank a cup of coffee, or graduated from college.

Full Transcript

Good morning, everybody. It is exciting to be here. This is an incredible venue. I’m Anil Dash, as was mentioned. I’m this person on Twitter. I will actually be asking you some questions today. I really do want to hear from you. So don’t be afraid to reply to me. I probably won’t reply while I’m on stage, but maybe after that.

You were just asked to turn off your phones, like mute your devices. I don’t care really about that. But what’s interesting to me is to think about why we have to be asked that, which is that the average person, according to research, is going to– by the end of their lives– spend three years of their life with their thumb on the glass of their smart phones. The average smartphone user, three years. And what about you and me. We’re not the average smartphone users. [LAUGHTER] Right? So we’re going to be at that five to six year range. We’re going to be lying on your death bed with your family around you. And like, ah, just more Candy Crush. [LAUGHTER] That’s who we are, right? And that’s sort of a striking thing to think about. Years and years of our lives. Especially because we’re in apps all day on these devices. Most of you have probably heard that statistic about the majority of photos that have been taken in human history have been taken in the last two years, right? And that’s all through these apps. And think about it. In the US, the majority of conversations that take place in the United States are mediated through apps and websites. More than face to face, more than by telephone, more than by fax– does anybody fax? I mean, you have to sign something, right? But here’s the thing, is the majority of the way we communicate with each other is through these apps we’re using all day. That’s a striking change. And it’s not just the communications. It’s what we use to order dinner. It’s what we use to request all kinds of things to run our lives, to manage our work.

So this is the way that we’re interacting with the world.

And think about for all those apps that we use, all those things we’re spending our time with our thumb on the glass for, what the impact is of every single choice we make in the user interface, in the design of those things, of every little box. I’ll give you an example. Just one box. There’s a company called Postmates and they have like a delivery service. You can get stuff delivered by using their app. And they changed just one box of a drop down menu in their user interface. And it was the box for what tip you give the delivery person. And it used to be a percentage of the entire delivery that you had ordered. And they switched it to be an absolute dollar mountain. And they changed the default from a percentage of the delivery to no tip. And the implications of changing that tip default, that one box in their app for the delivery people, was a drop of about 30% to 50% of their income that they were taking home. One box in one app. Think about all the apps we use.

Now Postmates case, they did the right thing. They looked at the data. They switched it back. I think they wanted to do right by the delivery people. So this isn’t a moral condemnation of them. It’s just pointing out that these little tiny choices, these impacts, have a huge impact from one little tiny choice.

I have a startup called ThinkUp, and my co-founder Gina Trapani wrote a great post a couple years ago about how we represent our gender identities in apps and services that we use. You go on Facebook and most of the time we used to have a radial button. Two choices. It was male or female. And she had argued quite persuasively there’s no reason for that. There’s certainly no technological reason and absolutely no social reason for it. And to their credit, a couple years later, recently, Facebook added a number of options to the drop down for how you can describe your gender. And it, in fact, has an open ended option for however you want to describe yourself. It costs them nothing. There’s no downside to them doing it. But it makes people feel welcome. There’s a place for them there. And this is just one feature in one of these apps that we spend our time in all day. These are the kinds of accommodations we can make.

But the implications of this is that so many of us feel like, well, there’s no place for me in these apps. These aren’t designed for me. I’m not the default. And it doesn’t take much to actually accommodate people and make them feel as if they’re welcome. It’s not a huge leap.

And the reason we have to do it is because the features in our apps define culture. They actually define how society works. Little, little decisions, like whether photos are public or private by default, whether that message you sent out is going to disappear after it’s sent or be permanently on the internet forever, those decisions dramatically impact society and culture, especially now that they’re the majority of the way we communicate and connect with each other. And our values as people who create sites, create web apps, create mobile apps– our values define the defaults in those services. When Facebook decided to accommodate people regardless of what their gender expression is, they were making a statement about their values and who their service was for. A few million people around the world were suddenly a little bit more welcome into Facebook.

Which raises the question, well, whose values? Whose values are shaping these apps that we’re spending three years of our lives or 10 years of our lives tapping on it? More simply, who makes your apps?

This sounds like a simple question. And it’s really, really not. It should be kind of straightforward. And I look at examples of other industries of where we might be able to learn from. And if you’re a music geek like me, you grew up reading liner notes, right? Back where we had records and CDs and things. But you can still do this. If you go into iTunes and you type in Taylor Swift or Beyonce because she’s awesome, and then you click on her album and you want to listen to it, you get liner notes and it’ll tell you who produced and who played guitar in this track and who helped make this record. And you can learn a little bit about it. And if you’re a kid like me, you look for are there any Indian names in the liner notes? Like, here I am, right? And there was the thing we all did it. Maybe you’re more into film and you would read the credits or go to IMDB these days and go and look and see who made this thing. I have a friend in the film industry who is a location scout and he was like, oh yeah, this is how things work. If you’re in Hollywood, you go and you find the person that did set design on that movie that you loved. And you email them, maybe, and ask if they’ll have coffee with you. And that’s how you get in. That might be your big break. That could be the person that opened the door for you.

