Josh Forde
By Josh Forde
Director

Getting to grips with social good in Rabid's philosophy

One of the most challenging topics we talk about is blending a sense of doing good along with what we do here. Rabid is a commercial company - we make a profit and are proud of the value we create in doing it. As founders, we also care deeply about the impact that our work has and believe that we can do better in future. With a great team that’s growing, and a growing number of clients, I’m well aware of the need to maintain a sense of identity that people can understand as recognisably “us”.

Below is a rather random range of thoughts on this very complex issue.

Each definition of social good is personal and reflects very different values and motivations.

We all have issues that we are passionate about - the environment, poverty, political initiatives, education, diversity, personal development, open source - the list doesn’t end. From time to time we get a surprise that a project we are excited about doesn’t really inspire a colleague in the same way. This can be surprising and can also be sensitive when we have a passion for a given area and others see it as just another day at work. These differences can be quite stark.

One of the things we want to work on is to try to understand what each person’s personal motivations are about and explain our impact in these aspects - this is more demanding than projects generally “feeling nice” therefore we do them. I personally find this challenging as I have strong views about a wide range of topics and can struggle to understand why others aren’t as excited.

Tech tends to favour pragmatic approaches towards problems.

We generally succeed by capturing an idea and building code and computing around that one idea. I include myself in this camp. We need to spend time outside of our domain of competence to really understand how to make an impact.

The big opportunities to do good and make change are surely multidisciplinary - I find the Give Directly project deeply inspiring, for example. They are absolutely involving tech to support their model. That is, giving poverty-relief funds directly to the poorest people rather than delivering services through NGOs in developing countries.

But this includes a significant amount of other context and experience. The way they document their project, data and learnings in real-time to me speaks more about an “agile”, always-learning approach than anything intrinsically demanding from a computing perspective.

A lot of us have this deep desire to build approaches to big problems. It’s a huge challenge to try to develop a workplace culture that can take on truly bold new approaches like Give Directly and step outside of their own specialisations.

Stop making profit the show-stopper.

I feel like this is an ongoing topic but it feels like a point that hasn’t generally been accepted.

We need to resist the feeling that the work we do on a commercial basis doesn’t inherently have social value on equal terms with what we choose to do outside of billable hours. Elon Musk doesn’t let his for-profit structure interfere with his story of creating green electricity. In New Zealand, a similarly ambitious cadre of companies would absolutely transform the well-being of New Zealanders and provide exciting jobs and spinoffs.

A couple of our commercial projects have social impacts that could surpass some of our existing charitable impact - we can’t talk about them in public yet and many of them are very experimental. Charitable endeavours are an important part of what we do, and so are our commercial projects. It’s about balance.

I’m interested to see how our thoughts of making social impact where there are profitable opportunities may play out with a little more time.

Good people will do good things.

We have a 20% time budget for staff. This is self-directed time with an expectation that new staff first spend it on upskilling in our current processes. People use this time in very diverse ways. Significant amounts go into technical research and experimentation, and staff themselves work on whatever they choose. I doubt we could achieve the same level of professional development by controlling the process. Conference attendance and presenting, organising community events, research on emerging tech, being a director of not-for-profits, and volunteering on good causes or open source are all part of the mix. For example, I hugely appreciated the team volunteering their own time on the Aotearoa New Zealand Sign Language dictionary application features that weren’t funded.

It’s nice that we’ve been able to experiment with a means of giving people control of some of their energy and observing that they achieve really good contributions in the community. Of course we have a lot of potential to evolve and improve this time in future.

It’s never as easy as it seems.

I suppose what underpins these thoughts is an interest in entrepreneurship combined with some of the lessons of our progress on our own journey. At this time of year it is easy to forget about the real progress we’ve made.

We’ve put time and energy into exploring social projects in the areas that interest us. We’ve sought to bootstrap projects, advised experts in various domains on what tech could do for them, applied for grant funding, given pro bono advice and support.

To be honest, many of these initiatives have led to some harsher “learnings” - it’s not all about success! Yet I suspect in years to come our interest in areas beyond existing consulting opportunities will give us the experience and insight to work in more bold and scalable ways. Hopefully next year we’ll be telling you all about it.

If any of this sounds interesting or you would like to drop me a line, feel welcome to say hello at josh@rabid.co.nz.