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Three Years of Misery Inside Google, the Happiest Company in Tech

13 August 2019

From Wired:

On a bright Monday in January 2017, at 2:30 in the afternoon, about a thousand Google employees—horrified, alarmed, and a little giddy—began pouring out of the company’s offices in Mountain View, California. They packed themselves into a cheerful courtyard outside the main campus café, a parklike area dotted with picnic tables and a shade structure that resembles a giant game of pickup sticks. Many of them held up handmade signs: “Proud Iranian-American Googler,” “Even Introverts Are Here,” and of course, “Don’t Be Evil!” written in the same kindergarten colors as the Google logo.

After a few rounds of call-and-response chanting and testimonials from individual staffers, someone adjusted the rally’s microphone for the next speaker’s tall, lanky frame. Sundar Pichai, Google’s soft-spoken CEO of 15 months, stood in the small clearing in the dense crowd that served as a makeshift stage. “Over the last 24 to 48 hours, we’ve all been working very hard,” he said, “and every step of the way I’ve felt the support of 60,000 people behind me.”

It was, to be precise, January 30; Donald Trump’s presidency was 10 days old. And Executive Order 13769—a federal travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and a wholesale suspension of US refugee admissions—had been in effect for 73 hours, trapping hundreds of travelers in limbo at the nation’s airports. For the moment, the company’s trademark admonition against evil was being directed at a clear, unmistakably external target: the White House.

To all the world it looked as if Google—one of the most powerful, pro-immigrant, and ostensibly progressive corporations in the United States—was taking a unified stand. But that appearance of unanimity masked a welter of executive-level indecision and anxiety. It probably would have been more apt if Pichai had said that, over the previous 48 hours, he had been backed into a corner by thousands of his employees.

In those first days of the Trump era, Google’s leaders were desperate to avoid confrontation with the new regime. The company’s history of close ties to the Obama administration left executives feeling especially vulnerable to the reactionary movement—incubated partly on Google’s own video platform, YouTube—that had memed, rallied, and voted Trump into office. (It didn’t help that Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had been an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that some 90 percent of political donations by Google employees had gone to Democrats in 2016.) Kent Walker, Google’s risk-averse vice president of public policy, had been advising staffers not to do anything that might upset Steve Bannon or Breitbart. So when the travel ban was announced on the afternoon of Friday, January 27, Google executives initially hoped to “just keep [their] heads down and allow it to blow over,” according to an employee who was close to those early calculations.

But the tribal dictates of Google’s own workforce made lying low pretty much impossible. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the former Montessori kids who founded Google as Stanford grad students in the late ’90s, had designed their company’s famously open culture to facilitate free thinking. Employees were “obligated to dissent” if they saw something they disagreed with, and they were encouraged to “bring their whole selves” to work rather than check their politics and personal lives at the door. And the wild thing about Google was that so many employees complied. They weighed in on thousands of online mailing lists, including IndustryInfo, a mega forum with more than 30,000 members; Coffee Beans, a forum for discussing diversity; and Poly-Discuss, a list for polyamorous Googlers. They posted incessantly on an employee-only version of Google+ and on Memegen, an internal tool for creating and upvoting memes. On Thursdays, Google would host a company-wide meeting called TGIF, known for its no-holds-barred Q&As where employees could, and did, aggressively challenge executives.

All that oversharing and debate was made possible by another element of Google’s social contract. Like other corporations, Google enforces strict policies requiring employees to keep company business confidential. But for Google employees, nondisclosure wasn’t just a rule, it was a sacred bargain—one that earned them candor from leadership and a safe space to speak freely about their kinks, grievances, and disagreements on internal forums.

Finally, to a remarkable extent, Google’s workers really do take “Don’t Be Evil” to heart. C-suite meetings have been known to grind to a halt if someone asks, “Wait, is this evil?” To many employees, it’s axiomatic: Facebook is craven, Amazon is aggro, Apple is secretive, and Microsoft is staid, but Google genuinely wants to do good.

All of those precepts sent Google’s workforce into full tilt after the travel ban was announced. Memegen went flush with images bearing captions like “We stand with you” and “We are you.” Jewglers and HOLA, affinity groups for Jewish and Latinx employees, quickly pledged their support for Google’s Muslim group. According to The Wall Street Journal, members of one mailing list brainstormed whether there might be ways to “leverage” Google’s search results to surface ways of helping immigrants; some proposed that the company should intervene in searches for terms like “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Iran” that were showing “Islamophobic, algorithmically biased results.” (Google says none of those ideas were taken up.) At around 2 pm that Saturday, an employee on a mailing list for Iranian Googlers floated the possibility of staging a walkout in Mountain View. “I wanted to check first whether anyone thinks this is a bad idea,” the employee wrote. Within 48 hours, a time had been locked down and an internal website set up.

. . . .

As the Trump era wore on, Google continued to brace itself for all manner of external assaults, and not just from the right. The 2016 election and its aftermath set off a backlash against Silicon Valley that seemed to come from all sides. Lawmakers and the media were waking up to the extractive nature of Big Tech’s free services. And Google—the company that had casually introduced the internet to consumer surveillance, orderer of the world’s information, owner of eight products with more than a billion users each—knew that it would be an inevitable target.

But in many respects, Google’s most vexing threats during that period came from inside the company itself. Over the next two and a half years, the company would find itself in the same position over and over again: a nearly $800 billion planetary force seemingly powerless against groups of employees—on the left and the right alike—who could hold the company hostage to its own public image.

