At the end of September I had the great pleasure and honor to travel to London to speak at the inaugural Dare Conference, a two-day event of incredibly honest talks about work, communication and management for anyone who does anything on the web — even if that just means reading and commenting on articles.
When Dare first launched their conference site, their message was a bit waffly and vague. It seemed like a personal—not work-oriented—type of conference, which, as organizer Jonathan Kahn explained during his opening words, made it hard for a lot of people to justify this as a work expense, or even just take the time off for it. Their site relaunch greatly improved matters, however, with a tagline that nailed it: People Skills for Digital Workers.
Indeed, you weren’t going to learn the latest and greatest CSS technique, design principle, Ruby trick, sales hack or startup lesson. What you were going to learn at Dare was people skills: those vastly under-appreciated and undervalued skills we all use and depend on heavily, but can often barely articulate as a coherent message if our job depended on it.
The tone of raw and complete honesty had been set right from the start by Jonathan’s opening notes, continued throughout Karen McGrane’s keynote, and all the sessions over the course of the event. It was inspiring, insightful, and chock-full of valuable lessons about teamwork, management, interpersonal interaction, and personal development. Each average Dare session was more powerful than many of the best talks I’d seen at any other event.
While barely focused on startups or startup culture, the many talks at Dare were hugely applicable and relevant to people working at or running a startup. Especially in tech, startups are generally composed of entrepreneurial youngsters with a technical skill and some design chops, at best some good business acumen. But more often than not, startup founders have little to no management experience, despite it being a key skill requirement from their first hire onwards.
Another aspect of running a startup that is often overlooked is having a good, deep understanding of yourself—your strengths and limitations, specifically—and this, too, was given a lot of attention in the Dare talks. For these reasons, I found it a particularly valuable conference for myself as a startup founder, as well as someone who has worked at and with multiple, varyingly-sized startups over the years. I’ve been to a number of startup-focused events, but none were as long-term useful as Dare was.
The tagline mentions Digital Workers, which obviously applies to a wide variety of professionals. But there truly was something valuable for everyone who works on the web in some capacity or another. For writers, sales people and marketers, there were things to learn about resonating and communicating with people through the digital medium. For product designers, founders or similar, there were lessons about accurately catering to the needs of those on the other side of the screen. For anyone in a management role, there were invaluable lessons about managing people, such as increasing retention, productivity, and employee satisfaction. For developers, there were key things to learn about systems of people, something that matters just as much as programmatic systems and tools.
I attend and speak at many events, but rarely do I write about them anymore. Dare Conference was the kind of exceptional event that warrants it. My great thanks to the organizers for putting something special together, an experience that stood out in more ways than a 650-word blog post could address.
Anil Dash had a poignant piece last December about the web we lost. Jeremy Keith, yesterday, waxed nostalgically about the web we once were versus the one we created and live in today.
Both views don’t sit entirely right with me. I find myself nodding in agreement with each fine gentleman’s piece, up until a certain point, where the head bob stops and my eyes roll instead.
The web “grew up” in the sense that as an industry it matured and proved itself a massively lucrative market.
I’ll give you three guesses as to which type of person is attracted most to a field that is young yet full of wealth and the potential for even greater riches. Hint: it’s not the idealist type who wishes to make the world better for everyone.
It’s money people. Not inventors, innovators and idealists: people who see an opportunity to get rich or richer.
When the money arrived, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that it would corrupt things. Anil talks about “turf battles” versus open, enthusiastic interoperability. That’s the money, making the calls.
We lost it, created it, and failed to prevent it, all at the same time.
The blindfold we pulled over our eyes was thinking that because we did have an increasing amount of highly talented innovators and idealists among us, the foundations of our field were still in the hands of such people. But that hasn’t been true for a long, long time.
The culture of the web is a net result of the ingredients we toss into it. A dash of innovation, a liberal amount of creativity and enthusiasm, and a healthy dose of idealist thinking. But the meat and potatoes of this dish are money, profits, pivots and exits; a startup culture that, as Jeremy points out, cares less about users than the data it sucks out of them, all for the sake of a nice big exit, and then off to do another startup.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
We didn't create this. We didn't lose anything; we just let this other side of the web grow and overtake its dominant culture, like a festering tumor except not quite so malignant.
