Anil Dash: Disrupting the disrupters

25 Apr 2019

Anil Dash, CEO, Glitch. Image: Reggie Cunningham

Anil Dash isn’t the CEO that the tech world deserves, but he is the one that it needs right now.

Anil Dash intrigues me as a tech CEO, because he doesn’t fit the mould that has apparently shaped a sizeable batch of tech CEOs. While he may not claim the headlines of fellow CEOs Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos et al, Dash has carved out his name by being the kind of disruptive force most merely threaten to be.

To his half a million Twitter followers (of which I am one) he serves up thoughtful tech leadership, commentary and critique, peppered with palate-cleansing Prince references. His industry criticism holds more weight now he is in the CEO club. Where previously he was “ignored and scoffed at”, he said, “I’m taken seriously now.”

Walking the talk of the tech evangelists who promised us new business paradigms, Dash delivers on leading differently. In 2017, he introduced ‘climate leave’ to the business lexicon, addressing our present-day weather extremes and a near future in which they are set to escalate, impacting the way we work.

Speaking to him ahead of his upcoming appearance at Inspirefest in Dublin, he also told me how his company, Glitch, strives to cover staff’s healthcare. It’s not free massages at the Googleplex or conference rooms fitted out with the latest gaming systems, but why spend money on these facile things when you can really make an impact?

Dash detects a “baseless, amorphous fear” among his peers. Fear is not a quality often associated with CEOs, but neither is the idea of following a by-the-book recipe for success, even though that is the case for many.

“You go to this place, you get money from these people, you make your office run this way, and that’s what you’re supposed to do – and I think that’s a really dangerous assumption to make,” said Dash. “We are so loudly insistent about how disruptive we are, and how innovative we are and how much we upend the status quo. Yet when you say, ‘Well how come you’re doing this thing that’s broken?’, they say, ‘Well that’s how we’ve always done it.’”

Glitch please

Glitch is a unique entity. The story starts two decades ago with Fog Creek Software – not a household name but certainly an influential producer of some fan-favourite tech products. The Fog Creek team is where Trello and Stack Overflow were born, and Glitch began similarly as an internal hackathon process, which evolved into a flagship product before subsuming the whole company.

“It’s simultaneously a brand new start-up with a brand new product, as well as a 20-year-old company that has all this experience in building very large-scale successful products,” Dash explained.

Launched in spring 2017, Dash has previously described Glitch as “like YouTube or SoundCloud, but for apps or bots or VR experiences instead of videos or songs”. Users can find and enjoy what others have built as well as remix and create their own projects.

‘You can get better at these things while you grow, not worse’

As a platform and a community, Glitch blends the foundational ‘old tech’ mindset upon which the internet was based 30 years ago – open and collaborative – with new, radical thinking on what a start-up is and should be. So far, it works. “People are building millions of apps and sharing them with each other, and that’s something that feels connected to a longer tradition but also not possible before this very moment,” said Dash.

The company has more than doubled in the past three months, adding more diverse representation to its 52-person team. Its mission statement is ambitious. “We’re here to push the tech world to do better,” the website declares. Aligned with this goal, Dash explained how emerging companies hesitant to be early adopters of practices that will benefit employee wellbeing (such as free healthcare) are “conceding the battle before it’s even fought”. And that also seems to be the case with how they manage their products.

Scale up, don’t fuck it up

Fast-growing tech platforms will say that the biggest challenge they face when scaling rapidly is moderation. The standard response to this hurdle has been to go around it, shirking the responsibility when a platform built on good intentions is abused by its users. Glitch has opted to go high.

“You can get better at these things while you grow, not worse,” said Dash. “In fact you have to.”

The irony is, tech companies know well how to scale fast and responsibly when it comes to the tech part. Our expectation is for tech to become faster, better and smarter as companies grow, said Dash. “But when it comes to humans and how we treat them, and communities and how we moderate and manage them, we expect to get worse as you grow, and there’s no reason for that.”

On Glitch, the platform has been engineered for good behaviour. For example, users are actively invited to help one another and send a ‘thank you’ that will fill a fellow’s screen with hearts. This is the only metric that matters in terms of growing in the Glitch community, so that helpful, collaborative behaviour is encouraged.

This stems from a tradition at Fog Creek and now Glitch where co-workers explicitly thank and congratulate each other for a job well done. “Of course a company where people explicitly thank each other has built a platform where one of the first features we built is the ability to thank each other. The culture connects to the product connects to the community in a very straight line,” said Dash.

Creating an online community that’s engineered to counter abuse also requires a diverse team. “There are challenges and problems and risks you only consider if you’ve encountered them,” Dash explained.

‘When it comes to humans and how we treat them, and communities and how we moderate and manage them, we expect to get worse as you grow, and there’s no reason for that’

Platforms may not be able to anticipate each and every unintended consequence of what they create, but applying the same practices they use to develop robust products that don’t fail under technical duress could certainly help.

“In technical scaling, if we say we need to handle a million more users or a million more apps, we’re used to anticipatory design,” Dash observed. “[Tech companies] simply don’t do the same care and preparation for the potential risks to people as they do to potential risks to system or software.”

It’s the epiphany moment we need to see the rest of the tech world acknowledge: “We need to plan for scaling human interaction just like we plan for scaling servers or code.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic