Ransom’s speech at EDI Con 2018 encompasses life, economics, values, and responsibility and it comes with a request.
At EDI Con 2017 in Boston, Scott McMorrow gave a keynote speech titled "Bet your Job." Scott described how we stake our jobs on every project we undertake. He gave an example of engineers at a big corporation who worked on a project that they knew would not work, but no one spoke up. Can you imagine sitting in a meeting where you're reviewing a product design with colleagues, seeing a fatal flaw, and plowing forward anyway, then later saying that you knew it would fail all along?
Scott closed his speech with a fun piece of irony: “Working for a company gives the illusion of security. Self-employment gives the illusion of freedom.” In my speech this year, “Innovation, Incorporation, and Integrity,” I tried to expand on Scott’s Bet Your Job theme.
I begin with a simple question: Why do you go to work?
Your answer probably doesn't refer to love of traffic or cubicles, and might indicate your need for money. If we take a close look, you don’t actually need very much money.
All you actually need is:
- A few pounds of food each day
- Shelter to sleep in
- Activity that yields a sense of accomplishment
One of the things that I learned from writing my neuroscience book is that both companionship and a sense of accomplishment are every bit as necessary to human existence as food and shelter. Without all four, human beings cease to be human.
You derive your values from your interactions with your family, friends, colleagues—all of your companions and the various tribes you’re a member of (even the Raider Nation, but not whatever Pats fans call themselves). Your values are those tenets of integrity that more than anything else define who you are trying to be. We don’t always live up to our values, but without them we’re not much—better to be a hypocrite trying to meet noble values than to be a consistent conman.
Because most of us derive our sense of accomplishment by working for corporations, I propose that corporations exist to fulfill that need. Sure, they need to make money to survive, but that’s not why you’re there. Let me rephrase that: if you only work at your job to make money, then you can and should do something else. Sports teams don’t exist to score points, or win or lose, they exist to play and so do you.
An excellent reason to work for a corporation, large or small, is access to the overhead you need—equipment, support, other people to collaborate with, medical insurance, and, as Scott said last year, "The illusion of security"—to innovate, to fulfill your promise, to contribute, and to change the world. And don't knock the illusion of security until you've gone without it. But don't kid yourself either. You can be laid off at any time. If you’re so important to the company that they can't succeed without you, sell your shares because no one should invest in a company that sits on a single-point-of-failure.
The corporation provides what you need to excel, but only if you keep up your end of the Bargain:
When your goals align with those of the corporation, you’re good for the company and the company is good for you and best of all you help each other pursue greatness.
I've experienced that synergy in almost every job I've had: Working at Jack-in-the-Box, I met prospective mates on a daily basis—a key goal for me in my teens. Working for universities, I helped make the discoveries that were their mission. The wireless web startup I worked for set out to change the world and I got to go along for the ride until it crashed. Agilent Technologies (now Keysight) gave me the opportunity to join those at the cutting edge of technology. We flourished, though I had to bet my job to coerce the corporation to let me pursue its goals in spite of its policies, and we both came out better for it.
Sometimes your goals don't align with those of the corporation and you get in the rut: it’s a boring job, sometimes interesting, but you get paid the money you need to goof off on your own time. I experienced this when I pumped gas at a Shell Station during college summers.
When your goals and those of the corporation you work for don't align, you owe it to yourself to leave. When I graduated college, I stopped working at Howard’s Shell Station. After five years at Agilent, management wanted to downsize and they asked for three volunteers to accept a package. I remember sitting in traffic and thinking, “They pay me to come to work, now they want to pay me not to come to work, hmm.”
At the time I was frustrated by long meetings that I thought were pointless. My forecasts of product demand/sales were spurned by management because I included uncertainties (calculated in a really cool little economics simulation that used correlations between test and measurement sales and the S&P 500) that they didn’t appreciate. We no longer had the same goals.
I called Scott and asked him if he thought I could make it as a consultant. I didn't know him at the time. He asked a lot of probing questions about my industry contacts and eventually told me that I could probably do it and I believed him. Worst case, I’d have to get another job. My business has survived for 13 years and I have continued to do what I've done best through all of my careers: write educational content (a.k.a., white papers, app notes, and the like, give presentations, teach, plus something that I had wanted to do: write books.
When your employer’s goals contradict your values
When the corporation compels you to do something that you believe should not be done, not only will you lose that sense of accomplishment, but you'll lose self-respect. Without self-respect, you're not likely to earn the respect of the people you care about.
Ponder this question: Who is responsible for your work? Who owns your designs, the products you bring to the world, and how those products are used? If you find yourself pointing at the CEO, your boss, the marketing department, or the shareholders, you're probably not very proud of your work.
What if a huge engineering company assigned you the task of building gas chambers to equip a holocaust? With such an extreme example, we can probably agree that civilization would have a better chance if no one would accept that task.
What if you have responsibilities like a mortgage, debt, and children to support?
We all participate in the economy. In its most basic state, the economy is what people buy and sell, where they go and what they do. The economy is the visceral expression of a culture’s values.
In the recent past and for the foreseeable future, the world economy has been and will continue to be built on technology. As developers of tech, you and I have a huge Responsibility: we are Responsible for the economy.
History shows that civilization itself—the principles of freedom, equality, and fraternity—is fragile. Ninety-nine percent of human history has had pyramid-shaped economies: a tiny wealthy oligarchy of people who inherited their wealth and used that power to extract ever greater wealth from a huge majority of poor, oppressed laborers—serfs and slaves. In just the last few centuries, most of us who are fortunate enough to live in the developed, free world have lived in a diamond-shaped economy: a large middle class with comparatively small populations of extreme wealth and poverty.
Civilization is fragile. It rests on an economy whose tools you build. Your Responsibility to civilization is greater than those lower-case "r" your responsibilities like paying your bills. I hope you never face such a decision, but if you do, your family, your children, everyone you care about, will respect your choice to do what you believe is right.
In his speech last year, Scott urged us to bet our jobs. This year, I'm urging you to bet your life on your values.
—Ransom Stephens is a technologist, science writer, and novelist.