Product Managers Considered Harmful

Product managers are the primary cause of ethical harm in the tech industry.

That’s the bold claim of designer Cennydd Bowles.

I think it goes deeper. I think tech investors should take a lot of that blame too.

As I’m building Waverly, investors constantly ask me how the product is improving the lives of people individually. The fact that I care about building a system whose emergent properties would help fix the fabric of society is seen as a reflection of my naive optimism. In fact I’m quite certain some investors consider this a liability in a founder.

But people care, individually, about the fabric of society:

The public has had very positive views of the industry for many years: there’s been a sort of halo effect surrounding the tech sector. But in the last few years there’s been a strong shift, a growing feeling that things are sliding downhill. A common theme behind this trend is that people are mostly concerned about technology’s effects on the fabric of society, rather than on individuals. (…)

The public clearly still finds technology useful and beneficial, but the data suggests people also feel disempowered, resigned to being exploited by their devices. It’s as if the general public loves technology despite our best efforts.

Cennydd continues on a topic that might be close to the heart of product managers but that is also adored as a divinity by most investors. Metrics:

Overquantification is a narrow, blinkered view of the world, and again one that makes ethical mistakes more likely. Ethical impacts are hard to measure: they’re all about very human and social qualities like fairness, justice, or happiness. These things don’t yield easily to numerical analysis. That means they tend to fall outside the interests of overquantified, data-driven companies.

I’m dreaming of a future in which systems can be inspected with natural language rather than metrics. Where our Tableau dashboards are replaced by a query interface that sends probing questions to the system and to the people using it. Where nuanced answers become the main driver of business decisions.

A future where the simple numerical assessment of a system sounds like an archaic way to build a scalable business.

Via Sentiers, the excellent newsletter of Patrick Tanguay.