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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76 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    Anyone who pays attention to “Up Next” in YouTube … knows how weak their algorithms are. One can make things look better, if the data is carefully arranged beforehand. Same a any other sort algorithm.

    Reply
  2. Jane

    This might be a case of “glass jaw” not just for Google but for the tech and financial industry as a whole. In a world where the “means of production” resides between the ears of millions how do you control your resources? No doubt the powers that be have seen this protest, or something similar, coming for a long while given their push for AI, attempts to corral Open Source initiatives and their widespread insistence on having even low income employees sign agreements that prevent them from going to competitors.

    People can own, fence off and protect physical assets but it’s much harder to control IP. And harder yet to contain and control IP lodged in billions of ambulatory brain cells. Looks like Google employees have suddenly woken to that fact. Question is, when will techies in the financial services and elsewhere do the same? As to their having nothing to lose, history has shown owners don’t choose to pacify for long, pretty sure they are busily putting their heads together to figure out how to put down the next employee rebellion, I doubt “pacification” is on their list of options.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I beg to differ. An employee only generates so much code as part of a project. He certainly can’t remember it. And if he tries stealing it, he will be sued from here to kingdom come. I’ve seen this happen when people merely claimed they had developed something that was similar to what they’d been exposed to at their former employer (this employer was sufficiently strict about protecting its intellectual property that it met trade secret standards). And this guy hadn’t even developed anything, he was sued successfully for hawking vaporware!

      The points of vulnerability are people quitting during projects where it would take work to figure out what to do with what the person who left had done, maintaining/enhancing existing codebase, and general reputation (what if we no longer get the best and brightest???). This was a huge issue at McKinsey in the 1980s when Wall Street was poaching mid-level people and outdoing them on campuses, when before McKinsey and Wall Street both attracted top MBAs. It led ultimately to bad things, with the firm becoming way more mercenary and working hard to boost director pay (the most senior group) so as not to be too far behind Wall Street.

      Reply
      1. DanP

        Yves,

        Your mistaken.

        The value in those brain cells is NOT the individual functions or lines of code. It’s in remembering HOW you solved a problem with that code.

        You do not need to remember specific procedures, just how procedures were structured in relationship to one another for efficiency or function.

        It is understanding the logic of a thing that allows you to replicate it.

        As a matter of fact I just dealt with this. I had a subcontractor that had a very clever program that they overlaid on another COTS application to get it to do some very cool things. We ran into issues with some OCI and they had to transfer some of their staff to us. Eventually I had to cut them loose over the OCI. My CTO met with one of the developers we had captured and was able to figure out in about an hour how to replicate the functions that the sub had built. It took him another hour to figure out how to do it just about as efficiently and not violate our contract or the subs copyright.

        Reply
        1. Clive

          That is, at best, a double-edged sword.

          It sounds convincing that, having encountered a coding problem in one particular sphere of IT, the solution (in terms of the mental gymnastic skills you acquired or developed for yourself or how you cleverly used the features of whatever language you were working in, or how you leveraged what was there already in some novel way if you were working on a legacy application) you came up with sits there, in the back of your mind, just waiting to be trotted out quickly and easily in another situation, without repeating the the pain and time-consuming learning curve you already went through previously.

          But that is just as likely to lead you into difficulties. For one thing, you — when you’ve got a few years’ development experience under your belt — inevitably get a little lazy and your first instinct is, when confronted by a problem, to reach for one of your “proven” pet ideas. The snag is obvious — having created your very nice hammer-shaped tool which you’re justly proud of, every problem you now encounter might seem like (or you want to perceive it as) a nail. Sometimes it really is a nail. But other times its a screw. And your hitting it with your trusty hammer has the same effect.

          For another, you cannot help but get defensive about your little brainchildren. Sooner or later, someone will come along and badmouth your approach. Then, rather than looking at how you’ve chosen to define your “solution” to this now-familiar “problem” and confirm your own understanding that is it indeed the most appropriate way of solving whatever it is you’re trying to solve, you inevitably get defensive at whichever upstart is now picking holes in your perfect — or so you like to think, and why shouldn’t you, it’s your creation isn’t it, it worked before and you’re the experienced dev in the cubicle — notions. Everyone has an ego, after all, don’t we? Before you know it, you’ve become that creature you always hated — the greybeard who is given too readily to fond reminiscences, and somewhat irritatingly on occasions, about how no-one teaches the “kids” how to do things “properly” any more. Sometimes you’re right, of course. But sometimes you’re just a know-it-all PITA.

