How Unconscious Tech Bias Shows Up In Technology and Innovation

How Unconscious Tech Bias Shows Up In Technology and Innovation

Keith Brooks, Chief Information Officer, City of Oxnard

Keith Brooks, Chief Information Officer, City of Oxnard

Immersed in the tech industry, we inevitably develop and drag along a paradigm of “how things are supposed to be done” - a sort of mental framework or structure that every tech solution needs to fall in line with. For example, if we need a storage solution, we immediately default to the 3-2-1 backup rule with three independent copies on two different types of media and one offsite. But why? Is that really still the most valid method for every backup scenario? With high speed networks, cloud computing and cloud storage, this older on-premise-era rule for backups may not always apply. Case in point, we saved $30K per year in offsite storage fees with one system in particular last year, simply by backing up the entire VM to Google Cloud. Why not?

Recently, I participated on a panel with other Los Angeles area CIOs as part of the Los Angeles CIO Academy. We presented on the topic of how implicit or unconscious bias impacts our technology decisions. The title of the session was, “With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility”. Its premise was that government technology organizations that are diverse and inclusive are more innovative, collaborative and successful. The research shows that unconscious bias is one of the biggest barriers to creating truly inclusive environments. My portion of the presentation centeredon how our implicit or unconscious bias shows up in technology and innovation.

If you’re not familiar with the topic of unconscious bias, it is the concept that everyone develops stereotypes about certain groups of people that form outside of our own conscious awareness. These are the instantaneous perceptions and shortcuts our brain uses to help us process the information we deal with every day. While government organizations generally go to great lengths to prevent and eliminate any unconscious, or conscious, bias in hiring processes, we rarely put the same amount of conscious effort into rooting out the more subtle creep of unconscious tech bias in our decisions.

"In our day-to-day technology responsibilities, we all become conditioned to respond with solutions that we’ve used repeatedly with great success"

This bias also shows up in tech procurement. When authoring RFPs for tech systems, we document thousands of business requirements and hundreds of tech requirements to make sure that every single possible hardware version, software version, interface, database, server, computing device and the like, are spelled out in excruciating detail to ensure that no aspect is overlooked and everything will work. With one recent procurement, we simply added the words, “must work in Chrome” to our final documents. While this oversimplification won’t fit every scenario, if all of the business features of this particular system will function in any Chrome browser, we’ve satisfied 99% of the technical needs.

Among my favorite Yogi Berra quotes is, “The future is not what it used to be.’’ In our day-to-day technology responsibilities, we all become conditioned to respond with solutions that we’ve used repeatedly with great success. The unconscious tech bias sneaks in because we’re unaware that our internal tech decision making framework is not being updated at the same pace as the technology advancing around us. This inevitably leads us to continue business as usual and apply our tried-and-true tech solutions to the new scenarios we’re facing without an examination of the validity of those older solutions.

With the advent of new technologies like pay-as-you-go “server-less” architecture, everything-as-a service, machine learning, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, etc., we’ve moved into a brand new technology home and we’re just starting to figure out what’s in all the rooms. Believe me, the new tech talent we’re hiring has been living in this new technology home for quite some time and has little patience for us learning our way around. They quickly see how decisions made out of our old way of doing things limit us in so many ways. In order to continue to achieve great tech and innovation, we need to make a concerted effort to move from unconscious thought to intentional action, not only in who we hire and promote, but also in how we design and deploy tech and innovation to those we serve.

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