This year has felt like silicon valley’s Arab Spring – a pattern of internal protests across different companies. It’s too soon to say if they’ll cause a permanent change in the way things are done, or just a superficial blip in the status quo.

At google: air gap, maven, dragonfly. At microsoft, ICE detention. At amazon, rekognition. The resolutions were various, with the G9 who walked out of air gap coming closest to getting their way.

This trend if it continues will affect how high-skill workers are recruited and managed. The public marches for legislative and judicial relief which worked in the 20th century are out of gas as a force for positive change. Multinationals, as rich and powerful as governments and with farther reach, are the best new forum for change, and principled insiders have their ear.

  1. CSR values treated as social contract
  2. High profile defections & pervasive leaks
  3. Salaried status at multinationals is the new citizenship
  4. Appendix: Timnit Gebru
  5. Appendix: twitter removal of realdonaldtrump
  6. Appendix: twitter layoffs

CSR values treated as social contract

Boy you sure are different than your TV commercials. – T. Callahan

Remember when corporate values were cheesy? Remember the KPMG anthem that leaked circa 2000? Remember onboarding at any big bank? Somewhere in the 20th century companies got ‘values’ – not brands, which have been used to sell packaged goods forever, but internally-directed pseudo-marketing that makes everybody cringe.

But then new-breed tech companies reinvented workplace culture and came up with values they actually believed. The pitch was ‘we’re different, you can come here and change the world without compromising your values’, and when they were small it may have been true. Big companies outgrew their founding values, but those values are still being used to sell the company to new recruits, who drink it up like kool aid.

Those new recruits, now well into their careers, are seeing their companies change as they go from high-growth to territory defense mode. They aren’t happy about it, especially when the companies act in conflict with the companies’ stated values or the employees’ personal values. They haven’t forgotten they were recruited on some promise like ‘we’re different, we really care’. Now they’re coming knocking to cash that check.

This isn’t a legal thing; companies aren’t democracies and they’re not contractually bound to their employees here. But insiders have all kinds of information and leverage and they seem to think some norm has been violated.

High profile defections & pervasive leaks

I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men of our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit. Not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil. – A. Einstein

Many of the scientists on the manhattan project were german defectors who were afraid of the nazis having the first bomb. In a world of hi-tech multinationals, high profile defectors and dissidents have the same outsize effect.

Prominent leakers have had a huge effect this decade. Take Snowden (who leaked government information but worked at a big contractor and revealed information about corporate collusion with and victimization by the NSA) or Susan Fowler.

Defections are harder to track because senior technocrats don’t always get loud even when they leave for reasons of principle; it makes it hard for them to land their next job and they’re sometimes contractually bound to not disparage their former employer. It will be interesting to see if this changes in the next 2 years.

Big companies with morally questionable activities will have to be much more careful going forward about how they share information internally. Tech companies for a while have been claiming that their culture is ‘radical transparency, just don’t leak’ and have gotten upset when those expectations are violated (boz at facebook bemoaning the effect of leaks on debate, googlers angry about live leaks during all hands). But (1) they were never internally transparent about anything sensitive, and (2) it’s naive to think 10 thousand people can keep a secret.

As big tech embraces ML everywhere, information siloing will get harder. ML requires tinkering with the input data and simulation environments to get it right. This means giving some people on the engineering team exact information about what the system will be used for.

Salaried status at multinationals is the new citizenship

Corporate values started as cheese and lately evolved into kool-aid. This new third phase is something like a social contract between the company and its employees, one which includes how the company treats external third parties.

Multinationals aren’t subject to any single law across all their operations. By contorting their internal organs they can optimally gerrymander any piece of themselves to avoid taxes, wages, environmental responsibility, or even accountability for violent crimes. American case law has defanged the alien torts statute as used against companies, and small countries have a hard time attracting multinational investment without agreeing to extraterritorial arbitration.

Employees seem to have a shot at enforcing a code of behavior on their employer. Governments can’t or won’t. And consumers when given the option to pick any two of ‘cheap’, ‘high quality’, ‘ethically produced’, have made the obvious choice.

As gig work expands, salaried employment status may take on a coveted and special status like citizenship in Rome or the Greek city-states – a privileged group of people with automatic rights and the ear of the rulers. This year’s protests feel like the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the company that will thread through the next decade.

Most importantly: senior managers, be careful what values you advertise. Your employees are listening and they’ll make sure you put your money where your mouth is.

Appendix: Timnit Gebru

(Update 12/16/2020)

Timnit Gebru was fired slash resigned, depending on who you ask, because google’s research division wouldn’t let her publish a paper I think.

Her internal email was published on the platformer:

What I want to say is stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference. … There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.

I suggest focusing on leadership accountability and thinking through what types of pressures can also be applied from the outside. … Writing more documents and saying things over and over again will tire you out but no one will listen.

From Jeff Dean’s response:

I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. … we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it.

