Google employees walked off the job in Mountain View in November 2018 to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims.

Photo: Mason Trinca/Getty Images
Life after Google: Ex-employees keep speaking out as they move on

Life after Google: Ex-employees keep speaking out as they move on

A former engineer is the latest to criticize the company in public.

A former Google engineer published a long online essay Friday explaining why he quit the Silicon Valley giant, the latest in a genre of public missives arriving in an age of ethical dilemmas for tech workers — and during an era of activism at Google.

Bruce Hahne, who worked at Google for almost 15 years, wrote on his website, the Alphabet Workers Alliance, that he left because "Google's current business practices and ethics are incompatible with me continuing to work for the company."

Hahne is the latest in a long line of former Google employees who left for what they called ethical reasons and who have been increasingly vocal about it. Similar recent writings include an essay in Elle by Claire Stapleton, an organizer of the 2018 walkout by thousands of Googlers around the world, and a blog post by Ross LaJeneusse, Google's former head of international relations who resigned last year and is now running for U.S. Senate.

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Google's workplace culture was once looked at by the rest of the industry as a model, but in recent years its leaders have grappled with protests organized by employees upset over the company's handling of sexual-misconduct allegations, government contracts and more. In some cases, disillusioned employees left the company on their own. In other cases, they were fired. Some have filed complaints against Google, accusing the company of getting rid of them for workplace organizing and speaking up about ethical issues.

Now they are, often quite publicly, figuring out life after the tech giant, which many of them had idealized. The former Googlers say the company has changed for the worse. They say they are in different stages of finding work they feel good about — an impulse that might be of interest to tech companies big and small as they face a backlash against the industry from inside and out, some of it inspired by Google-worker activism.

"Activism within Google and the broader tech industry didn't start with the walkout, but it helped the movement take off," Stapleton wrote in her Elle essay.

In his nearly 4,000-word post addressed to his ex-colleagues and "those considering employment at Google," Hahne stressed three reasons for his departure: what he called "persecution" and firings of activist LGBTQ employees, Google Cloud's work with the oil and gas industry, and what he called the "business of killing," meaning Google's military contracts.

"During the 14+ years that I've been at Google, I've had the opportunity to work with many great people, all of them concerned about doing quality work, all of them concerned with how to make the world a better place," Hahne wrote. "For those who choose to stay, may you continue to find ways to demand what's right, and refuse what's wrong. For those who leave, may you take that opportunity to tell your story — why did you leave, was there a broader ethical reason?"

Google did not return a request for comment about Hahne's missive on Friday. In a video obtained by The Washington Post in October, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that issues the company confronts are sometimes so difficult that "Googlers don't always agree on what's right and wrong." He acknowledged that the company was "genuinely struggling with some issues — transparency at scale," but added, "We care about getting it right, and we are striving to do better."

The complaints Hahne raised Friday echo those of Tyler Breisacher, an engineer who left Google in 2018. Toward the end of his seven years there, he said, he became frustrated with some of the company's decisions, including sponsoring the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2018, and what he called Google's increasing lack of transparency. "When I joined in 2011, the TGIF meetings were a big thing," he said, referring to the company's famous weekly companywide town halls. "Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] would at least hear us out, at least explain their decisions to us."

A couple of years ago, top executives' answers became more opaque, he said. "Sundar [Pichai] would say, 'We're going about this thoughtfully.' No actual substance in his answers."

Late last year, as the company became more concerned about leaks to the press, it scaled the TGIFs back to monthly from weekly and limited topics to business and product strategy.

Tyler Breisacher is a former Google employee who says he quit after he became uncomfortable with the company's decisions and increasing lack of transparency. Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Breisacher

A spokesperson said the company wants to keep the TGIFs going, but that openness at the scale of Google — which has more than 100,000 employees — is evolving. The spokesperson said the company encourages smaller companies or divisions, such as YouTube and Cloud, to hold their own forums, and that Google would have no comment on its employee departures.

Despite the headline-making worker discontent at the company, another spokesperson said Google saw a rise in job applications in 2019 compared to the previous year.

After Breisacher left the company, he worked for a provider of political text-messaging campaigns. Now he's back in school, studying journalism at City College of San Francisco. He noted that many questions asked at Google's TGIFs had been prompted by news reports. "I feel like it's hard to get a lot of attention on something unless there's news coverage," he said.

