In this episode, Maurice Cherry talks about the concept of code switching: being different people around different people. He also talks about overcoming feelings of discomfort, trust and both how it’s lost and how it can be re-established, diversity in design, and shifting your mindset from a creator to a chronicler.
01:49 – Maurice’s Superpower: Extreme Empathy
04:06 – Code Switching
13:21 – Creating and Fostering Safe Conference Environments
19:34 – Overcoming Feelings of Discomfort
22:16 – Human Decisions in Software: Why We Should Care
31:57 – Trust: How We’ve Lost It and How Should We Re-establish It?
41:24 – Establishing Trust in a Company From the Ground Up: Glitch
47:03 – Diversity in Design and Shifting Your Mindset From a Creator to a Chronicler
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John: It’s useful to think about code switching in context of my own behavior and using it as a practice for increasing empathy by trying to determine if other people are code switching in a certain situation.
Janelle: Putting myself in an outsider situation.
Jess: Storytelling and experience creating.
Astrid: Parents encouraging young creators.
Maurice: We all have more work to do and we all have privileges we are blind to.
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ASTRID: Hello, everybody and welcome to our 105th episode of Greater Than Code. My name is Astrid Countee and I’m here with my great friend, John Sawers.
JOHN: Thank you, Astrid and I’m here with Janelle Klein.
JANELLE: Thanks, John and I am here with the wonderful and awesome, Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Good morning. Thanks, Jenelle and today, we have a special guest. Maurice Cherry, serves as marketing, design and communications lead at Glitch, the friendly community where everyone can discover and create the best stuff on the web. Before Glitch, Maurice was principal and creative director at Lunch, a multidisciplinary creative studio in Atlanta, Georgia. These days, Maurice is perhaps best known for his award-winning podcast, Revision Path, which showcased these black designers, developers and digital creators from all over the world. Other projects of Maurice’s include the Black Weblog Awards, the web’s longest running about celebrating black bloggers, video bloggers and podcasters; 28 Days of the Web and The Year of Tea.
Maurice is the 2018 recipient of the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary from AIGA. He was named as one of GDUSA’s People To Watch in 2018 and was included in the 2018 edition of The Root 100 — he was #60, their annual list of the most influential African-Americans ages 25 to 40. Maurice has a bachelor’s degree in math from Morehouse College and a master’s degree in telecommunications management.
Maurice, welcome to the show.
MAURICE: Thank you so much for having me.
JESSICA: Oh, we forgot to tell you. We’re always going to ask you, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
MAURICE: My superpower, I this is probably extreme empathy and I guess the way that I’ve acquired it is by just being in a lot of different situations growing up, as well as being a professional designer and working across other different fields. It’s given me a lot of exposure to people from a bunch of different cultures, around bunch of different walks of life, so I’ve kind of always able to see issues from several different viewpoints, so I hope that helps with the work that I do in terms of storytelling and also, just making great experiences for people online.
JOHN: I would think that it would.
JESSICA: Some people who have that gift of empathy find it a burden but you do describe it as a superpower. I think that’s great. You remarked that it helps you in your work.
MAURICE: Oh, absolutely. For example, one of the projects that I’m working on right now, it’s a project at Glitch, we are a co-producing a podcast with Vox Media Podcast Network called Function and it’s hosted by Anil Dash who is the CEO of Glitch, so we were able to do even though we’re coming up with episode ideas or even when we’re thinking about guests to have or different perspectives that we want to reach through this show, I may be able to draw from a wealth of experiences to give a more nuance and diverse and inclusive type of look into these issues that maybe, other podcast may not have.
JESSICA: How did you get all those diverse experiences?
MAURICE: Just living and being a black in America. I mean, that’s the best way that I can put it. There’s a lot of times where you have to, perhaps code-switch in different environments or even just the experiences I’ve had working and dealing with clients and things like that, I’m always in different situations and so, that’s forcing me… Well, force perhaps is not the best word but it is allowing me to adapt in a number of different ways and draw from these different experiences in order to do as well as I can within that given environment.
JESSICA: What is code-switch?
MAURICE: Code-switching or code-switch, aside from being a popular podcast on NPR, the concept of code-switching is something where you are perhaps changing your behavior or language or attire for example, based on the environment that you’re in. For example, I’m from the south, from South Alabama, I talk differently when I’m at home with my family and with friends than I would be if I were giving a speech or a keynote in San Francisco or something like.
There might be more colloquialisms, I might have a more relaxed tone, etcetera. That kind of code-switching and language is probably, I think the most prevalent indicator of code-switching but it’s something that I believe we all do probably, even on subconscious levels. For example, if you were going to call from a bill collector, you might have a different tone of voice that you put on when they come on the phone that is different from when you’re talking with your friends. That’s code-switching.
JESSICA: Yeah, that’s really a good concept. In the past, I used to think that it was like integrity to not do that very often, to like just be me.
MAURICE: I think the older I’ve gotten, I do it less, mainly because it’s just tiring but there are just in some instances, though where it happens. If you’re at a more formal event, for example, you’re not going to act the same way that you do with your friends on Friday night. It’s just not the decorum of where you’re at. That’s an example. Of course, there’s also educational examples, workplace examples, etcetera, just different based on the environments. It’s very contextual.
JESSICA: I think like being sensitive to that context can be accommodating of others, in some cases. Sometimes that accommodation, you don’t have much choice if you want to stay there. In other times, it’s just nice.
MAURICE: That’s true.
JANELLE: We’re spending all this energy accommodating others. Are the others getting a benefit out of this context or they basically holding on to the same exact kind of tensions and we just keep doing this anyway?
MAURICE: I think that depends on who we mean when we talk about ‘who the others are.’ Again, it’s based on the environment.
JANELLE: What’s a specific example? You mentioned a tech conference in San Francisco and you’re doing a keynote and that has a certain feel to it. You also said that it was exhausting to do this and so, I’m wondering are these contexts setup such they are generally unhealthy? Is there a better way that we can frame things to have a context where it feels safer to just be you?
