Why Empathy is Not Enough in Tech

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In 2020, my main personal goal is to reduce doing harm, and this has been mainly inspired by the work of Kim Crayton and the #causeascene Guiding Principles. Kim is a business strategist, tech leader coach, professional educator, and founder of the #causeascene movement.

Tech is not neutral.

Actually, it has never been neutral, nor has it been apolitical. While we, as developers, want to believe differently, the news is full of examples of how tech has been and is continuously used to harm people, especially the ones that are already most vulnerable:

  • Careless or intentionally malicious handling of private data (Facebook)
  • Nonconsensual use of Profile picture to use as (flawed and insecure) face recognition (AirBnB)
  • Tech companies using their products to spy on employees and shut down protests (Google)
  • Racism and sexism built directly into AI algorithms (Amazon)
  • Social Media being used to harass and shutdown members of marginalized groups, spread fake-news and amplify hate

But it doesn’t stop at the big tech companies; harm is being done on all levels, be it the language used by technologists (“If you don’t get this, you have no business in coding”, “Problem exists between keyboard and chair”), the bias in hiring process (“Not a culture fit”) or the use of racist terms and “jokes” under the coat of freedom of speech.

These harmful actions, processes, and policies have come at great cost for teams, the trade as such, and also its products.

It has led to an artificially narrowed pool of “talent” and therefore also a narrowed viewpoint, rendering many tech companies unable to predict the potential harm their products and services are causing.

Luckily, there’s empathy and compassion – let’s assume we have good intentions, and if we try hard enough to walk in each other’s shoes, we’ll be able to solve all the problems we don’t even know exist. How hard can it be to imagine how a black woman in her 50s from the other side of the globe will use our software. As a white man in my 30s, I just must be empathetic enough, right?

In fact, we’re not even able to be empathetic enough to create soap dispensers or fitness trackers that work on non-white skin tones.

Don’t get me wrong – empathy is a great skill to develop, but it can never be a replacement for authentic lived experience. The only chance to really broaden our views is to introduce diversity into our teams, and to be able to do so, we need to become inclusive. Focusing on being compassionate won’t do it if we don’t develop a clear strategy.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

If we want to stop doing harm, we need to create strategies that allow us to focus on the impact of our actions. We need strategies that allow us to learn what impact our actions have on people different than us, what (unintended) side-effects our actions have, how our work can be used in ways we don’t want and how we can learn and improve from mistakes we made.

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About the author

Samuel Nitsche

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Samuel Nitsche is a curiosity-driven software developer who programs, learns and collaborates in the software trade since the early 2000s. He works as Senior Software Developer and trainer at Smart Enterprise Solutions. His main interest is on modern database development, automated testing and code quality, topics he writes regularly about on different platforms, mainly on his blog at developer-sam.de. He is an Oracle ACE, one of the main contributors and maintainers of utPLSQL and loves to share his experience in an entertaining way - gladly in Sith robes - at meetups and conferences.

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