Principles for deciding what to work on
Towards the end of last year I bowed out of a four and a half year stint as Loco2’s Technical Director. Doing so forced me to consider, for the first time in a while, what it is that I really want to do in my working life.
I love building software products and solving tricky technical problems, but I’ve realised I’m not content to just work on whatever comes my way. I want to explicitly seek projects which feel purposeful, and are of service to others, putting those priorities above just making money or messing around with cool technology.
Defining what this means in concrete terms is hard. I don’t have a specific idea about something the world lacks, which I could create. But over time I’ve realised that I do have various thoughts about what an ideal project would look like on a more abstract level. I’ve tried to write these things down in order to clarify my own thoughts, and to provide a framework from which I can consider how well a given specific opportunity fits with my general principles.
I feel quite nervous about sharing this publicly! I think it’s fair to say that my view of the world doesn’t particularly match the status quo and I’m afraid of being judged or dismissed as a utopian idealist. But for the status quo to change, people need to share alternative ideas. So I’m hoping that something in here strikes a chord with somebody. If it does, I’d love you to leave a comment or send me an email.
Finally, I have to acknowledge that my ability to write and think about this comes from a place of privilege. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m not just having to focus on where the next meal is coming from, but I think that makes it all the more important to make sure I’m using my privilege constructively.
Does it promote equality and social cohesion?
The world as I know it is largely based on competition, scarcity and accumulation of wealth. I think the driver of this is the notion that we are all fundamentally alone in the world, and can’t rely on society to provide for our needs in times of trouble. This fear drives us to try to always seek more, because wealth equals security (ostensibly).
The outcome is huge and growing inequality. The rich are getting richer on the backs of the poor getting poorer. Few people are actually happy; the rich are preoccupied with the stress of their busy lives, plenty of money but no time to actually enjoy it, while the poor are preoccupied with trying to meet their basic human needs for food and shelter. Meanwhile, hyperconsumption is destroying the planet we live on.
I want to live in a world which prioritises our connections to each other and to nature, where we look after each other and get looked after in return. It seems pretty far off at the moment, but I’d like my work to move us a tiny bit closer.
Does it get me excited to leap out of bed in the morning?
I’ll do much better work if I’m passionate about what I’m working on, and I’ll enjoy life more in the process. There are lots of projects which I like the idea of in theory but that I’m not very motivated to work on. I like building real, useful products, solving complex and interesting technical problems, and learning about new things. Some perfectly worthwhile projects simply don’t provide these challenges.
Can I influence the direction of the project?
I want to be fully integrated into what I’m working on. I’ll get frustrated if I feel like I’m just a cog in a machine executing instructions from above, or if I feel like something needs to change but am powerless to make that happen.
This doesn’t mean that I am fixated on being in charge. I think the best outcomes come from mutually supportive teams making decisions together and I’m not a big fan of rigid organisational hierarchies. I want to work on teams where everybody cares for each other and considers it their job to advance the aims of the whole organisation, not just their own careers. Lately I’ve been learning about co-operatives as an organisational model for producing digital products, and I attended the Open:2017 conference on this topic. I’d be very excited to work within a co-operative ownership model.
I’m not just concerned about day-to-day decision making but also the future of the project. When a company takes equity investment, the investors will want their “exit” sooner or later (probably sooner). This may well require selling up and handing over control to a bigger company, whose goals will probably not be aligned with those of the original team. So equity investment seems fundamentally at odds with having influence on the future of a project as a team member.
Is there a great team?
I want to work with talented people who are motivated to help each other to do their best work. Diversity of skills is crucial: it’s not enough to have a bunch of great programmers – we won’t get very far without equally great designers and product managers.
But diversity of experiences and perspectives is also really important. I don’t think a team of talented white men can be a great team, because it is fundamentally a monoculture with a very narrow perspective on the world. How can they understand how to deal with the vast set of problems facing those who haven’t had the same life experiences?
Can I have a fulfilling life outside of work?
Western culture glorifies busyness and “hard work”, without really thinking much about what that work is actually for, or whether the outcome is any good. It produces stressed-out, sleep-deprived people with little capacity for empathy and connection with each other or themselves. To soothe the pain, we consume, and our consumption deepens the environmental crisis.
