The tech titans walking into Trump’s office tomorrow seem woefully unprepared.
Tomorrow we will see many of the most prominent and influential business leaders in the technology world meet with president-elect Donald Trump. Given his unethical, dangerous and divisive rhetoric and incoherent policies (as Kara Swisher noted, he and his administration have attacked most major tech companies by name), it is obviously imperative for any business leader who wants to retain a modicum of moral authority to unequivocally resist Trump’s agenda.
But, of course, in fighting Trump and his extremist appointees, we cannot fight the federal government itself. We need an effective and efficient government, especially to serve the most vulnerable among us who have needs that are often only addressed by government programs. The challenge, then, is how to help government run better by embracing smart technology and sensible tech policy without simply enabling Trump’s worst tendencies.
The tech titans walking into Trump’s office tomorrow seem woefully unprepared.
Looking like fools
In just the past several days, Trump humiliated Mitt Romney by pretending to dangle the Secretary of State position in front of him, and left Al Gore to present his case for fighting climate change to Ivanka Trump, the nothing-elect. If two men who each won major party nominations for the presidency are being made to look like fools, tech CEOs are going to be made to look even worse.
There is hope, though. There are straightforward, concrete steps that any business leader can take to resist Trump’s extremism. These are suggestions oriented toward those with executive authority, including CEOs like myself, but leaders at any level can adapt some of these steps. It all starts by defending our values, and by protecting civil rights.
How do we defend our values?
- Speak up publicly against Trump’s hate. Trump’s ego-driven, insecure management style can only be managed through public statements in the press — his own campaign leadership and even his family members have publicly acknowledged this. That means an effective strategy for containing Trump must involve direct public statements challenging Trump, even though tech leaders are almost always uncomfortable with this style of public confrontation.
- State your explicit and specific rejection of Trump’s rhetoric. If your company talks about working with the Trump administration, it’s imperative that you first state that Trump has made racist, sexist, Islamophobic and divisive remarks, and the work being done does not excuse or accept these ideas. (Yes, you have to put this in the press release. Get used to it.)
- Affirm that you are working for a better, more functional government. This may sound obvious, but we are in a time when norms around governance and stewardship are rapidly being abandoned, so it becomes even more critical to restate fundamental principles.
- Restate the boundaries of acceptable behavior within your own organization. When announcing cooperation with government agencies, reiterate to your employees that behaviors like committing (and joking about) sexual assault at the workplace, promoting religious discrimination, demonizing communities on the basis of race or ethnicity and advocating political violence against political leaders are firing offenses —e ven in an era when we have a president who has done all of these things.
And what does it take to protect civil rights?
- Refuse to supply tools for oppression. We’ve already seen that many major technology companies are unwilling to even stand up for basic principles like refusing to build a religious registry for the government. This is particularly egregious given the ugly history of companies like IBM having provided technology to the Nazi regime.
- Create internal processes for evaluating the social and ethical implications of the products and services you offer. Today, most corporate discussions about empathy involve creating great user experiences, but if we make a very friendly and approachable user interface for stripping Americans of their rights, we’re complicit. “We build neutral tools and aren’t responsible for how people use them” was never true, and is no longer an acceptable excuse. If it helps, frame the PR danger of being associated with oppression as a significant business risk to help get buy-in from stakeholders like board members, investors or shareholders.
- Invest in resources and benefits for your employees. With the coming attacks on the social safety net, it will be more important than ever to ensure that fundamentals like health care are available to workers and their families, and to communicate to your people that you’ll remain steadfast in supporting them through processes like immigration which may put them at risk.
As Scott Rosenberg has said, tech CEOs are under the same obligation as local mayors across the country who have declared, in advance, that they will protect constitutional rights in the event of a Trump administration’s attempts to overreach. Business leaders must speak, loudly and clearly, against the abuses and excesses that Trump has promised. Trump’s only credential for holding office is his purported business acumen, so it isimperative that business leaders show he doesn’t have corporate support for his most threatening policies.
One glimmer of hope is that we’ve seen tech leaders to speak up on recent issues like the attempts to politicize bathroom access, with tech CEOs making effective use of economic pressure to influence policy.
But we haven’t yet seen that kind of courage in standing up to Trump. Microsoft’s chief legal officer wrote a milquetoast response to Trump’s election, despite Trump’s chief strategist attacking tech companies like Microsoft for having Asian-American CEOs. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook offered a bunch of platitudes in response to Trump’s election, even though Trump called for an explicit boycott of Apple’s products. With that kind of weak-kneed response to direct attacks, it would be an improvement to merely come out of tomorrow’s meeting looking like fools.
Learning from history
And then there’s IBM, whose current CEO, Ginni Rometty, inspired at least one of her employees to quit by writing a sycophantic letter to Trump the morning after the election that offered a cheery menu of IBM products for a Trump administration to choose from. Perhaps she had forgotten the company’s history.
No, not the darkest chapters of IBM’s history — but one of their best, the one they champion in their diversity and inclusion materials. IBM tells the story of racially integrating its facilities more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act mandated they do so. The company describes its decision simply, saying the company “chose to manage employees in line with our values and beliefs and to engage governments, communities and other corporations in our effort to change, even if our efforts were unpopular or disruptive to normal business relationships.”
Even if our efforts were unpopular or disruptive to normal business relationships. The biggest technology company in the world showed the world its values more than a half-century ago, with a courage that makes their current fecklessness look particularly embarrassing. Tech claims to be the industry that’s inventing the future. But if we want to prove ourselves worthy of the praise, wealth and acclaim that we’ve earned for doing so, then the first step means returning to our tradition of simply standing up for what’s right.
Anil Dash is CEO of Fog Creek Software, an independent New York-based company that makes Gomix and FogBugz, and where Trello and Stack Overflow were created. A prominent advocate for making tech more inclusive and humane, Dash cofounded the strategy consultancy Activate, and advises startups like Medium and nonprofits like the New York Tech Alliance and the Data & Society Research Institute. Reach him @anildash.