          And, like it or not, when you work for a salary or contractor’s fees, your work belongs to the client or your employer. If you don’t believe me, try taking anything other than a few lines of generic, boilerplate code which you wrote while on-the-job — your own utility, whizzy stored procedure, your helpful API that every (banking/FinTech/ecommerce/widget maker — delete as appropriate, depending on your main industry experience) company will need to create sooner or later, your novel and oh-so-helpful template for capturing a specification or whatever — and hawking that as your Unique Selling Point to prospective other employers. Either a) they’ll view you with distinct suspicion that you’re willing to do that, because they know that if there’s the merest whiff of proprietary intellectual property about it, you’ll be getting them into trouble for potential breaches of copyright, licencing or confidentiality clauses, let alone yourself or b) they’ll happily take your dubiously declared self-entitled intellectual wares, exploit them as much as they can and if your previous employer or client gets wind of this, they’ll claim they knew nothing at all about any of this stuff being non-disclosure or non-compete agreement bound, they’re horrified, just horrified that you’d do such thing and throw you to the legal wolves. You will, as the saying goes, never write code in that town (or likely country) again.

          Like it or loath it, the industry wants generic, interchangeable and ultimately disposable employees who won’t think — let alone start to act like — they’re dev superstars. There are a tiny, tiny, number of “coders as a brand name” in the world who can truly claim to do in practice what you’re theorising can be done (I can name them all on the fingers of one hand and not need to use my thumb). The chances of you adding your name to that list are, sadly, infinitesimal verging on the impossible.

          Reply
      2. Hepativore

        I would like to see something similar happen in the research or engineering departments of many biotech and R&D companies. Unlike Google making a big public show of pretending to care about its employees and their opinions, the private industries in the “S” and “E” areas of STEM make no bones about how they view their R&D personnel as being disposable. The places I have worked at had an upper managerial culture of “Don’t get comfortable” and frequently operated under the mantra of “You have outlived your usefulness!” whenever a project was completed. This usually means terminating everybody associated with it instead of assigning them somewhere else, preferring to hire another batch of people instead.

        An employee protest along the lines of what is happening at Google at a place like WuXi Apptech or NAMSA would quickly result in every employee that participated being terminated on the spot. Thanks to the huge glut of H1B or desperate workers ready and eager to take their place, such a protest would not get very far. It has been proposed before, but I wonder if there can and should be a way to unionize scientists and engineers at private companies?

        Reply
      3. Jane

        It’s not about stealing code, or trying to memorize it. Over the years programmer’s develop knowledge about the nuts and bolts of coding, understanding how to code, or rather, how code fits together. That’s the real IP. They don’t need to recreate your system, they are capable of creating totally new systems. An asset who learned what they know in your shop can walk out the door anytime and with it goes a part of your growth potential. That’s not true of every programmer but it is true of the most productive.

        Reply
        1. jrs

          And if that had significant value in the marketplace you wouldn’t hear about age discrimination in hiring in I.T.. But of course …

          Reply
          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Correct. I personally know individuals who were sufficiently valuable to Apple that they worked from the East Coast as consultants at a markedly higher pay rate than its most senior programmers for years (Apple normally puts up with this only for a year and makes them go on the payroll or terminates the contract). They would never dream of thinking they could compete with Apple in even a little corner of their business. And they amusingly are older (in their late 50s) and do significant consulting for Wall Street and other big corporates (Fortune 250).

            Reply
  3. Eureka Springs

    I liked the person on the twitter thread who amended the first demand. And was surprised to read Europeans had no idea this type of thing (forced arbitration) existed at all.

    Original: End forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination.

    To simply: End forced arbitration.

    Reply
    1. fajensen

      Does in Denmark. There is no employment law detailing things like wages and so on. The Unions deal with the regulation as part of their collective bargaining process, meaning that confict resolution is via arbitration, lockouts / strikes and sometimes private suits (usually run by the unions legal teams and the employer associations).