In a larger sense, Google found itself and its culture deeply maladapted to a new set of political, social, and business imperatives. To invent products like Gmail, Earth, and Translate, you need coddled geniuses free to let their minds run wild. But to lock down lucrative government contracts or expand into coveted foreign markets, as Google increasingly needed to do, you need to be able to issue orders and give clients what they want.

For this article, WIRED spoke with 47 current and former Google employees. Most of them requested anonymity. Together, they described a period of growing distrust and disillusionment inside Google that echoed the fury roaring outside the company’s walls. And in all that time, Google could never quite anticipate the right incoming collision. After the travel ban walkout, for example, the company’s leaders expected the worst—and that it would come from Washington. “I knew we were snowballing toward something,” a former executive says. “I thought it was going to be Trump calling us out in the press. I didn’t think it was gonna be some guy writing a memo.”

. . . .

“[Conservative male Google engineer James]

Damore framed his memo as an appeal for intellectual diversity, identifying his reasoning as a conservative political position silenced by Google’s “ideological echo chamber.” “It’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told at Google,” Damore wrote.

Plenty of Damore’s colleagues, however, had heard this perspective before. Ad nauseam. “People would write stuff like that every month,” says one former Google executive. When the subject of diversifying Google’s workforce comes up in big meetings and internal forums, one black female employee says, “you pretty much need to wait about 10 seconds before someone jumps in and says we’re lowering the bar.”

. . . .

To Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer at Google, the memo’s arguments were especially familiar. Google’s engineers are not unionized, but inside Google, Fong-Jones essentially performed the function of a union rep, translating employee concerns to managers on everything from product decisions to inclusion practices. She had acquired this informal role around the time the company released Google+ to the public in 2011; before launch, she warned executives against requiring people to use their real names on the platform, arguing that anonymity was important for vulnerable groups. When public uproar played out much as Fong-Jones had predicted, she sat across from executives to negotiate a new policy—then explained the necessary compromises to irate employees. After that, managers and employees started coming to her to mediate internal tensions of all sorts.

As part of this internal advocacy work, Fong-Jones had become attuned to the way discussions about diversity on internal forums were beset by men like Cernekee, Damore, and other coworkers who were “just asking questions.” To her mind, Google’s management had allowed these dynamics to fester for too long, and now it was time for executives to take a stand. In an internal Google+ post, she wrote that “the only way to deal with all the heads of the medusa is to no-platform all of them.”

. . . .

On Monday morning, Google’s top management finally met to discuss what to do about Damore. The room, according to reporting by Recode, was split. Half the executives believed Damore shouldn’t be fired. Then YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and head of communications Jessica Powell urged their colleagues to consider how they would have reacted if Damore had applied the same arguments to race, rather than gender. That persuaded them: The engineer had to go. In a note to employees, Pichai said he was firing Damore for perpetuating gender stereotypes.

In his message, Pichai tried to assure the left without alienating the right. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” he wrote. “At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent.”

. . . .

In the past Google had fired an employee for leaking internal memes from Memegen. But when the targeted employees reported harassment, they say, Google’s security team told them that the leaking of screenshots might fall under the legal definition of “protected concerted activity”—the same labor right invoked by Cernekee.

To Fong-Jones, the security team’s answer was both shocking and instructive; she didn’t realize a leaker could be protected. “Everyone thought Google had an absolute right to stop you from talking about anything related to Google,” she says. Yet here Google’s hands were apparently tied by labor law.

Link to the rest at Wired

PG reminds one and all that TPV is not a political blog.

The reason he posted this excerpt from a much longer article is because most SEO strategies used by many authors (or promotional service-providers) are focused on Google. Additionally, within Amazon’s world, similar SEO practices often come into play with respect to book descriptions, the wording of advertisements, etc.

PG doesn’t recall seeing anything recently about Amazon’s practices impacting the visibility of categories of books that promote disfavored ideas but he may have simply missed such reports.

That said, Google and Amazon recruit engineers from the same overall pool of young smart recent college graduates.

PG is particularly concerned about the rising acceptance and use of deplatforming, a form of political action/prior restraint that proactively shuts down controversial speakers or speech, frequently by denying them access to a venue in which to express their opinion.

Under established First Amendment law in the United States, prior restraint of speech (prohibiting  speech or other expression before the speech happens) by government action is greatly disfavored.

A distinction is drawn between prior restraint by government and prior restraint by non-government actors. However, for PG, the underlying rationale disfavoring prior restraint is still persuasive, particularly when prior restraint is focused on squelching a popularly-disfavored view and exercised by a large and powerful corporation against an individual.

 

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2 Comments to “Three Years of Misery Inside Google, the Happiest Company in Tech”

  1. Online platforms’ heavy handed management is just begging for a modern-day equal time regime.

    Nobody is going to enjoy it.

    https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-equal-time-rule-3367859

    They really need to actively adopt a version of the Fairness Doctrine before something worse is forced on them.

    https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-fairness-doctrine-3367860

  2. My warning bells went off at the phrase about the non-disclosure agreement feeling like a “sacred bargain.” That sounds less like a corporation than a religious organization. Which in some ways Google reminds me of – creed, good vs. evil internal stories, a sort of liturgy… That sort of corporate behavior makes me want to back away, then run. Nothing good seems to come of that, and a lot of people tend to end up hurt.

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