But what about the rest of the world outside of our bubble?
Every morning while on the subway, I skim the same handful of daily roundups of tech industry news. Invariably, I read about new apps being launched, companies getting new rounds of funding, and all types of transformative (dare I say “disruptive”?) technologies being built and delivered by innovative companies based here in Silicon Valley.
As the CEO of a tech company, reading this is incredibly energizing and exciting, but at the same time, it often leaves me frustrated. Despite all of this amazing innovation, it seems to me that tech companies mostly make technology for tech people.
Just as well-to-do city dwellers tend to design apps that fix the problems of other well-to-do city dwellers, the executives, product managers and engineers who sit at a computer all day tend to design business software that fixes the problems of other people who are just like them. It’s much easier to come up with ideas on how to make our own lives at work better, faster and simpler when we have first-hand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities.
But what about the rest of the world outside of our bubble? Some 80 percent of the adult working population in the U.S. don’t use a computer on a regular basis at work, if at all. Many don’t have even a company email address, and the only screen they view during the day is their mobile phone. Are we here in the Valley focused on making their lives at work better?
What about the hotel housekeeper, the retail store clerk, the home health-care nurse or the field service technician? These are the folks who keep our broader economy running. Today, almost all of them have mobile phones, and plenty of consumer apps to enjoy, but relatively few of them have access to technology that actually improves their lives at work and helps them be more productive and efficient in measurable ways.
What’s the problem?
Thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, enterprise technology is no longer for a small subset of white-collar computer workers, it’s mainstream. People from all different backgrounds, with a huge range of life experiences, rely on technology every day. Yet the people who build and evolve those technologies still come from a much more narrow set of backgrounds and experiences.
Anil Dash, a leading voice on diversity in tech, recently outlined a very simple example of the problems this can cause. Many “on-demand economy” workers still depend on tips, and the way that function is built into an app can make a huge impact on how it’s used. But because most workers in tech come from middle-class or higher backgrounds, many haven’t ever worked at a job where tips are an essential part of their income. To them, tips may be an afterthought, a small UX issue — but for workers, it’s their livelihood.
This echo chamber also hurts tech companies financially. There are entire industries and markets — worth billions of dollars — yearning for new technology and ripe for change, but the tech industry is either just only beginning to understand them or is unaware of the opportunity entirely. Shipping and logistics are great examples. Companies like Flexport and Convoy are just starting to tap into markets that will be worth a collective $1 trillion in five years. Same with construction and other field service industries — both are massive markets with very little incursion from Silicon Valley.
The opportunity has been there for a while, and so has demand, but it’s a safe bet that industries like shipping, construction and, yes, hotel housekeeping are all foreign industries to most people inside the tech community.
Step outside the echo chamber
My background isn’t so different from most people in the industry, but I’m very fortunate to have learned how important (and beneficial) it can be to spot my biases and blind spots.
When I was at SuccessFactors, we focused on the notion that “people drive performance,” meaning the entire employee population, not just the office workers. And at ServiceMax, we used cloud and mobile technology to deliver technology to a segment of the workforce — field service technicians — that for decades hadn’t benefited from any innovation in technology. There are almost as many field service technicians in the U.S. as there are salespeople — approximately five million — but why has CRM always been designed for white-collar sales people and desktop call center workers, and not for field service technicians? Because we in the tech industry understand the former, far better than we understand the latter.
I can’t install an HVAC system, but I can step outside of my frame of reference and look beyond my experiences, and relate to the needs of the people who can install an HVAC system. Learning about an industry we are not familiar is not easy. Building technology for people who wear steel-toed boots every day might not be as sexy as building an app that may go viral among Silicon Valley engineers, but it’s critical to the success and growth of our economy. I’ve always taken pride in making a difference for an underserved industry and group of workers.
As technology becomes even more intertwined with people’s daily lives, whether it’s at home or at work, it becomes more and more imperative that the people who build that technology demonstrate a diversity of thought and focus. The industry has grown past being a small group of dreamers. It’s our responsibility to approach problems with clear eyes, and have our brains (and our hearts) tuned toward empathy and inclusion. Once we do, we will break out of our comfortable echo chamber and open up new worlds of opportunity for ourselves — and more importantly, for the people we make things for.
Stacey Epstein is the CEO of Zinc, a San Francisco-based enterprise software company offering a full-featured mobile messaging platform that employees love, with the security and administrative features that businesses need. As CMO at ServiceMax, Epstein fueled five consecutive years of triple-digit growth; before that, she was the VP of Global Marketing Communications at SuccessFactors, and was instrumental in the company’s successful IPO in 2007 and $3.4 billion acquisition by SAP. Reach her @staceyepstein.