In defense of technology lawyers or the mystery of leaving notes

Noam Bardin just wrote an interesting note on leaving Google. As the founder of Waze Bardin is without a doubt a brilliant entrepreneur and a great thinker. He is also by many metrics a long-time googler, with 7 years under his belt. His leaving note, however, does leave me feeling exasperated. Bardin details the story of the small start-up being absorbed by the mothership, slowly changing and morphing and being assimilated by the corporate Borg. The things that he feels restricted him are many – the inability to fire and hire the people he felt no longer were doing a great job or the people the company needed, the restrictions on his language as the HR-complaints kept stacking up – but more than anything the note is a complaint about lawyers and policy people.

Waze is an awesome innovation, made possible by engineers and lawyers.

Now, I am bound to take that personally, having been part of the policy team at Google, but I do not want to address his concerns narrowly – nowhere does he complain that the legal or policy teams did bad work, by the way – I want to address the type of complaint that he is making. Bardin is essentially saying that large corporations have too many lawyers and he had to spend time with them and that this restricted what he built. Large companies are no place to work, he concludes – and no start up really survives assimilation.

But here is the thing: the reason a Google or Facebook or Apple or Microsoft has a lot of lawyers is because they want to make sure that what they do is legal, and follows the intent of the law. That the products are safe to use and that data protection rules are obeyed – one of Bardin’s complaints is that he had to work on data retention and here is what he says:

After the acquisition, we have an extremely long project that consumed many of our best engineers to align our data retention policies and tools to Google. I am not saying this is not important BUT this had zero value to our users. 

The only conclusion the reader can draw, as far as I can see, is that data retention policies – or privacy – have zero value for users. If that is the harsh criticism of large companies – that they care about privacy – the criticism seems to fall flat. I think no entrepreneur active today believes that privacy, and data retention policies are a part of privacy, are unimportant to users.

No matter how hard I try, I end up reading Bardin’s note as saying that it is better to be a start up, because you do not have to care about the law. But that is not how the law works.

There is an ethos here that is ingrained in a part of the entrepreneur persona, the chafing at restrictions and the unwillingness to spend time on second order social or legal effects of innovation, that I think is increasingly being relegated to the past. It is hardly possible to believe today that technology should be unregulated or left to the engineers. Even if there will be a multitude of people applauding and sharing Bardin’s note, I still feel it is more of a nostalgic wish for a simpler time than any real comparison between startups and large companies.

And then there is the overall mystery of leaving notes. We are narrative beings, and we need to make sense of ourselves. Leaving notes bare the psyche of the people writing them as they seek to build and control the narrative bridge from where they were yesterday to where they will be tomorrow, and the enormous amount of interest accorded to them is probably because they are small conversions. Members of a faith will always seek conversion stories to their faith and in this case the church of the entrepreneur is applauding a lost wandering member back to their flock.

There is something beautiful in that, but we should not let that obscure the reality for all tech companies today: they exist within the law, and most product design today needs not just user design and interfaces, but also legal design and interfaces. User design is individual, legal design is social design, recognizing that products are not just used by individuals, but result in shifts in social patterns over time. The idea that you can focus on the user and all else will follow was, just like John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence of cyberspace, a naive and well-intentioned first draft of how we understood technology. We now know that users in the plural – society – is as important as the users themselves and that technological innovation today is deeply enmeshed in social change.

Google will never have more lawyers than engineers. But there is such a thing as too few lawyers, and too few people who care about the social interfaces of technology. The story of the big company and the small plucky startup is wearing thin and seems to me to be increasingly problematic when the dimension we compare on is the amount of legal thought that goes into product.

Just a thought.

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