MAURICE: I think that sort of skirts into the discussion about inclusivity and how inclusive some spaces are. For example, if it is a tech conference in San Francisco, more than likely most of the attendees may be of the same socio-economic class, same ethnicity or at least, are drawing from the same set of experiences. That may be very different from what my socio-economic level is or my set of experiences. It can be exhausting if there is not a level of accommodation on both ends. Oftentimes, with code-switching, it’s sort of a one-way transaction. It’s not really something that is bi-directional in that way. That’s how it can be exhausting, particularly if you are in a position where you have to present yourself, if you’re representing your company in a big way or something like that.
JESSICA: That code-switching, yes, it’s one-way — the person with an interesting different experience code-switches to fit in with the majority or at least, not make people uncomfortable who don’t like being uncomfortable and yet, to get that experience the other way for me to put myself in a situation that I’ve never been in before and couldn’t code-switching to an environment I wanted to, writing is really good for that.
ASTRID: The interesting thing about writing, unlike a lot of other forms of media is that in order to, like when you’re reading somebody else’s writing, you actually have to start getting into the way that they think because you can’t even understand it if you’re trying to be too objective. You just really have to start talking through somebody else’s thought process, which is helpful and experiencing something that you don’t experience.
JESSICA: Yeah and trying to be like, “Can I get some of your superpower?” because you used the word ‘force’ and I agree that’s a negative connotation but it’s totally true. I’m not forced to code-switch that often.
MAURICE: I think, to piggyback off that earlier point, writing sort of helps to equalize the comprehension of what you’re trying to say, hopefully. Of course, we all know that words mean things, we can certainly infer things from language and stuff like that but it sort of strips away presentation when you’re writing and just sort of leaves you to focus on the topics that are in play.
JOHN: Yeah. I was thinking about the sort of two-sided nature of the code-switching, where on the one hand you can think of it as you’re optimizing your presentation so that you fit in with the group for whatever benefits being a non-disruptive member of that group gets you but the flip side is you have to put all this energy into figuring out what codes you need to present and switching and modifying your behavior as you’re behaving it in the group so that you fit in and they can see how. Also to some degree, feeling like maybe you’re not representing your true self in that sense. There’s like a very two-sided aspect to it.
MAURICE: Right. I think people certainly who are on different parts of the spectrum of diversity, whether that’s race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera, we’re all code-switching in one way or another throughout whatever different environments that we’re in. It can take a lot of energy just to make sure that you’re presenting yourself in a certain way or talking in a certain way where you can be understood or taken seriously and again, this is all just sort of based on that context.
JANELLE: Even when you’re just talking to one different person, that you have a certain amount of shared reality to base conversations of, with any given individual you talk to. Then there’s like a cultural context, which is almost like an average norm setting for a group of people lay around of where’s that middle ground norm, of kind of this mirror effect of fitting in. I feel like some context that we end up having, it feels like all this energy is pushing down on your soul like, “I want to come out. I want to be me. I want people to see me. I want to be able to connect with people but I go into these contexts where I have to push myself down in order to do that.” Whereas, in another case is you’re just sort of context-switching to have more of a shared language but it’s not so oppressive feeling.
I’m concerned that of all the things we have going on right now are related to a soulful loneliness, of not being seen and having so much pain around these things. One of the things that we can do as a community is to figure out how to create more safe environments, to have the discussions that we need to have as a community. I realize there’s some context-switching going on but it seems like of all things, you being able to see all these different perspectives and backgrounds and extreme empathy, you have a lot of wisdom to share about what optimizing for safety and being your true self and being able to share all your differences and find beauty in our differences that you would have wisdom about the vision of what that looks like.
MAURICE: I totally agree with that. Certainly, if we want to place this in the larger context of diversity in design or inclusion in design, really in both concepts, that’s very important to keep in mind.
JANELLE: The thing on my mind right now is that software just isn’t all that important compared to all of the human stuff that’s going on right now. We can all get upset about things in different ways or we can find some constructive ways to channel our energy toward building better. I think we all have different ideas of what better would look like, what kind of direction we want to move and trying to create those types of environments and contexts that we need.
I don’t have eyes like you do and I’m not sure what question to ask exactly but I guess, it would be what ideas do you have for how to create a tech conference environment culture that felt safe and nurturing and people were able to make real connections and not feel like you have to code-switch to an extreme mind. How do we do less of that, I guess?
MAURICE: I do want to push back on something you said earlier, we can get back to that but to talk about the conferences, one thing that I have been seen with a lot more conferences is that they are starting to include larger amounts of social elements within the regular programming. I believe sometimes what happens with conference is they follow very standard model: you have your keynotes, you’ve got your workshops, your lunch, etcetera and that time for social conversation is just sort of inherently baked into the format because there are pauses between talks, there’s a bathroom breaks, etcetera. But oftentimes, even that level of interaction can be strained because people are trying to fulfill maybe one or two basic human needs like, “I got to go pee. I got to eat. I got to step outside and take some fresh air,” etcetera and then you have conversations sort of inherently layered on top of that because of the structure of the conferences.
What I’ve been seeing some of it is actually build in large blocks of time to just be social with attendees and so, maybe that is an opening party, maybe that’s a closing party. I was at XOXO back in September and they devoted an entire half day to just meeting up with other attendees across different affinity groups that were kind of mapped out within our Slack community for the conference. I thought that was really great. It gives you a chance to see and talk to people whom you may not get a chance to see and talk to if you’re just looking across an exhibition hall or something like that and instead, you’re in an environment where you already have a shared interest and so therefore, it makes it easier to talk to them, to get to know them hopefully, etcetera. I like that sort of thing. I’ve been seeing a lot more conferences do that kind of thing.
JOHN: Yeah. The DevOpsDays Conferences have been doing open spaces for a little while now that is really interesting. It’s not exactly social but it’s a much more interactive way of looking at the topics that are being discussed at the conference. I guess, for people who don’t know what those are, it’s basically a sort of a crowd-sourced topic groups. At a given point in the conference, we’ll put up a board for people to suggest topics and then the topics will get time slots and then if you’re interested in talking about that topic, possibly with a speaker who spoke on it earlier in the conference, then you just gather that spot and you’ve got 40 minutes to an hour to just get into it in whatever format makes sense at the time. It’s a good way of being a little bit more interactive.
