A farewell to tech

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By Hanna Johnson

 

OPINION When people hear that I'm bidding farewell to the tech industry — a career that appears to be gaining momentum at a salary that allows me to sustain myself in San Francisco — they invariably speculate about the reason.

The reputation of the industry is that it's not always hospitable to women, but that hasn't been my experience. I've had a number of excellent mentors, cheerleaders, and colleagues of both sexes who have supported me during the three years I've spent in tech.

No, my decision to leave tech, at least for now, is that I've become disillusioned with the lack of vision, belief, and risk-taking. While this industry is known for those very characteristics, it shouldn't be. Tech has developed tunnel-vision around the realities, challenges, and possibilities of the real world. This complacent acceptance of the status quo does a disservice to everyone, most of all its own community.

There is a deep irony embedded in the culture that guides and defines the tech industry. It prides itself on being "disruptive," but it has left the major challenges we face as a society and planet — environmental degradation and climate change, growing income disparity, education, and health care — largely untouched, in favor of "sexier" spaces like messaging, gaming, social networking, and eCommerce.

It may be the prerogative of the leaders in tech to decide what they will work to address, but when one considers the data (something tech heads claim to value above all else) — threats to the environment are growing faster and more dire than we can even wrap our minds around — it seems obvious that we must direct our attention, resources, and innovation toward solutions.

But all the tech world talks about is the latest app and how much it might sell for. The privilege woven into the tech industry has blinded us to the issues that will be insurmountable soon, if they're not already, and there is no sense of urgency around any of it.

Not all the challenges are environmental. Our city is filled with the victims of harsh, societal violence. The magnitude and severity of the suffering — people laying face down in the sidewalk, passed out over and under bushes; cardboard camps set up where they strive for some modicum of community; human feces on the sidewalks — would signal a major societal flaw in a developing country, let alone one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. Something is clearly, deeply broken.

Most of my tech mentors share my passion for having a positive impact on the world — doing meaningful work to put a dent in the massive environmental and social issues that face us. That desire is often what attracts us to one another.

But these people tell me that there will be no job that will meet every level of my need pyramid. My urge to spend my working hours addressing these issues is understandable, they tell me, but unrealistic and naive. Best to continue down the path I'm on, which will be challenging, interesting, and lucrative — if lacking in altruism.

The tech industry has a vision problem. How else do you explain the claim that there is nothing we can do to address problems that we have no choice but to solve? Why can't we entice bright, passionate people to work on these causes and reward them with opportunities that continue to inspire and sustain their life in this city?

The tech industry could dedicate some of its vast resources, brain power, and prestige to help address the major issues we face. But I'm struggling to remain in an industry that seems so clueless that these challenges even exist and are important — significantly more so than Facebook's latest billion-something-dollar acquisition.