So… this is something I have been carrying around with me for a while. A long while. The thing is this: the Zuckerbergs, Pages, Jobs (may he rest in peace) and all those other rockstars from the valley generally missed (and, unfortunately, still do miss) one thing, and that is a decent ethical compass. Now, I won’t accuse any of them of being bad people, not at all. However, I do think that the infatuation with engineering talent does tend to blank out the “good” in as most people would see it. The Valley is, essentially, a left-brain affair. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of creativity, etc going on in the Valley (see the capitalized way of putting it?) but a lot of it is lacking essential ethical values. Why is that? Because engineers don’t think that way.
Engineering is Cool… but not enough…
Now, I think this is missing a huge trick (and, yes, as a humanities guy I would of course say that) because it leaves aside the sentiment of at least half of the population (I would posit that it is more than that as – although perhaps in a foggy, undefined way – most people do actually prefer ethically sound principles.
Now look at the major success stories of recent times. Let’s say Apple of Facebook. As to the latter, there has been a scathing (but rather excellent) article by Hamish McKenzie on PandoDaily today (which actually triggered me to write this thing tonight; thank you, jetlag…) looking at the missed tricks of Facebook Platform. This followed a piece by the most excellent Walter Isaacson in the Harvard Business Review of “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs” (eminently readable and highly recommended!).
Both Jobs and (admittedly) to a lesser extent Zuckerberg are quite awesome entrepreneurs (and I use both their products daily) but there was always something that irked me… And I realized it was their lack of ethics. Because, you see, I believe they have none. That is also why my regard for the “don’t do evil” motto of Google reached an all time low recently (check here if you don’t believe I could have such a low; I did!). And the reason is not that they are bad people. The reason is they are (were…) engineers. And engineers don’t think in certain ways. But, I would say, that (absent) way of thinking is important… really important in fact!
Humanities to the Fore!
And so I would call for every company to make sure to have someone in their upper ranks who comes from the humanities (yes, Google, I am looking at you; you are particularly bad in hiring those…) because, you see, those folks add (or can add) this additional dimension that will really allow you not to do evil. If you only have shit-hot engineers (and I adore those as much as anyone), you won’t be able to add that balance that you really need.
The challenging thing is that the result may – in the interim – be OK as in you might be making loads of dollars, and, yes, I know that this is good enough in most engineers’ book. However, if you want to build something to last, you will need to make sure that you have a balance that makes the Karma be good (and remember I am Atheist, so this is about doing the right thing and all…). And you’ll need those touchy-feely folks for that! There is – often, not always – a distinct lack of this in modern-day hot-shot start-ups. And the only thing I will say is this: to preach to the altar of engineering is as bad as preaching to any other altar; it tends to blank out other bits of life, and that, in itself, is bad.