Quick Thoughts on the Google Walkout

The Google walkout is the highest profile incident yet of employees demanding that the the Silicon Valley giant take action. Google said it would stop providing artificial intelligence for a Department of Defense drone program after thousands of employees signed a petition opposing it. In August, Google staffers were in an uproar over the company’s involvement in a censored search engine in China. James Damore was fired after publishing an article internally that argued that women were inferior coders.

A New York Times article last week, on how the “creator” of the Android operating system, Andy Rubin, received $90 million when he left Google in the face of allegations that he’d pressured an employee into preforming oral sex, a charge Google investigators deemed credible, triggered the walkouts. Wired summarized some of the related issues:

Recent allegations about inequity inside Google include a Department of Labor investigation into systemic gender pay gap, a lawsuit alleging gender bias in pay and promotion, a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, and the doxxing and harassment of diversity advocates after a since fired Google engineer argued in a memo that women were less biologically suited for technical roles.

The demands:

I particularly like #1 and am glad they put that first. Mandatory arbitration clauses are designed to deprive employees and consumers of legal redress. #2 is an “obey the law” demand; #5’s board member is similar to the German practice of having labor representatives on the board.

Management’s response was meek, perhaps because it doesn’t see itself as being from a markedly different class from its workers. From the Guardian:

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, insisted that the company had taken a “hard line” over sexual misconduct and would support employees who took part in the protests.

“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action,” he said.

I have to confess that I’ve been scratching my head as to what in Google’s culture facilitated this outcome. I’ve worked for elite companies, and they’ve been adept at keeping supposedly very sought-after people insecure. Goldman and McKinsey were self-conscious about hiring people who were insecure. On top of that, some employers where is is difficult to get in the door are very cult-like. For instance, the employees lives become all bound up with work (at Goldman, employees were expected to get summer shares or homes in the communities where other Goldmanites hung out) and are indoctrinated to think that leaving would be a huge step down. Cults are a great business model: the followers are very devoted.

Even when dissent is encouraged, it’s on the project level. For instance, at least historically, Bain would have team members vote monthly, anonymously, as to whether the engagement they were working on was adding value (Bain client teams were large by the standards of those days). If a majority said “no,” the assignment would be wound down pronto. And even if those measures resulted in short-term costs, they were intended to be quality control checks to help preserve the reputation of the firm.

Google, with its lavish perks designed to keep people on campus (three meals a day, cooking classes, gyms, massages) looked to be intended to have workers become very attached to Google. And the famed difficulty of getting hired there should create a sense of elitism and exclusiveness. So how was the ground laid for this sort of rebellion?

The first is, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened sooner, is that programmers and systems administrators are positioned to hold employers hostage. Programs are just about never well enough documented for someone outside the original developers to know it well. But at big companies, the software professionals are virtually without exception seen as the help, so even if they are critical to keeping essential programs functioning, they’ll often be tossed over the side, and then have to be engaged at a much higher pay rate to salvage the situation, or the company has an expensive disaster but finds a way to blame something other than firing the wrong people.

Another factor that has worked against techies becoming a political force is that a lot of techies are libertarian. In addition, programmers outside the very top companies are likely to have well-founded concerns that they might not land a new job quickly.

But the one time I had a long conversation with a Google employee, one who’d done serious academic work before coming to Google, was openly not terribly attached to Google. He was facing having to move out of the US due to Trump’s changes in immigration laws. Even though Google would post him in Vancouver or Toronto, his attitude clearly was, “If I am going to have to move, why should I stay with Google?” While the plural of anecdote is not data, that wasn’t what I expected to hear.

But here is a key explanatory factor for Google’s case, found at the very end of the write-up by the seven central walkout organizers of the situation at Google and their demands:

A company is nothing without its workers. From the moment we start at Google we’re told that we aren’t just employees; we’re owners. Every person who walked out today is an owner, and the owners say: Time’s up.

Needless to say, this is a radically different view of employee rights than you see in most public companies. There was considerable upset in the Wall Street Journal’s comment section over the walkout, with sexist ands”snowflake” comments, demands the protestors be fired. And there was also this one from Sree Srinivasan:

These protesters at Google ought to watch 1970 movie “Molly Maguires” starring Sean Connery (the true James Bond, but not in that movie) as “Black Jack” Kehoe. That movie portrays the struggles of coal miners fighting oppression by mine owners in 19th century Pennsylvania. Forget bloody miners’ strikes, where the consequences of protest were life or death matters. Even Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience made it clear that those who dare to disobey must be willing to bear the punishments meted out by the authorities. What did these protesters at Google have to lose, when the management is so eager to pacify them? If you expect to lose nothing by your protest, do you really hope to gain anything for your cause?

Indeed, I find it hard to feel much solidarity with workers who can go out and spend a day protesting, with management approval, and not even have their pay docked. Perhaps they have accurately assessed that Google has such a glass jaw in terms of its perceived need for top “talent” that it is hyper sensitive to any PR that might lead prospective employees not to consider them. But given the state of Google’s search engine, from the outside, it looks as if its claims of tech excellence are running on brand fumes.

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