Wisdom//

Sheryl Sandberg at MIT: “Technology Needs a Human Heartbeat”

Sheryl Sandberg told the MIT commencement audience, “It’s not the technology you build that will define you. It's the teams you build – and what people do with the technology you build.”

Paul Marotta/Getty Images

We’ve been talking a lot this week about our relationship to technology, and our culture’s reckoning with it. In her commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg spoke candidly about the importance of diversity, acceptance, and the necessary “human heartbeat” in technology. Sandberg addressed the need to create workplaces that welcome respect, and told graduates that they have the opportunity to make an impact at their new jobs as soon as they arrive. She also touched on the power of this year’s #MeToo movement, and talked about the necessity to create tools that will better the world. Read on for Sandberg’s MIT commencement speech in full.

President Reif; faculty; proud parents, devoted friends, squirming siblings – and especially Class of 2018: congratulations – you made it!

It wasn’t easy. You plowed through four years of problem sets.

You conquered the winter of 2015.

You survived way too many Weekly Wednesdays at the Muddy Charles and learned this important lesson: There’s no such thing as a free chicken wing.

Today you are graduates of the most revered technical institution in the world. The Harvard people tried to get me to say “most revered institution within a 2-mile radius.” I said no, but you’ll soon find out just how persistent alumni associations can be. Just ask the class of ’68. They’ve been to more fundraisers than you’ve had chicken wings.

One thing I remember from graduation is that feeling of turning one corner – and not being able to see clearly around the next. For someone like me who annoyingly started studying for finals the first week of the semester, leaving college was the first time that the next steps were not clearly laid out. I remember the feeling of excitement and possibility, mixed in with a teeny bit of crushing uncertainty.

If you know exactly what you’re going to do for your career, raise your hand. Wow – that’s impressive. I did not. I didn’t know where I would fit best or contribute most. These days, when I’m facing a hard decision, I ask Mark Zuckerberg for advice… but back then, he was in elementary school.

I was sure of only one thing: I didn’t want to go into business. And it never even occurred to me to go into technology. That’s a warning for those of you who put your hands up. Certainty is one of the great privileges of youth.

Things won’t always end up the way you think. But you will gain valuable lessons along life’s uncertain path. And the lesson I want to share with you today is one I learned in my first job out of college – working on a leprosy treatment program in India.

Since biblical times, leprosy patients were ostracized from communities to prevent the spread of their disease. By the time I graduated from college, the technical challenges were solved. Doctors could identify the disease in early stages and medicine could easily treat it.

But the stigma remained – so patients hid their disease instead of seeking care. I will never forget meeting patients for the first time, extending my hand and how they recoiled because they were not used to even being touched.

The real breakthrough didn’t come from doctors or technicians but from local community leaders. They knew that they had to erase the stigma before they could erase the disease – so they wrote songs and plays that convinced those suffering to come forward without fear. They understood that the most difficult problems and the greatest opportunities are not technical. They are human.

In other words, it’s not just about technology. It’s about people.

This is a lesson you’ve learned here at MIT – and not just those of you graduating with technical degrees, but also with degrees in management or urban planning… or in MIT speak, Course 15 or Course 11. You know that it’s people who build technology – and people who use it to make their lives better. To get educated. To get health information. To share an infinite number of cat videos that are each totally unique and adorable. Unless you’re a dog person.

Today anyone with an internet connection can inspire millions with a single sentence or a single image. This gives extraordinary power to the people who use it to do good — to march for equality; reignite the movement against sexual harassment; rally around the things they care about and be there for the people they love.

But it also empowers those who seek to do harm. And as technology becomes an even bigger part of all our lives, the risks – and the costs of those risks – grow. When everyone has a voice, some people raise their voices in hatred. When everyone can share, some share lies. When everyone can organize, some organize against the things we value most.

Journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote about the impact of new technology. She said we had created the ultimate democracy, where anything said by anyone could be heard by everyone. But she worried about whether it provoked partisanship or tolerance, whether it was time wasted or time well spent. She wondered if it explained “all the furious fence-building, the fanned-up nationalisms, the angers and neuroses of our time.”