There is a lot to be thankful for with the influx of capital in our industry, the innovation it has facilitated and supported. I don't want that to go away; I want people to have the chance to go and take a bold risk with no guarantee for a return, simply because it's something they believe fiercely in.
We don't get the "old web" back by taking the money out of the current web. We get it back by improving our culture, and craft it into one that has a deeper appreciation for people, for its users. A culture that is rife with empathy, driven by a genuine passion to do some good in the world, and supported with a sense of business to also turn a profit out of that.
There are no rules we can change to make things better; no laws to enact to “fix” our field. We bring about this change by changing the culture we ourselves create: by becoming conscious of what we do to contribute to it; by being more involved in shaping it in a better way; by convincing people to care a little more about others, and a little less about the money.
Jeremy asks, “So where do we start?”
I answer: some of us have been working to bring about this kind of change for years already. So please: chime in. We’d love to have you join us.
When people address issues like sexism or racism, we’re not doing it solely to fight those issues because they’re bad; we’re doing it to fix our culture as a whole.
You may wonder what discrimination and social justice have to do with the technical and economic nature of the web; the short answer is, everything.
First of all, all of these things are deeply interconnected—something that a person working on what we all call the web really should know. Secondly: the more money there is in an industry, the more discriminatory it is. Sexism, racism… all of these are symptoms of a system wanting to protect something valuable.
We created something valuable with the web; our failure was letting this system weave itself into it. We can correct it, but we do so by identifying what elements of our culture need addressing, improving, or downright fixing.
The system is there, and it won’t go away through innovative technology. We need to solve the cultural issues plaguing our industry, as they are the very things keeping this toxic system alive.
As a startup co-founder or product designer, you spend a lot of time thinking about business strategy and competition. Like during the Apple Event this week, after the reappearance of the “Designed by Apple” video we first saw at WWDC in June.
Tim Cook opened the event by talking about how much he loved that video, because “it does such an incredible job talking about our values.” But Cook wasn’t just pleasing the Apple faithful with some inspiring rhetoric. From what I can tell, this video is a finely crafted, subversive business strategy that Apple needed to execute.
While my own product is in the presentation creation and sharing space, making Apple one of our competitors, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the new Keynote announcements. Apple may have dramatically “revamped” their competing product, but fundamentally they (still) haven’t strayed from its 1990’s way of thinking. As a result, my focus went back to thinking about that video.
Anyone who pays attention to tech blogs and newspaper columns will know that many pundits have long advocated that Android poses a threat to Apple because, sooner or later, Android will be “good enough” that people don't see much of a difference between Android phones and iPhones anymore, and that, subsequently, Apple will lose market and mind share.
There is a lot of truth to this argument, and thanks in part to an insane marketing spend on Samsung’s part, Android has become a powerhouse of a platform. It may be horribly fragmented, but it’s safe to say that if Android phones were not “good enough” for the mass market, it would not have become this successful. Android did not do well in the market when the difference between it and iPhones was like night and day, whereas now it is mainly a matter of subjective taste and preference. There are tradeoffs for each platform, but for about two years now, Apple finally has the competitor it needed (but not the competitor we deserved).
This is a good thing for consumers, but what does this video have to do with all that? This is where the Good Enough Threshold comes into play. To explain, I’ll draw a parallel to the competitive landscape I am in.
The Good Enough Threshold
SlideShare is a presentation slides dumping site, letting you share your slides (or deck, in presenter parlance) with people online. Despite being stagnant for years and not that great an experience for end users in the first place, SlideShare got by because they were just past the "good enough" threshold. The product did what its users expected it to do, and it didn’t suck at it. It was good enough.
As a result, no one challenged SlideShare for a long time, and they became a de facto destination for dumping your slides. Eventually the market caught up and got more discerning, and as a result, “good enough” is no longer good enough. The threshold had been raised by enough people expecting or wanting more.