      The only actual regulation are things like “Funktionærloven”, which pretty much says that one needs a contract of employment, vacation days and there are some limits on minimum days before dismissals becomes effective and notices of leaving.

      One of the side-effects of EU and the privilege of Unions / Employers organisations defining the laws via collective agreements, is that this is being undercut, f.ex., by hiring someone in Poland / Rumania and stationing them in Denmark on Polish /Rumanian wages and working conditions.

      Now, after only 15 years and some grotesque examples (and Brexi?), does the Unions / Employers think that EU needs legally enforced uniform employment rules :).

      Reply
      1. digi_owl

        And this is why Norway is only inside the EEA via a backdoor agreement, because the grassroot of the unions noticed this issue and thus managed to organize a no vote twice.

        But thanks to the backdoor agreement, negotiated by the Norwegian Labour Party no less, we still have to content with the same problems.

        Reply
        1. Dror Harari

          Yves – you read this out of your mind, not out of Damore’s paper. Nowhere does he argue anything close to “women were biologically not suited to be coders”. You claim to have read the memo but it is clear you hadn’t. Please quote the text and I’ll show you how you are wrong.

          Reply
          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Bullshit. You are the one who appears incapable of reading text closely. Go read the articles I linked to that debunked the memo, since scientists in the field read it the same way. For instance, from the Recode piece by two scientists. Their intro:

            A Google engineer who was fired for posting an online claim that women’s biology makes them less able than men to work in technology jobs has charged that he is being smeared and is a victim of political correctness.

            And the claims that Damore made that they flag later:

            In his July memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” Damore wrote that women on average have more “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.” And he stated that women are more inclined to have an interest in “people rather than things, relative to men.”

            And this:

            Damore also claims that women experience more stress and anxiety than men, and that “This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high-stress jobs.”

            He implies that stress and anxiety are personality traits inherent in females, but more likely they are due to the pressures and discrimination women face on the job that men do not. For example, a 2008 report sponsored by major companies, “The Athena Factor,” found that women in high positions in male-dominated fields, such as tech, suffer harsher penalties than men when they slip up. Women don’t get second chances. Men do.

            One of the report’s authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, notes in the Harvard Business Review that in tech firms, “the way to get promoted is to do a diving catch. Some system is crashing in Bulgaria, so you get on the plane in the middle of the night and dash off and spend the weekend wrestling with routers and come back a hero.”

            But what if you don’t make the catch? “Women have a hard time taking on those assignments because you can dive and fail to catch. If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, ‘It’s not your fault; try again next time.’ A woman fails and is never seen again.”

            Add to that conundrum the fact that just getting in the door is harder for a woman than it is for a man.

            Damore also relies heavily on a study that has never been replicated and is regarded as an “outlier” which is polite-speak for “probably crap”. So he also had to considerably cherry pick the literature to find “studies” that supported his position.

            Better trolls, please.

            Reply
        2. Bobby Gladd

          You are correct. LOL, the latest Silicon Valley self-appointed Legend-in-His-Own-Mind “free speech” martyr is this poignant Andrew Torba guy of Gab.com, whom I refer to as #TorbaTheGeek on Twitter.

          Reply
    1. JCC

      Thanks for the link. I’d never read it before since I rarely pay attention to this type of controversy. But based on my experience in various jobs over the years with the changes in diversity and virtue signaling regarding Damore’s subject, I agree a lot with this memo.

      After reading it, it shows to me that because he got fired for writing this he proved he was accurate in his assessment.

      Reply
      1. Stevu

        Regardless of what one thinks the memo means, it think it’s always important to review the primary source. This is especially true in an age where if one is away from the news cycle for more than 4 hours all you can see is the echoes and responses, and not the original statement/controversy.

        Reply
    2. False Solace

      Firing an employee who stated loudly and with company resources that he felt many of his co-workers were biologically unsuited to their jobs because of their gender and race was the right move.

      Reply
          1. cm

            Thanks for the family friendly reply.

            Unsuited is not what he said. He proposes pair programming, work life balance, etc.

            Additionally, this was an internal memo in response to a request for discussion. He did not leak it to the public.

            The toxic level of discourse leaves this a hazardous topic to discuss. On Slashdot, someone wondered if Googlers who refused to participate in the walk out just killed their career.

