“Democratizing and meritocracy and those things are not just not a step forward. They are the right idea in the most ignorant way. They are coming from the perspective of trying to ‘do right’ but not applying any actual complex thinking towards what ‘doing right’ is.”
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. Today’s guest is Ben Halpern. Ben, would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Ben Halpern: Yeah, hi, I’m Ben. I live in New York and I’m from Canada originally. I am probably best well known on the podcast as the creator of DEV Community at dev.to and @ThePracticalDev on Twitter. And we’ve been building a programming community that we felt like the world needed. We’ve been building it for the past few years, and it’s been growing and taking off, and we’ve been facing new challenges and having to decide how we wanna do this thing. And, yeah, that’s been my work for the past few years.
Kim: All right, I’m gonna start as we always start. Could you please tell us why is it important to cause a scene, and how are you causing a scene?
Ben: Yeah, well, I think it’s important to cause a scene, from my perspective as having the opportunity to cause a scene, to have an impact, and to make my time useful for the world and to really sort of stand for things. I think if you have values and are willing to stand behind them, it forces you to follow through a little bit, it forces you to have a positive impact. I think if you’re trying to go under the radar too much or not ruffle any feathers, you’re gonna just find yourself without a personal identity, without a sense of vision. And if you start an organization like that, you’re just gonna run into the same sort of situations as we’ve had with so many tech organizations which are afraid to make the right choices, make positive changes, and generally sort of look out for folx that don’t face the same challenges as them.
And I think we reflect that with the work we’re doing at DEV. I think it comes up as an option for folx who want to feel like there’s a true community for everyone in software. I feel like we’ve always put ourselves out there in terms of our values, and also tried to actually back those up and to really care. And to really differentiate ourselves from other platforms which have either been very slow to adopt the right kind of ethics that we need today in terms of tech and inclusion, or have paid lip service, or have spoken in platitudes. This wouldn’t have been a project in the first place if we didn’t care about actually doing things the right way, as we see them, and always putting these sort of values ahead of growth. Growth is important for any project, organization, business, whatever, but from the get go, we always thought of projecting the right values and having a real impact as a lot more important.
Kim: OK, so you and I met, if I’m correct, at the first Codeland conference. OK, and that was when I was doing my old podcast, the Community Engineering Report—my god, that seems such a long time ago—because when I reached out to you, you reminded me that I invited you to come on that podcast, and I totally—I’m a person who I’m in the moment—so I totally forgot about all of that. And I was like, “Yeah,” and it’s interesting that you came up because I’m going to read you the tweet—for the audience—of how you came on my radar again.
So I did a tweet, it was a poll on the 4th of September that says, “If you’re a member of a marginalized group in tech”—and I tried to identify that—”underrepresented gender, person of color, person with a disability, LGBTQ.” And then I remembered that I should have put BIPOC–so Blacks, indigenous, people of color. I remember that, but I don’t think I had enough characters; that’s why I didn’t do it. And then I said, “Have you personally experienced an increase in safety and community using Stack Overflow?”
And so it’s a 24-hour poll, it had 120 retweets, several comments, and you can call it scientific or you can call it whatever you want to, but based on the 309 people who responded, 24% said yes and 76% said no. Which means 70% of those people in those marginalized groups are underrepresented genders, Blacks, indigenous, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQA+ have not had a personal experience of increased—I’m very specific about how I worded that—of increased safety and community using Stack Overflow.
And I can say that several of the people who did comment, they have so abandoned it [Stack Overflow] that they couldn’t say because they don’t use it. They just have totally abandoned it. And you came up–your platform came up–on the radar, because it was suggested twice as an alternative. And I… OK, so people think I’m just vengeful. Someone recently called me a racist, hateful ass. [Laughs] People think I do this because it’s something I really enjoy doing it. It’s not. I do this because I recognize when I came into this field that there was a sorely lacking perspective that wasn’t about development. There’s sorely lacking perspective about not just development, but just one perspective of development, which is usually white males aged 18 to 34, which is the ground for Stack Overflow. That’s who their main–people who actively engaged on that.
And so as I stepped back–because I started in this space talking about mentoring–but I saw so many things that were connected to it. And then I started getting into the Stack Overflow space and reading the results of their surveys. And in 2018, I was just over it, and in 2019, I commended them for doing a better job of their survey, the questions they asked, and then explaining the people who were left out. Instead of just making it as if this is the totality of the global developer community, how they’ve done it before or how they position it before, they were very clear about this is specifically to the people who are on our platform.
And I’m sayin’ this because–and it goes back to people who think I do this just for funsies–I’m saying this because people are being harmed. And it may not be physical harm that they are experiencing on these platforms; it is psychological and emotional harm, and it’s having a direct impact on the people who are needed in this field to help us create products and services that not only scale and, as you said, growth, but minimize harm to our clients and customers who look like those very people who need to be in this in this community.