At the end of it all, we’re supposed to get a comfortable retirement funded by the financial assets we’ve accumulated during our working lives. But who knows if our aging bodies will be healthy enough to enjoy it? And given the economic upheaval of recent times, who can say that those assets will be worth what we thought they were anyway?
I want to live a great life now. That means having time and flexibility to do things which nourish me alongside purposeful work. Why does “full time” mean 5 days per week anyway? It’s pretty arbitrary and there are good arguments for a shorter working week.
I’m also a big fan of remote work since having the freedom to live where I want has a big impact on my quality of life. This is especially important to me personally because my main hobby is rock climbing. A year and a half ago I moved from London to North Wales, and gaining the ability to pop into the mountains after work during the week made a huge difference. Not spending weekends away, driving huge distances to find rocks gave me more balance and time for relationships.
Is there a realistic plan for financial sustainability?
I want to try to avoid spending time on projects which will fizzle out. I don’t like building things for the sake of it - I want there to be a lasting impact.
One major reason software projects fail is that they can’t cover their costs. Most startups rely on raising equity investment, but as discussed above, this requires relinquishing control and making shareholder profit the primary motivation. Even so, the money often dries up sooner or later. So having a good plan to achieve financial sustainability is crucial, because it’s the only way to guarantee the future of the project while maintaining control over its direction.
Is the organisation as open as possible?
I want to share what I create as open source software, so that others can benefit from and improve upon my ideas. I’d like to work with an organisation that makes this a core value – not just by sharing side projects, but also by sharing its core product (with an appropriate license to prevent another company profiting from free labour without contributing back). A secondary benefit is that if the organisation does cease to exist at some point, what it created can live on (assuaging my concern about effort going to waste in the future).
I’d like to share not only software, but as much as possible about an organisation I work for, including internal documentation and processes about how to operate. This level of transparency promotes fairness, critique and accountability. It breaks down the competition mindset and provides a template for other great organisations to grow from. This concept is the “open organisation” – I think GitLab is a good example.
This world can exist!
Looking at any online job board for developers quickly makes me despondent about how easy it is to find work which seems mind-numbingly pointless. I think Jeffrey Hammerbacher summed it up well when he said, “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”.
Yet there are certainly people out there who are doing things differently. In London, organisations like Newspeak House and Tech for Good are at the centre of this community. Living in North Wales makes it a bit harder for me to engage with these networks, but I’m clear that it’s important to do so as much as I can.
Being able to bring ideas into the world is a powerful thing. I think that if developers, designers and makers can think more critically about what we’re doing and why, then we can make a much more beautiful world for everyone.
I’ve obviously not come up with all these ideas in a vacuum. Here are a few resources which have influenced my thinking:
The Thousand Year Journey: Oregon to Patagonia - Probably my favourite video on the internet. A lovely short film about breaking with routine
Ethics can’t be a side hustle - Encourages us to make sure what we’re doing at work is aligned with our values
Exponential growth devours and corrupts - A good exploration of the outcomes of neoliberal capitalism, although I disagree with the suggestion that what is needed is for capitalists to somehow sprout a conscience, I think more structural change is necessary
Software Is Politics - Points out that what we do with our digital skills is inherently political
The Pill versus the Bomb: What Digital Technologists Need to Know About Power - An interesting theory about how technologists can promote change
Fuck Work - A good rant about the problems with modern-day jobs
Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work - A slightly academic book but with great insight about the coming impact of automation on work, and how this can potentially be a liberating development
How a Worker-Owned Tech Startup Found Investors—and Kept Its Values - An article about how Loomio, one of the best examples of a digital co-operative, was funded (you can also read their handbook)
Slow the fuck down - Encourages us to challenge the culture of busyness
Tech For Good Principles - An excellent list of criteria about what makes a useful tech product
4 May 2017
Jon Leighton is an experienced software engineer, specialising in Ruby. He is based in the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales, and is particularly interested in projects with a social purpose. Do get in touch if you'd like to chat.