This scenario can also play out in the market by multiple diverse solutions arriving on the scene, like we’re seeing with presentation tools themselves. PowerPoint and Keynote have both been a standard in the market since the 1990’s, when PowerPoint first arrived. But neither product has truly evolved beyond its 20th-century roots. They have incrementally improved, adding obvious features such as color, images, video, and animations, but they never took a step back and said, “how else could presentation software work?”
For the longest time, their offerings were good enough for the world. But then the Web arrived, and then mobile arrived, and now we see a lot of healthy competition and innovation in the presentation space. Countless open source tools exist for (web) development-savvy presenters to present without PowerPoint or Keynote. Several Flash-based alternatives have been around for a while, but now that Flash is on the out (and mostly absent on mobile), these products find themselves in the same dusty corner of PPT and Keynote.
When products are good enough, they can succeed in the marketplace and even attain dominant market share. But eventually the market evolves and changes, and those products are forced to adapt. Natural selection for bits and bytes.
Avoiding The Dinosaurs’ Fate
There are two ways to avoid falling prey to these market changes that may threaten your product’s existence.
The first is to keep innovating, and make sure your product is well beyond the Good Enough Threshold. This isn’t enough to safeguard its continued existence on its own — or the success of your business — but it plays an important part. Drop below the threshold long enough and you’ll eventually face the way of the BlackBerry.
The second is far less obvious, and that is to play a part in “elevating the market,” meaning, making your target market(s) more discerning about what products they buy. This is tricky, difficult to accomplish (more so for smaller companies), and typically requires your product to be above the Good Enough Threshold already.
Apple does this pretty well; it comes part of their “skate to where the puck will be” mentality, and involves critical business strategy analysis. Android phones are doing well in the market, making it harder for Apple to differentiate the iPhone as the superior product. They still have the hardware design edge, but from an OS and usability perspective Android has gone well past the Good Enough Threshold.
How do you differentiate when the gap is closing? “Just innovate harder” is not enough, nor particularly actionable advice. Unless a mobile phone vendor comes up with a dramatically significant new use case for these devices, the usage overlap is too large to differentiate using relatively “edge case” features, such as Touch ID. Yes, it’s cool and convenient, but by itself, will it sway many people? Out of all the things we do with our phones today, how many — or how few, rather — can we only do with one platform or the other? And how big a difference is the user experience between them when we can use either platform?
That’s where the Designed by Apple video comes into play. This is why Apple needed to “elevate the market.” It plays into standard business strategies: play up your own strengths, and play up your competitors’ weaknesses. Inform your customers, existing and potential, about the things that help sell them on your product.
In smaller markets or product categories, this is just called marketing and business strategy. But when it comes to powerhouses like Apple and their competitors, and markets as huge as mobile phones, it is a true elevation of the market’s taste for design and user experience when they do this.
Apple’s always done this to some degree, by emphasizing the “what you can do with this product” rather than bland, unimaginative feature lists and tech specs. Saying, “You can do this amazing thing [with an iPhone]“ raises the market (and the bar for competitors) by informing potential customers of your strengths.
But with this latest Designed by Apple video, there are no cutesy “PC and Mac” talking about what you can do, no products on display showing great new possibilities. It is a video all about the refinement of taste; the understanding of, and appreciation for, great design. In other words: it teaches people about the things Apple excels at, and its competitors are comparatively weak at.
Apple remains convinced that their products are well above the Good Enough Threshold, but the pressure from Android compels them to elevate the market and skew it in Apple’s favor. Because Android has long gone beyond being Good Enough, and once-major differentiating factors are rapidly becoming commonplace features. Apple needs to compete, but it won’t compete in a race to the bottom; instead, it aims to shift where “the bottom” is.
How well that’ll play out remains to be seen, but Apple remains a fascinating subject for businesses to observe.
There are significant and prevalent issues of sexism and other forms of discrimination in tech that persist. On the whole, things are steadily getting better and better all around, and more women and people of color, ages, abilities and so forth are participating in our industry, designing and making great things and being celebrated for their contributions. But there is still much work to do to combat the systemic problems plaguing the STEM fields. Those seven links are a sample of just the past two months of harassment, discrimination and incidents, epitomized by this terrible example of a sexual assault. (Aside: hat-tip to Ian Gent and his excellent post, The Petrie Multiplier, for aggregating the links. Read his post; it’s a great explanation of how this problem manifests.)