Same app. ITunes or Google Play Store. Go over to the app store part, search for an app, and what do you find? You have one line with the company name– maybe it’s a company you know. Maybe it’s Google or Facebook or something like that. But for the most part, it’s some company name and you don’t know if that’s two kids in a garage or a pretty big company. You don’t know who they are. There are no liner notes. It’s weird. The same app, every other part, tells you made it. And then this one area where we’re spending most of our time, we don’t mention who made the thing.

Who makes your apps? This shouldn’t actually be a mystery. And we know almost nothing about who’s making these apps. Actually, that’s not true. We know who it’s not. We know who actually is getting funded and being supported in creating these apps. We know that women are roughly about 50% of the population and roughly about 5% of who gets venture funding from the tech industry. We know that African Americans in the US are about 12% to 13% of the population and about 1% of who gets venture funding. And those statistics are born out in the apps that we use and who the creators are. If you go and look, if you’re able to find it, we know a little bit about who’s not there. And it’s not most of us.

Most people don’t have access to being creators in the app world like they are in every other part of creative endeavor. Yet this is where we’re spending most of our time. So when we asked this question about whose values are shaping our apps, what does it mean that we’re not including people who know what it is to be marginalized, who know what it is to not be the default menu option? What is the impact it has on our apps, on our culture? And at the same time, we have to ask who’s benefiting from us using these apps? Because if you look at the groups that are most engaged– in the early days of Twitter, almost from the beginning, the percentage of users that were African American was almost twice the representation of what they are in the overall population. So adding enormous amounts of value to the platform, but not benefiting at a company like Twitter, where about 1% of their technical employees are African American. So there’s a huge, huge imbalance here about who’s getting ahead. We talk about all this opportunity and all of this potential in the tech industry and who’s going to benefit from it, and it has to be the same people who are adding the value and creating these amazing things using these tools.

This is the point where most of us want to point to some dude smoking a cigar, twirling his mustache, who’s like, I am the excluder. It doesn’t exist. There isn’t a bad guy. I mean, they’re some. But mostly there’s not really a bad guy. There’s kind of just us. And we have these statistics. We know about the fact that 2/3 of the employees of most of the major tech companies are male and about 80% of the senior executives are male. We have these statistics. Now granted, companies like Google was one of the first to put out their stats, but they had to be sued by their own shareholders in order to divulge federally mandated numbers about their own employees. It took a push. But finally we have some idea of these statistics. And frankly, if you don’t know this reality by now, you didn’t want to know. This is all out there. It’s all visible.

So we don’t have any more excuses. We have to actually do something about this. And this conversation comes up a lot and typically tends to taper off of the point of, well, somebody ought to do something. I know I’m guilty of it, for sure. But actually, I’m not as depressed by this as I am excited by it. Here is a chance for us to show our values. This is a chance for us to say, we are who we say we are.

And the interesting thing about this is I’m very critical of the tech industry even though I’m a technologist. And so people think, oh, you must hate that industry. I don’t. I love it. I love what we can do. I love what we can invent and what we can make. And I think the solution for what ails us lies in what we do best. There are some incredibly positive, innovative, creative parts of tech culture. One of the best of which is how we fix buttons. How many of you know what the fail whale is? Do you remember it fondly. Yeah, Twitter users in the house. Old school. So the fail whale was what Twitter would do when they were like, we just can’t handle the tweets right now. We’re going to fall over. And almost every service used to have this. There’s this sort of like, sorry for down time. We suck. Please go get a snack and come back. And the great thing is that’s totally normal in the tech industry. Like iTunes goes offline for a couple hours ago and they’re like, eh, sorry. We’re still rich. And so there’s this– [LAUGHTER] That’s Apple’s slogan. I don’t know. We’re still rich. And so there’s this– the logo is so nice that you’d think their slogan would be a little classier. [LAUGHTER] So there’s the fail whale. There’s all this sort of culture like, we have a problem. And the great thing is when service goes offline for while or you get hacked and you have a security issue, they kind of open source the problem. They’ll write this really nice blog post. We had this problem. We’re really sorry. We did these things to fix it. We’re going to make sure we don’t do it again. There’s a great culture around it. And this is true actually not just for the technical issues, security issues, but we actually document this for design issues. People go on Behance and they go on Dribble and they say, oh, this is this issue we had and here’s how we solved it. What do you think? And do you have some feedback? Or if you’re coder you might go on Stack Overflow and be like, this issue, can somebody answer it for me? And we help each other out. We actually reveal some of the biggest challenges we have and we document them and we share them with the world and other people can learn from them and say, man, I’m never making that mistake again. And then we don’t repeat that mistake again. And the next time somebody else makes that mistake, they have something to refer to say, ah. There it is. That’s what I’m going to do.