            Failure to be able to rationally discuss the topic results in this sort of progress.

            Reply
            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Oh, come on. Pair programming is an accommodation for women’s supposed disabilities.

              And his statement is utterly false. Slashdot published a study a couple of years ago. When blind sample of code were submitted, code written by women scored on average markedly higher than code written by men. I don’t attribute this to women being natively better at coding, but that that women get so much discouragement from going into computing that the women who persist must be very good at it and/or really like it.

              When the code sample were attribute to men v. women, then the women’s code was rated worse.

              Statistically, it’s crap, and he should know that. When you are talking about groups of individuals as large as “men” versus “women,” the differences within each group will be much larger than the differences between the groups.

              And his memo was widely debunked. See some examples:

              https://www.recode.net/2017/8/11/16127992/google-engineer-memo-research-science-women-biology-tech-james-damore

              https://medium.com/@tweetingmouse/the-truth-has-got-its-boots-on-what-the-evidence-says-about-mr-damores-google-memo-bc93c8b2fdb9

              https://www.wired.com/story/the-pernicious-science-of-james-damores-google-memo/

              And this matters due to the fact that expectations influence performance. See the classic study described here:

              https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/09/18/161159263/teachers-expectations-can-influence-how-students-perform

              Reply
              1. Howard Beale IV

                The late Grace Murray Hopper (whom I once briefly met at an ACM conference when I was in college) would beg to differ.

                Reply
              2. digi_owl

                Pair programming is an established method for trying to avoid mistakes that a single individual may do by having a second set of eyes on the task.

                Oh, and Slashdot is just an aggregator. They “publish” just about anything.

                Reply
                1. Yves Smith Post author

                  I am aware that Slashdot is an aggregator, since it is obvious that I read it.

                  You attack is ad hominem, implying there is something wrong with Slashdot. Slashdot has very good links on science stories and its finding that the work product of women is down-rated greatly when attributed to women has been widely replicated in other fields, including writing samples and in music, where women musicians were almost never hired by professional orchestras until unions required auditions be blind.

                  And the study was widely picked up, had you bothered to Google. You now made me waste my time doing that.

                  I am also aware that pair programming is a widely accepted programming method. I’ve mentioned it previously in posts. but if you had bothered reading the memo, Damore was not suggesting it to improve coding quality but specifically as an accommodation for women.

                  Your tone is out of line and you are trying to imply I don’t know what I am talking about. You are accumulating troll points.

                  Reply
              3. g

                I would add that Damore’s statements post-memo make it clear he believes in enforcing gender roles, which is a polite way of saying women should stay in the kitchen and out of high-paying tech jobs.

                Reply
            2. c_heale

              I would like to take issue with one thing here, which is the first statement about being family friendly. This blog is not for children, so this is some kind of passive aggressive response.

              Reply
              1. Lambert Strether

                I think “bullshit” has drifted from it’s origins as “coarse slang” OED) and is approaching status as a term of art, probably because no other words competes for its semantic space. See Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.

                If I had to use coarse slang in front of the children, I’d prefer “bullshit” to terms and tropes that conflate sexual practices with all power relations (like Putin and Trump as gay lovers, ubiquitous among liberals). Those tropes introduce children not merely to coarsness but to category errors.

                Reply
      1. Raulb

        Here is an interesting discussion and debate between 2 experts in the field on sex differences.

        Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender reports even something as simple as just telling girls before a maths test that this is a test in which girls have done well results in dramatically higher scores suggesting the field is still in its infancy and fundamental questions about gender roles and culture remain.

        Simon Baron-Cohen is also well known in the field for his work on autism and stands on the ‘essentialist’ side of gender differences and as readers will note in his review of Cordelia Fine’s book and the ensuing 3 part debate – 1, 2, 3 – with her there are far too many important new questions raised and many that remain unresolved.

        Everything from past studies, preconceptions, data, methodology to conclusions remain in question leaving very little room for non researchers to draw any kind of conclusions.

        In light of this perhaps Google folks should get back to coding and leave the field of sex differences to experts who continue to study but do not have the answers to draw any conclusions.

