In this series, I’m exploring the influence of white supremacy culture on tech (and broadly, professional) culture, following Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s list of characteristics as a guide. Here’s the introduction and the full series so far.
Let’s talk about the second element of white supremacy culture: Sense of Urgency.
Here’s the description of Sense of Urgency, verbatim:
Sense of Urgency
- continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences
- frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community)
- reinforced by funding proposals which promise too much work for too little money and by funders who expect too much for too little
We’ll go in order this time. I’d like to address the first two points together, and then we’ll return to the third point.
Doing Something Now Over Doing Something Right
I’m going to tell you two stories in this blog post. The first one is about Chicago companies releasing mobile apps.
Between Android and iOS, market share in the United States is about 50-50. Globally, it’s about three quarters Android. But among Chicago companies with theoretically national or global client bases, 4 out of 5 build their MVP on iOS, most with no plans to release an Android app.
Why do you think this is? Since iOS users have a higher median income, maybe the companies are first targeting clients who can pay more. This perspective has its own issues, but at least it makes sense. This isn’t the reason.
The reason is that 4 out of 5 of the people making the what-to-build decisions use an iPhone themselves. In multiple cases I’ve seen, insurance companies prioritized iOS for their first mobile app, despite knowing that 60-70% of their end users had Android devices. Why? Because the product owner wanted to see it on his phone.
We value quick decision-making in business, but quickly-made decisions overrepresent the perspectives of the people sitting in the room. This happens even if those people have hard evidence that their perspective doesn’t line up with the perspectives of the people that the decision impacts.
Tech in general, and tech leadership specifically, is overwhelmingly white. So when decision-makers decide that soliciting the views of folks with different perspectives would “take too long”, we end up with ideas that are often completely ignorant of their wider implications. The results, just as an example: Starbucks, a company that has taken great pains to craft a brand image as an inclusive company, banned employees from wearing clothing in support of the statement that black lives matter this week. Somehow this became official policy without anybody succeeding in convincing leadership that, oh I dunno, this move might look really bad. (They reversed the decision within 72 hours in response to public outcry, but made no additional changes that we know of to address systemic racism in the company or its leadership).
Yes, failing to stop and think about implications before making a move is itself a symptom of white supremacy culture. But the fact that speed and understanding of impact is a tradeoff in the first place—the fact that tech companies cannot have both at the same time—is a direct result of companies’ failures to distribute power to people with the perspectives that they need to avoid costly mistakes.
And by the way, the undos, and the redos, and the PR cleanup, after these mistakes, usually cost the company many multiples of whatever it would have cost to stop. To breathe. To take a second. To consider the implications of a decision. To look around, consider what perspectives had not contributed to the list of implications, and go looking for those perspectives. Does that sound like a lot of work? Because it’s a teeny amount of work relative to the amount of work a company gets from a costly mistake.
Proposing and Expecting Too Much for Too Little
It’s time for the second story, which is about another software company—mine.
I take tech lead responsibilities for mobile, server, and machine learning projects. I work on projects that contribute to saving the planet, advancing basic scientific research, and providing resources to underserved communities. Because the projects affect public safety, or inform current environmental policy, or affect the recovery of people who are currently sick, the app is always urgent. The deadline is always yesterday. Back when I worked on things that didn’t help people in need, the product owners were still convinced that they needed the thing yesterday, too.
I had to learn the hard way that I cannot base my urgency on the urgency that somebody is asking for. Instead, I have to base my urgency on the urgency with which the client is providing what I need. Client wants the app tomorrow, but hasn’t sent over the assets? This doesn’t get on my plate until I have the assets. It’s critical that the server be updated, but the server only runs on the other side of the company’s firewall, and their sysadmins really don’t seem to want me to be able to get to it? Okay. This is low priority until I have access.
I got much better about communicating boundaries. Now, when collaborators ask me to complete things I cannot complete without their help, I say no. I justify it like this: “If I charge you my hourly rate to move at the slow speed I’d have to move without the resources I need, I’d be ripping you off. I won’t do that to you.”
I get to do that because I don’t work for any one person. That’s not the case for folks with full-time gigs. In all of tech, how much work do you suppose we waste by forcing teams to press ahead without the support they need? How much more efficiently could organizations operate if we focused less on their efficiency and saw their work as an investment?
It’s the cost of this waste that we don’t measure, and therefore discount, when we decide how to do things. We miss massive opportunities to improve what we’re doing because we don’t consider alternatives to business as usual.
What can we do about all this?
Here are the antidotes listed in the original “13 Elements” document:
- realistic workplans;
- leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects;
- discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time;
- learn from past experience how long things take;
- write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames;
- be clear about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency;
- realize that rushing decisions takes more time in the long run because inevitably people who didn’t get a chance to voice their thoughts and feelings will at best resent and at worst undermine the decision because they were left unheard
Points 1, 2, 4, and 5 read really similar to me: “Either develop or import experience about how long things take and make more accurate estimates.” Maybe it’s because I have only worked in institutions with largely white leadership, but I haven’t seen this work. What I have seen work is spend the bulk of time determining the priority order of tasks, with the highest thing first and so on, so that regardless of how accurate the estimates are or aren’t, the most important things get done.
Points 3 and 6 recommend taking a heavy dose of reality: diversifying the team will not be easy. Making good decisions will also not be as easy as we would like, particularly when external pressures present themselves. We need to consider what we are going to do when our goals inevitably prove—gasp—difficult. We will have to devote time and resources to them. In fact, they’ll probably take more time and resources than is our first instinct to allocate. We need to recognize that reality and adjust early on so our goals remain attainable.
Finally, point 7 discusses the waste. When we rush decisions, they end up costing more. We’d do well to keep track of those costs and measure our decisions on the fallout they don’t produce. This will shift our metrics to favor preventive solutions rather than reactive solutions, which is generally what we favor now.
We talked about why we are forced to face such a stark tradeoff between speed and resilience in the decisions we make. We discussed the necessity to invest in taking the time to make resilient decisions, lest we pay the price many times over later when we make costly mistakes.
We also looked at the pervasiveness in tech of asking for too much for too little; I mentioned one partial solution but it only works in certain circumstances. This default in a white-centric business culture, too, creates a ton of waste.
Finally, we discussed solutions. The solutions require us to remove our rose-tinted glasses and make our implementation strategies resilient to things taking too long, or requiring more resources, or running into obstacles.
We’ll look next in this series at another element of white supremacy culture: defensiveness. In the meantime, here’s the link to the full series so far.
If you made it through this piece, you might also want to see these:
Assisted Processing (a tool for avoiding defensiveness as a leader)