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Interview with Anil Dash (Part 2)

Published 10/30/2019

Anil is the CEO of Glitch, an activist, writer and host of the podcast, Function. In today's episode, we sit down with Anil to talk about animating motivations, community building and career goals.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
even in Gates' case, and he's probably one of those people feel it's more into that nerds-sirotype and very analytical, but he was raised in a family that cared about philanthropy. His mother was on the board of the United Way with the guy who was in charge of the IBM PC project at IBM, and the reason he got the introduction for them to be able to sell MS-DOS to IBM for the IBM PC was a connection through his parents philanthropy. It was later that his father became the first chair of the Gates Foundation and moved to philanthropy. And that is these deep connections to very human things, right? You don't go into philanthropy at a global scale and try to end polio, and you don't build a museum to Jimmy Hendrix, you know, unless you have care about some human passions. You just heard the voice of today's guest, Anil Dash. This is part two of our discussion with Anil if you missed out on part one, I encourage you to go back and listen to that first. Of course you were listening to Developer Tea, my name is Jonathan Cutrell, my goal on the show is to help driven developers find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And as you're listening to these episodes, as you're listening to this interview, if you find something valuable, I encourage you to consider subscribing to this show. We put out three episodes of this show a week, so it's easy to fall behind or to miss an episode that might be incredibly relevant to you. A huge thank you again to Anil Dash for joining me on this show. Let's get straight into the interview with Anil Dash. Yeah, that's a good point. That leads me to a question for you specifically. What would you say is your animating motivation? I like the word that you're using there that animating. What is your animating motivation? I think for fundamentally everybody has something in their heart and their soul they want to share in the world. It gives me a quiet way. It doesn't have to be pumping your chest and shouting from rooftops. But I think they have something they want to express. Music is very important to me and that's always the lens I look at through. But it can be whatever, and the poetry can be film, it can be dance, it can be all the things that inspire people. And one, I think technology is a platform to do that. I think at its best, it helps capture and share that kind of expression. But two, I think the web is a medium for expression as much as music is, as much as writing is, as much as anything else. I think there are people that express the idea in their heart or the thought in their mind or their aspiration or hope for the world through the web just as much as they do through the writing book, just as much as they do through choreographing a dance. And that the only thing barring billions of people from expressing themselves that way, just as casually as they, when they get together in a bar, they sing along to a song together, is that we've made it too hard to just chime in on something, remix somebody's work, team up casually with somebody, maybe they're a friend, maybe they're a stranger, and build something. And so I think the underpinning for me the last several decades of my career has been that the web gave me a platform to express myself. It connected me with my closest friends, an incredible career, my wife, all the best things in my life. And then it closed up. And then people try to close the gate behind them. And the business models and the barriers started to be erected in a way that precluded other people from being able to get the benefit that I did. Because I didn't come in with any of those connections or any of that network. I was just able to find my way in. And so, you know, the animating idea behind all this for me is to open that door back up so that many, many more people can come through the path that I did and find what for them as rewarding for them as this has been for me. What do you feel is the biggest threat to that effort? What's the enemy here? What are we fighting against? I know that it might be an accidental enemy. Perhaps some, even, and this is what we were kind of chatting about before we started recording the direction of our conversation around what can I do in my software as a service business to kind of push that same effort forward. Where do we find the balance there? You know, I say a lot. They're very seldom the mustache twirling villain, you know, who's like, I'm in trying to make things worse. Yeah. I also, there are some. There are people who are trying to close this down and want technology to exist solely as a form of exploitation of people. And we have surveillance-based business models that most target the most vulnerable people and exploit them the worst. And that's, you know, we've got to reckon with that at a really deep level. We have really just built systems that are kind of unjust. I think in a lot of ways the technology is created to monetize. So there are some things that are fundamental challenges there. That being said, the majority of the challenge is just access and the intent of what the platform is enabled. Like, what are they reward? What are they incentivized? I mean, I think that's a huge, huge part of the mix. We all have a role to play. So, you know, I've definitely worked at, you know, fairly prosaic SaaS companies and I sold the accountings software for a long time and helped build it and it was like not going to be the coolest app in the block, but it was like, it's cool, right? And there's a couple things I see. You know, we do a show here at Glitch called Function