        Reply
        1. Oregoncharles

          The subject is vexed because humans are designed to make it almost impossible to distinguish culture from genetics, “nature” from “nurture,” as they affect individuals. We are born with very undeveloped brains, so that most of that development occurs under the influence of culture.

          Eventually, if we keep plugging, the personal effects of sexism will wane, and we may find out. But the most important factor is something Yves mentioned: the differences between groups (barring some obvious ones involving babies) are vastly smaller than the differences between people. Consequently, an approach that deals adequately with individual differences will also deal with group differences.

          Furthermore, it’s absurd to apply all this to coding, because it just isn’t that esoteric (not that I could do it). Even if there are detectable skews in aptitude sets between men and women, they would show up only way out on the “tails” of distribution. Does anyone think coding is that extreme? Looked like big crowds streaming out of Google.

          Reply
    3. g

      I read the memo at the time because I had friends telling me it “wasn’t that bad”. When I looked closely I found that he, very politely, suggests that women might be naturally inferior at coding. Maybe there were women at google who appreciated his politeness in questioning their biological fitness for their jobs, but it seems they were not a majority.

      In any case, it is clear from his later statements he believes “strong gender roles” should be culturally enforced, which is another polite way of saying that women should stay in the kitchen and nursery and out of high-paying tech jobs or positions of authority.

      Reply
  4. Jim Shea

    The culture of a company reflects the attitudes of it leadership. Sundar Pichai, an Indian American, may be representative of his notoriously sexist nation of origin.

    Reply
    1. JW

      Please reflect on what you just wrote, ascribing a behavior to someone based solely on their country of birth. I am shocked to see this kind of thinking becoming mainstream again.

      Reply
  5. NotReallyHere

    Interesting take on culture, although it is obvious that google, Amazon et al. Try to create a cult like atmosphere, it is very difficult to apply the model to technical teams where up to date knowledge is key. Highly technical professions create “knowledge and competence” communities independently of a particular company. The important thing for a doctor, for instance, is that he or she is respected by other doctors in the same field. They meet and compete at conferences etc. Your average doctor doesn’t care what the dept head with an accounting degree thinks him/her.

    That psychology applies to engineers (where membership of the institute os XXX engineers is more proudly displayed than current employment status) and to programmers (stack overflow feedback/status is more important than a random review in work).

    Various recent events suggest that programmers are harder to corral into ideological silos. Gamergate was the first full flame war, but the recent Linus Thorvalds drama and the SQLite code of conduct, all suggest that companies like google are fighting a losing battle in trying to treat employees as cult followers. The pushback on the Damore debacle is also interesting. While Damore’s thesis is described as “women are worse programmers” in the piece above it is described as “women on average don’t want these jobs” when described in various programmer fora. The conclusion in many of these fora is “don’t work for these large SJW corps, go open source and live your own life.

    Difficult to apply a cult like culture in these circumstances.

    Reply
  6. DJG

    The employees should unionize. It is more than obvious. But being mainly Americans, the employees have absorbed American prejudices: (1) only stinky manual laborers unionize; (2) white-collar workers are above unionization because they are heroes of the Free Market individually able to negotiate terms and conditions; (3) diversity issues trump economic issues; (4) procedure is everything (arbitration shouldn’t even be an issue–the employees collectively should refuse it); and (5) the libertarian heroes living under their desks think that they are “owners” when they are at-will employees, thoroughly disposable, with almost no protections in U.S. law and virtually no protection compared to European workers.

    So you have a large group of people who don’t understand that their work has worth. As mentioned, they should be walking out for more than a day. A week at a minimum. They have turned into a laboring proletariat that pretty much does as it is told. Live by slogans, die by slogans.

    And yet: Solidarity. This a tiny crack in White-Collar Fantasylandia.

    Reply
    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Yes. They may not be there yet but the more they realize their collective power, the less willing they will be to accept unsatisfactory outcomes. It’s a process, and they are at the forefront.

