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The Case for Empathy in Tech

I have recently received the 5th Annual Alumni Award from my university, Sciences Po. I wanted to share with you an abbreviated version of my acceptance speech, as it touches on two very important subjects for me: the role of social sciences in tech and empathy.

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Receiving this award is an exceptional honor. I am very humbled, especially that in a way I ended up at Sciences Po due to a professional orientation mistake. I originally joined the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud, quickly realized I’m not of professorial or researcher caliber, and immediately began searching for the nearest exit door. Which happened to be Sciences Po. Little did I know that Sciences Po was going to be an entrance to a whole new world rather than an emergency exit.

In addition to providing me with an unparalleled education in humanities and an international perspective on politics, I can thank Sciences Po for teaching me how to read an Excel Spreadsheet and understand, among other things, ‘How prisons function’. Trust me, those are exactly the kinds of courses you’re thankful for if and when you come to make an Alumni Award acceptance speech! In all seriousness, Sciences Po provided me with a firm foundation and a deeper understanding of society, historical processes, macro and microeconomics and so many other things — a map of the world if you will.

And that map somehow made me find my way into the tech world. I landed in tech where I have spent a good 15 years of my professional life. Building e-commerce in Russia with OZON, an online travel agency and restaurant reservation system around the world with Booking.com and OpenTable, and a real estate technology platform in the States with Compass… I am not sure this is exactly what the university meant by its mission of “educating citizens capable of transforming society.” Based on the curriculum, I should have been a high ranking official in the French government by now. Maybe there’s still time and opportunity!

I, myself, wondered for a long time whether this education would be useful in the tech world, other than having existential conversations in Parisian cafes and whether I would have been better off going to an engineering school instead.

And I came to the conclusion that’s quite the opposite. 15 years in tech has made me realize the more your company relies on tech, the more you need people with humanities and social sciences backgrounds. If more tech leaders had attended programs such as Sciences Po, I’m convinced that the industry would be in a much better place than it is today.

Now, at this point, let me say, unequivocally, that for the most part technology has had a net positive impact on society. It’s incrementally improved almost every aspect of the way we live, work and enjoy ourselves. But it has had a host of lethal side effects and unintended consequences, too — many of which we are only just beginning to fully understand.

Facebook is Exhibit A in this regard. While it’s been a uniquely powerful and even magical tool for human interaction, it’s simultaneously a platform for bullying, hate speech and weaponised misinformation. These outcomes, I passionately believe, could largely have been avoided if Facebook had been developed by people with humanities backgrounds.

So why are the humanities so important in tech? Because in my opinion most tech unicorns are psychopaths by nature and while humanities is not magical, it will certainly help introduce much needed empathy and understanding of the world.

Let me give you a quick rundown of the characteristics of tech unicorns, as they are today.

  1. Uncaring and with shallow emotions. Although many companies claim they are ultimately trying to make the world a better place, there is a complete disregard for the actual humans who will be disrupted by them and the impact they’re having around them. “The greater good” has become a multi-purpose Get Out Of Jail Free Card which overrides any sense of shame, guilt or embarrassment for negative outcomes. When you’re fixing society it seems you’re entitled to shrug your shoulders and say: ‘Yes, but it’s a price worth paying”, no matter the carnage you’ve (albeit inadvertently) unleashed.
  2. Perhaps best typified by Uber’s former ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’-approach to scaling. (Let’s also not forget that there have been a number of cab drivers in NYC who tragically have committed suicide indirectly due to Uber & Lyft.)
  3. See Facebook and democracy.
  4. Irresponsible. You’ll rarely see a Big Tech company take full ownership of a problem they created. When they do end up admitting blame and taking (some) remedial steps, these admissions are not usually accompanied by any meaningful shame or remorse. It took Airbnb a very long time to concede that its existence had the ultimate effect of driving long-term residents out of certain neighborhoods. And many of the people who are most marginalized by services like Airbnb and Uber are the poor, the less educated & minorities.
  5. Distorting reality. Hard to know where to start. Tech companies are making claims bigger than life to raise capital and attracting talents. Everything is a revolution, an innovation and my favorite, a disruption. And what’s interesting is that they end up believing it themselves. See Theranos or the food-tech startup Soylent’s once expressed goal to “put an end to hunger”.
  6. Narrowing of attention span. Many companies are so obsessed with their desired outcomes that they will ignore peripheral concerns or requests–even from their own customers. Google, for example, continues to accumulate data on everything and everyone, despite privacy concerns and growing public disdain.
  7. Violent. A singular and narrow focus on disruption (yes that word again!) often leads companies to develop a low trigger point for aggressive behavior. Uber, Airbnb, and most recently scooter companies like Bird and Lime, have distorted and trampled over laws that would otherwise hinder their growth. See, also, Amazon and Facebook’s alleged approach to competitors: ‘Sell to us or you’re finished’.

