Assessing The "Worthiness" Of Companies' Missions

Recently, I've stumbled upon a discussion somewhere (I believe it was on Quora) about whether people who state that they'd only work for companies with whose missions they can strong empathize are mostly being hypocritical. The author of this argument used Uber as an example, stating that it seemed highly unlikely that so many people had suddenly found themselves so interested to work for a company that at its core remained a taxi hailing business.

While I believe that Uber and its competitors are so much more than just taxi hailing services, I found the question itself rather intriguing. How much does the company's mission actually matter to most of us? Should it even matter? And how might we approach assessing this mission in the first place?

Those are, of course, deeply philosophical questions, and I don't entertain any illusions regarding my abilities to provide the answers that would be universally applicable to everyone. I also don't have any desire to argue whether people have to care about the mission of the companies they work for. Rather, I wanted to share my take on the second half of this question - how we might approach thinking about the companies' missions and values - in the context of the tech industry today.

First, it's useful to consider how the nature of the tech products we use has evolved over the last 10-15 years. In the past, we often evaluated the products and services we used based on the new features or functionality they offered us. Today, however, that's not the case anymore: we would often be hard pressed to name even a few new features the new generations of the apps and services we use bring us, and not because we don't care for that additional functionality, but rather because what we really value today above everything else is convenience.

The New York Times has just published an essay called "The Tyranny of Convenience" on exactly this topic, which I found rather entertaining. Still, the reason I believe the change in our priorities matters in the context of this post is that it actually makes so much more difficult to answer the questions asked in the second paragraph in any reasonable fashion.

In the world that valued features, assessing the importance of the work done by many tech companies was relatively easy: the users typically had a certain type of problem, or pain point, they required solving, which in turn created an opportunity for the companies to come with a software product, a hardware device, or some combination of both, that would allow to solve that issue. Of course, it was still entirely possible that the users didn't realize that they actually had a problem, but most of the time, at least some indicators were there: the office workers of the early 1980s probably didn't know that they desperately needed spreadsheets, but someone who decided to pay close attention to the work they were doing for a reasonable amount of time, might have noticed that there was a huge potential to digitize their activities, in one way or the other.

In the world of convenience, however, the situation seems remarkably different. First of all, the users often might not even realize that they have a problem to begin with. Did most of us know that we actually need that 2-hour guaranteed delivery? What about those sophisticated algorithms that allow us to create discover new compositions based on what we listened to in the past? Or the opportunity to upload the photos to the cloud on the PC, and immediately access them from our phones? There are a thousand things we can't imagine our lives without that we would have a really hard time even dreaming of 10 or 15 years ago.

Next, in this strange new world, there is no way to solve the problem once and for all, as there is often no limit to how much something can be improved upon. Getting a guaranteed 1-day delivery from Amazon is nice, but why not focus on 2-hour delivery next? Uber and Lyft might be so much more convenient that the traditional taxi services, but the cars could still arrive even faster, and, by the way, wouldn't it be nice if it cost less? And while Amazon Echo is helping us to make some of our routines so much more efficient, it can definitely be further improved by integrating with additional services, and employing more sophisticated machine learning capabilities.

All of that implies that there is no task or problem that isn't worth solving, as long as it improves the experience for the end users (not to mention that the large advances can sometimes start as minor efforts to solve a particular issue). By extension, this also means that the true complexity of the systems aiming to provide the users with a more convenient way of doing something is often hidden from the eyes of those users. Most of us have no idea of the amount of efforts behind Spotify recommendation engine we take for granted nowadays, or the cloud infrastructure that the majority of the services we interact with today are built upon, or Amazon 1-day guaranteed delivery. Moreover, we don't care: the entire point of convenience is that the users don't need to concern themselves with all of that to benefit from those services.

Now, going back to the initial argument, if we look at the Uber from the perspective of feature-driven world, it undoubtedly is just another taxi hailing service, albeit a much more convenient one compared to the traditional taxi services, where you had to call a local company on the phone. However, in the world of convenience, Uber and the likes of it are so much more than that: they help us save time and money, while also feeling more secure and experiencing a nicer way to travel. Moreover, they hold promise of bringing us an entirely new level of convenience in the years to come, once the self-driving cars hit the roads. And when you frame the problems Uber is trying to solve like that, it seems unsurprising that they might want to recruit some of the best engineers or businesspeople, or that those people would be genuinely interested to come work for Uber and its peers.

That, obviously, doesn't mean that everyone out there does (or even should) care for the mission of the companies they work for. Rather, I'd like to argue that the question itself is somewhat flawed, at least in relation to the tech companies, given the realities of the world today.