Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Honest Products

What makes me want to pursue a particular line of work, or not? A lot of things ultimately weigh on my moral calculus, including a very powerful "need money now, don't care" switch that can override many so-called principles...

One of the dimensions is the idea that my work is directly for making an "honest product". But I don't have a full definition of this thing... Sometimes it helps to look at the product's relationship to the company. Why is it being made? Just to make a profit, or some other reason? Perhaps it's a loss leader? Perhaps it's "free"? Does the company make anything else? Get its money from other products, or from other entities that aren't even products?

I currently feel I work on an honest product. Someone wrote a book about it, even. It's not my company's bread-and-butter, but we do sell a separate license (or licenses -- the book knows better than me!) for it. The people who purchase the product make use of it in a variety of ways, but it's all for direct purpose, which I think gets closer to what I mean by "honest".

I could list some products I think are honest: video games, simulation software, modeling tools, food, books, editors, hardware... But it helps more to look at what I think isn't an honest product: adtech. And coupled with that, a lot of data analytics stuff. I don't disagree that these are products, or that a lot of money can't be made, or that fine engineering work can't be put into them. But they don't feel "honest" to me. Why?

Take a pure adtech company, not just a company developing "free" products and subsidizing them with an ad revenue source, but one engaging purely in managing ad systems. What is it they're selling? They're selling their technology to other companies in order to make their ads "perform" better. What counts as better performance? More "engagement" with the ads... which, they believe, will lead to higher sales. It's marketing.

This sort of indirection that is all of marketing is something I see as mildly dishonest. Not in an evil way, but in an uncomfortable enough way that I don't want any part in it. I block ads. I avoid ads when I can't block them. I don't ever want to work on "adtech". One of my achievements in a former team at work that I feel the stirrings of pride about was smacking down the idea of adding a tracking pixel to our outgoing email notification templates. I argued that they are unreliable, not unethical, though I also believe the second. Anyway, we didn't add them. They might have gotten added since I left, they were certainly part of other email templates.

It's indirect. If you're selling ads, or tech to deliver ads, or "data analytics"... you're not really selling something to bring direct value. You're selling hope that by using your product, the user will then indirectly get value, but it's not a guarantee. Some promises are more wishful thinking than others. I did have occasion to watch some cable TV at a recent hotel, the ads were not only dull (Japan ads on the other hand that I saw a bit of during my stay...) but so repetitive. Every commercial break during a two hour movie, just about the same set of ads. And most of them for products already so popular that I wonder, if they had the confidence to do an A/B test of $0 ad-spend for one month, would it really impact their bottom line for that month or future months? "You dare not try it, for if you did, ...".

Similarly: if your main product the world knows you for is "free", but you pay for running it entirely from VC money, injecting ads, selling out user data... it's less than honest. Again, not exactly unethical, but it doesn't hit my threshold of "honest product" such that I want to work on or at such a place.

I work for a sales and marketing company, not a tech company. This has many implications, internally and externally, some positive and some negative, that I can't compress into what's supposed to be this sort of focused post. But one of those implications is that, unfortunately, how well we sell is to a large part on the strength of our sales agents, not on the merits of the products.

But we still sell products. The use of (at least most of, and especially our bread-and-butter, and especially what I work on specifically) those products is for direct value, not wishy-washy "market awareness" that hopes to improve next quarter's profit margins "somehow".

A very boring but common use of the product I work on is to just replace what in the 90s would have been a phone line where customers of products would call for troubleshooting, talk to a rep who goes through a fixed script/flow chart every time starting from scratch, until eventually step whatever is the step the customer needed to hear that resolves their problem, call done. That is, a "self service" help portal site. An example. Not having to support a phone system + call staff can be valuable to the company. Being able to solve their troubleshooting with search engines and finding the exact article (or at worst the same flowchart the phone rep would have read from) for their problem in less time than it takes to connect with a troubleshooting rep to even begin the process is very valuable for the customer. Direct value all around! It's honest.

Even if I won't be at this job forever, I hope future jobs can be for honest things too.

Posted on 2019-08-31 by Jach

Tags: morality, personal, philosophy, work


Trackback URL:

Back to the top

Back to the first comment

Comment using the form below

(Only if you want to be notified of further responses, never displayed.)

Your Comment:

LaTeX allowed in comments, use $$\$\$...\$\$$$ to wrap inline and $$[math]...[/math]$$ to wrap blocks.