As I previously wrote in Why Your Job Title Matters, Quality Habit-Formation, and Ethical Product Developer, I've been intentionally calling myself as Product Developer rather than obvious titles such as Software Engineer, Data Scientist, or Machine Learning Engineer. Now, since I've become a freelancer, I have greater flexibility in choosing how I advertise myself on the internet, and I want to question whether Product Developer is truly the right way to describe what I (would like to) do. In particular, this article double-clicks the use of the term "product".
Spoiler alert: As you can see on takuti.me or social networks, I'm temporarily changing my bio to Freelance Software Developer.
What makes "product" so weird
Most importantly, the term "product" can deeply imply a sense of business. In my definition, one of the biggest differences between a piece of random software and a matured product is whether a deliverable is considered to be valuable in the capitalistic world. For example, even though I have more than a hundred GitHub repositories (i.e., pieces of software), it's hard to categorize them as a "product" compared to the quality and economic impact of the production code that I had previously written in a company. But, does that mean all personal projects are meaningless, or relatively less valuable, at least? Common perception would be YES, which I want to challenge as an individual.
The way how people judge the superiority of deliverables is essentially based on a severe symptom the majority of today's technologists are facing—Solutionism. Thanks to the rapid growth of technology and wide-ranging applications, we have a tendency to overly emphasize the practicality of the outputs without thinking carefully about what an underlying core problem is. In Issue 24 of Offscreen, one of my favorite magazines that convey stories about the human-side of technology, Ali Alkhatib from the University of San Francisco stated the following, by using an example of a big issue about "trust" that has been translated to the blockchain problem:
In computer science, there's a strong tendency for us to take a problem that doesn't make a lot of sense and try to restate it in terms of that we feel we can actually get some traction. […] A technical approach to what is in fact a social problem might solve an aspect of it, but it doesn't actually solve the core problem.
That's why I'm concerned about the lack of humanity in the use of technology, and hence I value starting from intrinsic motivation and working *with* customers whenever I create a "product". Are you creating products that *you* love? Why do we build this? These questions have been essential for me to maximize my consciousness about the externalities of what I create.
It's for the people
However, there has been a dilemma at the same time—As long as the deliverable is meant to be sold to customers, it is unavoidable to sacrifice what's good for people (and for greater society) to some degree in order for a company to maximize the profit. That is, even though I want to be an ethical product developer, being ethical vs. building a product, which is fundamentally one of the revenue generators for a company, is somewhat contradicting.
Yet, I strongly believe technology must be used for the people, not for the money. Therefore, I, as a freelancer, currently hesitate to use the word "product", and I temporarily replaced my bio with Software Developer so I can be explicit that I create software that doesn't necessarily have to be a widely-sellable product, meaning I'd rather reduce my income if I could work with the people who I can empathize with, and it might even be a volunteering opportunity e.g., for education.
Here, my recent reading of "Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future" was a good reminder of the philosophy.
In short, the book shows the third option to make a structural change to today's internet monopolized by Big Tech: Deprivatization, other than two widely discussed options, rule-making, and the anti-monopoly movement. The title of the book clearly reflects the mentality—Internet for the people, as opposed to the use of technology for maximizing profit of the tech companies who dominate the market in a privatized manner.
How radical we can be
Although no one, including the author, knows what deprivatization actually means, the potential solutions from the book like protocolizing social networks, community-owned internet infrastructure, and education to make the boundary between technical and nontechnical people blur is indeed inspiring; it's so nice NOT to see casual mentioning about decentralization technology like blockchain. A quote from the book:
Decentralization is not inherently democratizing: it can just as easily serve to concentrate power as to distribute it.
Of course, there must be a balancing factor between privatization and deprivatization. Even though it's easy to criticize the modern capitalistic world, history tells us that the societal structure is one of the most reasonable solutions for the greater population; if everyone in the world switched to a more community-driven, less financial-driven way of working on the internet, it may or may not be sustainable enough in the long run, and we wouldn't see the technological advances and convenience as we have today.
That said, pausing for a moment and casting doubt on our "normal" life are important exercises to rethink what's good and bad. For this purpose, a job title can be a great place for individuals to shed a light on their own identity/philosophy, and we can be as much creative as possible for effective storytelling and expanding our own boundaries.
- "Why Do We Build This?" Humane Technologist's View of Bad Product/Project
- Ethical Product Developer
- Hi Product Managers, Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?
Last updated: 2022-09-22
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. With a decade of experience at start-up companies and Big Tech ranging from full-stack/machine-learning engineering to data science to product management, I am currently working at the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications.
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