Cynicism is the mind-killer
A new north star for Good Tech Things
It’s easy and kind of fun to get cynical about the tech industry, particularly after you’ve worked in it for a few years. Once you’ve had a clueless boss or two, endured a cruel round of layoffs, watched yet another hype cycle come and go — it’s hard to get too excited about anything.
Part of the reason I left Google was that I could feel that cynicism creeping up on me like kudzu. That’s not a knock on Google, it’s just the danger of life in big tech. You can cocoon yourself up all warm and safe like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, while a steady drip of vesting stock options eats into your ambition and sense of agency, breaking down your decision-making faculties into mush. What nobody tells you about submitting to the big tech cocoon is that there is no guarantee you will turn into a butterfly. You can just dissolve, a dangling sack of goop, until some disruptive event like a re-org or a layoff breaks the pod open and your quivering remains schlorp out onto the ground, wet and useless.
There, see, I’m doing it again! I’m being cynical! And I don’t want to be.
There are lots of voices out there, more coherent than mine, dissecting all that’s wrong with tech. Many of them are doing important work and I’m glad they exist. Personally I find that when I give into snark and cynicism, it just drags me down too. I think a lot about these words by the late author Frederick Buechner (emphasis mine):
To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
Frank Herbert got it wrong in Dune: cynicism, not fear, is the true mind-killer. At least fear can motivate you to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, you might still learn something from it. Cynicism is the anti-motivator. It says hope is a lie and trying is useless. It says good is not worth looking for.
I’d like to think I maintain a healthy skepticism about the tech industry’s flaws, but I’ve decided that what I want to do with this newsletter, and with my other public-facing work, is to focus on celebrating the good things about tech. The things we love, that drew us to this field in the first place.
And there is plenty to love. Starting with the people. Not so much the VCs and influencers, just the regular software engineers and IT people. If you’ve only ever been in tech, you might not appreciate just how atypically wholesome these people can be.
I love the honesty of software engineers. I love their preference for substance over style and their respect for intelligence and skill over wealth and social status.
I love their weird, subversive creativity. I love the way software developers take joy in impenetrable jokes and absurd hobby projects. I love that “side projects” are even a thing in this field. I don’t think, say, patent attorneys have side projects where they dispute patents for fun. I love that so many developers are legitimately passionate about playing with computers.
I love that senior engineers you meet in tech (while, granted, not nearly as diverse as they could be) come from an incredible array of backgrounds; at most places they’re not a bunch of Ivy League-educated snobs, they’re former service workers and circus acrobats and Army veterans who share in common that they just really like knowing how things work. I love that tech is still a field where you can break in without a college degree and build a successful career, doing work that really matters.
I’m not some “techno-optimist” in the VC growth-for-growth’s-sake mode; I don’t believe that building something is necessarily good just because it makes the world a different place. I believe that building good things is good. I want to celebrate good tech things. And that is what I am going to do.
Starting next week, you’ll see this newsletter change a little bit. I’ll still be drawing cartoons and providing industry commentary, but I’m going to focus on finding and uplifting projects, people, and technologies that I think are genuinely amazing and inspiring. The things that would have made 19-year-old me who had never done a 360-degree peer review or heard of the Gartner hype cycle say “WOW, that is epic.”
Why is this a Good Tech Thing? It’s open-source; it’s a win for the environment; it makes serverless apps faster for users and cheaper for you.
How could it be even better? I would love to see AWS host this as an officially-supported default runtime.
Who can I thank for this? AWS Community Builder Maxime David is among the contributors!
Shining light on the good helps it to grow. That, not cynicism, is what I want to focus on. I hope you’ll join me.
If you have spotted (or released) a Good Tech Thing in the wild, please let me know.