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⚡ Putting Workers in the Driver's Seat
How to build a worker-run alternative to Uber
The first thing I did when I moved to New York was call an airport ride with The Drivers Cooperative, a new driver-owned ride-hailing platform meant to compete with Uber and Lyft. The Drivers Coop aims not only to bring more money to drivers, but also to prove that tech development can occur under a democratic, worker-owned model instead of a standard venture-backed startup.
I’m thrilled to publish this interview with Jason Prado, The Drivers Coop’s Chief Technologist. It’s an inspiring example of how engineers can “go where workers are and organize with them” while leveraging the scale that technology offers.
🚕 putting workers in the driver’s seat ft. jason prado
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you figure out what you wanted to do, and what are you doing now?
I’m currently the Chief Technologist or Head of Product at The Drivers Cooperative, a driver-owned ridesharing service in New York.
I studied Computer Science at Stanford from 2004 to 2008. I always knew I was going to major in CS because I had been playing with computers since I was five years old. I’m also the first person in my family to go to college or have a professional career.
In college, I interned at various companies and startups in the Bay Area. After graduating, I worked at Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. I was enamored with the tech industry and totally bought into the Californian Ideology. I worked at Facebook for about seven years until 2020. Over those years, the world changed, my politics changed, and so did my view of Facebook.
The 2016 election was a big wake-up call. I realized that maybe my love for Silicon Valley ethos was a bit unfounded. I started looking for other ways to change that I believed better reflected reality.
I joined the DSA the day after the 2016 election and have been active for the past five years. That led to getting connected with other tech workers interested in labor issues and union organizers in the tech industry. I started working on labor campaigns on Facebook campus for security officers, cafeteria workers, and my coworkers.
During my last two years at Facebook, I worked on the cryptocurrency project now called Diem. While I thought some of the goals of the project were worthwhile, I didn’t really believe in what Facebook was doing overall. The goals of Diem seemed so lofty compared to Facebook’s misinformation campaigns, monopolistic practices, and impact.
Eventually, I left. I joined Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign as a data engineer before Super Tuesday. After that, I spent lockdown doing research on cooperatives and collaborative economy. And five months ago, I found The Drivers Cooperative. I joined the organization as the first and still only full-time technologist.
Why are you excited about The Drivers Cooperative?
A platform cooperative is like Facebook, but owned by all of its users and democratically governed.
I found The Drivers Cooperative through Start.coop, a venture fund and an accelerator for cooperatively owned businesses. I became an investor in Start.coop and gave TDC some advice on their tech decisions as they are one of our portfolio companies.
What drew me to the organization was people coming together to solve their own problems. Thousands of drivers in New York City were sick of Uber and the bad deal they were getting. They started asking: “What if we do this ourselves? We have the actual labor here. Can we build our own rideshare service? Can we make tech work for us instead of us working for tech?”
I'm very skeptical of tech guys who are like “I know what these people need, it's an app!” The Drivers Cooperative had an opposite approach. These were very dedicated, motivated people, who knew a lot about rideshare and managing logistics. They literally just didn't have a tech person. That's why I wanted to join.
After joining The Drivers Coop, what was most surprising to you about what workers and drivers need?
In New York, most rideshare drivers are professionals. They're very good at their job and take it very seriously. Yet they're all scared of being deactivated by the Uber algorithm. Their livelihoods can be cut off from them and they can't even talk to a human about it. It sucks to work for someone and not be in control of your destiny.
The Drivers Coop has regulations and operating procedures, because we're a business, but the ultimate say for these policy decisions is made by the Driver Board, which is a board of drivers elected from among the driver membership.
What are the key challenges for the organization right now?
It's hard to compete against Uber and Lyft with their great applications, so tightening our operations and building tech are our biggest challenges. To do that, we have to raise capital, like our successful crowdfunding campaign from two weeks ago. Before the campaign launched, I didn’t believe it was going to succeed, but now it's starting to feel a little bit real. I'm now spending all my time hiring people, and the quality of candidates has exceeded my expectations. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's going to be a difficult six to nine months to transition.
From a technical perspective, you’ve mentioned that your app just isn't as good as Uber. How much does feature parity matter, and how do you win on feature parity when funding is so constrained?