You know what else overlaps with words and phrases like ‘uncaring’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘reality distortion’ and, at times, ‘violent’? The medical definition of a psychopath…

Now let’s talk about solutions and more specifically why I believe that more people with humanities and social sciences background can be helpful in bringing a much needed higher level of empathy in the tech world. I would like to leave you with 3 thoughts:

1 — Humanities can help keep the Psychopaths at Bay by bringing more humility

From my experience, the best engineers I’ve ever worked with were highly collaborative people with incredible levels of insight. To a man and a woman, they spent time in the real world. They were in front of their users as often as their screens.

And what I’ve found is that often – not always – they had a background in social sciences and humanities or a passion / strong appetite for the “real world” and its problems that they had developed over time outside of school. They were critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information. They responded effectively to ambiguity and uncertainty. And that’s what social sciences teach you: humans are unpredictable, messy and rarely rational. As Neil deGrasse, the American astrophysicist, said: “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why physics is easy and sociology is hard.”

If you want to understand people – to see things from their perspective – you need to let go of your own biases and assumptions. The best psychologists, anthropologists or politicians are trained to do exactly that. Think how a psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, won the Nobel Prize in behavioral economics. He didn’t care much about economics but he was consumed with trying to understand why people are so weird. Our reality is highly contextual and historical. Philosophy teaches you “I know that I know nothing”. Just a friendly piece of advice from humanities to tech: admit you don’t have all the answers and start from there!

2 — Humanities can help increase common sense (and sensibility)

In 2012, under the – predictably self-effacing! – codename Project Aristotle, Google decided to reverse engineer the perfect team. The researchers studied hundreds of Google’s teams and tried to figure out why some failed, while others were successful. The pick of the company’s statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers tried to hack the secret. Two years later – eureka! Human bonds and psychological safety matter at work as much as when establishing personal relationships.

Sometimes all the knowledge and data in the world cannot explain human behavior, but other humans, equipped to do so with their so-called “soft degrees” and some common sense, can. Project Aristotle results could have been easily uncovered by a first year sociology student; a good manager could tell the same in their sleep, for free. What got me worried were the quotes from Google employees cited in the NYT article reporting on this research, which included this gem:

By putting things like empathy and sensitivity into charts and data reports, it makes them easier to talk about.’’

I don’t think you can learn empathy from a chart. Being aware that your own experiences are not always typical and that other people have different experiences — and understanding that distinction takes time. It comes as an indirect result of being exposed to history…to literature…to art…and surrounding yourself with all the messy human stuff. Maybe we need a little less Dungeons & Dragons and a little more War & Peace?

3 — Humanities can inspire institutional changes beyond tech companies

Carnegie Mellon created classes that grouped students by experience: the kids who had been coding since youth would start on one track; the newcomers to coding would have a slightly different curriculum, allowing them more time to catch up. At the same time faculty members stopped rewarding “the obsessive hacker” (endorsing the idea that the students who came in already knowing code were born to it). They understood that the beginners were just as likely to transform rapidly into brilliant talents. Previous experience does not equal raw aptitude. The result: the percentage of women entering the computer-science program rose from 7 percent to 42.

