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

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Nitasha Tiku writes in 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.

Employees also spent the weekend protesting as private citizens, out in the open. At San Francisco International Airport, a handful of Google lawyers showed up to offer emergency representation to immigrants; many more staffers joined a demonstration outside the international terminal. But one Googler in particular made national newscasts. On Saturday night, without informing anyone at Google, Sergey Brin showed up at the airport to join the crowds. He offered no other comment to the press except to tell Forbes, “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” and to make clear that he was there in a personal capacity.

Between pressure from employees and Brin’s trip to the airport—which had effectively committed the company to sticking its neck out—Google’s own official calculations began to shift. Over the course of the weekend, the company matched $2 million in donations raised by employees for crisis funds for immigrants’ rights. And then on Monday, at the last minute, Pichai decided to speak at the employees’ demonstration.

In his short, off-the-cuff remarks to the packed courtyard, Pichai called immigration “core to the founding of this company.” He tried to inject a dose of moderation, stressing how important it was “to reach out and communicate to people from across the country.” But when he mentioned Brin’s appearance at the airport, his employees erupted in chants of “Ser-gey! Ser-gey! Ser-gey!” Brin finally extricated himself from the crowd and shuffled up to the mic, windbreaker in hand. He, too, echoed the protesters’ concerns but tried to bring the heat down. “We need to be smart,” he said, “and that means bringing in folks who have some different viewpoints.” As he spoke, a news chopper flew overhead.

And that was pretty much the last time Google’s executives and workers presented such a united front about anything.

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.”

II.

IN MANY WAYS, Google’s internal social networks are like a microcosm of the internet itself. They have their filter bubbles, their trolls, their edgelords. And contrary to popular perception, those networks are not all populated by liberals. Just as the reactionary right was rising on YouTube, it was also finding ways to amplify itself inside Google’s rationalist culture of debate.

For some time, for instance, one of the moderators of the company’s Conservatives email list was a Chrome engineer named Kevin Cernekee. Over the years, Google employees have described Cernekee fairly consistently: as a shrewd far-right provocateur who made his presence felt across Google’s social network, trolling both liberals and conservatives.

In August 2015, the giant IndustryInfo mailing list broke into a roiling debate over why there were so few women in tech. The previous year, Google had become the first Silicon Valley giant to release data on the demographics of its workforce—and revealed that 82 percent of its technical workers were male. To many inside the IndustryInfo thread, the number constituted clear and galling evidence that Google had to change. When the conversation devolved into a brawl over the merits of diversity—one that Cernekee joined—a senior vice president at Google attempted to shut it down. Cernekee proceeded to bombard the executive’s Google+ page with posts about his right to critique the pro-diversity “Social Justice political agenda.” “Can we add a clear statement of banned opinions to the employee handbook,” he wrote, “so that everybody knows what the ground rules are?” In response, Google HR issued Cernekee a written warning for “disrespectful, disruptive, disorderly, and insubordinate” comments.

Google also took action against employees on the opposite side of the debate for their conduct in the same thread; but disciplining Cernekee had more lasting consequences. In November 2015, Cernekee filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that Google’s warning constituted retaliation for his political views. He also alleged that the reprimand interfered with his right to engage in “protected concerted activity”—essentially, his right to freely discuss workplace conditions—as defined under the National Labor Relations Act.

As Cernekee entered into a years-long legal battle with Google, he stayed active on internal channels. In 2016, when members of a white nationalist group called the Golden State Skinheads clashed with antifa counterprotesters in a Sacramento park, Cernekee spoke up for the former on Google’s Free Speech mailing list. Though he said he was “the farthest thing possible from a Nazi,” Cernekee argued that the skinheads “stood up for free speech and free association.” And in January 2017, when the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched in the head by a masked protester after Trump’s inauguration, Cernekee told his fellow list members that “the battle over free speech is escalating.” He asked them to donate to a WeSearchr campaign that was raising a bounty for anyone who could track down the identity of the assailant. When mailing list members said that WeSearchr—a far-right answer to GoFundMe founded by the agitators Charles C. Johnson and Pax Dickinson—seemed shady, Cernekee wrote, “It is completely on the up-and-up. Please don’t slander my friends. :-(.”

But as conspicuous as Cernekee was inside Google, he was all but invisible on the open internet. Consequently, it wasn’t Cernekee who would become Google’s most famous heretic. That distinction would fall to a comparatively reticent Google Search engineer named James Damore.

In late June 2017, Damore attended a company event about promoting diversity at Google, hosted at the Mountain View headquarters. There, he claims, he heard organizers discuss providing extra job interviews and more welcoming environments for women and underrepresented minorities. (Google says it does not provide additional interviews for people belonging to specific demographics.) To Damore, this all sounded like a violation of Google’s meritocratic hiring process, a finely tuned system built to identify objectively qualified engineers.

Soon after, on the plane ride back from a work trip to China, Damore wrote a 10-page memo arguing that biological differences could help explain why there were fewer female engineers at Google, and therefore the company’s attempts to reach gender parity were misguided and discriminatory toward men. On average, he wrote, women are more interested in people than things, more empathetic, more neurotic, and less assertive. To support these claims about personality differences, Damore cited two studies, three Wikipedia pages, and an article from Quillette, a contrarian online magazine that often covers free speech on campus and alleged links between genetics and IQ. In the memo, Damore wrote that hiring practices aimed to increase diversity “can effectively lower the bar” at Google.

All through July, Damore tried to get Google’s management to pay attention to his concerns. He sent his memo to the diversity summit’s organizers; he sent it to Google’s human resources department; at the suggestion of a coworker, he posted it in Coffee Beans, the internal listserv for discussions about diversity. He made the same points in person at one of Google’s “Bias Busting” workshops, where employees role-play how to identify unconscious bias against minorities. (There, he later claimed, his coworkers laughed at him.)

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.” (After one diversity town hall in April 2015, an employee wrote in an internal Google+ post that Google was “lowering the hiring bar for minorities, or arranging events where white men feel excluded.”) What’s more, the debate kept coming up in a repetitive loop because of the constant influx of young graduates who were engaging in these discussions for the first time. Google was hiring at a breakneck pace at the time. Between 2015 and 2017, it added some 20,000 full-time employees, about the same number as Facebook’s entire workforce. (And even after all that hiring, Google’s technical workforce was 80 percent male, 56 percent white, and 41 percent Asian.)

Damore’s memo might have faded into obscurity if a colleague hadn’t suggested that he share it with some more receptive audiences inside Google. On Wednesday, August 2, Damore posted his memo to an internal mailing list called Skeptics. The next day he shared it with Liberty, an internal list for libertarians—one Damore hadn’t known existed. By Friday, the tech blog Motherboard was reporting that an “anti-diversity manifesto” had gone viral inside Google.

Pichai was on vacation when his deputies told him that Google had better deal with the Damore situation quickly. Pichai agreed and asked to corral his full management team for a meeting. By Saturday, a full copy of Damore’s document had leaked to Gizmodo. While Googlers waited for an official response from the top, managers who wanted to signal their support for women loudly condemned the memo’s ideas on internal Google+ posts.

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.”

A few hours later, Google’s internal networks received a shock to the system. A screenshot of Fong-Jones’ “Medusa” comment appeared on Vox Popoli, a blog run by the alt-right instigator Theodore Beale, along with her full name and profile photo. The comments section quickly filled with racial and sexual slurs fixated personally on Fong-Jones, who is trans. “They should pitch all those sexual freaks off of rooftops,” one anonymous Vox Popoli commenter wrote.

On Monday morning, Google’s top management finally met to discuss what to do about Damore. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 8:16 am

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