Phillip Smith

The dark side of mission-based technology work

Dear technologist,</p>

May I have a moment of your time? If so, I would like to know if you have ever asked yourself, "What are the consequences of the advice I'm giving?" Or, let me ask, would you have the nerve to stand over the grave of a once-great social-benefit organization and say, "I did this. I am to blame." If not, I plead with you, please keep your magic and "next big thing" in the corporate sector, or -- better yet -- use some of that glib approach and bravado to start your own company. Just stay away from our social-mission sector; it's fragile enough on its own. </i>

Just after the new year, Kim Elliot sent me a link to an interview with Michael Albert about the much-delayed re-launch of the whole Z communications family of Web sites, including Znet, Zmag, etc. The interview made my heart sink. In summary, Z communications -- the 20-year-old media group with contributors like Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, John Pilger, Howard Zinn, Edward S. Herman, Eleanor Bader, and Barbara Ehrenreich -- learned the hard way that large technology projects are not easy or without significant risk.

Michael Albert, the founder of Z Communications, starts the New Site Q&A with...

There have been numerous questions from users, from many directions, about the new Z Communications Upgrade as well as our financial situation, aims, methods, etc. These questions have been more than reasonable, and patient, especially given that we are asking for people's support and given that Z is a political project and therefore responsible to a broader community and movement.

Part of the delay was that the programmers took a wrong turn the first time they addressed our spec list - opting to use a new programming approach (called Ruby on Rails), thinking it would speed things up. Unexpectedly, they failed to master Ruby and so about nine months were wasted pursuing that path. Additionally, however, software is damn hard.

The result was that we lost money - spending more than we took in - month after month while waiting for the upgrade. This depleted all our built-up assets, including needing to again mortgage our house, which we also use as offices, for extra cash. The twelve unexpected months of low revenues compared to what we would have had if the upgrade been done a year ago, constituted our major "expense," not the actual fees for the upgrade.

I have yet to work with a client who might have to mortgage their house if the project runs late, or over budget -- but I have worked with many, many organizations that have had to make a decision between investing in technology, or investing in other activities that are known to produce tangible social outcomes. And, for me, that's the important -- and painfully honest -- question that I must ask myself at the start of every project that I engage in ... that is: would this client, or their community, be better served by investing in something that is more "knowable, " and less risky. Let's face it: the cost of many non-profit Web projects could buy a fair amount of food or medicine for people in need.

Over the years, one message keeps coming back to me clear as day: social-mission organizations do not need our alms, or our often thoughtlessly given pro bono advice; they don't need to be the training ground for people looking to upgrade their skills, or the next hat that we try to pull a rabbit out of. And they definitely don't need to be the place where we learn Ruby on Rails (or any other new-new thing for that matter). More than anything else, they need our honesty.

I've said before that technology is a Trojan horse -- and, as such, it can be something incredibly positive, or incredibly negative. So, as technologists, let's be honest with all our clients -- and doubly-so for our non-profit clients -- that technology is not always easy, and most often carries some risk.

If that risk didn't carry the opportunity for reward -- more members, more donations, more impact -- our work wouldn't seem so akin to magic. But this is the reality, and we technologists -- the wizards of Web 2.0 -- should be rigorously concious of the impacts that our work can have ... both the good and the bad.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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