How Google Leadership Failed Women in Tech
Google loves a good pedigree.
James Damore, the developer at the center of the huge anti-diversity manifesto controversy that got him fired from Google, is an educated person with a solid academic pedigree. According to his LinkedIn profile, he holds a BS in Molecular Biology, Physics and Chemistry from the University of Illinois and a Master in System Biology from Harvard.
After a couple of short internship with Princeton and Harvard, he spent over one year as Research Scientist at MIT. Google likes academic backgrounds like James’, and he landed a four months internship with the company. I am not sure where James learned computer science fundamentals, but he knew enough to get a Software Engineer job a few months after his internship ended. He stayed employed for three years and nine months until he got fired for his anti-diversity manifesto. Or, more accurately, for offending a significant part of Google employees at creating chaos.
Damore LinkedIn profile didn’t have a profile picture before his firing. (I know because I checked.) After his dismissal, what appears to be a professionally taken picture appeared. At close inspection, it is an image of him sporting a “Goolag” t-shirt – a mock of the company logo – implying that Google is an authoritarian regime that suppresses freedom of speech and expression. The previously unknown engineer is loving the media attention.
Life at Google.
James story up to the firing is a classic Google employee tale. Smart kid, ivy league colleges, an internship at Google that becomes a full-time job. Then, the Google life black hole: spending the majority of his life eating Google food with Google coworkers, wearing Google clothes, getting Google sponsored chair massage, talking in Google acronyms, sending Google emails on Google phones, and grinning with a classic Google Smile courtesy of the Google dentists who make sure it stays perfect.
Humor aside, life at Google looks pretty neat, especially for young college graduates. The company gives them everything they need to not worry about life. Googlers who join the company straight from college never have to “grow up” in the outside world. They can keep being smart kids in a young environment surrounded by smart people. The company becomes entrenched with all aspects of their lives. For James, getting fired after almost four years was quite a life changing event.
As you know, I have strong opinions about the content of the anti-diversity manifesto that Damore wrote. First, it is misguided. Second, James forgot about the people behind his claims, and broadcasted his generalized views, publishing them to all employees. Why did he do that? Why did he broadcast such a controversial message within his place of employment, risking to alienate all of his female co-workers and most male ones? He was naïve for sure, but what’s else is going on?
Let’s think about this. James is book smart, but not very street-smart, and you can see why. His life experience has been between the walls of ivy league colleges and the Google headquarters. He was screened from other realities, people, and sentiments. Was this a rookie mistake? What else went wrong?
Leadership, where were you?
Despite that James Damore’s manifesto is a misguided collection of stereotypes, Google leadership failed him and failed all the people he insulted. In a company built to resemble a college campus, some “adult supervision” to avoid preventable and naïve mistakes seems necessary. Where was that supervision?
Where was James’ boss when he first published the manifesto, and nobody knew about it yet? A simple five minutes friendly chat could have prevented the disaster. I am not suggesting his manager should have forced James to take the document down — I am not a fan of forcing anyone to do anything — but they could have explained to him how his views might be offensive and inflammatory to coworkers and problematic for the company culture. A bit of coaching would have been appropriate. With the proper feedback, James might have decided to take his document down by himself or change it to be more acceptable and constructive.
Leadership should have tried to internalize the feedback and should have worked to bring James concerns to the attention of the right people, whoever those are. That would have been a good way to deal with the problem, transforming an inflammatory misguided manifesto into feedback to improve the Google diversity programs. Dissenting opinions should not be silenced, but should not create chaos; they should be redirected by mature leadership to become dialog to improve whatever seems to be broken.
Chaos is bad for business.
When a dissenting opinion creates an uproar and insults other employees so much to make them tweet that they are considering quitting if nothing is done, things went too far. James Damore said that diversity programs are damaging and harmful for business. Is infuriating a huge population of employees, and casting the spotlight on a broken company culture, good for business? Regardless, when things exploded, the mob mentality took over, and only ugly things usually happen at that point. The CEO had to come back from vacation to deal with the chaos and had no choice but fire James.
Lack of character and common sense.
I do believe James should have been fired at that point, but not for his views, even if they are wrong. I disagree with him, but he is free to think whatever he wants.
He should have been fired for lacking the character and emotional intelligence necessary to be an employee the company can afford to keep around, and making poor decisions, creating chaos. He should have been fired for not questioning the approach, not asking others for second opinions, and starting a campaign that was bigger than him.
If I sent out an email insulting my co-workers, calling them biologically incapable of doing a good job, I would be fired too, and for good reasons. That’s why he got fired. It had nothing to do with freedom of speech, or with the fact that he is wrong (he is). He got fired because he could not behave in a way that is acceptable to the business.
Google leadership fail.
Google leadership needs to take a good look at their actions, or inaction. They waited too long to do something. Waiting means broadcasting a message that it is ok to act the way James did. That is ok to insult coworkers and call them biologically unfit to do their jobs.
Google leadership seemed distracted. Maybe they were on vacation and didn’t pay attention. Or maybe they didn’t care. Or perhaps they didn’t predict how bad it would get. But, isn’t one of the jobs of a leader to prevent issues by recognizing dangerous situations and fixing them before they explode into chaos?
Especially a company like Google, in the public eye at all times, needs to have leadership that can notice and correct issues with small, timely actions and solid coaching. It should do that well before situations escalate to the point of requiring firing somebody to avoid even more escalation.
Google leadership failed.