Sheryl Sandberg on the importance of social solutions and the responsibility of technologists

‘We have to remember that … people are capable of great beauty and great cruelty’

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is MIT’s 2018 commencement speaker. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Sandberg is well-known for founding the Lean In movement to promote female leadership in the workplace. She is also credited with turning Facebook profitable through a lucrative advertising model after joining the company in 2008. Recently, Facebook and Sandberg have come under fire for failing to prevent Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company, from collecting user information of over 50 million Facebook profiles without the users’ permission.

In a short June 6 phone interview with The Tech, Sandberg highlighted the message she wants to convey in her speech and discussed how MIT students contribute to the hope she has for the world. The transcript of the interview has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

The Tech: Out of all the commencement speech offers you receive, why did you choose MIT?

Sandberg: MIT is the most revered technical institution. For someone in my industry, getting this invitation is a big honor, and I was really excited about it. I’m also a huge fan of your president. He and I have met and talked about what kind of leader he is, how he thinks about everything from resilience to the future of technology. So I was honored — very honored to be asked and I said yes pretty much immediately.

The Tech: What have you learned in dealing with the Cambridge Analytica situation over the last few months — the public fallout, the recognition of mistakes — that you think is most important for MIT graduates to know as they pursue their own careers, since a lot of them will have to juggle technology with social interactions?

Sandberg: That’s exactly what I’m dealing with. I call this [commencement] speech “Technology Has a Human Heartbeat.” And it’s about the interaction between technology and people. While it’s certainly grounded in and draws upon the experience at Facebook, I’m starting with the lesson I learned at my first job out of college, which is working on a leprosy program in India.

What happened there was that — you know, leprosy is this Biblical disease where patients were ostracized for a long time because the disease spread, and by the time I started working on this, say, 20 years ago, all the technical challenges had been solved, you can treat it easily. But people still hid their disease and didn’t come forward for treatment because of the historical stigma. And so people who solved the leprosy problem in India weren’t the doctors and technicians. It was the social workers and the local community leaders, who came up with songs and plays to convince people to come forward without fear.

The point of my speech is that it’s not the technology, it’s the people who use it. It’s the teams who build it. So I’m talking about everything from finding the social solutions to the responsibility they have as technologists, to the diversity of the teams we need building this technology.

The Tech: Is there anything you regret in how you handled the situation? There has been criticism suggesting that you didn’t act as quickly as you should have.

Sandberg: We know we missed things, and I talk about it — you’ll see this is in the speech. We know that we missed things — and you know, it hurts when you miss things. We can look so hard for the good and be so focused on what we’re building that we don’t see every potential harm. And there’s a line I like in the speech, that we have to remember that what we build is used by people, and people are capable of great beauty and great cruelty. And you have to know that.

The Tech: What keeps you awake at night?

Sandberg: I mean, the things I worry about are how do we build the right teams, how do we build the right product, how do we make our product used for good.

The Tech: And what gives you the most hope in the world?

Sandberg: You know — it’s so exciting to do a graduation speech — the last line of my speech is “the future lies in your hands.” Because it does! The graduates coming out today — think about the proud history of MIT, from the genome to age research to so many things that have been built there. I look out at that class and think — oh my God, what these people are going to do … so graduation speeches I think are always very, very hopeful moments.