And so I just woke up—so there was really no method behind the madness—I just woke up, and was like, “Hmm, I haven’t heard anything specifically from Stack Overflow since the survey came out, since I did an interview with the data scientists who created the survey, since I did an interview with the community manager, and I know that they’re looking for a CEO.” So I was like, “Oh, this is just great time to tap in, because what I really want the Stack Overflow folx to understand is that if you are looking for a CEO, the way you–and I know Stack Overflow is a VC-backed company–if you’re looking for a CEO the way most people in tech are lookin’ for a CEO, you’re already failing. You’re already a massive fail.”
And I wanted to provide at least some data that shows that those very communities that you say you’re reaching out to still overwhelmingly do not feel safe. And so I was very encouraged because again, you were off my radar, you’ve been off my radar for a few years, and I think you were–I don’t know if you were starting the project then or it was just…
Ben: Yeah, it was much earlier in those days.
Kim: Yeah, exactly! I don’t remember it being that rooted ’cause I’m thinkin’, “How the hell did I miss this?” And so to see that two people that I really care about, and actually trust their opinions, provided your link. And then I was goin’ through it, and I’m like, “Why does this sound familiar?” And then I go to the leaders, and I’m like, “Ohhhh! That’s why.” [Laughs] And so this is not about bashing Stack Overflow. Stack Overflow is what it is. I want to provide a platform, and to amplify projects that are making valiant, real effort to being inclusive. Because so many times I come across, “Yeah, it’s a problem. We don’t know how to fix it.”
So I want you—the things that I pulled out from your introduction that you said, like the “follow through a little bit.” I’m really sick of white men in tech following through just a little bit. I really am so sick of them not leveraging all the power and influence they have for anything other than if it gets them something. And the fear–I don’t know, maybe you could speak to this, or maybe somebody else who’s actually feeling the fear–I hear so often about this fear that white dudes have. And then in the next breath I hear, “But I did this thing that I thought was gonna–and I know that if someone of color or someone from LBGTQ community had done this, they wouldn’t have gotten past–but I didn’t even get a slap on the wrist.” I’m like, “OK, great. Then do the next thing. Keep doin’ that!” Because you don’t realize how much latitude you have.
And I like this thing that [you said], if you’re not causin’ a scene, and about that not havin’ a personal identity. And we see that, and you mentioned that in organizations, that we see people are too afraid to stand up for what they believe are the things that they should be doing right. And then, I want you to talk about specifically, I need you to be honest about some specifics about the challenges you’re facing as you’re attempting to build an inclusive platform, because for some reason, there’s this idea that, “Oh, I tried it this one time, it did not work, I give up.” So I gave you a lot, but go ahead.
Ben: I’d love to get into all of that, and remind me if I forget anything. But I’ll start with one thing, just to start with some Stack Overflow stuff, and then we can move on a little bit. One thing we’re doing is tryin’ to maintain a relationship with them and help Stack Overflow get better. In a few ways. I think one big way is by putting pressure on them. I think they feel it when they are told they’re not doing a good job and people compare it to us. I think that’s more powerful than just the abstract idea of–I think that’s been felt more by them, where they don’t feel like it’s impossible. They feel like they actually need to get better because other folx are taking this challenge on a lot more.
Kim: I want to stop you right there because I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s something I forgot to say. And that’s the thing. I’m looking for… the fact that they have–and it’s not just them. It’s about having competitors in a business market, and that speaks volumes. Exactly. The abstract is like, “Oh, that’s great. We don’t know how to do it.” But as soon as there’s somebody nipping at your heels, you all of a sudden can figure out ways to make things happen. So glad you brought that point up.
Ben: Yeah, and we’re competitors in a way in that if they don’t get better, we’re going to keep bringing in more and more new developers, more folx from around the world who don’t feel safe. If they don’t get better, they could possibly just fade away. But then also, we feel like there’s a lot of stuff–we don’t have the exact same product as Stack Overflow. It’s a different concept. So we feel like if we can help them, it brings more people into tech and helps them keep around. So we feel like we have a really good reason to be collaborative with them. They’re also based in New York.
Kim: That’s amazing, that’s amazing. [Laughs]
Ben: Yeah, I’ve met with a bunch of them. We say we’re available all the time. We have done some stuff more with them lately, and we’ll do more in the future. Just like, “Yeah, of course, we’re gonna help you do this. And if you’re saying that this is impossible because you have this existing stuff, we’re gonna be hard on you and expect better.” I think we just have a good relationship with them lately because they have some new folx running the community platform these days, different than the old ones. I think they’ve hired a CEO, but haven’t announced it yet. That’s my belief, but I might be wrong about that. They’ve been saying and trying things lately, but I won’t give them too much credit until they really change.