MAURICE: Yeah, it’s kind of slightly derivative of the camp style conferences where people will put up a topic and then whomever can speak on it, they can choose to do. I’ve been seeing conferences do that kind of thing as well. Just to spur more, I guess activity among attendees. I’ve seen that happen too.
JOHN: Yeah, like the Unconference Bootcamp kind of stuff.
ASTRID: I feel like a good example with code-switching is like, that mean a lot of people can relate to is teen movies where they show what it’s like to go to high school, angering a little group and then like some kid or oftentimes, whether the girl becomes like the pretty girl just to join the popular group and then, it’s still trying to hold on to the old friends but now, on the popular group, you have to be different people in different places and that can be really stressful.
I think some of the answer around like how do you try to empathize a little more people who go through that is to take yourself out of comfort zones. Because a lot of times, if you’re not in a majority group, you already felt uncomfortable all the time and you’re kind of forced to understand yourself and then understand this other group in how they function and how they behave and fit in. Whereas, that majority group does not have to understand you.
It can be helpful to put yourself in circumstances where you’re not like everybody else and see what it’s like to be outsider coming in and figuring out how you’re going to fit in who are you going to talk to and how you can behave, which will give you a little more perspective for those who don’t even get to choose it.
MAURICE: I agree with that. I do. I think, though what people have to get over is that fear of discomfort or just being uncomfortable in a space like that. I’ll give you an example. We’re recording this right now at the end of October. Coming up in a few weeks is AfroTech, which I think is the 2nd or 3rd annual tech conference that Blavity puts on in California.
I remember discussing that with some people a few months ago. These were not black people. I preface by saying that. I’m remember discussing it with some people before and they had never heard of the event so I was telling them about it but then they were also skeptical about attending because they said, “Well, isn’t that just for black people?” I’m like, “I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure, if you pay the ticket price, you can go.” Don’t let Afro, the name fool you. If want to go, you can go but that could be an opportunity for someone that’s not from that group can attend, then maybe learn some insights or learn from people who they’ve never heard of before, learn about events or even code-switching kind of scenarios that we discussed before — learned that those are very real things and not just something that someone typed out as a micro-aggression on Twitter.
JESSICA: Well, that’s a good one. If you go, you might not feel comfortable, which is a great thing to get used to.
MAURICE: Right because the inverse is usually true.
JANELLE: So how do you get over that feeling of discomfort? What kind of things that work for you?
MAURICE: For me, it helps to realize that my presence there is necessary even just from an optics perspective. While I may not feel comfortable being there, I think it’s important for them to see me there and to know that the reason that I’m in the room might be just same reason that they’re in the room. That could be different if it’s a student. They might go because they have an assignment or whatever but still, I think it’s important for them to be able to see, particularly in these kind of majority spaces that there are people of color that are part of this industry and that they are here to talk about things and learn about things.
I know back when I did my presentation where the black designers, back in 2015 for the first time in South by Southwest, there were so many people who would approach me and talk about they’ve worked on development team, they’ve been to conferences and they’ve been the only black person and I get it. I’ve been that person. I’m still that person, you know? But when I’m in those conference spaces and I know that I’m feeling uncomfortable. It’s an undue burden, I will clearly say that. Isn’t undue burden to feel like I have to be there to ‘represent’ but unfortunately, that’s how the structure of this industry has laid out these sorts of events. There are events where it’s different like that. I mean I went to Black in Design last year. I won’t be going to AfroTech this year but those kinds of events where the lens is invariably turned away from the majority are different kinds of events that are out there to counteract that feeling.
JESSICA: Yeah. That totally is an extra burden and it’s one you don’t have to take on because you don’t have to go, which is terrible and backwards and yet, I like how you look at it where the fact that you’re less comfortable is entwined with something extra you’re accomplishing, which is showing that there are black people at these conferences and that makes everyone else feel more comfortable.
MAURICE: Well, I hope it makes everyone else feel more comfortable. I’ve certainly been in place where that’s not been the case —
JESSICA: Well, I meant like other white people.
MAURICE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s certainly a level of shared elation when you see another one of us in the space like, “Oh, it’s not just you. It’s me.” It’s kind of like the color purple, [inaudible] going on, so yeah, absolutely.
JESSICA: I feel like we can lash out to some things that it took in an interesting direction but I want to know what do you want to talk about, about your work.
MAURICE: I do want to say and I don’t know if we are kind of able to go into this and I certainly don’t want to do —
JESSICA: Oh, yeah. We can go into it.
MAURICE: I forgot who said it earlier and maybe, it was just in the context of which it was said about how software is not that important and we have to focus on the human stuff like —
ASTRID: It was Janelle.
MAURICE: Okay. I understand that 100% but unfortunately, kind of the place that we’re at on the web now is largely because of the human decisions that have been made about software. For example, we hear about data breaches. We hear about stuff from Facebook. We hear about things about artificial intelligence, etcetera, all of that stuff that we do need to be concerned about, especially if we’re looking at how, for example we’re giving away willingly tons and tons of personal data to these services online. I guess we inherently trust them but it’s like, what is the cost of that? If there is a data breach or something like that, like I have to replace my debit card now, pretty much every four or five months because, “Oh, now it’s been leaked out somewhere and I’ve got to change all of my passwords and stuff now,” things like that. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that but I want to push back a little bit against that. We don’t need to include that part. I just —
ASTRID: No, I love that part. We’re including that part.
JANELLE: I don’t think you’re wrong. I think these are all related things and the relationships we have in the context of our organizations and it’s not talking about things that we need to talk about and switching into work mode, which is a code-switch that we do. At a business level, we’re all kind of making decisions as an organization about what’s good for the company inside and what’s good for the community outside of that, whether that’d be customers or how our software affects the world. I think we’ve got to this point in software that the conversation around ethics and raising the bar and it’s not okay to just figure out how to exploit people and edict them to your machine as a means to make money, when it has real societal effects on the world.
