Insider Q&A: Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson
David Heinemeier Hansson has made a name for himself as one of the tech industry’s more prominent iconoclasts and industry critics. The Danish programmer is a successful entrepreneur who has testified before Congress to argue that Big Tech firms should be more regulated and started an anti-Facebook campaign. He is chief technology officer of Basecamp, which makes workplace collaboration software, and is also the creator of a widely used software development framework called Ruby on Rails.
Hansson spoke with The Associated Press to discuss remote work in the age of the pandemic and why Big Tech’s power should be limited. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Basecamp is mostly remote. Has the pandemic affected how you work?
A: So Basecamp has been been remote for about 20 years and we have all the systems and processes in place to be able to make that a pleasant experience. But I think what’s important to look at with the pandemic is that it’s not just remote work, it’s remote work during a pandemic. So we have a lot of parents at the company. About half the people at Basecamp have families who all of a sudden have to deal with childcare at home or a spouse who has to share the one home office there. So the pandemic part of it has definitely been difficult.
Q: Now we’ve been doing this for a few months, we’ve seen many companies basically switch to remote mode. Have you seen other companies making mistakes switching to remote work?
A: The No. 1 mistake I’ve seen from other companies suddenly being forced to go remote has been that they tried to recreate the office remotely. So if what happened at the office was a bunch of meetings early on Monday morning, those just turned into some calls.
And this whole idea that you can recreate the office remotely is a nonstarter. It’s not a great way to work. Most companies, when they work in the office, work in a very synchronous way that’s dictated around a meeting schedule that mandates where people have to be at a certain time.
Getting rid of that and switching to an asynchronous work style where people don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time is the key to unlocking both the productivity and the sanity of anyone working remotely during a pandemic.
Q: You have been critical about companies like Apple and Google being monopolies. Why do you think they’re dangerous?
A: The power that Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and others have right now to dictate the terms of the digital economy, to capture the lion’s share of all economic activity is unprecedented, astounding and incredibly dangerous.
From 2000 to 2010, I think most people uncritically looked at these companies with just applause. Oh, isn’t Google amazing? Isn’t it wonderful we can connect to old classmates on Facebook? Look at all these wonderful devices. Apple is putting out.
That was the honeymoon phase where these companies faced very little critical reception. That’s not the case anymore. I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are just cheering on. Oh, isn’t Facebook just universally amazing? Isn’t it wonderful that Apple has an iron grip on all distribution of software to the iPhones in such a way that they can shake down individual software makers for 30 percent of the revenue?
I think some of these storylines now have taken over this uncritical applause that these companies used to have. And that’s a huge, powerful and important change that’s paving the way for these regulatory actions. I mean, virtually all energy that goes in to legislation or regulation comes from public perception changing.
Q: Is the way to fix this through regulation?
A: I think these companies are now so large that they are to some extent immune from the normal pressures of competitive forces that normal companies operate under. If a normal company that does not have a monopoly continues to do bad things to piss off large numbers of their partners, vendors and customers, those partners, vendors and customers will simply choose another option.
That can’t happen when you have a monopoly. When there literally is no choice than to go through, say, the App Store to sell software to iPhone users. All you can do is kick and scream. And Apple knows this.
What needs to happen is regulatory action, whether that is mandates on these companies’ behaviors such as preventing them from monopoly abuses, of dictating terms of payment services, or, in Google’s case, opening up their search index to other search engines so that they can use that.
Q: Can you talk about your Facebook Free campaign? What is it exactly?
A: So in 2018, well, in advance of what’s been going on recently with the advertising boycott, Basecamp came to the conclusion that we should not be voting for more Facebook in the world. We had run some tests, an advertising test in 2017 that used Facebook, and we felt icky doing that.
The Facebook machine is a massive engine of privacy and exploitation where targeted advertising violates the privacy of the recipients. And we thought, you know, why are we in this? Why are we doing this? Are we doing it just because everyone else is doing it? That’s not a good reason. We need to stop.
So we decided we would not spend any advertising dollars on any of Facebook’s platforms. We didn’t want more Facebook in the world. In 2020, clearly, we’re no longer early on that. And hopefully it will stick and hopefully it will help change what Facebook is and again, not so much because Facebook is afraid of losing this revenue, but because public opinion will be in part turned by this, which will again fuel legislative and regulatory actions so that we get out of this dystopian hellhole that is a Facebook dominated world.