Kim: I’m glad you said it because it’s not that I have it out for Stack Overflow. I want them to succeed because there’s so many people who rely on the content on that. My thing is, let’s be realistic and honest about the limitations, where it’s exclusionary, and where it’s harmful, and let’s work on that.
Ben: Yeah, and I’m speaking from a perspective of someone who created a Stack Overflow account years ago and eventually stopped using it because I felt like people were jerks to me and I didn’t need that in my life. [Kim laughs] Whenever I’ve dealt with that–and I think I’ve just been like, I come from a fairly nontraditional programming background—but I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to have this concept that if I feel this way, and I can–as a white man of average height in America–I have a special power of just being able to blend in if I feel like it.
Kim: You look like a plain, old white dude to me. With a beard! [Laughs]
Ben: Yeah, yeah, I can blend it with any software group. And if I feel like I don’t really belong, it’s all in my head. Nobody is expecting me to not belong, which is a different situation. I’ve always felt like if I feel this, let me project this onto someone who can’t blend in because they’re minoritized completely, and that’s not going to change in our entire lifetimes, in general. If that’s getting better, it’s at the slowest pace possible, and there’s lots of… [Kim laughs]
So I’m in the privileged position to have, I don’t know, maybe a little bit more self-awareness. Just having faced these things, I think, gradually, shed some of my white fragility over time on just facing some of this head on. And so I try to take that perspective and feel like if I’m feeling this way because I’m just being a little sensitive, someone else who is in a position to just be excluded or felt unsafe or anything that’s a lot more real, just put that on to the situation. So that’s kind of the mechanic I do.
Kim: It’s funny that you mention that. So I had a conversation with my podcast producer today, and I had to actually write this down because it was something that I said that I was like, “Oh my god, I gotta write this down.” It was–and you just spoke to it. It said, “Discomfort has an opt out, but pain does not.” And that is the privileged individual, whether—there’s certain situations that I’m privileged in—and if I get uncomfortable, I get to opt out. Dealing with discomfort is a choice. Dealin’ with pain for most people is not a choice. You gonna deal with the pain.
And I’m glad you mentioned that, because it speaks to why it’s really rubbing me the wrong way, a lot of these conversations I’m hearin’ recently about empathy and compassion. Because it requires someone, as you just said, to have self-awareness. That takes time. And so while we’re talking, we’re pushing empathy and compassion–and these are great things–what are the people who are in these marginalized communities supposed to do while we wait for all these people to gain the self-awareness and the skills to be empathetic and compassionate? Because, as you just said, it’s movin’ at the slowest pace ever. And people are usin’ that as an excuse to cause harm: “But I didn’t… I’m tryin’ to do this thing,” and it’s like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You don’t get to continue to cause harm while you develop yourself.” To other people.
Ben: Yeah, and if we’re gonna be creating this technology with such a massive capacity to cause harm–and also a capacity cause great empathy in a lot of situations–we should be taking explicit steps to not require—all of a sudden—humanity to have perfect empathy, for people to generally feel pretty safe on the platform. [Kim laughs] And at least looked after with an obvious sense that the platform cares about their needs, without it just being like a… they happen to care for their needs, maybe, if it’s just how the platform works.
I felt like our community–and I could get into the product details and stuff–but I created this thinking that the more we cared for people and made them feel safe, the better it would be, period, in every way. And it was an opportunity to grow because we could wear our values on our sleeves, demonstrate that we are taking these things seriously, and also demonstrate that we’re taking on engineering challenges that back up what we want to happen.
And that’s complicated because we don’t want to police everything everyone says, but we don’t want people to feel harmed. I think other platforms have created this false dichotomy where you can only create a positive atmosphere where people feel safe enough on the Internet if you bring the hammer down and make… or it’s just impossible to do on the open Web, and it can only happen in closed spaces with a limited amount of people.
And all of these things are important to realize that we can’t create the perfect space for everyone. It’s impossible. And if we felt like that was our mission to be perfect in every way, we would probably be lying to ourselves and then ultimately not be improving. So by genuinely caring deeply about this problem while also caring about the general usefulness of our platform, the productivity–people don’t use Stack Overflow because they just love going to Stack Overflow that much. They use it because it’s a critical part of their jobs as programmers.
Kim: It’s solvin’—they go there to solve problems.
Ben: Yeah, and community is a factor in that. The fact that it’s useful as a problem-solver for so many people, while only a subset of people feel like it’s a true community, and everyone else feels excluded, is obviously not the way to go. And community is so obviously part of how we do our jobs here. You can’t completely abstain from being part of the greater software community while still being in the industry. It just isn’t how things work.