When I look at software companies, which is like almost every company, you can say now — it’s like a software company these days. If you look at the sort of attitude, the context of the management world versus the attitude context of the engineering world of the doing world — the builders out there — that are making all the stuff come to life, there’s like two different islands of ways of thinking about what is okay. If we’re going to make software more responsibility as organizations, then I think the engineering world is probably in the best position to stand up and need a human decision-making oriented movement around building better software but also standing out for people inside and out.
MAURICE: I don’t know if [inaudible] to that. I think the engineers are what got us in this position and that’s not to say that they lack the empathy or the ethics or etcetera to get us out of it but I don’t know if the same architects are also the ones who need to be the ones to tear it down.
ASTRID: Agreed. I was at a conference recently where I was talking to a social scientist and I was basically pushing them because many of them work in tech, that they need to make it a bigger priority to really get in the room and be on the team of who’s making the products, as opposed to allowing their role to be kind of an accessory to the end goal of getting the user to be engaged, partly because there is a lot of technology that is driving everybody’s everyday lives that was not made of thinking really holistically about what people need and want to do. It just kind of mirrors in a lot of cases our worst abilities because it’s expedient to getting people engaged.
I don’t think that engineers are always purposely like sitting back behind their computer screens, laughing at the evils they’re going to produce in the world but I do think that there has to be more inclusive teams in sense of what the skills are that are being brought to the table and what is being way that’s important when it comes to what people make and how to make them. I think part of the problem is teams like social scientists who actually know how to do some of the stuff for being way too quiet and being way too observant, instead of actually doing and learning how to be a part of the people who do.
There’s other groups as well who could probably really useful in trying to make better systems and more inclusive systems but they’re kind of waiting in line to be asked and they need to start doing more. I think there’s a lot more of engineers learning that there are other things that need to be considered but that doesn’t mean that they know how to do it. It seems like that’s where we are right now.
MAURICE: Yeah, I totally agree with that. Certainly, these are some of the things that we’re looking to discuss and break down on Function — the shameless plug — with Anil Dash, every Monday, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Those are some of the things that we’re trying to think about, not just through Function but also at Glitch because we work to build this friendly community where people can build the best app on the web: how do we ensure the health of our community, how do we ensure that the apps or the projects and things that are being created are in a very kind of holistic mindset with our values and things of that nature.
Again, I think the tech industry as a whole is sort of coming to that reckoning, that they’ve built these tools and these algorithms and they’ve gotten to be very large in the public. [inaudible] has signed over a lot of that data but really, it was sort of like almost one step removed from the government having it in a way, especially as the government is sort of asking Twitter and Facebook, etcetera to testify about data breaches and things of that nature. It’s not that far off from a Black Mirror-esque type of a future, if continues along this route, I think.
Certainly, as time is progressing, we need to have more of these conversations which will hopefully spur more change. I don’t want to sort of get into the habit of analysis paralysis where we’re so busy discussing the problem that nothing gets done but certainly, being able to talk about it with as many different types of people as possible, again having those diverse and inclusive perspectives will hopefully help to change the system as a whole.
JANELLE: It’s interesting to me listening to the things that are resonating with you where you have differing opinions. One of the things you said was the engineers are the ones building this stuff. I look at my world and I see engineers that say, “What’s the next ticket?” and the game to play is, “How many tickets can I get closed today?” The conversation about what we’re building and the impact it’s going to have on the world are often not conversations being had or if they are, there are the things people will talk about over beer but at the end of the day, a lot of people’s prowess is in the design of artifact as opposed to that holistic view.
I look at the problems in this world as a dysfunction related to the relationship of sort of the organizational whole, like this wall of disconnection between management world and engineering world and largely you’ve got management making decisions in conjunction with product deciding something to do and creating a backlog of ticket for the engineers that they just sort of like to do without a lot of thought and you’re creating this different context where engineer is to build a more holistic kind of way outside of that context. But it seems like the business machine, whatever the code-switch is associated with fitting in to the business machine, seems to be the thing that is ultimately driving a lot of this bad, scary software into the world.
JESSICA: Janelle, did you just say that engineers do this because they want to fit in?
JANELLE: That’s interesting.
MAURICE: What I think what you’re saying is that with the engineers, they see the problem… How does the saying go? If you work like a hammer, every problem looks like a nail or something like that? Something to that thing.
ASTRID: If your tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.
MAURICE: Exactly. So yeah, if the tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Perhaps, that is the mindset where engineers are approaching it where they are seeing these problems to fix is all being software problems but not necessarily considering the social impact that this technology is having on society or even putting in place any kind of guidelines, explicit or implicit, to ensure that a social responsibility is fulfilled to the work that they do.
JESSICA: And Astrid just said that engineers don’t have the tools to understand or predict the social consequences and the people who do aren’t in the fray.
MAURICE: Right. One of the things that we have done here at Glitch and this was through Anil Dash last year. He released the Developer Relations Bill of Rights and one of the articles in that bill of rights is particularly about they being explicit ethical and social guidelines to the work that you’re doing like social practices, community goals, etcetera. With the goal being that it enables effective and consistent enforcement that builds trust in the community over time, which I think right now the trust has been heavily, heavily eroded.
JESSICA: Is that trust from developers, from people, from users?
MAURICE: I would think at this point it’s from everybody. The engineers don’t necessarily trust their workplace in terms of if there’s a shift between personal ethics. The users don’t trust the service because the data has been breached or the users don’t trust the service because they don’t know what is happening to their data or how it’s being used. I can give you an example of that, a very recent one actually.
I just came back from San Francisco from speaking and one of my coworkers was mentioning, “We’re putting our profiles up on AngelList,” and for some reason, AngelList sorts the schools that you went to base on some internal popularity algorithm or whatever. Instead of you listing the order of the schools you went to like graduate, undergrad or doctorate, it may list your undergrad more heavily because it’s more well-known school, than perhaps where you got your master’s or your PhD. That was the response from the company like, “Oh, it’s not a bug. It’s a feature,” and you’re like, “Is it? Not really.”
