At Google, open­ness raises chal­lenges

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - DAISUKE WAK­ABAYASHI

The Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant prides it­self on self-ex­pres­sion, but a re­cent memo was the lat­est test of its at­ti­tude to­ward in­ter­nal de­bate

Asa cri­sis un­furled at Google over an em­ployee memo that ar­gued bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors helped ex­plain the short­age of fe­male en­gi­neers and lead­ers in Sil­i­con Val­ley, some of the most pointed cri­tiques of the com­pany’s hand­ing of the is­sue were posted to its own mes­sage boards.

Me­megen, an in­ter­nal fo­rum that uses im­ages over­laid with funny cap­tions, was filled with ir­rev­er­ent posts that openly mocked how an e-mail dis­cussing the memo from Sun­dar Pichai, Google’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, had leaked to the me­dia so quickly. Other posts, seen in screen­shots of Me­megen that were shared with The New York Times by a Google em­ployee, ques­tioned why Google seemed to be tak­ing cues from out­siders.

Me­megen is one of many out­lets pro­vided by Google to al­low em­ploy­ees to ex­press them­selves, ar­gue, crit­i­cize prod­ucts or poli­cies and even protest de­ci­sions by man­age­ment.

Google’s lib­eral stand to­ward self-ex­pres­sion, en­abled by those on­line fo­rums, was cre­ated in part to show that it is not bound by the con­ven­tions that sti­fle more stodgy com­pa­nies.

Google has prided it­self on its open­ness. Em­ploy­ees can search doc­u­ments for in­for­ma­tion about dif­fer­ent di­vi­sions within the com­pany on its in­ter­nal net­work. They can make an­nounce­ments and share in­for­ma­tion on the em­ployee-only ver­sion of the so­cial-me­dia ser­vice Google Plus. They can use Me­megen to crit­i­cize man­age­ment and openly chal­lenge ex­ec­u­tives with ques­tions voted on by em­ploy­ees at weekly com­pa­ny­wide meet­ings.

And Google em­ploy­ees typ­i­cally have a lot to say. There are about 87,000 Google groups – es­sen­tially e-mail lists formed around a cen­tral theme – and more than 8,000 dis­cus­sion groups such as “misc” – short for mis­cel­la­neous – where em­ploy­ees de­bate and dis­agree on top­ics rang­ing from the op­ti­mal tem­per­a­ture in the of­fice to the brand of laun­dry de­ter­gent the com­pany should use for wash­ing em­ployee tow­els.

That open­ness has gone handin-hand with the ex­pec­ta­tion that what was said at Google would stay within Google.

That’s a big chal­lenge when Google’s par­ent com­pany, Al­pha­bet Inc., now em­ploys 76,000 em­ploy­ees around the world.

The com­pany’s de­ci­sion to fire James Damore, a soft­ware en­gi­neer who wrote the con­tentious memo, has an­gered some em­ploy­ees who view his dis­missal as a be­trayal of this opendis­course cul­ture.

Google said he had crossed the line “by ad­vanc­ing harm­ful gen­der stereo­types” and many em­ploy­ees were up­set about the views out­lined in the memo.

Mr. Damore as­serts that he was “fired for telling the truth” – a point he re­in­forced with his re­cently opened Twit­ter ac­count @Fired4Truth.

Mr. Damore said he shared the mis­sive, ti­tled Google’s Ide­o­log­i­cal Echo Cham­ber, about a month ago with spe­cific in­di­vid­u­als and groups fo­cused on di­ver­sity be­fore post­ing it to a mail­ing list called “skep­tics” on Aug. 2. Then, Mr. Damore cre­ated a com­pa­ny­wide dis­cus­sion group for the doc­u­ment. As more em­ploy­ees took no­tice, Mr. Damore’s words soon spilled out onto the In­ter­net.

He was fired last Mon­day, and the sit­u­a­tion quickly es­ca­lated. Some­one with ac­cess to an em­ployee-only ver­sion of Google Plus made screen­shots of mes­sages writ­ten by Google em­ploy­ees pledg­ing to cre­ate black­lists of col­leagues not sup­port­ive of the com­pany’s di­ver­sity mea­sures.

