3 New Years Resolutions for the Tech Sector to Embrace at #CES2014: Humility, Community Service, & Respect For All

Tonight is the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”). While the floor doesn’t open until Wednesday, most of the deal action happens on Monday and Tuesday and all the insiders are flying to Vegas as I write this, if they’re not already there. (Those in the know will be decamping from Vegas for Utah or Tahoe ski resorts come Thursday, latest Friday.)

I used to go to CES when I was part of Deloitte’s strategy practice and focused on the high tech sector – this past year I transitioned to become CTO at Relay Graduate School and CES is no longer a logical conference for me to attend. The pilgrimage to Vegas, though, is very much the start of the tech year whether you attend or not. It both occurs in early January, and presages what we’ll be seeing, at least in the consumer space, during the next holiday season; CES and holiday shopping bookend the “year in tech.” And while I’d argue that SxSWi is now the more important conference – CES shows interesting devices whereas SxSW shows what interesting things can be done with devices (and what types of new businesses might come from these uses) – CES is still the “1000 pound gorilla” for tech. 

Tech had a tough year in 2013, and I don’t mean that as a critique of the devices, services, and business models that emerged. Instead, I’m referring to PyCon, Titstare, “tone-deaf” comments by CEOs, and less than inclusive views from tech leaders. Serving as her own personal bookend to 2013’s year of media-tech hubris was Justine Sacco and her “tweet her round the world”. To many, our community – by which I mean a broad definition that includes new media, tech (both HW and SW), start-ups, VCs, incubators/accelerators, etc., came across as arrogant, aloof, and boorish. 2013 was the year of the “bro-grammer.” (For those who had the opportunity at some point to go into finance, i-banking, PE, etc., but rejected it because of an industry culture they didn’t want any part of, the taste of irony in watching members of our community behave so poorly was palpably unpleasant).

I wrote about one such controversy – the comments by Greg Gopman, someone I know, last month. Robert Scoble, a well-known and well-read tech columnist, and someone I know through our common friend Chris Heuer, kindly posted on Facebook about what I had wrote, adding in some amazing personal back story. My post went mildly viral for a day or two and I’m happy that people took a few moments to read it.

It’s a new year and we have the opportunity to turn the page on 2013’s bad behavior. CES and the media attention around it provide a perfect opportunity for all of us and each of us to do just that. I wonder if we have it in us – as a tech community, both those in Vegas and those back home – to pivot to a new voice and place in our society. I believe this new voice should be one based on humility, community service, and respect for all

  • By humility, I do not mean to deny ourselves pride in what each of us have achieved individually and within our respective organizations. I will not argue that “you didn’t build that.” But you didn’t build it alone either. And wherever you are, you didn’t get there alone either. Your parents, your family, your schools, your teachers, your neighbors, your mentors, your investors, your friends, your competitors, your detractors, your suppliers, your partners, and your customers all helped you realize whatever measure of success you’ve achieved. When you are raising your 3rd toast at Tao at 1am Wednesday, maybe you could stop for a moment and express the humility to think back and remember each of the people who helped you along the way. I mean this. I really want you do this. This is not rhetorical. Even if it feels awkward and corny at first, you should consciously and out loud acknowledge the gratitude you (should) have. Better still don’t wait until you’re loaded and it’s the middle of the night – maybe over lunch or during a session turn to a colleague or, better still, someone you don’t know, and tell them your story and about the people who have provided you assistance and guidance. Ask them to do the same. Hell, just do it on the floor of the convention hall as a way to break the ice and introduce yourself to others.
  • As to community service, I mean engaging in a prolonged, continued, consistent activity to make your city or town a better place. Ideally your efforts would be aimed at improving the lives of the less fortunate, children, and/or the elderly. It would be great if whatever you did leveraged your technology related skills, but what’s more important is that you do something that makes a concrete difference in people’s lives, instead of something abstract. My pet cause is expanding programs in public schools that teach kids to code, so maybe you’ll connect with your local public school (do you know where it is?) and see how you can help (if you are in NYC, the CSNYC Meetup is a great way to get connected to volunteer opportunities). As I wrote in my essay last month – and saying this as someone who had a hand in planning one for the Sandy recovery – attending hackathons doesn’t cut it.
  • Regarding respect for all, I mean creating cultures in our organizations, companies, and communities that not only “tolerate”, but welcome all. To Robert Scoble’s post about his son and my essay last month, several people responded with concerns about “self-censorship and diversity of opinion” if the tech community gets more assertive about about self-monitoring boorish behavior and insensitive comments. Personally, this is a risk I’m willing to take. Yes, I worry too about the trend to public shaming and “witch trials” via social media before facts are known (full disclosure – I’ve participated on Twitter in these shaming exercises myself, still haven’t made up my mind just where the line is, and regret my involvement in discussions about events for which I did not have first hand experience). And frankly the hard work is not tweeting your angst about Justine Sacco or someone else you may have never met. The hard work is speaking up and out when it’s your friends and colleagues who are making racist or sexist comments; it’s about advocating for and helping those who have not always had all the same breaks we might have had. That’s where the tough road starts.

So let us use #CES2014 as a time to begin executing on our resolutions to become a better tech community in a concrete way – the first visit to the gym of the year if you will. I think these resolutions for tech are:

  • Let us embrace a spirit of humility and gratitude in all of our dealings, both personal and professional
  • Let’s commit to concrete community service in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, with a focus on improving the lives of children, the elderly, and the less fortunate
  • Let’s be vocal advocates against racism, sexism, classism, and discrimination based on sexual identity and orientation. Let’s respect all and be advocates for diversity, fostering a culture of inclusiveness, and creating opportunities for those traditionally less well represented in tech

I didn’t write this to be a nice essay to kill 15 minutes on the plane to CES. I wrote this with the hope that you – yup, you there – start to take a few of these actions during CES week. I mean it – I really hope you’ll help transform the culture of the tech community starting this week.

Enjoy Vegas.

(UPDATE: Interesting back and forth on this topic between Bryan Goldberg with his piece “Young techie, know your place!” and Jason Calacanis with his retort, “Techbrats Goldberg, Shih and Gopman do not represent the tech industry”)