that I host and it's about how tech shapes culture. And so, yeah, folks who are listening to this, you should check out Function. And one of the recent episodes we talked about how bias gets baked into software. And we've done this a couple of different ways. One, you know, was the not thinking about accessibility and having disabled people talk about how tech excludes them. That's a very, you know, straightforward, structural thing we can understand. If this is not accessible to somebody who can't see, then, you know, go back and fix your bug. But what's less obvious is how systemic cultural biases get baked into our software. And the idea that your machine learning or artificial intelligence framework is training on database on the real world and the real world actually has some flaws. So we tend to test how well does it replicate what we see, but we don't test as often do we want to replicate what we see. Right. And that's the thing I think is a lesson for all of us. Even if you're making, you know, the most, like I said, you know, least sexy backend software that is like just running some really, really functional stuff, think, take them into think about the role your tech plays in the ecosystem. It's overall, where do the data come from? Whose data are shared? Who gets to say, who gets to see the table and help them design the way it's used? What are the ways that can connect together? What are the harms we can prevent? Every single technology we deploy in the world has the potential to make some of his life better. That's why we make it. But we don't often get the chance to think big picture holistically. What is the impact? What is the effect going to be if this works? And I think that's one of the most, the biggest missed opportunity of tech. So do people that make apps, make technology, make a startup? They think they're terrified. What are these fails? And they worry about it all the time. And obviously that makes sense. They want to not go out of business. But too often they don't think what if this succeeds? What if lots of people use this? What if every company in our industry uses this? What if every user on this platform uses this? What does it look like if this works and how will the world change and will it be for the better? That question is the most important question. You know, I think a lot about how do we design first for the most vulnerable people? And if we do that and we get that right, then everything else will fall. That's a super interesting pivot point to think about. When you think about success and failure, when you think about what if this thing fails, the impact is almost entirely on me or the few people that I'm working with in a startup that goes bust. Now, many people never even heard of it. It doesn't have a global impact. The influence starts to shift as your success shifts. Right? But if you're still focused inwardly on how does this affect the people that are working on the thing, then it's very easy to miss the major ramifications it could have on the people who are on the other side of the thing, right? That's exactly what you're saying. Yeah. And it really depends on, too, the distance that the people created and the technology have for the people who are affected by it. You know, I don't think, I think a lot about the worst case scenario has happened, which is that you have this genocide of the Rohingya and Myanmar that, you know, is obviously caused by a lot of social political reasons. But a contributing factor is misinformation shared on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. And many, many thousands of people have died. And that is, yeah, she evolved the things that technology can cause. That is the one that you, you, you, you least would want to be part, party to. And I don't think anybody who works at Facebook would make the same choices if those people were in Palo Alto instead of in Myanmar. I just don't, right? Because I don't think that people at Facebook are evil. I don't think they're intending to do harm. I think they don't see the people affected as being them. Right. Yeah, it's over there. It's those people. It's not us. And I think that's, you know, some degree human nature. But you have an obligation if you're one of the richest companies in the history of the world. And you have virtual and limited resources to anticipate those kinds of errors and harms and to do everything in your ability to stop them before they happen. And fortunately, very, very few of us are playing at that scale or have that kind of impact. I'm going to run platforms that have that potential, depends on harms. But we can have smaller harms. You could be making, you know, real estate search software and replicate harms that you didn't anticipate. I think one of my first lessons in building technology at the late came from Craig New Mark, the Bill Craigslist. And this is sort of the early days of, you know, mashing up web services together in Google Maps was brand new. And we were saying, oh, you could take policing crime data and you could layer it on a map of Craigslist apartment availability and you'd be able to know if your neighborhood was safe. And it was just that I was in this roomful people and the ideas sort of popped up and Craig, you know, he didn't even pause. He didn't take a breath. He just turned it up. He's like, if you do that, people will never move into the neighborhoods they used to have a problem with crime. And they will never re-engage, they will write those neighborhoods off criminal. Like he would be able to change the story. Exactly. He just, and he knew it. It felt like a reflex. Like he just immediately was like, you can't dismiss, you know, this place because of his history. And you can't, you know, punish the people there in limit opportunity. And it was so striking because I, I, the truth is I felt ashamed because I didn't think of it. And I didn't anticipate