The New Wobblies Of Google

The reason the word Google has changed from a noun to a verb isn’t accidental. Before Google, there was a slew of search engines, almost all gone and forgotten now. Infoseek was, perhaps, its biggest competition, but Google blew it away as a search engine, and more importantly, as a business. As much as search engines were critical for using the World Wide Web, they had no means of monetizing their product. Google figured it out and crushed the competition.

It didn’t happen because of diversity. Nobody knew or cared whether they met a quota of women or minorities. The tech made it happen. The geeks made the tech happen. And the geeks were, in the light of the moment, unsavory in their actions.

But at the time, that wasn’t a national obsession and nobody cared. Or more to the point, the geeks were building a world the rest of us didn’t quite understand, and could never build on our own because we lacked their mad skillz, but definitely enjoyed and wanted. It was a brave new world, unseemly though it may have been behind the Silicon curtain.

Now, Google is a behemoth, and has in its employ a great many people, diverse and exceptionally well-paid, if overworked. Some are of the old school geek persuasion, but they keep their head low lest they suffer the fate of James Damore. The rest have forgotten how their employer got there, and think it’s all about them.

Yesterday, thousands of Google employees took this to another level. Following a recent (horrific) NY Times piece on massive failures by Google management in dealing with sexual misconduct at the company,…

Mike Masnick’s “yesterday” was November 1st. The (horrific) NY Times piece was the one about Andy Rubin, and the anger that this accused sexual harasser walked away with a golden handshake instead of broken legs. In reaction, the employees of Google walked out in protest.

I have a bunch of thoughts on this — some of which I may explore more deeply in future posts, but at a first pass, I think this kind of activism by employees is a very good thing. Remember, Silicon Valley has long promoted the idea that its workforce is much more closely aligned with management than traditional companies, in part because of the free flowing nature of stock options and grants. As someone who spent years studying traditional labor/management malfunctions, the more mutually aligned approach that Silicon Valley claimed to have had in the past was a huge part of its strength and a key reason why the industry as a whole has been so innovative. Unfortunately, in the past few years, it does seem that this alignment has diverged, and in too many cases, management has been pursuing growth and opportunities in ways that go against the interests and beliefs of the employees. There may be reasons for this, but they’re not good ones.

Very much like Mike, I too spent years studying traditional labor/management malfunctions. Unlike Mike, I don’t think this kind of activism is a very good thing. It’s not that I take issue with a walk out or a protest as the mechanism for activism, but the cause at issue.

The “more mutually aligned approach” of which he speaks was about technology, geekdom, the removal of barriers to innovation by structured hierarchies that prevented the kid at the bottom from coming up with the most fabulous new idea in tech ever. Mike is right that this change in corporate structure gave rise to innovation, which formed the core distinction between new tech and legacy megacorps. Think Zuck creating Facebook in his dorm room, or Steve Wozniak working in a garage. The next tech breakthrough could come from a senior executive vice president or from the pre-pubescent kid hired yesterday. Who knew?

But this “mutually aligned approach” had nothing to do with the issues raised by the protest.

They also put together what appears to be a fairly modest list of demands, including an end to forced arbitration over harassment and discrimination claims, further commitments to fight pay and opportunity inequality at the company, transparency on sexual harassment at the company, a better way for reporting sexual misconduct, an elevated role for a “Chief Diversity Officer,” and adding an “Employee Representative” to the Board of Directors.

They aren’t protesting Google management ignoring their brilliant new algorithms, but their feelings in conflict with the very problematic geeky conduct that was pervasive when some wild and crazy geeks made Google happen, before anyone counted genitalia. They aren’t complaining about pay, as Google pays ridiculously well, but pay inequity. If the office of “Chief Diversity Officer” is created, will that put Chade-Meng Tan out of a job?
In fact, is the title of Tan’s position not problematic, not proof of Google’s flagrant sexism? Or is it just good geek fun of the sort that fosters innovation?*

There’s an argument to be made that if you connect some distant dots, you can see how this currently perceived culture, this putatively hostile work environment, this lack of sexual harassment and diversity transparency, will produce a corporation that is aligned with the social justice demands of employees, and that will make them more comfortable and happy, and that will produce . . . what?

A happier segment of their workforce, of course, although there remains below the surface a strong geek culture that remains untamed and unencumbered by neo-Victorian norms. But will bias response teams, gender quotas, lawsuits by anyone whose sensibilities were offended by the geeky guy who can actually create innovative tech for his staring inappropriately and making someone uncomfortable, make Google more innovative? The assumption that a more comfortable working environment is a more productive, more innovative one has no basis in fact.

For the thinking challenged, this isn’t an endorsement of sexual harassment by any means, but rather a recognition that the culture that birthed innovation wasn’t the one that now seeks to dictate to a company, and to any recalcitrant geek who hasn’t yet learned to be a supplicant to social justice just because he can write a good algorithm.

Google doesn’t sell sexual transparency. Not even diversity. It sells technology, and tech doesn’t care about your feelings. That the new Wobblies have their gripes isn’t surprising, but when their social justice complaints overcome the reason Google exists, then why bother?

*After posting, I learned from Stephanie West Allen that Tan was since been forced to step down last summer from his subsequent non-profit post because of nonspecific inappropriate conduct.

9 thoughts on “The New Wobblies Of Google

    1. SHG Post author

      Back in the 90s, geeks became sexy, which was something no one ever thought possible. Some struggled to deal with sexual relations, having lacked much experience with women (because they were all men, obviously), and did so poorly. But we knew they were geeks when we took them in. What did we expect?

      Reply
  1. Skink

    One of the “modest” demands:
    “A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report, including: the number of harassment claims at Google over time and by product area; the types of claims submitted; how many victims and accused have left Google; any exit packages and their worth.”

    “Claims,” “victims” and “accused.” They missed some big words like “verified” and “proven.”

    They are simple employees. To what end do they demand this information, to the extent it really is information? What useful thing can they do with it? Or is just getting it the goal?

    Seventy years ago, Henry Ford sent a bunch of guys with bats after upstart employees. We’ve come a long way since then, but there’s such a thing as too far.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      That employees decided to engage in concerted activity is as American as hiring Pinkertons to break heads, but so too are the underlying notions of due process rather than guilt by accusation. They can ask. Google should say no. If they don’t like it, they can do what every American has a right to do: find another company to work for or start their own company and make a fortune in the work environment that best suits their feelings.

      Reply
      1. Fubar

        From my forthcoming compendium Neologisms I wish I’d Invented:

        For woke coders, we’ve got some sad news.
        Here it is. You can cry if you choose:
        Lead guitar calls the tune.
        You can leave the saloon,
        Or play hot algorithm and blues!

        Reply
  2. JRP

    If google agree’s to the demands it will start a cycle leading to them beaten by more agile companies with less constrained geeks.

    Not ones that sexually harass just ones that dont enforce groupthink.

    Reply
      1. JRP

        I dont have an easy answer. Start your own buisness? That is what the geeks that created silicon valley did before becoming what they are now.

        Reply

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