Who Are You?

I want to kick off the discussion here with a few deep metaphysical questions: peering into the very soul of who you are, what you’re doing, what you want to achieve etc. Don’t worry, we’ll get on to some lighter stuff soon enough, but it’s worth taking the time to reflect a little more generally first — when I talk to NGOs and activists etc I’m surprised just how often people can’t adequately explain even what they’re doing, never mind why.

But let’s start with the easier question: who you are. At the very least you should know the answer to that one!

If you’re reading this there’s a fairly high likelihood you fall into one of two key groups: you’re either part of an NGO or activist group, wishing you had access to better programmers or technology skills, or you’re a geek/hacker trying to use those skills to directly make your society a better place.

These days a lot of effort goes into trying to bridge these two groups, largely on the theory that bringing them together can help each achieve more. Generally I’m quite sceptical of that approach, though. It’s not that it never works of course (for pretty much everything I’m ever going to write here there are going to be well-known exceptions), but generally the dynamic in this relationship is all wrong. The assumption is usually that the ideas come from the NGO side, and then some programmers are brought in to do the fiddly work to actually Make It Happen.

The business world used to work like this — the first big internet bubble was full of smooth talking MBAs raising lots of money for their dot.com ideas, hiring programmers to create the sites, and then sitting back to count their money. If you look at the businesses that actually survived from that period, however, most of them were the opposite of this. They was driven by geeks and techies and hackers who came up with ideas, created great sites and products, and then brought in some adult supervision to fill the gaps in their abilities. As Paul Graham has pointed out, you’re much better starting with a Bill Gates and later hiring a Steve Ballmer, than starting with Steve Ballmer and hoping he can hire a Bill Gates.

That approach holds true in this world too. Three years ago, Tom Steinberg wrote an excellent blog post on his top tips for building an organisation like mySociety. His #1 tip?:

Absolutely the most totally essential thing is to be an organisation of amazing, politically minded coders, not an organization employing or contracting good coders. Their skills are your lifeblood, their ideas your bread and butter, and finding the best civic hackers in your country and building your organization around them is the only path to success. And that means they should be making most of the day to day decisions, not you, you ignorant, arts-degree-clutching clot.

But, what if you’re already an existing NGO? Does that mean there’s no hope for you at all? Well, not necessarily. But you certainly need to take a very close look at the dynamics of who you are, and who makes decisions and how. Jeff Bezos’ maxim that the old world of “location, location, location” has been displaced by a new world of “technology, technology, technology” is as true for activism as for retail. If you’re trying to build an online project that will actually make a difference, it needs to be a living, breathing entity, driven by people who both care about the issues and can create the technology required. You can’t just dream up a site, outsource the development, have it built, and leave it be. 99% of the time that’ll just get you a mediocre me-too site that might gain some initial interest, but will slowly fizzle away into irrelevance.

Instead, you should — at the very least — surround yourself with as many great civic hackers as you can find. Ideally, however, you’ll go even further, and work on becoming one yourself. It’s not essential that you’re able to write every line of code yourself, but the more you can gain a deep understanding of what actually goes into building something, the more you’ll be able to make better decisions and the better the projects you create will be.