Winning looks different for us than it does for Uber and Lyft. Uber raised tons of venture capital and an absurd valuation. To justify the valuation, they have to win a monopoly. Our strategy has to be different. If we want to employ 10,000 people, help them provide for their families, and be sustainable, we don't have to fight tooth and nail to destroy all of our competitors. Our job is to prove that this works, and it can scale.
But there has to be some other intervention to beat Uber. I think that if you are a local government, you should make it very difficult for Uber to operate. Uber is an exploitative player that takes wealth out of your community and gives it to the people who already have wealth outside of your community — you shouldn't want that in your neighborhood. On the other hand, you should make it easy for cooperatives to operate; you should give them funding; you should give them friendly policies. That's the long term play.
Have you seen interest from drivers in moving into office and operational work, and is The Drivers Coop building that career pathway as a possibility?
There are a lot of tensions here because we have to operate and build stuff. I am stretched pretty thin and our tech stack is going to be stretched pretty thin forever. Uber always took the more technically challenging decisions because they had access to infinite capital. We're not in that situation, so we just have to get business done. At the same time, if we just do a crappier version of Uber and don't empower anyone in the process, then we're not going to succeed.
We’re working on programs to rotate drivers through roles in our offices. Our success will depend on how closely aligned the driver-owners and the staff stay, so this is a priority for us.
In our job listings, we say we want people with the relevant skills and prefer people who have experience in gig labor platforms. That being said, the reality is we also need people who have worked in Big Tech — there's knowledge that you only have if you worked at FAANG. We need that to build things that scale. So it's really, really difficult.
What are your hopes and dreams for what The Drivers Coop can become?
I've been thinking about an API that describes gig work at a semantic level. You would have different players competing at every level of the stack, like your local food delivery cooperative could have multiple front end apps. It’s very early, but we’re having conversations with other cooperatives about what interoperability might look like. If we figure out the one true API for gig work, then we can start to muscle in on Uber’s territory the way Mozilla tried to challenge the monopoly browser platforms.
Interoperability is a hard path compared to one guy on top telling everybody what to do. Maybe everyone who works on cooperative platforms could come together to challenge that. That's something that you can't reason about abstractly, you just have to try.
What do you think about DAOs being used to form coop-like structures?
I talk to VCs whose first question about The Drivers Coop is “Is this a DAO? I'll invest in a DAO.” It’s like, come on. Our driver base is over 90 percent immigrants. We have some tech-savvy drivers for sure but it’s not the norm. Most of our problems are very operational, like can we get some documents uploaded from a driver and get them driving.
That being said, our platform has to scale. We want to scale it to other verticals and scale all kinds of management processes. I think DAOs are kind of cool, and scaling to two million people is something that they might enable someday — to run this congress of every gig worker on earth and build the one true labor platform of the future.
There's a lot of potential in blockchain, but we're not guaranteed to have emancipation through such technologies, so I approach it with a reasonable amount of skepticism.
What other coops or alternative structures would you want to direct more attention towards?
I would keep an eye on Start.coop, who makes it through their accelerator, and watch them for the next few years.
A lot of young technologists are balancing the desire to work on values-aligned projects like coops versus learning skills at FAANG companies. There isn’t any one size fits all advice, but what would you recommend for folks in this position?
It depends on what you're looking for. Definitely prioritize your financial situation — pay off your student loans, support your family.
Labor organizer Jane McAlevey wrote this book called No Shortcuts, which is about strategy for labor and progressive organizing. Somebody asked her what they should do if they are a young student and want to support the movement. Her advice is to get really, really good at your job. The labor movement doesn't just need more staffers. What it needs is more people embedded at workplaces and more people with the right mindset as our leaders. The best organizers are the best workers, so get good at your job and become respected in it, so that when you lead a workplace struggle, people will follow.
For people who are straight out of undergrad and thinking about whether to join something impact-motivated or to get in two years at Google, I don't know. I'm a little biased, but having Google on my resume has carried me a long way. When you tell people afterwards that you're working in a social impact startup, they’ll take you seriously.
If you want to prevent values drift, just don't get too comfortable. I’m still friends with folks from Google, and we focused on our careers together for a long time. But my community has changed over time — it is more socialists and organizers and critics of tech, which keeps me honest.
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Jasmine & Reboot team