This is brilliant PR by JD. ‘TG wants you to stop fighting, don’t’. It sounds like Sidney Powell’s ‘don’t vote in georgia’ vs Dan Crenshaw’s ‘actually you should vote’.

But TG’s ‘change from within doesn’t work’ is at least an argument. I have thoughts about this fight but am not an insider, am not in academic research, am really not an expert on any part of this so will keep it to myself. All I’ll say is that I know people who have left companies like google for ethical or ‘bad taste’ reasons, and this is an issue that legitimately has two sides.

Management is incentivized to be magnanimous:

The Conqueror is always a lover of peace: he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.

Carl von Clausewitz

Appendix: twitter removal of realdonaldtrump

(Update 1/9/2021)

… Twitter’s own employees, who demanded in a letter written this week that the company’s leaders permanently suspend Trump’s account. In an internal letter addressed to chief executive Jack Dorsey and his top executives viewed by The Washington Post, roughly 350 Twitter employees requested an investigation into the past several years of corporate actions that led to Twitter’s role in the riot.

“Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th,” the employees wrote. “We request an investigation into how our public policy decisions led to the amplification of serious anti-democratic threats. We must learn from our mistakes in order to avoid causing future harm.”

In a statement earlier Friday, Twitter spokesperson Brandon Borrman wrote, “Twitter encourages an open dialogue between our leadership and employees, and we welcome our employees expressing their thoughts and concerns in whichever manner feels right to them.”

wapo article (Tiku / Romm / Timberg)

Hundreds of Twitter employees recently signed a letter urging Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to ban the president for using the platform to incite violence in the wake of the Capitol siege. An employee at Twitter who has been pushing for the company to delete the president’s account this week told NBC News that “leadership took a beating” at a meeting Friday morning with employees, many of whom pleaded with executives to delete his account.

NBC article (Collins / Zadrozny)

Note: I’m not commenting on whether this suspension matters, whether it’s on time or too late, whether it’s warranted, whether the policies in question here are clear or consistent, whether they need to be, anything about any law 1st amendment or otherwise, whether twitter was used to coordinate or motivate the attack (vs shadow nets like 4 / 8 chan / kun that have already been heavily deplatformed and still survived, vs other major platforms, vs mostly-IRL cells).

My only point is – there’s an element of internal pressure here. It may or may not be a bad thing that twitter decides they don’t want trash in their front yard. We may or may not change social norms about how moderation and suspension work. But this week, ‘internal pressure’ was part of the narrative for how this ban happened.

Appendix: twitter layoffs

(Update 11/15/2022)

Little to say here that a million other people haven’t already said, but bullet points on the loudest ideas:

  • At this moment in 2022, with a 50% twitter layoff triggering 10% at meta, 3% at amzn, employee voice is weaker than in 2018
  • Many tech companies have doubled headcount since 2019, at peak compensation, and I don’t understand why. Now it’s not clear how much more they’ll need to shed
  • There are probably more bad earnings statements ahead from all the big tech cos
  • ‘Techlash’ has been about privacy, it will start to be about price and quality, especially if shrinking teams make products worse
  • musk’s public interactions with employees on twitter have not been great. interactions with customers on twitter have also been sub ideal (‘thermonuclear blame and shame’)
  • Layoffs would have come without purchase. Mishandling the layoff decorum + ops handoff are his fault. Debt service from his loan didn’t help, alienating advertisers didn’t help
  • musk may be able to cut non-salary operational costs without permanently degrading perf, probably not without cutting features, probably not without listening to the remaining devs about tech debt. This will only have mattered if he retains users
  • Not clear if there is a product velocity problem or how it can be fixed. Oscillating at high speed between opposing goals is probably not the way but who am I. I wonder if the fired people will ever make this much money again. The internet innovation bubble may have ended, and the internet feudal era is end-ing. Without making any value judgment, everyone paid by ads revenue was profiting from a form of taxation, and it is not clear how much of that survives
  • The Mudge testimony also matters, and is a nonzero factor in twitter’s bonfire of public trust this year
  • When you fire someone, at least in the small companies I frequent, your goal should be for them to still be willing to hire you some day in the future
  • My favorite take so far: ‘midlife crisis told from the perspective of the sports car’

Favorite conspiracy theories:

  • Employees are baiting him because they think the ship is sinking anyway, and public firing improves their leverage for severance
  • musk set the ship on fire to reduce the debt service amount

The amzn layoff seems to be corporate, not warehouse (and it would be silly to cut warehouse for the holidays, though I hear holiday shopping season will be small this year). ‘Blue collarization of white collar work’ is a trend I wonder about. (In various ways: social status, job security, labor market, replacement by capital). This is a datapoint.

(Update 11/16)

24 hours later: New management says the word ‘sway’ specifically in a leaked email, guessing he doesn’t mean it the way I mean it.

“Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade. Twitter will be much more engineering driven. Design & product will still be very important and report to me, but those writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway.” 2/

Elon Musk asked Twitter employees who agreed to click “yes” on a form in the email. Those who don’t by 5PM Thursday will be let go with 3 months severance.