it. And he wasn't a problem that had spent a long time thinking about it. It's not the industry that it meant. So, you know, some of this was my life. Yeah, it was. But I don't have that experience a lot. That was probably 15 years ago. And I don't have that experience a lot of people telling me immediately, no, I thought about a potential harm. And I won't do it that way because I know what the harm could be and we need to do right. And I, I too seldom hear that from other people making technology. And if you said, is a apartment listing search something that is, you know, that sense of thing, like, no, that simple, simple database look up. It's really, you know, that's not the thing. That's not the big scary thing. That's not AI. And yet, it's something that has huge social implications. Today's episode is sponsored by our friends over at Linode. With Linode, you can deploy a server in the Linode Cloud in just a few minutes. Linode offers cloud computing plans for every workload from simple web hosting to CPU intensive needs like video encoding or machine learning. Linode offers a balance of power and price for every customer. On Linode, you get SSD storage, a 40 gigabit internal network, the industry's fastest processors and best hardware. You can build pretty much anything on Linode with this setup. You can pick from any of Linode's 10 worldwide data centers with the newest data centers launching in Toronto and Mumbai. They're available now. You can pay for what you use with hourly billing across all plans and one price add-on services. Linode also has an API and a command line tool. They are a company of developers built for developers. And by the way, coming soon to Linode is object storage, Linode's Kubernetes engine and GPU processors. Linode is hiring, by the way, head over to Linode.com slash careers. Of course, if you just want to become a Linode customer, new customers get $20 worth of credit when they use the promo code Developer Tea2019. That's Developer Tea 2019. Thanks so much to Linode for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. One of the most striking things to be about hearing Craig Newmark talk about, you know, what could possibly go wrong if you combined real estate data with crime data or whatever else mapping data. Was that he thought about it and he just sort of reflexively knew about a potential harm. And it was striking to me because I had had a very, you know, superficial understanding of it and would have naively gone in and coded something potentially harmful. And it pays that, you know, it pays to have somebody that's thought about the problem in a big way and thought about the impact on actual people. Not just what's interesting to do technically. And you know, I too seldom hear that for people making other kinds of apps and technologies. I think there's two lessons to be learned in this. One is that developing that reflex is that's a skill. I mean, I would say that being able to see and so, you know, we want to be like that. But also Craig's impact on you in that moment has a cascading effect into the future. He probably didn't have any imagination that you would talk about that on a podcast in the future one day, and that it might change the way that I and thousands of other people are thinking, right? And so that moment where he's saying, no, that's not right for my service that allows people to buy and sell goods from each other. He's probably not thinking this decision is going to have a cascading effect on the industry just like when we have a chance, you know, as an engineering manager, if I sit down and talk to someone and I, you know, we talk through an ethical issue, I don't know how that's going to cascade either, right? So, so the impact that we can have on the world, of course, Craig's list is an outlier, right? But even still, we don't know who we are in the room with sometimes. We don't know what's going to happen in the future. And so being able to develop that reflex and then lead with that reflex, I think that's really important. That's an important lesson from that story in my opinion. Yeah, there's definitely that sense of, you know, you have these impacts, so the larger and the ripple out. And it's funny because we think about that all the time in tech. We talk about scaling. We talk about reach, you know, we talk about the effectiveness and impact of the technology we create. But we don't think about in terms of our own personal impact as much where it can have that same sense of like, you know, you can make a, you can write a lot of code and it gets called a million times when it has all this impact. But those decisions we make as individuals can kind of have that same resonance with lots of other people that we, you know, we didn't anticipate or expect having an impact on. And it does take practice. It takes thinking about it, it takes us challenging each other, it takes us calling each other out on our short-sightedness. But if we do it, then a lot of positive things can occur. And I think it's, you know, I think it's normal for us to imagine that our impact is limited to what we can perceive, right? It's very hard for us to imagine that we are impacting something that we'll never know about, right? We have, we make a lot of decisions. Like probably the most obvious one is, yeah, people investing in their 401Ks, right? Right. We have no idea where that money goes. Most of us. We don't take the time to understand, you know, what these small decisions we're making. And I don't want to be alarmist and tell everyone, okay, you have to know where every single product that you buy came from. Like, there is some level of economic, you know, realism that we have to practice to be able to function as humans. But on the other, on the other hand, it does make sense to think at least expanding what you imagine your impact to be. It is certainly bigger than what you can