      Reply
  7. PKMKII

    Another factor I find in suppressing the frequency of these sort of actions is the disconnect between the internal and external view of the software programmers. Within these big tech firms, they are treated as, as you say, the help, to be overworked and undervalued, get little credit, and live under the constant threat of getting displaced by an H1-B visa replacement. However, the larger culture depicts software programmers as being practically gods among men, that they are the smartest, most meritocratic, and that firms will beg them to work for them and shower them in riches. So a lot of young workers coming out of college have bought into that propaganda and assume that’s what their professional experience will be. So it takes a long time, if ever, for them to realize that dream world isn’t coming true.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      google programmers are more elite than many programmers, but yes otherwise everything is H1Bs, noone is all that valuable, but they might get lucky sometimes and get to have a full time job for awhile. Then it’s back to gig work and ubering on the side.

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  8. The Rev Kev

    I’m no fan of the tech industries as I have made plain in previous comments but I have to admit that it riled me when it was said here that “There was considerable upset in the Wall Street Journal’s comment section over the walkout”. Google here is having to pay the consequences of its idiot backing of predatory tech bros which it damn well should. Wall Street has not had to pay the consequences of any of its actions since the “Greenspan put” was announced a generation ago. Come to think of it, does anybody remember the time when the tech companies crashed and nearly took the world economy with it until the US government coughed up tens of trillions of dollars to do so? No, me neither. Wall Street should look in their own backyard first before opinionating on other industries.

    Reply
    1. Summer

      “Wall Street should look in their own backyard first before opinionating on other industries.”

      I was under the impression with valuations over profits that alot of the “unicorns” and bigger tech companies are in their backyards.

      Tech bros mimic the money bag bros…im a sense. The cultures got intertwined with all the money thrown around.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        The trouble starts when Wall Street thinks that other industry should go by how the rules are done in their own backyard. As an example, Wall Street warps the economy such as when they reward companies that cut their workforce – even though those companies are cutting their throats by getting rid of their most experienced people. This is not using balanced judgement to come up with valuations to do with other industries but judgement based on ideological grounds.

        Reply
  9. XXYY

    I’ve been a software engineer for decades. As a group, sw people, while quite bright, are generally politically naive and unsophisticated. I believe this is true of most white collar, university-educated professionals. They believe they deserve certain things and that their employer will obviously give it to them because that’s the right thing to do. Most have not had much reason to question these beliefs. If some employer does treat you badly, the usual response is to find somewhere else to work, not to try to change the employer or the industry as a whole. While sw people do have a certain leverage because of the abstruse nature of their work and the accumulated value in their heads, they are generally quite fragmented and isolated and in the past have no class consciousness or sense of solidarity. Consequently, there’s no history of pushing back against unfair or exploitative practices; I don’t think the idea would even enter most sw people’s heads.

    So the action at Google is quite unprecedented in many ways and its importance should not be underestimated or dissed. When a baby takes its first few steps, it’s remarkable and noteworthy even if their stride is a bit wobbly and they fall down after a few steps. It’s a sign of things to come.

    Reply
    1. False Solace

      I think the naivety lasts until the first round of layoffs. I remember coming in to work one morning and the bright-eyed young ASEs looked profoundly shaken. They’d believed all that management stuff about the workplace being a “family” and how much they all cared…

      Reply
      1. XXYY

        Even layoffs in my experience lead, among sw workers, to people blaming themselves and to a determination to “make myself more valuable next time” so that *other people* will be laid off in the future instead of me. In other words, they see themselves as powerless individual atoms who will rise and fall at the whims of others. This is fully internalizing the view that management wants us to have.

        They do *not* react with a determination to work collectively with others to create a better workplace.

        Hopefully this is beginning to change.

        Reply
  10. JW

    Maybe the answer to why this walkout now is Trump’s crackdown on H1B abuse?

    IT is virtually the only highly trained occupational field without guild-like licensing requirements. And thanks to that, they have been terrorized by the specter of H1B replacement.

    Also they can claim this is in the cause of identity politics which is a politics the nomenklatura approves of so they won’t get roasted outside the pages of the WSJ.

    Reply
  11. fajensen

    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.

    Two opposing forces – the libertarians would been reading sites like “Mr Money Moustache” and saving 20-50 % per month of their exorbitant Google Salary and would be sitting on a real solid pile of “‘Naff-Off” money.

    OTOH, they are also smart enough to know that they will be secretly black-balled with HR in all of the top-5/7 Silicon Valley companies on leaving in “bad standing”. When I worked with IT, there were often contracts with trixy non-compete clauses that would in reality keep them out of their game for 2-3 years.

