Saron Yitbarek: ‘I Don’t Belong in Tech’


When I was at NPR years ago, I did a story on public education in California. I don’t remember the angle, but I remember looking up a stat to use in the script. I used that stat in a few places, and after fact-checking, I realized there was an updated number available. I went back and changed the references to the new number, relieved that I’d caught this mistake before handing over my script to the host. But I missed one. I heard it over the speakers when Michelle Martin, the host, read it out loud during the interview, and my heart stopped. I knew it was my duty to report it, so I went up to my editor and told her. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel her disappointment in me. I melted into a pool of shame.

But here’s the thing. No one will ever remember that number. No one remembers it now, and I’m sure no one noticed it when it happened. But I knew it happened, that it was an easily preventable mistake, and in journalism, being wrong in that way is absolutely unacceptable. So imagine my surprise when I first heard of “fail fast and break things,” one of the famous tech mantras for product creation. Imagine my shock to find out that being wrong is not reprimanded, but, at times, encouraged. Imagine my confusion stepping into a world where people are told to “just try it and see.” I tell myself over and over that this is different, that this is good, that public experimentation is not a holy sin. I’ve managed to convince myself, when I’m not busy quieting a nauseous tummy tormented by public broken attempts and shameful failures. But here, I will admit defeat. Being wrong in software is fundamentally different from being wrong in reporting. Except when it’s not.

When I use your product, I’m trusting you. I believe you when you tell me that clicking that button will create my profile, that I am indeed submitting an email by hitting enter, that I will see my mom’s message when I click on her little, round face. My belief in you is delicate and deep. Do not take my trust for granted. Do not take advantage of me.

We are in a relationship, you and I. Distant and faceless, yes, but a relationship nonetheless. I give and you take and you give and I take, and I believe your words, your lines, your interfaces. It should be precious. It should be handled with care, but the carelessness I see in tech is unsettling. The willful ignorance, the rejection of our relationship, hurts.

It might come big, like playing with my emotions by purposefully filling my feed with sad or happy content, just to see how I respond.

It might come small, like your claim of being the number one this-and-that in your this-and-that field, according to … no one. You are so proud of your accomplishments and so comfortable in your grandeur that you forget to be honest with me.

Sometimes it comes deep, like spending months together trying to solve a problem you promised me you could solve to later find out that you got it all wrong, you made it all up, you have no idea what you’re doing. You brag about this in your interviews and inevitable autobiography. For some strange reason, you wear this ignorance as a badge of honor. You failed fast and broke my heart.

But you will never see it that way. You’re too excited. I feel you whisper make the world a better place as you drift to sleep, so obsessed with changing it that you forget that the world is made up of little people like me.

You are experimenting, trying new things, and for this, you are great and lean. But sometimes, you forget that I’m at the center of your experiments. Sometimes, you forget me.

I take these relationships seriously. So seriously that often I’m immobilized and overwhelmed. And in those moments, you push products I’m too uncomfortable to push and you win. You get there first, making waves while I sit in last place and watch. So I choke down my values and discomfort and attempt a push of my own, amid the internal screams that this is wrong and irresponsible and how dare I. I don’t get very far. My feeble, half-hearted steps cannot compete with your bold, proud strides. So I cower back to my corner with my broken brain and peep at your success through the leaves.

I do not belong. My values are not valued. My thinking is strange and foreign. My world view has no place here. It is not that I am better, it is that I am different, and my difference feels incompatible with yours, dear tech. So I will mark my corner, a small plot of land and stand firmly here, trying to understand you and reconcile these conflicting differences.

Maybe I will change. Maybe you’ll surprise me. Maybe, one day, I’ll belong.

❔ Whois

Saron Yitbarek is the founder of CodeNewbie, the most supportive community of programmers and people learning to code. She’s also the host of the CodeNewbie Podcast, chair of Codeland, a conference for new coders, and co-organizer of Make A Diff.

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