JESSICA: They’re trying to help you work the system that exists.
MAURICE: Yeah but that’s the decision that they made for the user. That’s not something that the user can change unless they just completely taken that out.
ASTRID: Maybe this lack of trust that coming from all places is actually related to when you start out talking about, Maurice which is the lack of empathy, not even just particular technical systems but the way that we work and the way that we interact also seems to lack a lot of empathy, then we get to this place where nobody trust anyone.
MAURICE: Yeah. I definitely think that’s where we’re at right now.
JANELLE: But how do you re-establish trust?
MAURICE: That is a long and arduous process to do, I think at this point. I think people not even trust their own civic organizations, so when it comes to software, that’s probably an even heavier task to consider.
How do we build that trust? At this point because I think it’s been so eroded, there have to be drastic sweeping changes that have to be made. It’s almost, I don’t want to use the word ‘revolution’ because that sounds too loaded but it almost has to be to the point where something needs to be heavily changed in a forceful way so it can be rebuilt in the right way in order to start to establish that trust.
I love Facebook. Facebook is a sponsor of Revision Path but they’re doing horrible in the trust department. Certainly, I think as we’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg testified before congress and senate and even things about how they haven’t correctly reported the amount of data that’s been breached and things of that nature, now they come out with a peripheral called ‘Portal,’ which is like this camera that follows you around the room. Why would you trust a device from Facebook after they’ve already kind of sold your data to the highest bidder? Or it’s already been breached but they may not have told you about it in a timely fashion?
As far as how they re-establish that trust, it’s not going to be through pithy emoji commercials. That’s not how it’s going to happen. Some shit has to be like burned to the ground. I’m not saying burn Facebook to the ground. Let me be clear about that. In terms of how the trust has to be rebuilt, I think it has to take a drastic, if I want to use a code term, I guess refactoring. You just have to start over. We got to start over at this point in some way. I don’t know how that looks. I don’t know exactly what the first thing is that has to go but I feel like there’s all these little patches and things that are made to harm on existing things that are not necessarily helping move the issue in any kind of a substantial way towards positive change.
JESSICA: You have mentioned more information about if they can give you information about what they’re going to do and why they’re doing it, that helps their trust. In the example of big companies, I think Microsoft does an interesting contrast to Facebook because they used to be like the example of an anti-open source company and now, they totally turned that around.
MAURICE: How so?
JESSICA: They’ve been the biggest open source contributor in GitHub for a long time. They open sourced that the CLR, the platform for C# or the runtime and the languages of C#. They’ve [inaudible] that no one would ever have predicted and the change is really gradual but it is starting. Now, whenever anyone tells me that Microsoft is a dinosaur, I’m like, “No, you’re the dinosaur. Read up on Microsoft lately,” because they’re under new leadership and they really are doing things differently. Now, whether they can turn that around and that will work for them, I don’t know but so far so good.
MAURICE: I’ll agree with that. Certainly, time when tell with Microsoft with that thing and of course, they just recently acquired GitHub, which I think the news about that was kind of mixed at first but now that the acquisition has really went through, only time will tell to see how it’s going to change.
ASTRID: For me, the key thing to what you’re saying, Jessica is that it takes a long time, like you have to do the long road. Because even though, for instance Microsoft has become more open to open source, there are still people who freaked out when they purchased GitHub and when they were like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to be in this ecosystem,” because they still see them as tyrannical. It will take a long time and I think to build trust takes a long time and I feel like part of the problem is the trust wasn’t built in the first place before it was assumed in a lot of cases. Then all kinds of horrible things happened, especially the people’s data and then now, it’s like, “Remember, we have emojis. See, you like us, so trust us again.”
It’s not the right way to try to build that foundation, especially when a lot of these systems and some of the software is just part of your life and some people’s cases against their will. It’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of focused effort to take at that trust.
MAURICE: Yeah. If we can take it back, I think the trust that we have given these companies at first is largely a byproduct of Web 2.0. Web 1.0, of course was this very kind of passive view in your content, you wrote something, you put it up on a website, that was it. Web 2.0 brought together user-generated content, you can have social media, there’s lots more participation and usability, so I think the fact that the user was such a part of how these structures were designed and built and how features were brought on, that’s where that trust was sort of foster. Without them having to do like some big marketing campaign or anything, just the fact that they were willing to listen to users and make changes based on that is what has allowed us to kind of, again willingly give a lot of this data to these companies that are now gotten so large.
I think we’re all in the United States… Is that right? All of us that are recording? That in other countries, for example that website that we may just go to as leisure is the internet in that country. We’re talking about, maybe developing countries or third world countries, for example. I don’t know, I just got to the point where the trust that we have built up from Web 2.0 were now kind of regretting it as we see how large these companies have gotten, how the data has been used really without any of our knowledge.
JOHN: I believe in the Philippines, Facebook has a deal with all the telecoms so that their data is free. Basically, unless you’ve got tons of money, Facebook is the internet for you.
MAURICE: I think it’s like that way in some African countries as well. I know, maybe a few years ago, Facebook was really trying to lure a lot of countries in Africa with that kind of free internet promise as a way to sort of build out to the last mile, so to speak. It’s definitely, in other countries, I think it’s more important than we probably are considering here in the United States because we have the luxury of having multiple media sources to get our information from that are not government-controlled.
JOHN: Yeah and I think, also you’re in an interesting position right now because your company, Glitch is building a community and that clearly trust is going to be one of the big things that you’re trying to build with your users. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you’re doing that?
MAURICE: Yeah, sure. I know that you all have had Jenn Schiffer on the show before. She’s been a regular guest. Certainly, I know she can speak to this probably a lot better than I can because she’s been with the company longer but also, she’s really the person who is overseeing a lot of our community efforts and we are hopefully, by the time this podcast publishes, we’ll have more roles along the lines of community health and things like that, to make sure that it sort of generally fosters that feeling for people that are users of Glitch.