Many efforts are underway to further improve matters, but one very small thing that could help a lot is if more industry people—and leaders, especially—would make a public statement about these issues. A pledge, if you will, committing to taking up their respective responsibility to address systemic issues in our industry, in our communities, and to help fix them where we can. We all have the power, and responsibility, to make things better. We just need to use that power.
Who am I and why am I doing this?
I am by no means an industry leader like many names in our field, but I do have some influence, which I try to wield responsibly and positively. I am a designer, developer, entrepreneur, and open source contributor. I work in technology and design, across various segments and communities. I do public speaking about web, design & development in general, as well as social issues in our industry (and society at large).
While I may have spent a decent amount of time on these issues, you don’t need to do anywhere near as much to make a very powerful and positive contribution. A statement is all it takes to make a difference.
What kind of statement?
As I mentioned, I’m also a public speaker (and attend) at many industry events. As such, I’ve declined speaking opportunities unless the conference organizers first put in a solid effort to find a number of capable speakers who are not white men. I also signed the related pledge at The Atlantic, before it got spammed by trolls and taken down. I’m adding my name to this pledge list about not attending events where a known committer of sexual assault is permitted to attend. But these pledges feel scattered and not as comprehensive as they could be. They’re also not easy for others to match, should they want to.
That’s why I’m writing this one statement as a pledge for any and all such things, and I encourage you to make one along the same vein. Feel free to simply copy and paste this pledge to a blog post of your own, and if there’s any paragraph you don’t feel comfortable with, you can of course omit it. For the git-savvy developers, there is a gist you can fork (also a good opportunity for communal link adding).
This statement, this pledge, does not have to be all you do to try and contribute making ours a better industry, but it is a good start.
I Pledge To Be Better
I want our industry to be a safe, welcoming and inclusive place for everyone, regardless of their gender, abilities, skin color, sexual orientation, age, class, neuro-diversity or any other attribute. I acknowledge that this is not currently the case, and will do my best, to the extent that I can afford to dedicate to this, to help make ours a better community and industry.
I value the diversity of perspectives that people with different backgrounds bring to the table. I will call out exclusionary practices, behaviors or cultures and see how, together, we can perhaps reshape them to be inclusive and supportive instead.
I will take some time to read up on, and educate myself about, issues such as sexism in our industry. I acknowledge the onus is on me to be decently informed before speaking out, calling out, or participating in these discussions.
I will examine my own privileges, uncomfortable though it may be, and do my best to recognize them going forward.
I will call out people for behaviors that I deem offensive or unacceptable, but I will do so respectfully and with civility. I will strive to educate, not antagonize.
I acknowledge that I will make mistakes, and that I may offend someone unintentionally with my words or actions. Rather than get defensive when called out on it, I will try my hardest to listen respectfully, and learn more instead.
I will decline opportunities to speak at events that have predominently or exclusively white male line-ups, to offer that opportunity to an equally if not more capable or suitable (non-white/male) person, who may simply not be as widely recognized due to the cyclical system that favors those who have spoken before.
I will not attend events that do not have clear Code of Conduct policies, like an anti-harassment or diversity statement. I will also decline to attend events that feature, or permit to attend, any known offender of sexual assault.
I pledge to be better, and set a positive example for others in our community, industry, and society.
A couple of years ago I attempted Project 365, but didn’t quite finish it fully. For 2013 I am trying it again, because my iPhone 5 is a lot more portable than the DSLR I was limited by back then, and allows me to upload on the spot—something which was the main source of interruption last time. I’m also adding a twist: 52 themes, segmenting every week of the year. So this will be my Project 365 x 52, with each original photo uploaded to my Flickr account, and also my Instagram (as long as they behave themselves).
This post will be updated as weeks go by and more themes get decided upon. I may open it up for requests on Twitter from time to time, we’ll see.
Faruk Ateş is a designer, developer, and entreprenerd. He is the creator of Modernizr, and co-founder of Presentate. He lives in Vancouver, B.C. and writes and speaks about technology, social justice, design and business.