In 2017, I narrowly avoided being part of the worst data catastrophes in human history. The Equifax scandal affected an estimated 145 to 147 million Americans. Hackers got access to sensitive consumer data including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, and addresses. As relayed in the excellent book Future Ethics:
“A further 209,000 credit card numbers were taken. After nudging a couple of executives towards retirement and offering credit monitoring to affected citizens, Equifax is still, at the time of writing, a $16 billion company, valued just 4% lower than pre-leak levels. The consequences of identity theft fall more on consumers than the companies responsible.”
2020, Cennydd Bowles
Equifax was exactly the kind of name you didn’t want to be associated with your security product in 2017. But, let’s rewind a bit to the halcyon days of 2016.
Me in 2016.
In 2016 I married my deadly wife. Other things happened in the world too, but none of them are really newsworthy. I was at Synchronoss as part of a small team working on the redesign of an identity proofing product called Universal ID.
The simple version had limited verification and required fewer steps (and with that came less design). The advanced version was a bit more interesting, and presented some good opportunities for design. Designed for government bodies, hospitals, and financial institutions meant robust security and smooth integration with identity verification services. We were a decent team with good intentions. Unfortunately, you can likely guess, our partners that would run these critical identity checks. I’ll give you a hint and say it rhymes a little with equine tax.
To hell with good intentions.
It’s a hard sell to say trust us with your personal information when you are giving that information to someone else. In mid 2017 the team decimated. My position felt uncertain with very little work for me to actually do.
I had worked with Synchronoss as a consultant and later as an employee for a few years, but without a team the environment I was in was isolating. The design team in Dublin constituted of me and one other person.
The nearly men.
Nearly everything I worked on in Synchronoss died at some point before release. There were many reasons, and some of the work came back to life over time, but a few years of this can drain you. Incidentally, A PM joked that we only get brought in to officially kill projects that had grown too expensive. It started to feel that way. Like Kind Midas, I had a sparkling shit touch that brought death to projects.
A shift in thinking about work.
I began to reevaluate the kind of work I was doing. I was in a decent job. The money was good but the work wasn’t demanding or especially rewarding. Universal ID seemed dead and I made the decision to start looking and move on.
I am proud of the work we did at Synchronoss. We campaigned and fought to build something inclusive in Universal ID. We fought to eliminate optional questions during the registration flows by tracking down the business rationale for every request we made of our users. The portal design followed a mobile-first approach with a focus on loading quickly. Speed and efficiency were paramount. The needs of people with different abilities and ways of thinking played into how we thought about the product (we anticipated a diverse audience).
We had cool ideas informed by research for making authentication not the worst thing in the world. One was to use the microphones to detect ambient noise as a security measure. Another utilised bluetooth to detect when you were near your device. These measures were to satisfy the technology averse doctors that would otherwise hack the system. Apparently, doctors tend to have other things on their minds than setting secure passwords.
My love for the practice and enthusiasm for the work had waned. The key question I began to ask myself around the time:
Am I causing harm?
I judge myself by the work I do and by the impact it has on the world. Therefore, I don’t identify myself as a designer, but as a person first and foremost. This is modern-day Eoghan speaking. Back in 2016 I probably didn’t think like that, and I certainly never articulated these thoughts to anyone (especially myself).
I am thankful today that this did not ship. There is an alternative reality where the breach doesn’t happen and the project ships. In that world I am the guy who designed the thing that leaks tonnes of personal data for UK residence. In this universe, John Oliver calls me an arsehole during the whole show he does on Equifax.
I focused on the wrong things. Focus was not my strongest point back then. It is not my strong point now, to be honest. I had fallen in love with building the thing, I had not considered the risks.
This is not a question of being clever, but being thoughtful beyond failure and considering the impact if you are successful. What then? One way of staying on course is to keep in mind why you are doing what you are doing. Why is the driving force behind the goal. Why drives the mission.
Remember the mission.
The “smartest man in the world” fell in love with the problem he was solving. Richard Feynman continued to work on the atomic bomb and devastation was delivered even after the threat had gone. Project Manhattan was set up as a nuclear arms race with Germany. Incidentally, Feynman was even meant to go on the plane that dropped the bomb, but the bomb was so successful they decided they didn’t need a scientist.
The bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After the End of World War II in Europe. The devastation was incredible with 80,000 people dying in Hiroshima that day alone.
“Having run this tremendous race and then at the end of it concluded that it wasn’t all that worthwhile. ”
Values you set.
I don’t judge Feynman for this, but it is difficult to excuse him. For me, it resonates as a cautionary tale. I happened to avoid my part in the biggest data breach in history, but only through circumstance. I’ve always been a lucky beggar. I too can focus on what I am doing and forget why I am doing it.
In reality, it comes down to the values you set out during your time on this planet. You cannot have values, if you first don’t value yourself. This is to say people are valuable, and human centered design is about humans first. Additionally, there is a compelling argument that we should be thinking Earth first, but that is a topic for another day. For now let’s talk about you, your value, and values. You need to value yourself.
I was underpaid for the work I did for many years. I undervalued my opinion, contribution, and probably myself. This low opinion of myself is partly an Irish thing. We’re taught not to take a compliments, and I find hard to accept praise to this day. Meaning, we should accept when someone says something nice. Dismissing recognition is a rejection of others. Knowing this, it should be easier to accept praise. The alternative is just rude.