We have 10 principles that kind of guide everything that we do at Glitch, particularly through the tool, as well as how we run the company. Our first value of course, is that Glitch is for everyone. We want this to be a tool that is simple, it’s welcoming, it’s friendly.
We try to make sure that it’s friendly even through the colors that we use, the illustrations, the layout, the edit that we wanted to be very approachable and we want to know that you don’t have to necessarily do this alone so that community aspect is baked in, even if you need to get help on code or if you just want to pair program with a couple of friends or with your instructor or something like that. We try to make sure that it’s also very collaborative, as well as being creative. We want folks to know that learning is a fun thing to do, coding is a very creative and expressive way to do that and Glitch can be the canvas upon which you can make that masterpiece.
JOHN: I like that you put collaboration as a first principle that you start building from, rather than, “We built this one thing that works when you’re alone in your basement but now we have to overhaul it in order to make it, so that you can actually share it with someone else.”
MAURICE: Right and also, one of our values is that the users own what they create. We have absolutely no lock-in with any other projects, you can export your code and run it anywhere that you want. You’re in control of everything that you create on Glitch.
JOHN: For listeners who may not be familiar with Glitch, do you want to just talk about what you do there and why it’s awesome?
MAURICE: I’ll be glad to. As was mentioned at the top of the show, Glitch is the friendly community where you can build and discover the best stuff on the web. My role has been really changing a lot. Right now, I serve as the marketing, design & communications lead at Glitch. I kind of work between a lot of different things. I do a little bit of biz dev. I do some design work. I do some marketing and writing. I’m doing also some audio work, some video work. I kind of handle a lot of things in my particular role. That’s what makes it awesome for me, that I’m never stuck doing one thing all the time. I can pop in and do write ups on some hot apps that are on Glitch this week, which allows me to then sort of dive into community and see what people are working on.
But then also, I’m making creator videos or I’m doing voiceovers so I’m in Audition or I’m in Premiere Pro, working on building and creating some things. Or I’m talking with biz dev about who are some companies that we might want to talk to about some of the things that are on our roadmap for the future. It kind of bounces between a lot of these sorts of things.
Another thing which I’m doing, which is sort of a fairly new role is as associate producer, again bringing this back to Function. What I’m able to do now, a lot of the conversations that we’re having on the show but also in conversations that we have internally at Glitch, we now have a medium to be able to talk to other experts and users in the field and kind of hash out some of these issues in a way that others can join in on the conversation as well.
JOHN: That was really interesting because without that sharing, each company is sort of on their own to develop their best practices for ethical data handling and for community involvement and all these things that they’re talking about. Whereas if you can share it, everybody can get better because the innovation that happens in one place can spread and everyone can benefit from one company figuring out a good way of doing these things.
MAURICE: Absolutely. One of the main things that we want at Glitch is to help make tech more accessible, more inclusive, more empowering and through our values that we put into, not just the community but into the software itself, that’s a goal that we hope to accomplish.
JESSICA: What people really are working to put that incredibly valuable knowledge and know-how is the ability to develop software. We are working to spread that among people. It’s really hard to spread. Books alone won’t do it. You do videos alone won’t do it. But when you work alongside someone like Maurice is talking about, Glitch is enabling that. That’s really how you spread understanding.
MAURICE: Yeah and we’re seeing Glitch used in a number of different type of collaborative environments. We’re seeing it done in Hackathons. We’re seeing it in the classroom, both K to 12 and college. We’ve been seeing it used internally with companies with their dev teams. The fact that the tool allows that level of collaboration, again whether it’s pure programming or whether you’re a team working on say, building out specs for an API or something like that, Glitch is that medium where we can allow people to work together to achieve those goals.
JESSICA: Sweet. I’m glad you had [inaudible]. Maurice, I hear you’re on a panel the other day. How is that?
MAURICE: It was great. I was out in San Bruno, California. I was at YouTube headquarters, which was super dope. The conversation was an internal series that YouTube has called In Convo and this was about diversity and inclusion in design. It was myself, Rose Kue, who is the lead US researcher for the College Board and Dee Speed was the design director at Google. The three of us along with Elizabeth Bell, who was moderating. She were also works at Google. We all sort of talked about diversity in design education. We spoke about kind of the growth mindsets that designers should have and each of us kind of have our unique experiences that we’re able to bring to the conversation.
It was pretty good. I would say the turnout was about 50 or so people. I get it was internal so it’s just YouTube employees. Also, I don’t know if remnants of that conversation will be published in any sort of way but overall, it was a really good panel. I’m glad I was able to talk to the folks there and a lot of them walked away, I feel at least as what I’ve heard so far just from social media and from people that have written, they really got a lot out of it and they thought it was a great event to have.
ASTRID: Tell us something that you discussed or maybe that came up about diversity in design that’s not normally talked about or people may not be aware of.
MAURICE: I think the first thing is trying to breakout the conversation about diversity in design from the conversation about diversity in technology. Oftentimes, design and technology are conflated because our modern design tools from design-forward tech companies are software. That can leave out, for some reason illustrators and painters or graphic designers or whomever. It leaves them out of that conversation.
I think the two are related but they’re not the same. Just in terms of when we think about the pipeline, when we think about parental expectations, even as we think about prospects in the market. Once you graduate and you’re looking to find a job or if you haven’t graduated, the discussions are different but similar. I think making sure to break that out to know that this is different from the diversity in tech and here’s why. That’s an important thing to talk about.
For example, I mentioned parental expectations. One thing that I know I’ve noticed… I mean, I have experienced this personally but also several people who have had on the show, have said how going into design as a career was not something that was seen as a lucrative thing. It was a hobby. It was something you did on the side but you would have to get a job that actually made you some money. I don’t know if part of that is just the tired adage of the starving artist but I think it’s also maybe just a lack of information to know that design can be something you can go into and make a career out of and make a living off of and make money off of. As a part of that is maybe for parents, maybe for students as well, is kind of shifting that mindset from being a consumer to a creator, I think is important.