The screen­shots ap­peared on Bre­it­bart News, which has cel­e­brated Mr. Damore’s memo as an ex­am­ple of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s in­tol­er­ance of con­ser­va­tive views. A num­ber of Google em­ploy­ees who had been out­spo­ken on the mat­ter started fac­ing ha­rass­ment on the In­ter­net.

On Thurs­day, as Google pre­pared to hold a com­pa­ny­wide meet­ing to dis­cuss the memo, ques­tions sub­mit­ted by em­ploy­ees for the event on an­other in­ter­nal sys­tem called Dory started to ap­pear in the me­dia. That reignited con­cerns that in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions would not stay pri­vate.

A num­ber of em­ploy­ees sent e-mails to Mr. Pichai and told man­agers that they planned to skip the meet­ing be­cause they were wor­ried that they would face on­line reprisals for speak­ing out. A half-hour be­fore the event was ex­pected to be­gin, Mr. Pichai sent an e-mail can­celling the meet­ing.

“In recog­ni­tion of Googlers’ con­cerns, we need to step back and cre­ate a bet­ter set of con­di­tions for us to have the dis­cus­sion,” Mr. Pichai wrote.

In an es­say pub­lished in The Wall Street Jour­nal on Fri­day, Mr. Damore said “there was no out­cry or charge of misog­yny” when he shared the memo ini­tially. Only after the memo spread quickly on­line did the com­pany take ac­tion, he wrote. Many Google em­ploy­ees re­coiled at the doc­u­ment after he shared it more widely last week.

Last year, a Google se­cu­rity of­fi­cial sent a com­pa­ny­wide e-mail im­plor­ing em­ploy­ees not to leak in­for­ma­tion. In­tro­duced as ev­i­dence in a law­suit brought by a former em­ployee al­leg­ing that Google’s con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments were il­le­gal, the e-mail was telling be­cause it high­lighted the im­por­tance of open dis­cus­sion at the com­pany as well as its po­ten­tial per­ils.

“Some of the re­cent dis­course on Me­megen and else­where within the com­pany has been, shall we say, less than civil. Me­megen, Misc, In­ter­nal G+ and our many dis­cus­sion groups are a big part of our cul­ture – they keep us hon­est – but like any con­ver­sa­tion amongst col­leagues, we should keep it re­spect­ful,” wrote Brian Katz, a Google di­rec­tor of pro­tec­tive ser­vices, in­ves­ti­ga­tions and in­tel­li­gence.

Google’s em­brace of open­ness was tested a few years ago when an en­gi­neer cre­ated a spread­sheet for em­ploy­ees to share salary in­for­ma­tion. As salary in­for­ma­tion flooded in, the spread­sheet be­came the most searched item on the in­ter­nal net­work.

Erica Baker, the en­gi­neer who cre­ated the doc­u­ment and has since left the com­pany, said she was rep­ri­manded by her man­ager for the spread­sheet and was de­nied bonuses awarded to her peers. Google em­ploy­ees said the spread­sheet caused some headaches for hu­man re­sources, but the com­pany did not take down the doc­u­ment.

Shortly after Mr. Pichai can­celled the com­pa­ny­wide meet­ing, he spoke at a cod­ing event for young women be­ing held on Google’s cam­pus in Moun­tain View, Calif.

“I know the jour­ney won’t al­ways be easy,” he said. “But to the girls who dream of be­ing an en­gi­neer or an en­tre­pre­neur, and who dream of cre­at­ing amaz­ing things: I want you to know that there’s a place for you in this in­dus­try, there’s a place for you at Google. Don’t let any­one tell you oth­er­wise. You be­long here and we need you.”


Google of­fers a va­ri­ety of tools and fo­rums for in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions, such as Me­megen. The search gi­ant’s po­si­tion on self-ex­pres­sion was cre­ated in part to sep­a­rate it from stodgier com­pa­nies.

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