perceive. Yeah. One of the hardest things to convince people off is their own power. Yeah. Wow. That's so true. So, I think it's incredibly important for managers, for developers, for company leaders, you know, entrepreneurs to understand the impacts that they're having on their teams directly, perhaps primarily, to understand the impacts that they have on their users. But again, I come back to this kind of conflict with the way that we end up seeing the impacts on policy. And we treat those almost like an audience would rather than participants, right? And we are participants, but how can we become more aware of that? How can we see that our participation matters? You know, it's hard, right? Because we're sort of abstracted away from it. It feels very distant or remote or conceptual. And you know, my perspective on this has changed a lot. So, you know, these things, I can see you have a company right. So I have a lot of overt control in agency. And I actually try not to use it that much. Which is a weird position to be in, a very different position. But you know, when I was an individual contributor, a coder, product manager, whatever I was doing, I was often frustrated by what I didn't have control over. Right? I was like, man, if they would just let me run that part. Or why is that team doing that stupid thing? You know, like there was always that sort of frustration. And then it went to the comes from, and then typically you talk to them and they're like, oh, that's why. Well, they didn't have the resources. Or there's something standard old issue. Or there's a good reason they made that call. And a lot of times it happens with policy governments, with changing systems. As things are, you know, your superficial quick read is like, probably not anticipating all the possible issues that could come up. I think about this a lot where, what I, I'd be siege people, I live in New York City. And you know, well, if I know our city council member and our neighborhood is my neighbor, so I talked to him a little bit. But a city council rep here represents an area that has a bigger population than most of the state capitals in America do. So it doesn't, it doesn't, it sounds like a sort of like a trivial gig, but it's actually pretty substantial. And you know, what I tell people to do all the time is go to local city council meetings. You know, in New York, we have burrow meetings and we have, you know, like a lot of different layers to it because the city's so big. But in most towns, you can just go to a city council meeting and you can see everybody's city council. And if you go two times in a row, they'll know you because nobody else does that, right? But like that, it's so accessible, especially with like state senators, state representatives, local officials, even your mayor. In most towns in America, if you call up your mayor's office and you say, I'm a constituent and I would like to go sit with you for 20 minutes and talk about what I care about locally in our town. You can get a meeting pretty quickly. I bet you get a meeting in the next two weeks and you go in your lunchtime. And I say this to people all the time and they look at me like I have three heads. You know what I mean? They look at me like I am talking on science fiction. And I'm like, look, now, you know, again, these days like I run a company and we're pretty visible and I'm very fortunate to get to do that. But long before all that was true, my state representative and my state senator and my city council rep all knew who I was. And all it took was like showing up once or twice, writing one or two emails and they're like somebody is interested in these things that are, you know, matter to them. And for me, it's like, you know, buses and transportation, whatever. But it can be whatever your issue is. And if you're in tech, my gosh, they care about you. If you say I am a high tech creator, working at a fast-paced technology job, I understand how tech can work. And I wish that our whatever our city council website was better. So I could look up, you know, when the school closings happen or whatever, you know, whatever the thing is, you, like I said, you go to two meetings and you said one email and you go and you sit down with them for one 15, 30-minute session, whatever it is, you will have more power than 99% of people ever have because they'll know you and you become real. And you know, and that thing people can't conceive of, but most, you know, you're talking about a local election, local political power. Those things are decided by a couple dozen people that's the difference between winning or losing. And that's true all the way into policy. You can read the federal register where they propose laws and granted things are not very functional in the federal level right now. But, you know, you can actually read laws and you can weigh in on them and it's not, they're not rocket scientists, so I'm writing these things. And part of the reason the laws are so bad is I'm mostly reading my lobbyists. So if you have an area of policy you care about and there's been a law or proposal on it and you can call up your senator or your congressperson, whoever it is, and say, I know more than nothing about this topic. Anything more than zero, I know here. And I would like some of your time to talk about it. You will get it because so few people are asking for it. And that's something that like it's sort of like with open source, you see a bug and sometimes it'll be like, okay, pull requests, welcome. And then you're like, oh shoot, I gotta fix the bug. And you had that one working where you like, I have the skills technically where I could write the code and fix this bug or I could suck it up and say, I didn't want to put it in the time and energy to fix it. And those are your two choices. And that is true of basically the entire world. Yeah, I think we have this illusion that public officials