Something else that we discuss in the panel and this is particularly for current designers is to shift from the mindset of creator to chronicler. The web itself is a very ephemeral medium. A lot of the work that we’re done is often passed over in a redesign, maybe it’s in the Internet Archive. I don’t know, possibly but good luck trying to find some websites from 10 years ago. There hasn’t been any kind of real way to save a lot of the work that we’re doing. Yes, we can put it in a portfolio but even then, that just might only paint you as being someone who can do the work technically but what’s the process behind it.
One of the things, since I won the Steven Heller Award earlier this year, that has been in my mind is how do designers, particularly designers of the color, particularly black designers, change the mindset from just being creators to being chroniclers, to writing about your work, writing about what you’re feeling, writing about these cultural things, to help contribute to, as I called it, the overall corpus of design history. But just making sure that your words and your perspectives are out there and they can be in a Medium Blog or something. I think that’s fine. I’m certainly not issuing using technology to make this happen but I think that the writing definitely needs to happen because what we’re seeing, particularly in the design industry is that more and more of the voices that are always being put out there are not of the same people who are actually doing the work.
You’re not seeing it from women of color. You’re not seeing it from people and the LGBTQ community. You’re really not hearing a lot of international voices, a lot of brown voices. If design is something that is truly for everyone, if design is something that we all experience in one shape, form or fashion, then we all need to see or at least, hear from the perspectives of the people that are doing that design.
ASTRID: For people who are doing to design work but maybe it’s not always visual, then how can they chronicle what they’re doing?
MAURICE: I think if it’s not visual, that’s probably even easier to do. I’ll give you an example. There’s a lot of UX out there. A lot of people that are UX designers, UX developers, UX strats, whatever the term. There’s a lot of UX out there is what I’m trying to say. Writing case studies, writing up the methods that you used to do research and things of that nature are really easy ways to kind of get that information out there. Everything doesn’t necessarily have to be a visual gallery in a portfolio.
If you have a visual gallery, that’s great but why don’t you talk about your creative process behind it? How did you come to that idea? How did you decide what tools you want to use? What were the feelings that you wanted to get across for this particular design that you made, whether it’s artistic or utilitarian? What were the decisions that you came to in order to produce this end result?
ASTRID: And so if being a designer is not really about the tool that you’re using, then what is the breadth of what it means to be a designer. There are probably people who are designers and they don’t even realize that that’s what they’re doing because they don’t see themselves as somebody who is using Adobe Creative Suite.
MAURICE: I think so. I definitely think so. Part of that maybe just how they decide to define themselves but then it may also just be a lack of information. One thing that we see in this industry is that titles can change a lot. When I started almost 20 years ago, you were a web designer, a graphic designer or a webmaster. That was kind of it, unless you just did software. Now, there’s all kinds of different product designers and UX designers, etcetera and even that title can change based on where you work, whether it’s the company you’re at, whether it’s the market that you’re in.
A UX designer in California and a UX designer in Mississippi might be doing two entirely different things from day to day but they have the exact same title. I think it is important to be able to talk about that in a way where folks can see kind of the diversity that’s even within the field. Again in this point, we’re not talking about racial or ethnic or any other controversy. We’re looking, at this point just strictly at the job that you’re doing, the work that you’re doing and that can help inform more people about what it is that folks in the industry do in these different types of roles.
JOHN: I like your focus on writing and sort of chronicling your process as you create because it has a dual effect of not only producing content for other designers to consume, so that you increase the knowledge of ways to do things. But you also, as you’re pointing out, increase the visibility of the people doing this and when those people are from marginalized communities, suddenly it becomes more obvious that these are the people they are doing the work every day.
JESSICA: Yeah. This chronicle sound like a great idea because it helps people picture themselves doing it, right?
MAURICE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Actually, I can give a historical example to this. WEB Dubois who is well-known, I think in African-American history. We’ve just recently discovered, I think within the past maybe three or four years that he also was creating charts and graphs in the 1900s and this information came out so we could see, not only was WEB Dubois fighting for civil rights but also, he was like the pretty dope designer too. Just the fact that we now know that and this was well over 100 years since that has happened, it’s amazing.
JOHN: Yeah and I think also that sort of getting behind the scenes and showing that your process is also a way of making, like as you’re saying Jessica, the work more accessible and it makes it possible for someone who doesn’t do it every day to see there is a process to this. You don’t just have to be a genius and you sit down and boom, magic design arrives on the computer screen. There’s a way you work at and if there are steps that you can go through them, maybe I can learn those steps.
MAURICE: Absolutely. There’s someone who I had on the show, I think it was earlier this year. Her name is Kim Goulbourne. She calls herself a ‘chronic creator’ in New York City. What I love about the work that she does is she’ll do videos, she’ll write about the work that she doing and the roadblocks that she’s gotten into. I think it’s really important to be able to see that. Like you’ve said earlier, it’s important to see that this is what [inaudible]. It says it’s not perfect from start to finish. There are starts and stops and there’s chronicles of conscious and there’s all these sorts of things that go into the work, so it’s important to know that there are fallible moments in what could look like a perfect process, if you’re only focusing on the end result.
JESSICA: That so true. Speaking of the end result, I was wondering, we talk sometimes in [inaudible] about how it’s totally not fair for companies to what to look at your GitHub and expect you to have open source contributions because that’s exclusionary because not everybody has time to go home after work and make open source contributions. But yet as designers, you typically have a portfolio. Where do you get that? It just the same problem exists?
MAURICE: I would say yes and no only because I think as any designer knows, there’s a lot of people that are hired with weak portfolios. The portfolio helps to be able to show that you are capable of doing the work but how you lay out the portfolio, I think is important. If you just got a bunch of images like a slide show, that then really helps. Having writing along with that to explain like this was the client, this is the process that we took, maybe taking that training into a case study, turning it into a white paper, I think not only shows that you can do the work but also, you’re able to come up with the strategy and the execution and the decisions of the research behind doing the work, which I think is most important when it comes to trying to get hired somewhere. They want to see what your thinking process is. That’s why hopefully, we do interviews, so we can at least see how this person thinks and act and talk, to see not only what they presented us in their resume is good but can they back it up.