Another former Googler, LaJeneusse, is hoping to capitalize on what he describes as his awakening at Google. He was the company's head of international relations until last spring, when he resigned after the company's reorganization of its policy team. (Google said it offered him a different position at the same pay level, but he said it involved less responsibility.) Over the holidays, he followed his November announcement of his U.S. Senate run in Maine by publicly slamming his former employer as greedy.

Google is "a company that's supposed to be doing the right things," he said. But LaJeneuesse, who was previously deputy chief of staff to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Google demoted him for trying to establish a human rights program, and speaking up against discrimination he saw at the company.

"Even though I made the decision to leave, it put me in such a tailspin," he said. "When I came out as gay, I said I'd never live in the closet again, that I'd always speak the truth." The Democratic candidate for senator says trying to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins is "a great way of having impact. It's how I'm supposed to be contributing right now."

Engineer Kathryn Spiers was fired by Google in December for creating an internal browser pop-up that read, "Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities." At the time, the company made the unusual move of commenting publicly on her firing, releasing an email from a manager who said she acted without authorization and "misused a security and privacy tool."

"From now on, when I'm looking for a job, who their customers are is going to be a thing on my mind," Spiers said. Many Google employees had urged the company not to pursue contracts with two U.S. agencies, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, because they disagreed with the Trump administration's immigration policies.

"I will be more thoughtful and cautious about what I'm capable of building," Spiers said. "I don't want to build hate."

The story of Liz Fong-Jones, who left Google last year after 11 years with the company, during which she co-founded the trans employees' resource group there, might be encouraging to Spiers. Fong-Jones found work with tech company Honeycomb before she resigned from Google. She said the company's top executives were willing to talk openly from the start. "Its ethics policy is aligned with mine," she said.

It's only natural that people want to work at a company that reflects their values, said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, which advises companies and organizations on ethical issues. She said Google has an opportunity now to "reset" its culture, especially since CEO Pichai has been given control over the global empire, including parent company Alphabet, after founders Page and Brin officially stepped back from day-to-day operations. The company needs to be clear about its purpose, policies and framework for making decisions, she said.

"An error was made in the first place," Skeet said. "They forgot that they were the employer. A lot of companies [signal to their employees that] they're there to do something else, like play ping-pong and drink beer." Or when politicians come to speak to company employees, "that's really starting to get out of position," Skeet said.

Current and former Google activists have notched some high-profile victories in the past couple of years. Google suspended its plans to bring search back to China over worker concerns about censorship in that nation. It let its Project Maven contract to provide artificial intelligence technology to the Pentagon expire after employees worried the technology would be used for more accurate drone strikes during wars. Workers who got the company to end mandatory arbitration for employees were an integral force behind federal legislation, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, which the House passed last year but which the Senate failed to take up.

Alphabet Chief Legal Officer David Drummond retired in January as the company was investigating his relationships with several female employees. He sold more than $200 million worth of stock in the year before he left. But the company said he was not given an exit package, which some former Googlers say could be a result of the 2018 walkout, when thousands of employees around the world protested payouts given to other company executives accused of sexual misconduct. A shareholder lawsuit followed the outrage, prompting the investigation into Drummond's relationships.

Most recently, Breisacher and other former Googlers helped persuade members of San Francisco Pride to vote to remove Google as a parade sponsor because, they said, YouTube has allowed LGBTQ harassment and discrimination on its platform.

Wendy Liu, a former Google engineering intern, wasn't exactly an activist during her time at the company, saying she "bought into the myth" that the company was special and world-changing. Now, she has written a book titled "Abolish Silicon Valley," which will be released in April by Repeater Books, a London imprint whose U.S. distributor is Random House. Liu said she turned down Google's job offer after her four-month internship in 2013 because she found working there not as interesting and creative as she thought it would be.

"The movie 'The Internship' had just come out," she said. "There was this idea that we were incredibly lucky to be there, that we were working on problems that were really important." But she did not find her internship project, building a dashboard for the infrastructure team to visualize data, to be meaningful.

After helping found a data-science startup that failed after a couple of years, Liu got a master's degree from the London School of Economics and realized she had an incomplete understanding of the tech industry. With her book, Liu said she hopes to reach those in the tech industry or about to enter it who "may be disillusioned by what they're seeing. I want them to know that the problems that they're seeing are indeed real problems."

Liu urges the world to rethink the Silicon Valley startup model of securing venture capital, growing quickly, making a few people insanely wealthy.

"It doesn't have to be this way," she said, adding that even non-tech companies have adopted that model. "It's just the rich getting richer."

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