Occasionally a blog post sticks with me for weeks after I’ve read it. Sometimes pleasurably, like caramel in your molars after chewing a candy. Sometimes less so, like a poppy seed caught between two teeth.
The most recent one to ‘get stuck’ was by designer Mike Monteiro entitled “Ethics Can’t Be a Side Hustle.” Mike’s central argument is that one MUST consider the ethical implications of the work you do and the values of the company you work at. And you can’t say “well, I make crappy software that exploits bad habits but hey, I also do some volunteering to make up for it.” Or Mike puts it, “You can’t buy Ethics Offsets for the terrible things you do at your day job.” He continues,
“We can debate whether tech or design are neutral in nature for weeks. And it’s a conversation I look forward to. But whether they are or not, I know that people are not. You cannot afford to be neutral. Right now, more than ever you need to reach down deep into your core, find your ethical strength, and bring it to your day job with you every day.”
So caramel or poppy seed? Both on this one. I really do believe we vote with our dollars and our time. Everything else is just talk. At Homebrew we absolutely commit to investing only in companies where we know we want to put sweat and reputation behind the founders, not just dollars. And we support ethical decisions, even if they create short-term problems for our companies. But we also don’t control the companies. We only control the decision to invest or not.
There’s a second post where Mike addresses some of the objections to his first, such as “must be nice to have the privilege to turn down work but not all of us can afford so” and such. The variation I’ve heard of this is something like “Oh sure Fred Wilson can say USV won’t invest in assholes. He’s successful! But I’m just starting out and I need this win so….” But the truth is the people like Fred are successful precisely because they’ve made those decisions consistently throughout their career. The success is a byproduct, not a pre-qualification.
So yeah, I think you have a better shot at succeeding in the tech industry longterm if you stick to working on projects you believe are ethical with people you believe are ethical. How do you define ethical? First pass is your own sensibilities – trust your judgment. Second pass is your coworkers – do they behave in ethical ways and are they comfortable with the work you’re collectively doing? Final pass is your CEO – are the behaviors and values they model consistent with yours. If all three of these check out, you’re probably ok.