“We’re gonna change the world.”
This bit of cheerleading is so overused in startup circles that it’s lost any meaning. It feels like every team, whether they’re selling hotel bookings or the next big social product, has deluded themselves into saying it aloud.
But there’s a reason it keeps being repeated.
Give me an internet and I shall move the earth
The internet is a communications medium that spans the entire planet. Billions of people use it. Because of this, the internet has dramatic influence on culture and commerce.
The rise of the internet has brought entire industries—think newspapers—to the brink of destruction. It has destroyed once-mighty businesses—think Blockbuster.
The destruction is a function of changing how information reaches people. Newspapers were once the most efficient and cost-effective means to sync people’s brains with current events.
Today, the hours necessary to print and distribute a paper lag behind the seconds necessary to receive and review a few tweets. The costs of printing are astronomical compared to moving a few bits around.
Another example: Amazon’s destruction of retail.
The retail game used to serve two purposes: purchase decisions and purchase fulfillment. You entered a store a to learn about something and if you felt good about it, you bought it.
Amazon provides, for some classes of product, a superior solution for making purchasing decisions. Thoughtful product descriptions and user reviews usually trump whatever employees can give you in the average store.
Because Amazon can address your purchasing decision in your home, it doesn’t have to build millions of retail outlets to serve a worldwide audience. While they lag behind retail in fulfillment speed, their efficiencies in not maintaining stores often allow them to make up for it in their pricing.
The internet is a powerful cudgel. Just ask Borders or Blockbuster.
Communication is only part of why this all works, though.
We had worldwide communication for a few decades. What’s different now?
We’ve also got software.
You can now build an automaton that will happily serve five customers or five million. Traditional businesses had to hire more and more people to keep pace with their success. Not so in the 21st century.
Consider the Netflix example.
They’ve built a system that heals itself when damaged. Entire chunks of Netflix infrastructure can go offline. Automation will identify the fault and compensate by re-routing to backup systems, without having to summon any human actors.
So you can reach anyone in the world. And, within certain problem domains, you can scale more cheaply than any other business in history.
If the internet is a cudgel, software enchants it with magical powers.
Everybody wants to rule the world
But why the fight for a diverse technical workforce?
You can now reach billions of people.
You can now scale a business to serve, well, all of them. If you’re clever.
What this means is that an unprecedented stack of power exists in the world.
But so far, that power is controlled by a very narrow subset of the human condition.
Google, Facebook and Twitter. Three titans of the internet. Billions of dollars, billions of users. Global impact.
Dominated almost entirely by white men.
Sometimes, when a startup says it’s going to change the world, it ends up being right. I don’t know about you, but if someone’s going to change the world, I’d like them to understand a little about my place in it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are white guys. But when only one caste has access to power and global impact, this means that the solutions built might not consider the needs of people who come from other backgrounds.
When only one group can access this prosperity, entire generations in other groups see an ever-widening gap in their income potential and social mobility.
There’s a lot of work left to perfect the human experiment. We’re only going to succeed with lots of help.
But, so far, the class of work with the largest potential for impact is the most exclusive and least diverse.
That’s a goddamn waste of potential.
And it’s why we fight.