Why we don't use "technical" and "non-technical" at Mem
A few little words. "Technical" and "non-technical". They seem innocent enough, and pretty much standard parlance in Silicon Valley—such as "a startup looking for its first non-technical hire". Yet as I've realized, these little words can have a big impact on an early-stage company looking to build an inclusive and high-performing culture.
During my seven years as a designer at Google, I was part of the Engineering organization which included engineers, designers, and product managers. (The other big part of Google was Sales/Global Business Operations.) Being in the engineering org felt normal to me. After all, I'd always considered myself "technical": I'd taught myself to code in middle school (learning via Neopets), troubleshooted my parents' computers, worked in specialized software like Figma, and collaborated with engineers every day. Belonging to the engineering org of a big tech company helped reinforce that self-identity.
So I would've thought nothing of those labels when I joined Mem, where the terms "technical" and "non-technical" were also used casually, in everyday chats and light jokes about how to split up into teams for a board game... except for the times when I was put in the "non-technical" bucket.
I'd feel a small jolt whenever that happened. Not necessarily because being labeled "non-technical" was bad or there was any malice behind it (although because of Google's engineering-centric culture, I'd enjoyed some perks that made one bucket seem better than the other). I started paying attention because for the first time, the label was different from my own self-identity. My first thoughts were to prove to people that I was just in the "wrong" bucket. But then that got me thinking—what did these labels even mean? What was the point of using them? And more importantly, how might thinking about our teammates in this way affect Mem's culture?
I talked through these thoughts with our founders, Kevin and Dennis, as well as others on the team, who were supportive and receptive. I did some more reading on the topic from others in tech who felt similar reservations about these labels. And as it turns out, little words can mean a lot. Little words can affect the way people view and treat each other, and themselves— everything from creating an unspoken social caste system where "technical" people's time is prized over all others', to preventing "non-technical" people from wanting to write and deploy code to production (e.g. making changes to the marketing site).
And so, drawing from our past experiences at other companies, and discussing more intentionally the type of culture we do want to foster at Mem, I worked with the team to draft up an internal memo for how we'd like every Memer to see themselves, and each other. We're sharing this memo below, and hope it inspires you to reflect on the kind of default labels and categories that might exist in your own organization.