Product managers are problem finders and problem solvers. But what happens when we become problem creators? In her talk from #mtpcon San Francisco, Mariah Hay, VP of Product at Pluralsight, challenges us to think about our ethical responsibility as product managers.
Great Power = Great Responsibility
It is crucial for us to understand ethics in the context of product.
Ethics: The discipline of dealing with what is good or bad and with moral duty and obligation Miriam-Webster Dictionary
Our ethics are highly influenced by the people around us. Simply put, ethics are how we determine right from wrong, depending on who we hang out with.In the professional realm, groups have been crafting their own ethical codes since the 5th century. The medical profession was the first on record with “formula comitis archiatrorum” – a statement that required physicians to widen and deepen their knowledge through consulting with other physicians. They understood that they could achieve better patient outcomes by sharing information with each other than keeping their practices to themselves. Over time, this principle became the norm, and sharing knowledge became standard between practitioners.
Today this has evolved into a defined set of ethical principles in medicine. And while the medical profession pioneered the concept of professional ethics, other industries have also developed ethical codes. Engineering has developed a strict code of ethics that they are expected to adhere to in practice. In Canada they have even developed a tradition to provide engineering graduates with an iron ring, which symbolizes the humility and fallibility of engineers and reminding them of the great responsibility they have in keeping people safe.
Living in the Grey Area
When operating in a world where your decisions clearly mean life and death as in medicine and engineering, the necessity of a strong ethical code is easy to see. But what about when the consequences aren’t so black and white? What happens when people who are supposed to be problem finders and problem solvers, actually end up creating problems themselves? What are our ethical responsibilities as product people?
Mariah gives some examples of ethical “grey areas” that have recently impacted our world with technology:
- Design negligence with “The Interface That Killed Jenny”: a confusing interface in medical software that buried information on necessary treatments for a young cancer patient and resulted in her death
- Fraudulent testing in the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal: programming cars to conceal the true emissions of 11 million diesel vehicles, resulting in 40x more NOx emissions than the legal limit, prison time and fines for the team responsible, and untold damage to the environment
- Manipulation to influence policy with Cambridge Analytica: a company that used personal information harvested from more than 50 million Facebook profiles to target users and influence the 2016 US elections.
Mariah asks us to reflect on how we might have handled some of these situations. How would we react if our boss asked us to build a product that would circumvent regulation? To inappropriately use data to manipulate human psychology? To “just ship” software that might mean the difference between a successful cancer treatment and a preventable death? What is your responsibility?
The problems we are creating as an industry for the general public are originating from a lack of ethical accountability.
Ethical Accountability in Tech
As we consider our responsibility, Mariah tells a story of ethics in action at her company, Pluralsight. After introducing features into their learning platform that could assess the skills of their learners to help surface helpful content, they started getting requests from companies to share the data of their employees. This opened up questions for the team:
- What would the employee be comfortable with us sharing?
- Would it discourage or encourage them to take an assessment?
- What would their employer do with the information?
These questions brought the team back to their first fundamental ethical principle:
Don’t Weaponize the Product.
They realized sharing the detailed data with the employer could have unintended consequences, and that their tool could start to be weaponized, turned against employees, and used for things like approving or denying promotions, determining an employee’s annual raise, or even impacting hiring decisions. This was not what they wanted their product to be used for.
As they built the new solution, they also kept their second principle in mind:
Find Your Blind Spots.
Recognizing that this solution had major ethical implications, the team didn’t rely solely on their own judgement. They took a hard look at downstream impact and their own practices in order to make sure they were being as diligent as possible. They asked other teams and trusted advisors to double check their decisions, ensuring that they weren’t missing an ethical consideration that someone else might spot. They worked closely with both learners and employers to understand concerns and goals. As a result, they were able to uncover a solution that would enable conversations between employers and learners, without exposing pieces of the data that learners feared would be used against them.
Be 200% Accountable
Choosing to not build features that customers asked for because they might be weaponized is a great example of proactive ethics in practice. When faced with these customer requests, Mariah’s team could have shrugged their shoulders and said “we’re not responsible for what people do with our product”. Instead, they chose to adopt a principle of 200% accountability – you are 100% accountable for yourself, and 100% accountable for the people around you.
The Payoff of Proactive Ethics
Proactive ethics isn’t just something that makes you feel good – it can be a competitive advantage for your company. These ethics will trickle down into the DNA of your business culture, and yield some pretty cool results:
- Accountability creates trust, openness, respect, and integrity
- Decisions are clearly made and weighed based on a shared understanding of values
- Teams can focus on collaborating around the best possible outcomes
- Increased productivity, effectiveness, happier employees, fewer politics, and a better bottom line
Operating a business through human-centered ethics will pay dividends in both the near-term, and long-term success.
Act With Courage
As product managers, we have to act with courage. There is no shortage of tech jobs out there, and we have a choice of where we spend our time and our talents. It is up to us to cultivate an ethical environment where we are, and stand up where we see them lacking.
Ethics are not a given. They are a choice that each of us make, and we need to be prepared before we are faced with tough decisions. Ethics live with us, not our companies. It is the doctor, not the hospital, that takes the Hippocratic Oath. It’s the engineer, not their client, that wears the iron ring. So Mariah ends by proposing we all commit to what she has named “The Product Practitioner’s Oath.”
I will be 200% accountable, know my blind spots, and I will not allow my product to be weaponized.The Product Practitioner’s Oath – Mariah Hay