Ben: You can’t completely abstain from being part of the greater software community while still being in the industry. It just isn’t how things work because of just unique things about how we all use the same tools. The tools get built by sort of some pseudo collaboration with a few leaders here and there. They reflect the personal intentions and biases of the people who use them. So if people safely abstain from community, things just get worse because they’re not part of the discussion. So we wanted a space where this was reflected.
I think early on in the Web, or just programming in general, I remember there’s these really fascinating debates and back and forths between the builders of the Web, like Marc Andreessen and Tim Berners-Lee. In every capacity, no one cared about being inclusive at that stage. And there were some really interesting conversations that happened, but since then, software has become so mainstream, that to exclude people from the conversation is to put them in danger, literally or figuratively in different contexts. And it just needed to evolve like crazy, and the world needed new things.
By and large, the mecca for where these things happen are Silicon Valley and Seattle and the tech hubs, and there’s a total echo chamber in those environments, no matter who you are. There’s this need to create new things, and an opportunity to do so with an inclusive mindset, and with genuine attention to the problems that people are facing, and not some vague mission about making the world better without [Kim laughs] acknowledging that…
Kim: Who gets to define what “the world’s better” looks like? What’s that mean? I’m just laughin’ because that’s like this–tech leaders have this false–[sighs] We’ve been spreading it for so long about, you know, “We’re here to save the world. We’re here to democratize this, and we’re here to do that.” And we’ve seen that these platforms actually are threatening democracy, and then it becomes, “Who gets to decide?”—just like you were talkin’ about these echo chambers in Silicon Valley—Why is the US the default for what technology does? We’re leaving so many people of the conversation, and I get that in the beginning–oh my god, I sound like something out of the Bible–in the beginning, there were the people who created the Internet, and they had not thought about inclusion and diversity. [With emphasis] But then on the third day… [Laughs]
But that makes sense. They were scientists, they were researchers, they were creating these things, they were in government, they were solving their own problems about how to communicate. And yet, once you put this out in the public space, we should have expected it to change. We should have embraced the change. And that has been totally counter to what we’ve done. We put it out there, and–this was one of the problems I had with Stack Overflow when I first started engagin’ with them, and you speak to their users who are actively using it. “Well, this is not how it was designed.” OK, that that’s great. That was years ago. This is how it’s being used. And you need to keep up with how it’s being used, because how you intended for it to work and how it’s being used doesn’t matter. There’s a risk management issue because you haven’t even thought of how it’s being used now.
Ben: Yeah. I get sort of blown away sometimes when technologists, who claim to have a mindset towards security and scalability, and really everything you need–like nobody’s gonna walk around bragging about how they build less secure platforms and stuff like this–but a lot of those same people are incredibly naive about human behavior and how chaotic…
Kim: OK, I’ma stop you. I’ma stop you. It’s not naive. It’s ignorant. Because all it takes is for you to know how to do something, and you decide to create it. There’s really no vetting in these things. And so you think of it from your perspective. Many of these individuals that I talk to don’t even think about the human–I mean, hell, we’re so tryna to move towards extrapolating out the human and everything at this point. As if the human is the bug, [laughs] is the problem. So that’s why I challenge you, because when you say naive, it gives the benefit of the doubt. It’s ignorance, because you don’t have the perspective to know that the thing that you intended could have–I could throw a ball. If that ball hits my neighbor’s window, it doesn’t matter what I intended, that was an outcome. And I have to deal with that outcome.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think ignorance is like the perfect word for almost all of this.
Kim: And when I say ignorant, I wanna be clear that I’m using the dictionary term, which means “not to know.” Yeah, I’m not calling anybody stupid. It’s just ignorant.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, I call people ignorant all the time actually, [Kim laughs] in the dictionary term. I think it sort of rubs people the wrong way. If somebody is speaking out of ignorance, there’s a lack of knowing that they’re even ignorant.
Kim: Yes! [Laughs]
Ben: Because usually, if you can acknowledge your own ignorance, you’ve got a real chance. Usually you’re blindly ignorant. There’s this quote in the opening scene of “The Big Short,” which is the movie about the US financial crisis. And it’s a Mark Twain quote, and I think it says, “It’s not the things that you don’t know that get you in trouble. It’s the things that you know for sure that just aren’t right.” [Kim laughs] So if you know for sure that you’re building this meritocracy or this democratization, or whatever, and you know for sure that you’re doin’ the right thing, but you’re actually not doin’ the right thing. You’re worse off than if you just don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing.
Kim: And we see that all the time because people dig their heels in, they double down, and they just don’t get it. And people on Twitter are like, “I cannot believe this,” but I’m like, “Why are you surprised?” Why are you surprised that they doubled down on the double down? There is nothing until they feel that pain personally that will change their minds.
