Basecamp made the news in April 2021 following the decision to forbid “societal and political discussions” internally – one of many changes which led to over a third of staff resigning en masse.
CEO Jason Fried went on to issue a public apology, taking to the company’s blog to say:
“We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up culturally in ways we never anticipated. David [Heinemeier Hansson, CTO] and I completely own the consequences, and we’re sorry.”
Below, we’ll take a brief look at the subsequent fallout, as well as listing potential ethical alternatives to the company’s software.
What is Basecamp?
In its own words, Basecamp makes “project management, team communication, and email software”.
Formally known as 37signals, output was shifted from web design to web applications in the mid 2000s, with the release of the initial Basecamp software package, followed by Backpack, Campfire, and Highrise, which are all available for iOS, Android, macOS, and PC.
The company is all-remote – which makes sense as it can use its own software for work. .
Growth has been steady, with a reported 3.5 million accounts as of 2021. And despite the recent bad press, user numbers have increased following the news of staff deciding to leave.
‘Changes’ at Basecamp
Much of the furore seems to stem from recent internal changes, which could be construed as pushback from management after staff asked the company to look inward to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In 2009, Basecamp staff began to keep a list of customer names they thought were ‘funny’. A decade later, this was interpreted as being racist; an employee used the Anti-Defamation League’s pyramid of hate to argue that the list was part of a spectrum contributing to racist violence, and culminating in genocide.
This led to the post, entitled ‘Changes at Basecamp’, where CEO Jason Fried banned “societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account”.
He went on to explain:
“Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, WhatsApp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.”
On the face of it, this seems a fair statement; it’s not necessarily smart to discuss politics at work, especially if doing so causes divisions between members of staff.
However, Fried and co-founder Hansson also disbanded an internal committee of employees who had volunteered to work on issues relating to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) within the organisation; not particularly forward-thinking.
The committee had started by looking at the hiring process, as well as associated vendors, employee socialisation, and the type of speakers the company invited to their twice-yearly in-person gatherings.
The Pyramid of Hate
The originator of the list of names had long since left the company, but two contributors remained on staff. (The original list was deleted, but a copy resurfaced thanks to the DE&I committee.)
On 13 April 2021, these two employees issued an apology using Basecamp’s internal chat, hosted by the company’s own software. Included was a link to the pyramid of hate, as seen in the image above.
Casey Newton reported for The Verge:
“Employees responded mostly positively to the first part of this note. But [co-owner] Hansson went further, taking exception to the use of the pyramid of hate in a workplace discussion. He told me today that attempting to link the list of customer names to potential genocide represented a case of ‘catastrophizing’ — one that made it impossible for any good-faith discussions to follow. Presumably, any employees who are found contributing to genocidal attitudes should be fired on the spot — and yet nobody involved seemed to think that contributing to or viewing the list was a fireable offense. If that’s the case, Hansson said, then the pyramid of hate had no place in the discussion. To him, it escalated employees’ emotions past the point of being productive.”
It’s understandable for the company to keep the focus on the business itself, whether in terms of pure productivity or staff morale. The problem is that it’s difficult to draw a line: what would be considered “political discussion”, and was the management resistant to actionable change?
Ethical alternatives to Basecamp
Basecamp is professional-tier software, allowing multiple users to collaborate on the same project in a number of ways. It was the first application created with the development language Ruby on Rails.
There aren’t many comparable options in terms of range of features, but there are a few which are free and open-source.
OpenProject is “the leading free and open source project management software”. Released in 2012, it supports projects throughout their entire life-cycle.
Three editions are offered, each of which are open-source:
- The Community Edition covers a wide range of features and plugins and will always be free as well as free of charge
- The Enterprise Edition is on-premises and includes installation support, additional premium and security features, and professional support. It is aimed at organizations that manage multiple business-critical projects with OpenProject
- The Cloud Edition provides a professional hosting service for users’ OpenProject, as well as additional premium features and professional support.
It’s a promising alternative, and the company is “happy to support non-governmental organizations (NGO) and open source projects by providing dedicated plans for OpenProject Cloud and Enterprise Edition.”
Though lacking some of Basecamp’s fancier bells and whistles – as seen by its simple Wiki-style website – Redmine is nevertheless packed with features, along with a clear roadmap detailing what to expect from future releases.
A number of Redmine devs forked the project in 2011, with the new app initially named Bluemine before being changed to ChiliProject. After the leader of the fork moved on from ChiliProject in 2012, and development and maintenance had been shut down, the project was officially discontinued in February 2015.
Why is this important? Well, OpenProject is a fork of ChiliProject. It’s a small world, and either could be a viable option.
Released in 2015, Restyaboard includes a free community edition with an open source license.
An open-source alternative to Trello, but with smart additional features like offline sync, diff revisions, nested comments, multiple view layouts, chat, and more, Restyaboard is self-hosted, so data, privacy, and IP security can be guaranteed.
The free version is marketed as a like-for-like Trello alternative, while the pro version allows for anywhere between five and 1,500 users, along with various additional perks.
Users can import existing boards from the likes of Asana and Kantree, and it is ideal for Kanban, Agile, and Gemba boards, as well as business process/workflow management. It can also be extended with a variety of plugins.
“A project management tool for multi-functional agile teams”, Taiga “has a rich feature set and at the same time […] is very simple to start with through its intuitive user interface”.
According to its “origin story”:
“Taiga is an open-source project management software that supports teams that work Agile across both Scrum and Kanban frameworks. It was born out of a frustration with the lack of intuitive and visually appealing tools to facilitate Agile methodologies.”
After being released in 2015, it went on to win Best Agile Tool in that year’s Agile Awards.
It might not have many features, but it’s not trying to compete with the biggest names in the sector. Regardless, it’s a lightweight app that will certainly help with smaller teams and projects.
An open-source task and productivity management tool for startups, Fluxday was developed by Foradian, starting in 2014, and was a critical part of that firm’s growth. Fluxday is engineered on the basis of OKR concepts: objectives and key results.
LibrePlan is a collaborative tool to plan, monitor, and control projects, which includes a rich web interface that provides a desktop-like user experience. All team members can take part in planning, making it possible to do so in real-time.
“LibrePlan is an open source application licensed under AGPL and one of our hallmarks is the open and community-oriented way to manage the project.” It’s open source and can be downloaded, installed, and customised for free.
Basecamp, ethics, and diversity
Diversity and representation can sometimes fall by the wayside, especially in businesses where pursuit of profit is the name of the game.
Coinbase is another example of a company that made the decision to ban political discussions in the workplace, hoping to make it a place of “neutrality”.
This standpoint has been echoed by the likes of Google, whose guidelines state:
“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”
This is understandable if staff are letting personal politics get in the way of their work, but it shouldn’t get to a point where DE&I committees are being shut down.
It’s also surprising, considering that Fried and Hansson have previously written about the importance of positive workplace culture.
However, Fried also noted: “We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will. The new policies stand, but we have some refining and clarifying to do.”