The portfolio hopefully is the way to back that up. Again, how you choose to display that is what is going to be the difference, I think between maybe getting noticed and maybe not getting noticed, between getting hired and not getting hired. I don’t think it’s exclusionary in the way that it would be for developers because it’s really up to the designers on how they decide to put their portfolio together. What is exclusionary and like I said before, some people have weak portfolios and still get hired, so it ends up being more of like a who-you-know kind of thing. But that’s your portfolio and you certainly explain this is what your work is and no one can take that part away from you.
JESSICA: So the design of your design portfolio matters?
ASTRID: Maurice, do you have any example some people who are doing the chronicling that you’re talking about really well that we can with listeners?
MAURICE: Kim Goulbourne is one person whom I mentioned. I think you can search for her on Medium. There’s where she’s been writing about on some design stuff. There’s another person who I interviewed, I think right around the same time as Kim. Her name is Ekpemi Anni. She also does a lot of writing around the work that she does.
Senongo Akpem was a designer. I think he’s currently in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He puts out a regular newsletter. I think it’s like maybe every month or so. He puts out a newsletter where he talks about his projects and what he’s working on. That’s, I think all off the top of my head who was really doing it, which I think the fact that I’m straining to think of people, considering how many folks I’ve talked to is probably telling about how more people need to do it so I can answer this question a lot easier. But definitely, check those people out and see what they’re doing.
JESSICA: Sweet. I think that makes this a good time for reflections.
JOHN: I think this code-switching discussion has been really interesting to me. The terminology is new and I find it a really useful, sort of handle for looking at that concept. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is it’s useful to think about it in context of my own behavior, sort of saying, “When am I doing this?” or, “When am I not doing this? What situations force me to do this?” or that kind of thing but I think I can take it a step further and use it as a practice for increasing empathy by trying to determine if other people are code-switching in a certain situation and I try to imagine what sort of work they’re currently doing to try and fit themselves into the current social context as a way of trying to relate to them better, maybe understand like what sort of stresses they’re under and what their context might be.
JANELLE: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about the code-switching thing too. It’s been on my mind. Probably the biggest thing when I started thinking about code-switching in general, it seemed like something at some subtle level, we do all the time. If we talk to a different person, we code-switch to the context of that person but the thing that you’re talking about of being an outsider in this alternative context, I’m a woman and typically, I’m often the only woman in a context and that doesn’t necessarily make me feel all that outsider-ish necessarily.
Whereas, like the things that you’re talking about, that level of inverse-ness and being outsider of switching to that degree, I don’t think I really experienced. The thing I’m kind of walking away with is like I should go and do something where I actually feel like an outsider in this alternative context to have an experience like that as first hand. That’s something I’m going to walkaway with.
JESSICA: Something that Maurice said really, really early struck me. He said that his superpower of empathy helps him with storytelling and experience creating and experience creating is like storytelling but in the future. I love that through his work on Glitch and also, like these chronicles of how, these are all spreading the ability to other people to do that storytelling in the future.
ASTRID: I think my reflection would be on what you mentioned about designers, Maurice, not designers but the parents and how they think about, whether or not their child wants to pursue a career in design if that’s a good or bad thing based off of the safety of moving from being a consumer to being a creator. I think that there is something about that transition that seems to be relevant, not only just for design but maybe to what’s going on in a bigger sense of how our societies are functioning and also, how they’re being run. Because of some of the advances that have heard of technology, it does allow for more creation like what you were talking about one point, Jessica that we do have this ability to create things that we want and this kind of transition from going just being a consumer and just taking in things, versus really starting to think about creating things, it may be a really good way to approach building our empathy and thinking more consciously about what is it that we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
MAURICE: I think the reflection that I can takeaway is that, mainly we all have more work to do and that, we all probably have privileges that we’re blind to, that allow us to maybe empathize and even help other people. The example that I’m thinking of particularly is speaking at YouTube. I thought it was great that they allowed me there. I mentioned this when I was on the panel because there were people that were there were like, “I don’t know how I can get out there and work in my community,” and I’m like, “You work at YouTube. Don’t you think of you go out, just tell someone, ‘Hey, I work at YouTube,’ that they’re not going to have a ton of questions for you? And that you may be able to help them out in some way?”
I don’t know if it’s just that insularity of being in that ecosystem where maybe, it doesn’t mean anything in that environment in general but it means a lot in most other places whether do you think it does or not. It’s kind of like the trust symbol or something… I don’t know, that your work is this good, that you work for one of these websites that is as well-known as YouTube and clearly, you have something to say.
I think depending on where we’re at in life or we’re in our career, etcetera, there’s a lot that we can bring to the table to help people out that we may not be aware of and sometimes, that takes a little bit of introspection to kind of figure out what those things are. So yeah, just look inward for the answer. This is where you can put like a finger symbol in or something like that and post that on —
JESSICA: Thank you.
JOHN: All right. Great.
JESSICA: Yeah, John, you do the outro because you did the intro.
JOHN: I didn’t do the —
ASTRID: I did the intro.
JOHN: I don’t mind doing it. You want to do it, Astrid?
ASTRID: Go ahead, John.
ASTRID: We can do it together.
JOHN: Okay, we can do it together. That’s much fun.
ASTRID: Okay, so I’ll say a line and then we’ll see if you can keep up. Thank you everybody for listening to this episode of Greater Than Code… (Come on, John.)
JOHN: Oh, I thought it was the two of you, not the two of us. Thank God for editing. If you would like to continue the conversation from this episode, you can join us in our private Slack group.
ASTRID: The way you can join our Slack group is by giving to us on Patreon at any amount.
JOHN: And you can find the donate button at GreaterThanCode.com/Patreon or… No, Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode.
ASTRID: We’re doing great. We’re doing great… So that you can continue to hear conversations just like this and our laughs.