Ben: Yeah, and you could argue that Uber didn’t fire Travis Kalanick until it hurt them in their pockets. He was the same person the whole time. I’m just in the middle of reading that book, which kind of tells this tale–there is a good Uber book that just came out–and everyone put up with it until all the negative PR started affecting…
Kim: Until there was pain. Exactly. And the same thing with Linux. Because a story was coming out, so then they quickly adopted a code of conduct which made that situation even worse. I don’t know the guy, but from what I hear, he was an ass the whole time he was there.
Ben: Oh, yeah, he’s famous for being an asshole and it was a problem for the whole thing. And he’s a different kind of asshole than a Travis Kalanick, in that he wasn’t necessarily a greedy asshole. It was more of a personality thing than a broader… There’s different levels to it, [different] degrees to which you might accept someone’s change depending on what type of asshole they’ve been. Should they be allowed back ever or not?
Kim: It’s so funny that you had mentioned that because this is where marginalized groups, particularly people of color, get pissed, because we’re never given that benefit of the doubt. No one’s sitting back and evaluating the level of assholery we are. No one is saying, “Oh, they just made a mistake. What’s the value of them coming back?” We’re on 24 hours a day. Any work we do represents the whole freakin’ culture, and any mistakes that we made can be fatal. I’m happy you brought that up because this is the part of the conversation I don’t wanna miss, because people continue to think that everybody’s having the same experience, and we are not. We are fundamentally not having the same experience.
Ben: When I was younger, my family was pretty poor, and we had a lot of problems and stuff. But I think it was the Eric Garner incident; just the spate of very public police brutality and things that really gave me this sense of clarity. I’m one of five kids, single parent, and I have some brothers who are always getting in trouble, getting arrested, shit like that. And I never worried for their safety in those situations. I always felt like… it didn’t even cross my mind that they would get hurt or killed by the police.
Kim: That their behavior–their criminal behavior–would cause them to be harmed.
Ben: Yeah, and all their harm was pretty self inflicted, if they were getting in trouble or something. And ultimately, everyone turned out OK because they were just treated fairly as they should by the law in those situations. They grew up, it was a pretty normal outcome. But then also I have—there’s four kids from my high school who have been shot and killed since I graduated, and they’re all Black. They’re all exactly like my brothers and sisters in that when they were younger, getting into trouble and stuff. It’s the difference in outcomes. We were all about as poor as one another, and the outcomes were just different. Very little benefit of the doubt given to the Black kids in these situations.
Kim: OK, so I’m gonna stop you because I want to talk about the elephant in the room that no one in this industry wants to freaking talk about. So you say that your brothers were fairly treated. Fair–and this is why I don’t like usin’ this term–”fair” is defined by the people in power. So what you consider being fairly treated, to my community, would not be seen as fairly treated, because it’s not evenly. It’s something we rarely see. So this is the conversation we need to have in tech. And this is why I’m so happy to be now having these conversations about being—if you’re not being actively antiracist, you’re a part of the problem. Because what white people define as fair never fits anybody but white people.
And the fact that you could see that you came from the same economics, and had gravely different outcomes, is not about the fact that your brothers and whoever were treated fairly. They were white, and they were a part of the system of white supremacy. And the Black young people weren’t. And then these Black young men… so your brothers, you have admitted, were actively engaged in criminal behavior. We don’t even have to be doin’ that to get shot and killed. This is the conversation that I need us to get real about in tech, because nothing we do is ever going to change, improve, until we can reckon with the fact that we are building tech like education, medical system, like finance, that is rooted in white supremacy. And it’s not about individuals causing harm. It is about the systems we’ve all used and been taught to rely on.
I created a video this morning because I’m doin’ the podcast, “How to Be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram Kendi. I’m doin’ it on Sunday, so I’m reading ahead and doing the podcast, and so I was thinkin’ this morning because the article came out about Black girls being kicked out of schools, and I’ve heard this time and time again–I was a teacher, and I know this–but for some reason it just hit me this morning. I created a video of me apologizing as an educator because I participated in harming Black girls, who the system of white supremacy already adultifies–they see them as adults at five years old. Our little Black, beautiful children cannot be children at five. They are considered adults and treated as much older than they are.
In my effort, and in a lot of Black educators’ efforts, to protect them or get them prepared/ready for the real world–and for me, that’s tech–we try to help them assimilate, which is a problem. Which says, “There’s something wrong with you. But I can train that out of you.” Whereas an antiracist perspective says, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you, as a beautiful child that you are. It’s the system that’s causing these things.” Until we deal with the systems–and this is why I hit so hard on Stack Overflow–I hit so hard because it’s the systems. Stack Overflow, you cannot tell me, because of the people who are on that platform, that even the code that people who don’t feel safe enough go in and copy and paste and put in their programs, is not biased. All stuff is biased, but it’s inherently biased because there’re not enough eyes looking at the code, and the answers, and solutions on there to challenge what could be harmful to marginalized individuals.
