I’ll never forget the lecture when my Professor stunned a classroom of nineteen year olds:
One of you here will be pressured by your manager to do something for profit that will jeopardise the safety of civilians. You will have a decision to make. Some of you will make the wrong decision. And that will result in explosions, gas leaks and polluted rivers. Welcome to chemical engineering, and welcome to the real world.
Then he showed us videos of several industrial disasters where he, a safety engineer had travelled to investigate the ruins. For each video, he explained what he saw on the ground, how far away the metal scraps had “flown”, and how they determined the root cause. He kept repeating “companies say safety is expensive but disasters cost 1000X more than safety measures”. (Case in point, BP would never have paid $18 billion for safety measures but that’s exactly what they were fined for their 2015 Gulf oil spill).
There was something unexpectedly jarring about this moment. We all knew that chemical engineering gone bad led to fatalities. That wasn’t news. We already knew that humans can make costly mistakes or can be corrupt. That wasn’t it. I think it was the deep realisation that our work up until that point was cute, neat and tidy - it had limited real-life consequence. It was designing a plant that takes excess duck fat from boujee restaurants and converts that waste into biodiesel that runs cars with fewer carbon emissions. It was simulating how a refinery might make “triple-distilled” Vodka for your bloody Mary’s and future hangovers.
But when you see a production plant explode and you understand that your mistake or misjudgement could one day be the reason why people die, it tends to leave a mark on you. In that very moment, I started to realise what it means to be an engineer. To be an engineer is to understand your responsibilities to the public - to know what your creations can do or what they can be fashioned to do. It’s knowing that your work has a direct, active and vital influence on the quality of life of everyday people. It’s less about being able to code or build a bridge, but more about about owning your obligation to society to do good. And while we may fail to reach such ethical standards, we must earnestly strive for it.
Fire eaters are interesting people. They intentionally put fire into their mouths for the purposes of entertaining the public. In the best case scenario, they get laughs, applause, maybe some street cred, some money and feelings of achievement. In any of the bad scenarios, they get serious, painful burns while an audience gasps as they gasp for air. Seems like something I would avoid. Despite this, there’s one thing I would take away from their acts - to eat fire is to respect fire. There’s no way you can properly extinguish fire without knowing how fire harms you. You can’t de-risk fire by accident. You have to learn and anticipate the different risk factors for fire-induced pain. Maybe you even need to experience the heat and ferocity of fire from a small burn or a little pain. I won’t encourage anyone to eat fire, but I think there’s something to be said for how we should intimately learn how to respect, anticipate and de-risk our creations like fire eaters do for fires.
I’ve since left the world of atoms for bits. Having worked as a Software Engineer for more than three years, I’ve seen a new frontier. Tech is incredibly exciting - it moves fast, it’s ambitious, it’s a change agent that we can wield for good, it’s a way of life where you see problems as opportunities rather than impossible roadblocks. Tech kills drudgery and bureaucracy. Tech makes you think “there must be a better way to do this”. Every time I use DocuSign, I’m reminded that people previously needed to be in the same place to sign contracts. Every time I book an Airbnb, I’m reminded that it takes a few clicks to order a stranger’s house. Beyond solving problems, technology provides hope - it makes people excited about tomorrow. Because of technology, tomorrow, my life is likely to be healthier, my laughs are likely to be heartier and my memories more beautiful.
But the reckoning of tech companies is well deserved. There is too much power in the hands of too few (big tech). There are algorithms prematurely running in the wild making decisions about who people should love (Tinder), what their credit limits should be (Apple) and who should be hired(tbd). Facebook and Twitter profit from our divisions, hatred and addictions (read “engagement”). YouTube recommendations further radicalise viewers in both directions. Robinhood uses virtual confetti and balloons to entice first-time investors to gamble on stock options.
And in this pandemic, the big have only gotten bigger. Every new startup uses AWS, and Amazon delivered all our toilet paper and paper towels as we began to shelter in place (presumably in the bathroom). Facebook, ever the villain, laughed off the #deleteFacebook movement, knowing (correctly) that advertisers would return because they had no other choice and because morals are not as strong a force as capitalism and economics. Apple, the self-anointed privacy saviour of our times, went off into a closed room and made a decision that affects the digital landscape. This time, Apple’s iOS14 change definitely benefits consumers, but what happens when they make an iOS policy that does not help us?
So how should we think about tech? Clearly there’s some good and some bad. I’ve read an unhealthy amount of tech articles in the past five years by journalists, VCs, engineers, founders, professors and consumers alike. A large proportion of this sea is violently “anti-tech” and is way too happy to bash tech at a moment’s notice. And some VCs are too blinded by money to ever criticise the failings of tech. This is why I’m starting this newsletter. To bring back nuance to this discourse. It’s inaccurate to paint a blanket brush over tech as its a massive industry with multiple industries within it.
Welcome to Perfect MVP. I’m glad you’re here.