Techtivism 2: The Four Levers

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I’m writing the techtivism series to help you embody your values as a producer and consumer of tech products—particularly as an individual (as opposed to collective action, which is critical, but not the focus of this series). Here’s the whole series so far.

So, what are your values?

Just kidding 😉 we’re not gonna start there.

Values are independent from action. We can improve our effectiveness in advocating for our values, regardless of what they are.

Also, our values can change over time. I will always have more to read and learn. But if we wait to start acting until we finish a never-ending learning process, we won’t get anything done.

The framework we’ll discuss in this post doesn’t answer the question “X is happening and I’m not sure if I support that or not.” Instead, it answers the question “X is happening and I know I support/don’t support it. What can I do?”

Enter: The Four Levers.

A man pulls four levers.
Cartoon by John Pritchett. Check out this artist’s other illustrations at

Heads up: the tactics I’m about to discuss assume market capitalism.

They assume that we live in a capitalist society in which organizations care about having money, customers, and talent. They assume that we can help or hinder an organization by increasing or decreasing their access to money, customers, and talent.

This is not universally true. In socialist systems, or systems with safety nets, or powerful, government-backed monopolies, these tactics won’t work the same way.

To individually support or oppose a cause:

I divide my individual social responsibility into four areas: my patronage, my patronage advocacy, my talent, and my talent advocacy. Let’s go through them:

  1. Patronage: buying or donating
  2. Patronage Advocacy: convincing others to buy/donate
  3. Talent: devoting my time and energy
  4. Talent Advocacy: convincing others to devote their time and energy

I believe that those go in increasing order of power.

Patronage: The Lowest Power Multiplier

Why: suppose I have a $100 per year subscription. No matter how much the organization upsells me, I only have so much money to devote to it. So my potential value tops out pretty fast.

I’m not saying that purchasing or donating isn’t powerful. A generous enough donation can save an entire organization! But it has the lowest multiplier. For a given individual, the other levers can exert multiple times the impact.

Patronage Advocacy: A Higher Power Multiplier

Suppose I convince a friend to also subscribe. I have already more than doubled my value to the org. I doubled it by adding my friend’s $100/year subscription to mine, and added on value by saving the org the advertising expenditure of convincing my friend. This kind of contribution takes much longer to top out, because I can recommend multiple friends subscribe.

Talent: Different from “Labor” in Our Discussion

I don’t mean talent as in “A rare person of superior skills.” I’m distinguishing talent from labor based on the company’s profit margin.

Let’s look at an example: a ride share app. I triangulated from several online sources in August of 2020 and concluded that drivers receive 55-70% of the money a customer pays for a ride. Lyft, the company, receives 20-30%. This is a fairly low profit margin.

A software engineer on the ride share app makes the company a much higher margin. Suppose a team of 10 engineers produces a feature that helps Lyft bring in an additional half a percent—$20 million—in revenue per year. Lyft keeps $4 million (assuming their cut is 20%). Lyft software engineer salaries range from $130-230k per year. If each engineer earned $190k (we’re ignoring benefits costs and just picking a high average figure here), Lyft would still be keeping more than half the revenue.

Knowledge work—colloquially known as office work—has an extremely high margin for the company. Hence, this meme:

Lyft makes a low margin on drivers, which they accept because the drivers are essential to the business. But an individual driver is relatively cheap to replace. In part, that’s because a lot of people can drive. But it’s also because being down one driver doesn’t cost the company that much profit. So to push companies around from a labor perspective, we usually need collective action, like strikes and unions.

“Talent,” where the company absorbs a much higher margin, carries more individual leverage. When one engineer walks out, they cost the company 2-5x what they took home in pay. So, relative to labor, there are more opportunities to impact an organization’s direction by exercising control over its access to an individual talent (such as your own).

Talent Advocacy: The Highest Power Multiplier

At Pivotal Labs, the referral bonus—the money you got for getting a friend to join the company—stood at $5-6k for an engineer while I was there. That amounted to 5% of an engineer’s salary in Chicago. No matter what the get-rich-quick bloggers say, it’s quite the trick to net $6k by writing one email.

Companies pay that sum because access to talent matters a lot, and getting others involved produces multiple times the impact you’d make alone.

What does it all mean?

We can choose where to set each lever for an organization.

  • Do we want to buy from them? Or do we boycott them, and actively seek alternatives to buy from?
  • Do we encourage our friends to buy from them, or do we try to convince friends to leave them for alternatives?
  • Do we agree to take them as clients, or work for them? Or do we find someone else?
  • Do we refer folks to work for them, or do we actively refer folks to alternatives?

Because of the increasing impact multipliers of patronage, patronage advocacy, talent, and talent advocacy, I am increasingly careful about each. Maybe I find a company’s practices gross, but I cannot find an alternative producer for something that I need. So I pay them for that thing, but I don’t recommend them to others without a warning, and I definitely wouldn’t go work there, or refer others to work there.

But buying one $20 thing from Amazon because you need it is not “just as bad” as recruiting friends to help Amazon deliver products to ICE, in my view. Rather, there are powerful and moneyed systems in place that made Amazon your only option for getting the thing you need, and your time is better spent understanding those systems and working to dismantle them than feeling guilty that you were forced to hand $20 to a single, reprehensible provider.

We have options.

When we understand the different things we can do and how much they affect an org, we can use that knowledge to navigate grey areas and bringing our earning and spending into line with our values over time.

We’ll talk in future posts about settings for these four levers and tactics for getting there. But this post is getting long. In the meantime, there’s an opportunity here to think:

Where do we want to draw our boundaries on what to support, or what to hinder? And how can we do that, as individuals, with each of these four levers?

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The teaching series—I teach an online class about software engineering. Then I write about my teaching techniques.

The Raft distributed consensus algorithm series—I’ll be honest, every time I write about ethics or community, I feel compelled to put an obligatory “Checkmate SJW critics, I am in fact technical” series in the recommended links.

The Listening Series—Totally separate topic. I have a funny feeling, though, that there will be a lot of crossover between people who like this series and people who like that one.

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