It may seem like I went on a tangent, but I need people to see the steps to this, because these things we need to stop seeing them in silos and start seeing them as the systems. We will not fix this. I don’t even say fix this. We just need to change it. Until we’re honest about the fact that white people–I mean, I created a video “White Men in Tech ain’t Shit,” and so many people got pissed off that my Periscope went down. And then when it came back up, that video was gone. You have now proven to me that I can say anything I want to say, as long as I’m not talkin’ about white men.
And the only reason I said that they weren’t shit in this video, that thankfully, I had already saved, is because of what I said before: there’s so much privilege you have and you’re not usin’ it, and it’s harming other people. Stop being scared and use your privilege. That’s what the video was about. But because of the title, and because people are so offended, that video, of all the–I have created some videos and said some shit–but the fact that I called out white men, that video was taken down. And they never explained to me, they never did anything. They took my complete Periscope down, and when it came back 48 hours later–no, it was more than 48, it was like four days later–that video was gone. That’s a problem.
Ben: The kind of content that goes on on Periscope, the fear with which you need to be acting under in order to consider that necessary for take down, in the context of what gets left up on Periscope.
Kim: Exactly! [Laughs]
Ben: I’m sure in some context, there’s certain situations where certain platforms need to take down certain material and stuff, but that seems completely out of… Periscope is incredibly liberal with what they allow onto the platform and I’m sure there’s nothing in their terms that would indicate that you can’t go on the rant you went on.
Kim: I did another video afterwards when it came back up, because they sent me an email and said I violated one of the things, and the name of that video–and they didn’t take this down–was “Fuck Periscope and Fuck Twitter.” I went through their terms of service because they told me to look at that, and I broke none of those rules. Nothing about that video broke any of their rules. It was just the fact that I challenged white men. And I said specifically “in tech.” I said “white men in tech.”
Until we can have these conversations without people fearing losing their voice, we’re not gonna change. Because if I have to monitor what I say–when there’s the elephant in the room and no one else is talking about it–if I can’t talk about that, nothing changes. So now we’re back to this whole comfort thing, and at some point it’s gonna be less about your comfort and more about your pain, because it’s coming. It’s coming.
Ben: Yeah, to circle back to the point about leaving young Black women behind, structurally, and really just everything just piles on top from the early stuff. I think that’s reflected in every stage of the programming interview, the evaluation of talent, everything. If you look at what does it take to be given the benefit of the doubt in an interview context? I think that’s a lot of the times like, “Do you fit this general mold of what I expect someone who will eventually pick this stuff up fits into?” Our idea of what a successful worker is is really just pattern matching against a construct that society created decades ago, or hundreds of years ago, or whatever, and then just gets projected forward. But the idea of who’s more likely to fit in or be capable of doing this work is a complete social construct.
Nobody has the capacity to be totally clairvoyant, even if they recognize some of these things, so nobody can be perfect here. But the ignorance towards recognizing that you are actively just trying to pattern match against your idea of what a successful computer programmer is supposed to be, in every context. And even if you hired some people of color along the way, you probably, in a lot of contexts, failed to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who was tremendous at the craft—or could have been—and was just treated as probably less capable because they had a way of speaking that was different from you, which you interpreted as worse, but it’s just kind of a different kind of language and things like that.
And it’s prevalent everywhere. The lack of powerful folx wanting to even acknowledge that is really absurd, which is kind of where the notion of democratizing and meritocracy and those things are not just not a step forward, they’re the right idea in the most ignorant way. They’re coming from the perspective of trying to do right, but not applying any actual complex thinking towards what doing right is.
Ben: …complex thinking towards what doing right is. It’s like the simplest model for what fairness… it’s so radically oversimplified for folx who claim to be able to be visionaries.
Kim: Oh god, don’t talk to me about white geniuses. [Laughs] We’re always tryin’ to provide simple solutions to complex problems. I mean, yes, in theory, meritocracy makes sense. In theory it makes sense. But in reality–and if you had some critical thinking about how that happens–when you overlay that on the challenges or the benefits or the privileges or the exclusion of different people, it’s way more complex than that.
Ben: There’s this secret training that everybody gets from wherever culture they’re from that sets them up in the world, and it totally seems like a secret. I experienced that when I moved to New York, started a professional life. Little things you’re told along the way that set you up for success, and other people aren’t told that. As I mentioned, I took a few classes here and there, but kind of taught myself to code throughout my life. But I’m pretty sure that because I looked like a plausible idea of a programmer, that fewer people in my life discouraged me from doing it.
Kim: Yes, mhm.
Ben: Not even people in tech, just like friends, family, whatever. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, Ben, seems like he could be a computer programmer.”
Kim: Or they’re saying, “I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, but yeah, he’s doing it.”