Of course one reformed college admission process won’t change the entire industry; it is extremely hard to outsmart the “obsessive hacker” culture. And a lot of female engineers I personally know feel like they hit a wall and are discouraged from continuing in this hostile environment. That scares me. And it needs to be a call to action. Yet while there’s growing clarity around what’s at stake — and even some consensus – the solutions are far from straightforward… More systematic changes are needed. More changes at the top. More engineers who are prepared to understand different contexts and give a damn. More education programs which combine the two worlds. When I was sharing the idea for this speech with Science Po team, they shared their collaboration efforts with Institut Mines-Télécom on a GOOD IN TECH research/chair project established to rethink innovation and technology as enablers of a better world. We need more of that. We need engineers who can both code and read the Economist. We need engineers obsessed with understanding and transforming society (not moving fast and breaking it).

In conclusion

Tech companies are nothing if not ambitious. Facebook is “helping to build the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world”. Google is “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful”. Technology will solve it all. There’s a fine line between mission statements and delusions of grandeur. And that’s ok. Mission statements are supposed to be grand. But big data creates an illusion that we are capable of knowing everything there is to know. Silicon Valley’s obsession with quantification puts hard sciences on a pedestal. But where does that leave humanities? In 2012, spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering R&D.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for hard data. And I’m NOT saying that having a background in the humanities is the only way to solve this problem — plainly you can be a computer scientist or pure mathematician by training, or any other variety of STEM specialist, and still be enthralled with the world around you. But I get very suspicious and uncomfortable when people like Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO back in 2010, say that “Most people don’t want Google to answer their questions… they want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” I don’t know about you but I don’t want anyone telling me what to do next.

We live in data-saturated age and we are on a constant quest to explain human behavior with elegant algorithms. When I meet with tech leaders, I always tell them the same thing: what makes a company is not a great technology or more data, it is the great people who create that technology and decide how to use this data.

The mantra of tech should not be “innovation at all costs” and “data above everything else”. Instead, companies should be focused on their most valuable assets: their people. And to hire and keep those individuals you need a similarly great culture–one which promotes inclusion and diversity. Authentically. Empathy is imperative not only for attracting talent, but retaining it. Empathy can help you differentiate between white noise and what’s important. Empathy can help you lead better.

In that context, studying humanities is not a frivolous whim of an artistically inclined teenager, it is where the future of tech and given the disproportionate impact of tech on the world, the future of the world is.

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The above text was written for the fellow alumni and people close to Sciences Po. I did not refer to Compass, my current company, on purpose, as I wanted this speech to be about the role of social sciences in tech, not an advertisement for Compass. I refer to the Big Four a lot here but, on no account, is it meant as finger-pointing. The influence of tech on society is unquestionable. Silicon Valley and beyond is shaping our reality and, in that sense, these companies and their actions are becoming a social phenomenon quietly woven into our language and experiences. The public debate is, and should be, capturing these influences and keeping a critical eye on them. Tim Cook pointed out in his recent message to 2019 graduates: “Today, certain algorithms pull toward you things that you already know, believe or like. And they push away everything else. Push back! It shouldn’t be this way.” I could not agree more and I am sharing my point of view as a part of this ongoing discussion.

When it comes to Compass — we are still in the early days compared to the tech companies shaping the social discourse. I am very proud to be a part of that team; many of our employees and executives are from Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. We embrace their prior experience and we are eager to learn from it. We are also continuously trying to be mindful in our efforts to avoid mistakes or blind spots that other companies went through. We reinforce the culture of accountability and open feedback. As everyone else, we have a long way to go. But we hope that with the continued focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives and efforts to give back to local communities we will manage to build a strong and inspiring culture. As mentioned before, I truly believe that what makes a great company is not a great product; it’s the great people who build the great product.

Compass’ unique advantage is our customers: real estate agents in over 140 cities across 20 major US markets. Real estate is a relationship business; a successful agent is able to understand their clients needs, their situation and help them navigate through one of the most important decisions in their lives. We are building a platform to make real estate transactions easier and more seamless so that the agents have more time to spend with their clients. We do not prioritize tech over the relationship management; we focus on both. We refer to it as the “high tech, high touch” approach — agents (and their clients) are at the center of what we do. Our mission is to “help everyone find their place in the world” and both our agents and employees are more than willing to provide us with, sometimes brutally honest, feedback to ensure our actions speak louder than our words.