Techtivism 2: The Four Levers

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What is techtivism? It’s a set of frameworks and skills 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.

Wait, why aren’t we starting with “what are my values?”

Because the answer to that question isn’t the limiting factor in operationalizing our values into a framework for action. Our values are a separate thing from what we do to live those values, and both can change over time. To wit:

First, as adults with lived experiences, we already have some general ideas about what we think is right and wrong. We can work with that.

Second, we can independently improve our effectiveness in advocating for our values, regardless of what they are (which is good, because that means our skills remain useful as new experiences change our values).

Third, we hamstring our effectiveness as change agents when we assume that activism starts with having perfect opinions. I will always have things I’m not sure about. I will always feel torn between two different perspectives on some issues. I will always have more to read and learn. But if we’re waiting to start acting until we finish a never-ending, ongoing 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 pritchettcartoons.com.

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. These tactics came from experiences interacting with American businesses or nonprofits.

To individually support or oppose a cause:

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

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

I believe that those go in increasing order of power.

Patronage: The Lowest Power Multiplier

Why: suppose I have a $100 per year subscription. The organization gets, from me, $100 per year. No matter how much they upsell me, at some point, I only have so much money to devote to whatever this thing is. So my potential value to them tops out pretty fast.

I’m not saying that purchasing or donating isn’t powerful. A rich enough philanthropist 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

Now suppose I convince a friend to also subscribe. I have already more than doubled my value to the organization, if I did all the convincing. I doubled it by adding my friend’s $100/year subscription to mine, and added on value to that for every dollar the organization didn’t have to spend on advertising to convince my friend, since I did it for them. This kind of contribution takes much longer to top out, because we can recommend multiple friends subscribe.

Talent: Different from “Labor” in Our Discussion

Then there’s talent. I don’t mean talent as in “A rare person of superior skill to other people.” I’m distinguishing talent from labor here 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% of it. 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 expand their service and bring in an additional half a percent—$20 million—in revenue per year. Lyft keeps $4 million of that (assuming their cut is still 20%). Lyft software engineer salaries range from $130-230k per year. If each engineer earned $190k (we’re ignoring benefits costs, et cetera and just picking a high average figure here), Lyft would still be keeping more than half of the revenue. There’s a reason that knowledge work—colloquially known as office work—produced 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 makes more money relative to how much they pay the person, carries more individual leverage. When one engineer walks out, they cost the company as much—or more!—in profits than 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. That’s pretty high.

It’s high because access to talent matters a lot, for reasons previously discussed, and getting others involved produces multiple times the impact you could have individually, again for reasons previously discussed.

What does it all mean?

We can choose where to set each of these levers 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?
  • And 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 a viable alternative right now for something that I need. So I pay them to send me 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.

This framework gives us options for navigating 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 SeriesTotally 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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