She wrote this in 1932 – about the radio. And by the way, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

The fact that the challenges we face today are not new does not make them less pressing. Like the generations before us, we have to solve the problems that our technology brings.

I believe there are three ways we can deal with these challenges. We can retreat in fear. We can push forward with a single-minded belief in the good technology is doing. Or we can fight like hell to do all the good we can do with the understanding that what we build will be used by people – and people are capable of both beauty and cruelty.

I encourage you to choose the third option – to be clear-eyed optimists. To see that building technology that supports equality, democracy, truth and kindness means looking around corners, making sure you are throwing up every possible roadblock against hate, violence, and deception.

You might be thinking, given some of the issues Facebook has had, isn’t what I’m saying hitting pretty close to home? Yes. It is.

I am proud of what Facebook has done – the connections people have created. Proud of how people use Facebook to organize for democracy, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter. Proud of how people use Facebook to start and grow businesses and create jobs all around the world.

But at Facebook, we didn’t see all the risks coming. And we didn’t do enough to stop them.

It’s painful when you miss something – when you make the mistake of believing so much in the good you are seeing that you don’t look hard enough for the bad. It’s hard knowing that you let people down.

In the middle of one of my toughest moments, Michael Miller, former Superintendent of the Naval Academy, kindly reached out to remind me that smooth seas never make good sailors. He’s right. The times in my life that I have learned the most have definitely been the hardest. That is when you will learn the most about yourself. You can almost feel yourself growing – and that includes real growing pains.

When you own your mistakes, you can work harder to correct them – and even harder to prevent the next ones. That’s my job now.

But the larger challenge is one all of us here today must face. The role of technology in our lives is growing – and that means our relationship with technology is changing.

We have to change too. We have to recognize the full weight of our responsibilities.

It’s not enough to be technologists – we have to make sure that technology serves people.

It’s not enough or even possible to be neutral – tools are shaped by the minds that make them as well as the hands that use them.

It’s not enough to have a good idea – we have to know when to stop a bad one.

This is hard because technology changes faster than society. When I started college, there were no cell phones. By the time you started college, there were more mobile phones than people on earth. We are in one of the most remarkable moments in human history – and you will not just live through it, you will shape it.

Many of you will work on technologies that will change the way we live and work. You will connect the rest of the world, alter the human genome, create new jobs and disrupt old ones, give machines new powers to think, give us the means to communicate in ways we can’t even imagine.

We are not passive observers of these changes. We can’t be. Trends do not just happen – they are the result of choices people make, about where to work and what to work on. We are not indifferent creators – we have a duty of care. And when even with the best of intentions you go astray – as many of us have – you have the responsibility to course correct. We are accountable – to the people who use what we build, to our colleagues, to ourselves and our values.

So if you are thinking about joining a team, an NGO, a startup or a big company – ask if they are doing good for the world. Research at that other school down the river shows that we become more creative when we ask “Could we?” But we become more ethical when we ask “Should we?” So ask both. Know that you have an obligation to never shy away from doing the right thing, because the fight to ensure tech is used for good is never over.

To make sure that technology reflects and upholds the right values, we have to build with awareness. And the best way to be more aware is to have more people in the room with different voices and different views.

There are still skeptics out there when it comes to the value of diversity. They dismiss it as something we do to feel better, not something we do to be better. They are wrong. We cannot build technology for equality and democracy unless we have and harness diversity in its creation.

More people with more diverse backgrounds are working in technology – and are graduating in your class today – than ever before. But our industry is still lagging behind MIT.

Even the newest technology can contain old prejudices – and our lack of diversity is at the root of some of the things we fail to see and prevent. It is up to all of us to fix that – people like me, and people like you; all of you graduating today and all the graduates to come.

So continue the example you have lived at MIT. Continue to engage with people outside your discipline, your gender, your race. Talk with people who grew up in different places, who believe different things, who live and worship differently than you do. Talk with them, listen to them, get their perspectives – and encourage them to work in and with technology too.

To all the current and future educators here today – let’s reform our educational system so that we are giving everyone the opportunity to learn to code. This is a basic language now that needs to be taught in all of our schools so that more people have a choice. When some kids learn it and some don’t, that creates an unequal playing field long before people enter the workforce.