Ben: It’s pretty obvious that–and every culture has their secrets–but the one propped up by white supremacy forever has these special secrets that help you skip the job interviews, get into grad school, all these little…
Kim: And make white guys think that they are special. I think–not I think–I know that’s a paradigm shift. That is breaking a lot of people’s… how they thought… they have to now, “If I’m not special, if I have not gotten to this place because of all these special things that I could do, and it’s just because I’m a white dude in tech,” that has to fundamentally reshape how people see themselves, and I get it. What I won’t accept, though, is while you tryin’ to figure that out, other people are being harmed. [Laughs]
Ben: It’s not like this abstract problem we can work out over time. For any individual, if they’re committed to it, they can take their time, I think. I’m pretty proud that this personal project, as you mentioned when we crossed paths a while ago, at that point I’d already been working on it for a few years, but I was barely getting started. I really took my time with how I wanted to approach this. And for me, the key was giving myself the promise that I wasn’t going to stop doing it. And so I didn’t have to be in this big hurry because I actually said I’m going to give this 10 years as a project to have a positive impact.
Kim: Oh well, that’s so different from VC funding, but go ahead.
Ben: It was years before the thing really took shape. We’ve evolved, we’ve sped up. We tried to make this thing bigger. Critically, we wanted to make it into our full time business, our full time job. It’s a business, it earns revenue. We’ve since taken funding—we announced a fundraise last year—from all sorts of people. We also got funding from people who really cared about some of these same things, and then when we were approached by other VCs, we had the right pseudo-insiders to ask, “Are they the people we want?”
Kim: That’s that private language again, that’s that private… yeah.
Ben: Yeah, but we also brought in folx who agreed with us enough on the principle of things that they would… there were more people involved in the mission that would both allow us to see it through how we want to see it through, and then also who would make us feel bad if we lost our character, our sense of mission. And that was pretty critical. I think from here on out, it’s going to keep evolving. And if we’re as big as Stack Overflow someday, we’ll be a different company with our own challenges and be bigger, but I think we will have come from a really explicit origin.
Our code is all open source, which encourages us to get collaboration from all over the world, which can be very helpful in terms of recognizing your bias and getting perspective from all over the place. I say “can be” because I think that that only goes so far. If you’re not really trying to recognize your bias or trying to improve. But it gives us that many more tools to go forward and do this, and it also gives us—our global perspective is just shocking and amazing and surprising.
Kim: [Laughs] Mmm, isn’t it?
Ben: So one of our claim to fames is that we’re just a performant site all over the world, the site loads fast, no matter where you are. And that might seem like a technical issue, but it’s really an issue of inclusion because people seem to be amazed at how much faster the Internet is in America for these tech companies, because the servers are based in Utah or wherever, or Virginia, and the speed of light is not insignificant. The time it takes for a program on the Internet to travel to your phone seems kind of instant, but it’s not.
And obviously, the power of the devices all over the world is dramatically uneven, and only becoming more uneven, because as the privileged western world gets better and better smartphones, and better and better laptops and Macbooks and Windows Surfaces and stuff, the long tail of total devices becomes wider and wider and wider and wider. So things are actually getting worse–they’re getting better in terms of overall access to computers–but worse in terms of inequality in that sense.
Kim: Yeah, so like the infrastructure in other places to support these things.
Ben: Yeah, and so it’s getting better in terms of access, but worse in terms of inequality. Early on, I had the the thought that if we could architect as inclusive in terms of the global distribution of our content so that it could be fast and performance no matter where you are, that was just one way of being inclusive, but not only inclusive in terms of our values, but also inclusive in terms of our bottom line. Because the faster our website is everywhere, the faster we can reach these up and coming markets. We have a solid community on the site from major hubs like Nigeria. There’s a lot of programmers in Nigeria.
Kim: Yes, Lagos.
Ben: Yeah, and other places all over Asia and Africa and Australia.
Kim: South America.
Ben: Yeah. So early on we architected to be inclusive, in the sense, and it was kind of a reaction to one article I’d read a few years before that about how when YouTube–YouTube was workin’ to make their service faster, so more people could download it on lower broadband speeds and stuff like that–and they had this confusing bug or something, they couldn’t figure out, that the faster they made their service, the slower it actually ended up being for their average end user, which they couldn’t quite figure out for a while. But they eventually figured out that, the faster they made their service, the more people could even access it from Africa. Like, just in terms of latency.
They didn’t have any CDNs or services located anywhere near some of these places. So by just improving performance, they were finally reaching a completely neglected part of the world for them. And they just didn’t even think about entire… continents.
Kim: Yeah, I was gonna say continents. [Laughs]
Ben: Yeah. And they were shocked that these people wanted to use YouTube. It’s just like—they were already owned by Google at this point—this was well into their history as a company that sold for over a billion dollars.
Kim: So this is not the infancy. They were in adolescence at least.
