Given the state of the world these days, and especially with the state of our current leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and personal accountability. I’d like to share those thoughts.
I consider myself to be a fairly successful individual. I am good at what I do and I am paid well for it. I did this without college and was largely self-taught, at least in a formal sense. Most of what I know in terms of technology I gained through experimentation, reading and learning from those around me. I’m successful because I’m motivated and I work hard.
But that’s only part of the story. I was also very lucky.
Out of high school I was accepted to the computer science program of a local university. I ended up not attending for financial reasons, instead getting a job in the music department of a local retailer. I was good at my job. I worked hard and managers tended to like me. I made good friends there and the job taught me the value of working hard and helping others.
I worked there until 1997, when the the whole chain went out of business. Without that event, there’s a good chance I would have stayed there much longer. Perhaps I would eventually have become a manager there, or work my way up the corporate chain. It could have been a good job, but it wasn’t what I wanted for myself.
Later that year I took my first technical support role at a computer providing outsourced telephone helpdesk support. They provided a lot of training, and I did well. Before too long I was a top team member in terms of issues handled and issues resolved. Within a year I joined their Mentor in Training program and helped other team members succeed.
One weekend a co-worker asked what I was even doing there. He told me that I was wasting my time at that point and should move on to bigger and better things. We hadn’t worked together for very long, so I don’t recall his name anymore but I wish he did because he changed my life.
After a relatively short period of time searching, I joined a local tech startup as a contractor at roughly twice the rate that I was making at my first tech job. I stepped into a team which had just been formed and really had no processes or tools and worked with my team members to really build up the group. It was a time of rapid learning. Before too long I was a Lead Engineer and then Senior Engineer.
We grew fast, from 40 employees when I started to over one thousand a year or two later. Then came the bubble burst in 2001 which killed off a lot of our customers and forced a layoff that eliminated a large set of great people. I survived and stayed on, changing rolls several times. I was able to spend time in Network Operations, Information Security, IT, Professional Services, Software Testing and then finally our OS team. I did well in most of them and was paid well for my service.
A good part of this was due to intelligence and hard work, but not all of it. If I had gone to college like I had intended, my life could have been very different. I would have had far less work experience when the bubble burst. If the store chain had survived I could still be there or perhaps I would have gone into computers at a later time, missing out on the fast growth of the tech sector in the 90s. If I hadn’t worked the weekend shift at my tech job, I might not have been convinced to look around. I could have been included in the layoffs at my company like a number of my friends were.
In addition to luck, I had privileges not available to some of my peers.
I grew up in a house where we had access to a computer in the late 1980s. This was uncommon. And I was given the ability to use it quite a bit, and even break things on occasion. I learned the most when I’m forced to recover from my own mistakes.
I grew up in a town which decided to hire a great Computer Science teacher while I was in high school. I was exposed to computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) by an uncle who ran one from our house, and learned a lot accessing them and eventually setting up one myself.
The town was also in the greater Boston area which had the tech sector of the 128 belt and then the startups of Cambridge.
I am also white. While this shouldn’t matter, in reality it does. As far as I’m aware, no one went out of their way to help me due to my race, but I’m certain I had an advantage due to unintentional bias at a minimum. I was never assumed to be a hoodlum as a teenager or a terrorist in my 20s after 9/11. Sometimes privilege isn’t about what people do for you, but rather what they don’t do to you.
I understand that I got ahead with a combination of skill, hard work, luck and privilege, which makes it difficult to hold it against others simply because they missed out on one or more of these. People getting their start in a tough economy. People who have had their jobs outsourced or automated away. People who were born with less intelligence, potentially capping how far they can get ahead. People being discriminated against.
None of us succeed or fail in a vacuum. I built on what others provided. I learned what others taught. I rode on the coattails of a growing business. And I took full advantage of the benefits that were awarded to me.
I can even understand people who “don’t work hard enough” according to some. I work hard, but I also love what I do. If I was stuck working one or more dead-end jobs in order to make ends meet will struggle to work hard. The work may not be interesting. They may be overtired from working multiple jobs. They may have to take abuse from an uncaring public or management. That type of environment is demotivating, even depressing. You cannot be expected to work two jobs to pay the bills, and then be able to work even more to try to get ahead.
Instead of talking about “lazy millennials”, or making assumptions about various ethnic groups, we should instead strive to give them the opportunities that they would otherwise be missing. Cutting fundings for schools hurts everyone. How can we as a country expect to succeed if we work on increasing the percentage of people in the country who are uneducated?
We work to automate or outsource our work to countries where labor is cheaper. I don’t expect us to stop progress (and don’t want us to), but it is cruel to take these actions and then demonize the people impacted. How many times have you heard people talk about Wal*Mart and McDonald’s employees not deserving a living income? As if it is their fault that they need to work those jobs in order to make ends meet. Perhaps they could put effort into getting a better job, except they may very well be working multiple jobs in order to just put food on the table.
Not to mention people who just don’t have the capabilities to get ahead on their own. Mental illness, lower intelligence, and physical handicap are just some of the reasons why someone may not have any options beyond what many consider to be entry-level work. Should they suffer for that?
This is a problem worth solving. Finland for example is starting to provide a basic income to some of their people. The idea is that if people don’t have to struggle to live, they will have the opportunity to explore options that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them. Perhaps they want to be a musician, or an artist. Or they want to get into the world of computer programming, but just don’t have the time to devote to learning it.
Some are concerned that this will just make people lazy. I suspect they may very well be right for a subset of the people. But is that really so bad? In a world where the total number of jobs is not increasing at the rate that the working age population is, wouldn’t you rather just deal with motivated employees? And do we really want to punish everyone else in order to avoid letting them “get away” with not working?
Let’s work together to create a future where automation doesn’t lead to even more massive income disparity. Where companies like Wal*Mart don’t make 120 Billion dollars while their employees starve on food stamps. Or run “food drives” so their employees can feed each other. Or companies like Uber leverage the under employed masses to co-opt the profits of Taxi companies while simultaneously working on self-driving cars in preparation for putting those masses out of business as well.
The right of the few to get rich does not trump the rights of others to survive.