    Most of them just like the idea that they could just quit and live in log cabin equipped with solar panels. And most of them wouldn’t dare. The supremely confident with something to have it in will always be capable of doing what they want.

    Finally, it is a lot easier being consistent-y smart and creative when one has a steady supply of “good problems” and competent, smart people, to discuss them with. Innovation and creativity just happens a lot faster where different fields of expertise are overlapping at the edges, it is more like a team effort, the proverbial lonely genius professor with poor social skills are at a distinct disadvantage.

    Leaving “The Hive” might therefore leave ones faculties severely diminished, especially if ones actual talent is really in “finding good problems and getting the right people together to solve them” instead of being a super expert in many fields.


    PS – If someone paid me 90 million USD to get sacked for harassment, I’d be harassing right on Monday!

    Reply
    1. False Solace

      Non-competes are illegal in California which probably explains why it’s such a hub of innovation. Without such protections, if you get fired you really are automatically blackballed from your industry. As for saving half your salary, good luck with that given the housing costs in CA.

      Reply
    2. Antagonist Muscles

      Andy Rubin sounds like an awful person from what I have briefly read about him. I won’t even get into the numerous poor decisions over an extended period of time for Android security. But what a coup he engineered. He pressured a colleague into oral sex and then walked away with $90 million.

      Where do I sign up for this kind of “work”? This seems like the perfect opportunity to say something politically incorrect about the times I coerced somebody into sex and what I walked away with. (Never happened.)

      Reply
  12. Raulb

    Sv based software folks are building incredibly invasive surveillance systems that most would find abhorrent. Google already collects, collates and correlates data from your computers and phones via android and hoovers up more data on pretenses of ‘improving user experience’ without transparency and disclosure on what ‘else’ the data will be used for.

    They also mop up data from wifi routers in the vicinity so simply changing your devices to escape any existing profiling is not going to help. There have been multiple attempts by facebook and google to get even more data from external sources like hospitals and financial institutions to enrich their profiling. They have location history, activity history, interests and can infer political leanings, sex, age, religion, race to offer micro targeting to advertisers.

    Given most sv based software engineers claim to be pro liberty and freedom there is an alarming dissonance at play. There have been no resignations, protests or even leaks to alert the public of the level of stalking. There is a certain disconnected ahistorical existence that is allowing so many to voluntarily build surveillance systems that will inevitably be abused without self awareness of complicity and responsibility, not unlike wall street before them.

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      Given all that, it’s remarkable how bad a lot of their “targeting” is.

      From what I see, it’s just about on the level of advertising gardening supplies in gardening magazines, and sometimes completely off-key.

      Reply
  13. Duke of Prunes

    Google is reaping what they’ve sowed. By straying from a pure tech company to dabbling in their definition of “social justice”, they’ve attracted and encouraged employees with a more “activist” bent. No surprise that this activism is not content with external targets and is now looking inward.

    Reply
  14. dcblogger

    I am thrilled with these workers. Anytime someone stands up for themselves, it is a very good thing. As a women I am thrilled that a predominately male workforce takes the issue of sexual harassment seriously. Also, anytime workers stand up for themselves and win it encourages others to stand up for themselves. This is a great victory and it should be celebrated.

    Reply
  15. Sparkling

    They have a lot of leverage precisely because they’re not going to get penalized. What can Google actually do in this scenario? Ask them nicely to go back to work? If it uses “traditional methods” to force them to comply it’ll hurt its reputation as a defender of liberal values that does no evil. The biggest mistake of the people walking out may be that they think one day is enough!

    If a company spends years doing everything it can to pretend it’s one of the good guys, then it shouldn’t be surprised when people actually believe the hype.

    Reply
  16. Mark Gisleson

    Like a high school strike where students are given permission to walk out so long as they don’t actually leave the campus. Each Google employee logged out of their PC then tidied up their workstation before walking out. And they each gave thought to what they would wear that day in case there were news cameras.

    Just exactly like I remember the first day of the 1976 national tire strike except for the part where Google didn’t have armed guards stationed throughout the facility and the workers weren’t screaming obscenities as they walked out. Otherwise, yeah, exactly the same.