or this also applies within tech too, right? The people that we look up to in tech that they have some access to super information that we don't. But they use Google just like we do, right? They probably check Wikipedia for facts before they go out and make speeches. And that access I think is really important. I think you make it a great point. One of the most, one of my favorite quotes from this episode is probably, it's most difficult to convince people of their own power. I think that is a groundbreaking revelation that, and I don't mean overstated, but when people recognize that they can have an impact beyond just going to the ballot box, they can have an impact beyond just filing a bug report. They can have an impact beyond just complaining to their friends at the bar, right? We have the ability to shape more than we think we can. And I think that's really, really incredibly important for people to hear. People really can change the world. They can, that's true. I know we're over time here. I typically ask guests to questions. The first question that I like to ask is, what do you wish more people would ask you about? What topic do you wish you could talk more about? Well, the cliché to answer I go with on this for people who know me well is, as Prince the musician. I'm a big music fan in general and of his working particular, not least for people who are technical, he was super, super interested in technology and really early adopter on a lot of web technologies and music production technologies. So I am all is happy to nerd out about that. And then the other topic is definitely transit, transportation and systems like that, systems that lots of people use and that work on really, really large scales to make lots of people's lives better. I'm fascinated by how that happens and how society and we come together on scale, sometimes millions of people to build systems that we use every day. I think those are like endlessly fascinating topics. Absolutely. I actually recently had a conversation at a more microcosmic level about how planes are loaded. So, how do you efficiently load a plane? Because this can be, this can affect people pretty drastically if you get it right and if you get it wrong. How quickly can you load a plane? And it turns out that there have been studies done not only on how quickly you can load a plane because that's just kind of the economic efficiency side of things, but also how do people feel once they are on the plane? And so if you load first class first, this is the interesting study. If you load first class first, then people who are in economy are grumpier. Oh yeah. Yeah. Right? Because they see the people who are classified as better than them and now they're reminded of their supposed status in the world and that can make people frustrating. It turns out that in income inequality doesn't make people happy. Right. Yeah. And it's funny because the idea of the optimization loading, which I think some of the research is basically you want a little bit of a mix so that it's not all at once, but you want to start from the outside in from the back to the front, which makes some intuitive sense. And they do almost exactly the opposite of that and it's purely because of the economic advantage. And it's really like, okay, this is being not the best design system you're ever seen. Yeah. It is interesting. It's an interesting problem. Even if you were just moving blocks that have random speeds and arrival times and they're getting, anyway, okay. So that's a good, good tainted to go on. But second question I like to ask all of my guests. If you had just 30 seconds to talk to all developers of all backgrounds and maybe even future developers, what would you tell them? What advice would you give them in that 30 seconds? Advice. That's, it's interesting because the first thing I thought would wouldn't be advice, but I would be asking them questions, right, which is what is the impact? That you want the sum total of all the code you've written in your life to have on the world. And for each commit, each line between now and the end of your life isn't getting you closer to that goal. Yeah. Wow. That's a hard question to answer for sure. I would imagine it would take them longer than 30 seconds to answer. Oh, yeah. It intimidates the hell out of me, but I think about that a lot. I think about all the work I do is like, you know, whatever it got for me to get hit by a bus tomorrow, like, whether they're working as hard as I could on the things that mattered most. And that's really clarifying. I always send a lot of stuff, falls away. A lot of fear falls away. Yeah. Wow. That's, I appreciate that question. And Neil, I appreciate your work, your time, your kind of consciousness of the world around you and the people around you. So thank you so much for spending time with me today and coming on Developer Tea. It's very kind. Thank you for having me. Thank you again for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I very much enjoyed my discussion with a Neil Dash. I was very thankful to have him on the show. Make sure you check out a Nils podcast. This is the official glitch podcast. It's called function. Thank you so much for listening. Today's episode was sponsored by Leno. Thank you to Leno for sponsoring. Head over to linno.com slash Developer Tea and use the code Developer Tea 2019 to get that $20 worth of credit as a new customer. Once again, if you haven't subscribed to the show and you thought today's episode was worth your time, then I encourage you to subscribe so that you don't miss out on future episodes that might also be worth your time. Developer tea is a part of the spec network. Head over to spec.fm to find other shows. Make Developer Tea that will help you level up in your career as a designer or a developer. Today's episode was also produced by Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.