The starry-eyed idealism is accurate. For example, the "What is Hooli?" promotional video by a software mega-corp features African children, a CEO holding a baby goat, and the saccharine line "We can't achieve greatness... without first achieving goodness." Like much of the show, this is over the top, but it's also eerily accurate - as though cobbled together from the cutting room floors during the production of every large software company's morale videos, combined with bullet points from a Forbes article listing 17 ways to attract millennials to your workforce. See also the startup founder who earnestly pitches, "We're making the world a better place... through paxos algorithms for consensus protocols." Big companies, startups, venture capitalists... everyone in Silicon Valley is making the world a better place. Everyone is changing the world.
But when you change the world, you don't necessarily make it better. Sometimes you just change it. There's no going back, but in return for ubiquitous, unlimited access to information, we've revealed the most intimate details of our lives to corporations whose only real purpose is to monetize that data. In return for instantaneous communication and increased productivity, we've created a culture where it's difficult to ever truly be away from our work. And in return for being connected digitally at all times with far-flung friends and family, we've spawned cyber-bullying and FOMO and social media addiction. Any software engineer who's paying attention must eventually come to terms with their own responsibility for the consequences - both positive and negative - of the change that they're creating.
There are ways to stay grounded, to understand the effects and side-effects of your software, and to adjust your approach to make sure you're really "achieving goodness." But it requires having users - which is a catch-22 for most newly-minted startups - and making the effort, especially as an engineer, to stay extremely close to those users. It requires a long-term commitment to what you're doing - in an industry where the leading companies have an average employee tenure between 1 year (Amazon) and 1.1 years (Google)*. And it requires working at a company with the discipline, control over its own destiny, and the financial independence to chart its own course rather than chasing trends, making shady deals, or finding ever-more-creative ways to monetize its users.
I just celebrated my ninth anniversary at pMD, and it's been an amazing journey. It's never easy to do the right thing in the right way, and we've chosen to turn down a lot of opportunities, investors, and partners along the way because they would have compromised our control over our destiny, or distracted us from our core mission to make doctors happy - which has never changed. Watching Silicon Valley has been a great reminder about the power of software to change the world - and how poorly situated most software companies are to do so in a responsible way.