Today we are announcing our search for our next Executive Director. Outgoing Executive Director Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody shares her thoughts as we approach this transition.
It’s easy to talk about how the world is moving faster today than in yesteryear, especially in communities that focus on technology. But when I began my role as founding Executive Director of Simply Secure almost four years ago, the world that we work in was in many ways a different place.
Simply Secure started as an idea between Meredith and Ben. Their vision was to make secure-communications tools – i.e., chat and email applications that support end-to-end encryption – more usable and approachable for non-expert people. We launched as an independent organization in 2014, with commitments of support for our first few years from Google, the Open Technology Fund, and Dropbox. Our team grew, and we diligently set about the work of effecting change. We began collaborations with organizations such as Mozilla and the Prototype Fund, and extended our collaboration with the Open Technology Fund through the Usability Lab. Our focus expanded to include supporting people working not just on secure communications, but on any topic with security, privacy, transparency, or other ethical implications.
In the intervening years “usability” and good user-experience (UX) design have gone from seemingly unattainable ideals to necessary parts of the development process for the internet freedom and other ethical-tech communities. While our efforts to support developers and designers with educational resources, open research and consulting, and peer mentorship have helped this transition, the movement has come from practitioners themselves. It has been a pleasure and an honor to collaborate with a such a diverse and committed group of people, and to help them find ways to improve their products and their teams.
Here are some observations that have manifested time and again during these years.
- Practitioners want to put people first. Very few people build technology for technology’s sake. Most people do it because they believe on some level that they can make the world a better place. This is especially true in communities that have human-rights, internet-freedom, or other civic-minded goals. However, the gap between wanting to put people first and finding good ways to do so in practice can be a big one.
- Professional and cultural barriers can get in the way. Employees of big companies want to do the right thing, but don’t know how to get past a business-as-usual mentality. Open-source developers want to broaden their appeal, but don’t want to get trapped in a corporate mindset – and often don’t know how to move forward when a project is leanly resourced to begin with. When you’re working hard to deliver the parts of a project you understand, it’s hard to find the time and energy to explore dimensions where the right course of action is less apparent.
- Human-centered design can help with all sorts of problems. Whether you’re a software developer seeking to make your tool more friendly, a designer advocating for change within your organization, or a funder worried about the effectiveness of a program or project, design and design-research methods can help bring new insights and directions to bear. Even a short conversation can help “unstick” a team faced with challenges involving users, external communication, or internal processes. Everyone can benefit from a little human-centered thinking.
While bearing witness to these lessons as Simply Secure has grown and changed through the years, so too has my personal landscape changed, most notably through the birth of my two sons. As I look forward to the future of our community, the work it has ahead of it, and to the needs of my growing family, I have decided it is time to pass this leadership of Simply Secure on to someone else. In August I will start as a Lecturer in the Computer Science Department of Swarthmore College, where I will have the opportunity to share human-centered thinking with the next generation of technologists.
The person who comes after me as Executive Director has exciting yet daunting challenges ahead of them. We are a small team with big ambitions. We are making the world a better place through human-centered design, and have shown that even small engagements can have a big impact. We need a leader who can navigate the sometimes-dizzying diversity of our communities (from global north to south, hackers to funders, corporate to counter-culture, geek to design critique). We need someone who can negotiate the challenge of building a financially sustainable organization while fulfilling our non-profit, educational mission. We need someone who dives into details and finds satisfaction in spreadsheets, but who can simultaneously chart a long-term strategic vision. Most of all, we need someone who leads through empathy – for the practitioners we serve, for colleagues within the team, and for the members of the public who ultimately benefit from what we do.
Looking back on my years at Simply Secure, I am pleased to say that I have relished the opportunity to grow the organization from the ground up. I see the difference we have made, and am hopeful for the future. Most of all, I am enthusiastic to support my successor in leading our organization through its next stage of growth and evolution.
If you know someone that would be a great candidate, please share our job posting. We’re relying on you to help us find our next Executive Director!