Ben: Yeah. And Snapchat sort of felt the same. Snapchat explicitly was like, “We’re building our service for people with high-end phones, and that’s just the way it is.” So they just forever had no presence anywhere that didn’t have entire saturation of top Apple and Samsung phones. One of their competitors, Facebook, Instagram, they had already long ago come to the realization that they need to build inclusive technology if they’re gonna reach the world. Part of Instagram’s success, in terms of overcoming Snapchat, was that they were willing to offer differing services for people with different data needs, and really build with more people in mind. I wouldn’t credit Facebook for a lot of things, but that’s one area where they made some good choices.
Kim: What you’re talkin’ about, though, is—what I’m always talkin’ about is–inclusion is good for the bottom line. People are like, “We shouldn’t be talkin’ about ROI. It should be the right thing to do.” Screw that. This is about people build businesses to make money. People build for-profit businesses for profit, and if you are talking about global, then you need to think about a global customer that has varying needs from what you might be used to. And how do you find out about that? One of things that I don’t like is the exploitation of those markets, and none of that giving back—but that’s a whole nother conversation for a whole nother podcast—because we’re really good at that, but’s about how you hire, who you hire, how you retain people. What do you think about in your products, and like you were saying, we thought about speed very early on because of this article you wrote. Those things. What are you thinkin’ about? Inclusion and diversity is not a department that sits over in the corner. It is how you build your products and services.
Ben: Lemme bring this up right now. The percentage of our traffic from the Silicon Valley area on our site–we have a solid presence in every area these days—but by nature of Silicon Valley not actually being as important as people realize, our traffic from that area is a minute percentage of our overall traffic. I saw so many companies trying to do similar things a few years ago when I was getting into this as an idea. There was a lot of interesting things popping up in the Silicon Valley area that were just giving themselves so much more credit for having some popularity right within San Francisco. Without realizing how in the grand scheme of things that’s not that big a deal. There’s a lot of companies based in India–India has been great at software for decades—it’s a real hub in and of itself–and it’s not getting the same investment because it’s just…
Kim: It’s not the US.
Ben: Yeah, it’s not the US. It’s not pattern matching. It’s not familiar. It’s not people investing in people that they can see as their protégés.
Kim: It’s not somebody building five, ten scooter companies. It’s like solving other problems. [Laughs]
Ben: Yeah, and it’s just remarkable how easy it is for insiders in a group to become pretty close-minded without realizing it or thinking of themselves as specifically not that way. I don’t think that we–my company or our organization or anything–has special powers to be different, to totally shed biases or anything like that. But we came together, wanted to do these things for the right reason. I’d been mapping out this plan early on to make the bottom line and the right thing to do map up.
If I don’t like going on Stack Overflow, and I can project and talk to folx, to the majority of the world which does not look like me–in my circles, I might be the majority, but I’m not on a global scale–and then also talking to folx like Jess, one of my cofounders. I just asked for her help early on ’cause I met her and she was lookin’ for something to help out with; she was looking for some mentorship. But she represented someone from a very different context from me, in terms of how she got into tech, how she independently felt about all the existing services. You just pay attention and you meet people, and you just learn a lot. You continue to navigate your situation and you learn so much more. I meet people in tech who seem to go years without learning anything because they just haven’t met anybody new.
Kim: No, that’s not true. I don’t believe they haven’t met anybody; I was just about to say. They’re not open to the fact that other people are having different experiences. And so it takes the curiosity to learn about different experiences, and see value in learning about different experiences. So in our last moments, what would you like to close with?
Ben: Well, let’s see… when this is going to go live?
Kim: Uhhh, now you got me on the spot. It’s gonna be the 18th.
Ben: Of September?
Ben: Oh, cool. So if you’re listenin’ to this on the 18th, it’s my birthday. That’s one factoid. So you can wish me happy birthday on Twitter or something. But otherwise, we’re involved in Hacktoberfest, which is an open-source kind of thing with Digital Ocean this year. I feel like it’s an opportunity to, if anybody wants to poke around our code base, and learn some stuff about what we do. We’re always willing to try and help out and give people some open source experience, or if you’re just curious.
I just wanna say reach out to me on my direct messages on Twitter, or on dev.to itself; we have our own direct messages. And I just love to be helpful to anybody. I’ve offered this sort of thing on previous podcasts, just like, what can I be helpful with? And it’s been cool how I get a lot of messages for years based on the podcasts, like if people are lookin’ back on old episodes. I’ll occasionally let something slide and never get back to you, but I try to be pretty good about that. So if I can be helpful to anybody dealin’ with any issues, or just curious about anything we talked about, or anything like that, I’d love to be helpful, so you can email me too: email@example.com.
Kim: All right. Thank you for comin’ on the show.
Ben: Thanks for havin’ me.
Kim: Have a wonderful day.