Tech For Good

April 14, 2020

When I decided to leave my last job, I knew that I wanted my next job to be somewhere where tech was used for good. Whatever that meant. Up to that point in my career I had helped a retail giant sell more trousers, advertised a London shopping area, changed the look of online food-shopping delivery slots, and helped people compare broadband deals. Nothing terrible, but nothing life-changing either. But at least I’d done some pretty fun engineering. I had integrated scanners into mobile apps, built complex automated testing systems and spun a web of tools that followed users eyeballs and clicks online. But when the code didn’t work and the days felt long, I found myself wondering what the point of all that great technology was.

 

For the most part, technology is just a tool. Neither inherently good nor bad, tech serves the motivations of whoever wields it. And most apps and websites that have been churned out over the last ten years as software has exploded into our lives have been relatively harmless – get socks delivered quickly and cheaply, search for information as fast as possible, track your calories or fitness. Most tech companies simply seek to make a service more convenient or a product cheaper. But the unintended consequences of tech are becoming harder to ignore. The growth in online shopping has led to a huge increase in last-minute, inefficient, carbon-emitting deliveries. Search advertising has made a remarkably profitable business out of knowing everything about you, with or without your consent. And we are all consumers in the new “gig economy” which provides efficient, cheap services on the back of dodgy contractor employment practices.

 

It’s relatively easy and cheap to set up a new business that takes an established business model and turn it into a tech company (or mash ups of other tech companies). A company that picks up your laundry, washes it, and returns it with a cookie is just an online, slightly more efficient version of a dry cleaners. Such companies are very investable because they are proven businesses. But these aren’t the companies that will change the world. Changing things for the better is difficult, slow, and expensive. It requires the courage to tackle hard problems and the stamina to endure failure after failure. It is not a natural fit for the lightning pace of venture capital and silicon-valley style capitalism. But it needs doing.

 

The work we do at Quin is some of the slowest, most thoughtful I’ve ever had to do. We’re not going to solve diabetes with a particularly slick-looking button. We prototype multiple times, putting designs in front of real users, then redesign (and redesign again) based on their feedback.

 

Then a feature goes through vigorous risk analysis and testing at every stage of our development process, and then validation and more testing. And when we finally release, something that looked great to a user on paper might not be helpful at all when they see it for real with their own dataset. That’s just how diabetes is. This rigorous design and validation cycle puts us at odds with the typical startup ethos of growth and speed at any cost. And to be clear, for a regulated medical device, we work really fast. But we’re not Uber (nor do we want to be).

 

When I interviewed here, Cyndi, the CEO, talked about one of the company’s four values, “show love”. To be honest, I was quite sceptical. Mottos are easy, but holding to them when times are tough is harder (just think of Google’s “Don’t be evil” creed). But it really does guide the work we do at Quin. Many diabetes apps are built to track and judge a person’s behavior. Didn’t keep your blood glucose in range today? Your time-in-range app doesn’t care if you’ve had a stressful week or have been stuck at home or ill (global pandemic anyone?). At Quin, we start from the premise that people with diabetes are doing the best they can under the circumstances of their lives. We don’t want people spending hours every day combing through their own data and judging themselves on the outcomes. Our job is to take a mental load off them, not to make them feel worse.

 

And of top of building a product I’m proud of, I get to work with an amazing group of people who really care about each other. I have never been so unafraid to ask for what I need in a work environment, whether that’s technical advice, a cup of tea on a bad day, or just a morning off. It’s also (uncoincidentally) the most gender-diverse place I’ve worked. We are trying to do so much with so little – but it turns out that a true sense of purpose and lovely people motivates me more than a ping-pong table or free snacks.  

 

Some days at Quin I try to wrap my brain around the enormous problem we are trying to tackle and it freaks me out a bit. How on earth are we ever going to help people with diabetes make insulin decisions that give them good long-term health outcomes while also fitting seamlessly into their lives? I feel like we’re trying to invent healthcare from a sci-fi movie. But it is a deeply interesting and challenging problem that I look forward to chipping away at for the years to come. If we help even a small number of people make the experience of taking insulin less of the overwhelming burden it is today, we will have made a huge difference. Hopefully we will be able to help millions of people who take insulin around the world. On the (many) days when the code baffles me and I want to throw up my hands and quit, there’s a reason to keep going. Because tech for good isn’t just good for the consumers of the products we build, it’s good for the people who build and invest in them too.

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