A return to whole minds

Thoughts on Basecamp‘s policy change and being a design manager

I read Basecamp’s executives’ blog posts about their updated internal communications policies, benefits, and reviews, and found myself taken aback (I know others weren’t). I know that Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are prolific writers with a shared taste for iconoclasm, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d find myself seeing them in the same light as Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

“Changes at Basecamp” by Basecamp CEO Jason Fried is a 6-point memo with a 300+ word preamble that quotes Aldous Huxley. Based solely on length, it is clear that its author has given the subject considerable thought.

Point #1 (edited since first publication), proclaims that there shall be “no more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account.” The reason, Fried proffers, is that “every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.”

I argue: if “every discussion…quickly spins away from pleasant,” it’s worth considering why that is. I argue it is worth Fried’s time as the (white, male) CEO of a Chicago-based company with dozens of employees, to distinguish between those to whom is the discussion unpleasant, and to whom are the policies unpleasant.

Like Fried and DHH, I’ve worked in web design for a long time, too — so I know a bit about making websites that people use.

A sensation that has informed my professional growth is the way my stomach churned the first time I watched a prototype I designed go through moderated usability testing. I could hardly watch the things in which I believed so strongly, design choices that I knew to be true based on my years of experience, be completely misunderstood by people who were not designers, people who did not deal with the stakeholders I had to deal with, design for the edge cases I had to account for. I thought I had designed this right.

As a designer, it is my duty to engage with discussions like these that challenge my biases in order to make a website better. The discussion is unpleasant, but it’s better than the actual experience a real person has of using a live website (to, say, learn a visa wait time) being unpleasant. To provide the best possible experience I can for the people who use the websites I design is something I consider a professional obligation —despite some personal discomfort.

As a manager, I have found that discussions about unpleasant events are not as “major distractions” as much as the events themselves are to the people affected. I’ve worked with designers who were affected deeply by events that may not have reached them personally, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook to the Squirrel Hill Massacre. I’ve worked with teams in Romania who balanced work with sustained protests against government corruption. I work with teams in India, on the precipice of a 14-day lockdown in Bengaluru. It has been my experience in each of these cases that discussion of these events, political reactions to them, and how they feel personally affected by them is not the thing that is stressing them out the most.

A couple weeks ago, in response to Pranav Dixit’s brave essay about being an India-based technology reporter that revealed a more personal reaction to the increasingly reactionary political environment there, I wrote: “offshoring without actual cultural exchange — not just food and rituals, but full engagement with the context that complicates our work everywhere it’s performed is personally demoralizing and professionally risky.”

I stand by this. My co-workers in India don’t know what it’s like for me to be a Filipino-American in New York City when hate crimes against Asian Americans are swelling, when a woman similar in age and ethnicity to my own mother is attacked in broad daylight 3 blocks from our company’s Times Square headquarters, and it stresses me out to move from one meeting to another (starting Monday, 7 am) with no appreciation from them for how *gestures wildly* might be affecting me. And conversely, I don’t do enough to engage with how monsoon season, assembly elections, holidays, and a raging Covid-19 wave affect them. Both parties stressed out and feeling unseen, we stay fully focused on work, test each others’ patience, and the work suffers.

To strenuously avoid unpleasant discussions in times of social crisis is personally demoralizing, and it’s professionally risky. Consider: what institutional memory is at risk, what velocity is at risk. What doesn’t ship when someone is concerned for a family member who has Covid-19. What skills are lost when a team member leaves because they don’t feel like their manager understands them. In what ways do team members choose not to grow because they don’t see themselves wholly represented in their work.

A few stray observations: “We are not a social impact company” as stated in point #6 is something I interpret as “we are a status quo” company. I’m not saying that every capitalist enterprise needs to be engaged in full-throated progressive activism, but it seems clear from this position that Fried does not understand how being anti-racist is different from being “not racist.”

“No more paternalistic benefits,” reads point #2 of the memo, but the statement in point #4: “It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on” is practically textbook paternalism. Were I to read these words without context, I would have guessed they came from a harried father and not a software executive with five books to his name (though this perhaps gives too much credit to software executives).

Finally, Fried included these sentences in the closing of his nearly 1400-word post: “We’re compressing X to allow for expansion in Y. (emphasis mine) A return to whole minds that can focus fully on the work we choose to do.

To think that the absence of unpleasant discussion implies that whole minds are focused fully on work. What a privilege that must be.

Makes websites better.