    Sarcasm aside, I’m not really feeling much solidarity here for my tech brothers and sisters. Their fight isn’t in the streets, it’s in the offices where they work and where bad policy they know is bad is implemented.

    Reply
  17. a different chris

    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.

    Yeah but revolutions start with the bourgeoisie, like them or not. Not that I’m predicting anything from these people, but… not going to be picky.

    Reply
    1. c_heale

      I really wonder about this idea about revolutions starting with the bourgeoisie. I think the key factors would be a mixture of good strategists and tacticians in the revolutionaries and access to means/places to defend themselves or attack their rulers. I think this emphasis on the bourgeoisie is probably untrue.

      Reply
    2. Left in Wisconsin

      It’s a long argument but I would suggest that collective worker power results from labor market leverage (employer needs your skills/labor to make $$) plus working class-ness (identification as worker rather rather than boss or management). In the US, firms have done a good job (with an assist from labor law) in getting many technical workers to identify as management.

      This could be early days in the formation of a new working class. Will be interesting.

      Reply
      1. Yves Smith Post author

        The work they had to do still had to get done. So there isn’t any evidence they suffered economically. They might have had to work later at night a few nights or over the weekend to make up. So the income effect is almost certainly no different than if they had protested on the weekend. They lost personal time as a result of the walkout, not earnings.

        Reply
  18. Oregoncharles

    ” But at big companies, the software professionals are virtually without exception seen as the help, ”

    Even where software is the product? At most companies, IT is an expense, part of the overhead. At Google and similar companies, the company IS the software professionals. Apparently they know that.

    Just as at engineering companies, certainly the one I’m (indirectly) familiar with, actual engineers are aristos. Everybody ELSE is “the help.”

    Reply
  19. Oregoncharles

    In Ken McLeod’s “Fall Revolution” series, SF set in the fairly near future, the programmers’ union is a major political force, with a fortress-like headquarters in Britain (McLeod is Scottish). I think that’s in “Cassini Division,” my favorite of the series, but I’m no longer sure. That follows pretty directly from Yves’ observation that programmers are often in a position to hold their employers hostage. And it doesn’t violate their libertarian tendencies – in fact the context is an anarchy.

    I recommend those books; they’re political science fiction, with ideas going off like fireworks. Some of his later work isn’t as good, in my opinion.

    Reply
  20. anon y'mouse

    it’s a stunt. i guess if it actually works, no one will care. if it doesn’t, everyone will forget and it will blow away like it never happened. PR, psyops at their finest. a lot of their stuff lately has been along the lines of the CIA fomenting “anti war” demonstrators so that there is a faction that the “rest of the world” (in our case, us non googe, non tech mopes) can look to as having held some kind of moral standing when they were enmeshed in a system “run awry”. makes me ill to look at, but who am i? no one.

    Reply
  21. Antagonist Muscles

    Sixteen years ago, almost immediately after I graduated university, I interviewed with Google when they were still relatively unknown. My life and personality would probably be remarkably different had they hired me. I am definitely not a Google insider, but let me offer my views.

    What Yves wrote about cult-like businesses hiring insecure employees resonated with me, especially when I contemplated that long ago interview and my experience with Google employees in the last decade. Silicon Valley employers like Google were ripe to develop indoctrination procedures for new hires shortly after the dot-com implosion. Google knew they had the upper hand in hiring desperate tech workers and probably created a prestigious atmosphere to further the indoctrination.

    My mind was immature then and was already made sufficiently malleable by educational dogma. As such, the rigorous interview process was deliberately difficult in order to make me feel inadequate and insecure. Round after round of intense interviews were used to subtly minimize my (supposed) intelligence and reinforce my loyalty to the Borg. It was startling how I simultaneously felt dumb yet felt a desire to prove myself intellectually. And that’s precisely what they wanted. Google’s subsequent brain drain was a major factor in its “success”.

    As for the current Google employees, my reaction overlaps with Yves’s. What took them so long? The employees must realize Google’s employment strategy is to ostracize them from everybody else. Surely, the employees are not naive enough to be unable to recognize the cost Google imposes on society and democracy. I am sympathetic towards the goals of this walkout but also skeptical because my completely biased and anecdotal view of Google employees is they tend to take on the identity of their employer: collect and usurp my personal details for profit and control.

    Reply

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