And to all the future leaders in tech – and that’s you – know that you have a chance to right wrongs, not reinforce them.

Tech institutions can be some of the strongest voices for progress in the workplace – but we can always do better.

Encourage your employers and policymakers to ensure that everyone earns a living wage. Fight for paid family leave – with equal time for all genders – because equality in the workplace will not happen until we have equality in our homes and until no one is forced to choose between the job they need and the family they love. Give people bereavement leave – because when tragedy strikes, we need to be there for each other.

And build workplaces where everyone – everyone – is treated with respect. We need to stop harassment and hold both perpetrators and enablers accountable. And we need everyone to make a personal commitment to stop racism and sexism, including the expressions of bias that become commonplace and accepted instead of rejected and fought.

I want you to know that you can impact the workplace from the day you enter it. A few months ago, LeanIn.org surveyed people to understand how the #metoo movement was changing work. After so many brave women spoke out, we found evidence of an unintended backlash: almost half of male managers in the U.S. are now uncomfortable having a meeting alone with a woman – and even more uneasy having a work dinner alone with a female colleague. These are the informal moments where men have long received more mentoring than women – and now it looks like it could get worse. For the men here: someone may pull you aside in your first week at work and tell you that you should never be alone with a woman. You know they’re wrong. You know how to work with people in all settings and behave respectfully. So give them advice instead. Tell them that they have an obligation to make access equal – that if they don’t feel comfortable having dinner with women, they shouldn’t have dinner with men. Group lunches for everyone.

In one of my early jobs, I had a boss who treated me differently from the two men on my team – and not in a good way. He spoke to them with kindness and respect but belittled me publicly. I tried to talk to him, but that just made it worse. My two male teammates – right out of school themselves – stepped up and he stopped. Even if you’re the most junior person in the room, you have power. Use it.

Class of 2018, it’s not the technology you build that will define you. It’s the teams you build – and what people do with the technology you build.

We have to get this right because we need technology to solve our greatest challenges. And we will. When I sat where you are sitting today, I never thought I would work in technology. But somewhere along that uncertain path I learned new lessons and became a technologist. And technologists have always been optimists.

We’re optimists because we have to be. If you want to do something that has never been done before, you will be told it cannot be done. Graduates of this university have helped sequence the human genome, paved the way for the treatment of AIDS – and made an MIT balloon appear in the middle of the Harvard-Yale football game.

We’re optimists because we run the numbers. Our world can feel polarized and dangerous – but in many critical ways, we are much better off. A century ago, global life expectancy was 35 – for less than 2 billion people. Today it is 70 – for over 7 billion. When I graduated, 1 in 3 people lived in extreme poverty. Today it is 1 in 10. That is still way too high – but we have made more progress in our lifetimes than in all of human history.

Our challenge now is to be clear-eyed optimists, or to paraphrase JFK, optimists without illusions. To build technology that improves lives and gives voice to those who often have none while preventing misuse. To build teams that better reflect the world around us – in all its complexity and diversity. If we succeed – and we can and should — we will build technology that better serves not just some of us, but all of us.

MIT graduate and former faculty member David Baltimore won a Nobel Prize for his work on the interaction between viruses and the genetic material of the cell. But before that, he helped bring biologists, lawyers and physicians together to debate new gene editing technology. They were worried that it had the potential to cause more harm than good. But they concluded that the opportunities for progress were too great – so they created voluntary ethical guidelines and continued the research. That decision led to some of the greatest advances in genetic science and medicine. It also set a standard that we as technologists can follow: seek advice from people with different perspectives, look deeply at the risks as well as the benefits of new technology – and if those risks can be managed, keep going even in the face of uncertainty.

Class of 2018, you are now graduates of one of the most forward-thinking places on earth. You will be highly sought after. You will have incredible opportunities. You will use what you learned here to work on some of the most critical questions we face.

I hope you will use your influence to make sure technology is a force for good in the world. Technology needs a human heartbeat; the things that bring us joy and bring us together are the things that matter most.

The future is in your hands. Congratulations!

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