So what if we treated our lack of diversity and our lack of inclusion in the app economy as being like down time. It’s like our server being offline. Apple wrote a nice blog post about iTunes going offline. What if they did the same thing about, well, our HR processes have been offline for 35 years? [LAUGHTER] And so we’d like to fix it. And here’s what we’re doing and here’s the improvements we made this week. There’s a solution here which is not actually incompatible with tech culture, with creative culture. We just actually have to embrace it and use it in a new domain.

Simply put, we have to tell our stories. We just have to tell our stories. And the great thing about this is, the stories we often want to tell are ones we should be telling. Think about all of us in this room. Somebody opened the door for us, for us to have the careers we have that let us be at an event like this. Somebody agreed to have coffee with you, replied to your email, let you in, took an interview with you, whatever it was. That mentor that let you in is something that changed the trajectory of your career and gave you opportunities in a way that is not visible to those who are not inside the industry already. And we want to tell that story. The great thing about it is telling that story is an act of love. It’s saying thank you to a person who changed your life for the better. We should be doing it anyway. I’m not assigning you some horrible homework. I’m just saying, let’s tell our stories so the people who are not yet in the door can say, ohm that could have been me. Maybe I’ll reach out to that person. And if we believe, as I think is pretty clear, that our features define culture, then we have an obligation while we’re documenting things to document that just one feature that we fixed because we wanted it to be more thoughtful to people.

So we have this thing where– you know, in the iTunes store, the app updates and it says improved accessibility and there’s a little bullet point. There’s no reason that can’t be a story. We have a user who wasn’t cited and they emailed us and said your app isn’t accessible enough and we fixed it for them and thank you. It’s a better story. It’s something that feels good to tell.

These are our liner notes. This is how those who are not in the business already of creating our websites and our apps can imagine themselves being in our shoes. We’ve been building a tool to try and make some of this possible. We’re calling it Makerbase. In a couple weeks, it’ll be out. And the idea is you would just be able to list the projects you’ve worked on and list who you worked with and people will be able to see your network. But whether that’s the tool you use or if you just go to your blog, to medium, to wherever, and just say, look, these are the people who let me in. And on the apps I’m working with now, these are the people I work with and these are the things we do. There’s a movement today, it’s a hashtag that’s been really popular on Twitter called #talkpay. For workers today, people are talking about what their salaries are. This is an incredibly empowering thing for people outside the industry to be able to see what the opportunities are, see some of the imbalances about who’s getting paid what. These are brave things we can do. But you don’t have to be quite that scary. You can simply start by saying thank you.

And the stakes are really, really high. Because these are the things that are shaping culture. We talk a lot about mobility in tech and we usually mean mobile phones, mobile devices. But we don’t talk a lot about social mobility, which is the ability for people who are in the lower class to move into the middle class, or people who are in the middle class to stay there. We talk about how do we make a handful of funders super ultra wealthy. I’m not that interested in solving that problem. That’s not that interesting. How do we get people who haven’t had opportunity to have it and keep it? This is the way we show our values. That’s how we’re going to be judged.

You know this question about who benefits– in a few minutes, Kimberly’s going to talk to you about black girls code. We’re going to talk about incredible new talent– this pipeline of talented people coming into the industry, these young women, these young men. And the question is going to be, are they going to have a place to advance? Is that pipeline going to lead to a cesspool? Or is that pipeline going to lead to somewhere where they can thrive and they can succeed? And one of the most important questions about this is right now the answer to the benefits is you and me. And so when we ask that next generation of technologists, the people coming into the industry creating the apps and experiences who opened the door for them, the answer better be you and me.

This is our obligation. We are lucky to get to do we do. We’re so fortunate. It is the greatest. It’s satisfying. It’s challenging. And we owe it to give that opportunity to other people. So this question just keeps coming up again and again and again. Who makes our apps and what does it mean? And it seems like a simple question. But in this question, if we can answer this question, what we’re able to do is change the way we see our creative work. We’re able to sort of be the people we think we are and live the values we think we have.

So I just want to emphasize there isn’t going to be some outside force that addresses these issues. And it’s no longer enough to wring our hands and say, gosh, I really do care about that. And then forget about it. Good news is, fixing these things just involves an act of love and telling our stories. And hopefully when people look back and they look at us and they ask about who opened the door for them, the answer is going to be you and me. Let’s get to work. [APPLAUSE]

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