Even after firing an engineer, Google faces an existential and cultural crisis

Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Google Photo)

Google is one of the most amazing tech companies to emerge from the rubble of the first dot-com bust — a company with a purpose, backed by some of the best engineering talent in the world. Thirteen years after Larry Page and Sergey Brin declared that “Google does not intend to become a conventional company,” Google finds itself in a crisis that a conventional company might have avoided.

By now, the arguments for and against the rambling essay posted over the weekend by Google software engineer James Damore to an internal discussion forum, criticizing the company’s approach to fostering a more diverse workplace, have been well documented. Former Google executive Yonatan Zunger summed it up the best, in my opinion: not only were Damore’s arguments sophomoric and myopic, his primary accomplishment (other than the legal headache he created for his former employer) was to reinforce the notion that an awful lot of software engineers barely understand the real world of human beings who live outside Emacs and VIM.

Google acted decisively Monday night, firing Damore in a public statement from Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who cut his vacation short to return to Mountain View and address the troops later today. But this might be the start of a really big problem for Google, which prides itself on its properly woke approach to diversity issues while the people who really run the company — the engineers — continue to hire first and foremost based on technical skills.

Engineers have always been the heart and soul of Google, a company that has long said it believes in free expression while giving those engineers great latitude to set its course. Firing an engineer for expressing distasteful political views is not going to sit well with some of the rank and file, who don’t necessarily share the same cultural values as those who made Google into Google.

As Page and Brin intended back in the day, Google is not a conventional company. It has been an indulgent playground for the best and brightest computer scientists in the world even before its 2004 IPO turned it into one of the richest companies in tech. Those people, as smart and disruptive as they might have been, tended to be overwhelmingly male, white, and rich. And they multiplied, given the intense competition for engineering talent among hot-shot tech companies and the tendency to promote their friends.

Google’s culture has broadened as its headcount and mission have grown in the last decade, expanding its engineering operations from Silicon Valley to Seattle and beyond, but clearly some aspects of its shallowness remain. While it seems like most Googlers were pretty disgusted by Damore’s attempt to defend the white man against the tyranny of the lady programmer, a sizable amount of support for his views has emerged in the days since this story blew up, as documented by Motherboard and Inc on Monday.

Google co-founders Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin, a long time ago. (Wikimedia Photo)

Times have changed since Larry and Sergey first vowed to make the world a better place. Damore’s viewpoints — that white male technologists are under siege from pro-diversity zealots who are deliberately seeding Google with unqualified female software engineers for whatever reason — are ridiculous. They are also in lockstep with a larger societal backlash on the part of angry white men who feel aggrieved by the notion that they might have to share the world with other people, a backlash that elected a mediocre golfer President of the United States last year.

It’s tempting to blame the casual misogyny of some Google engineers on the bleakness of our current political scene, but that’s not entirely fair. After all, while it’s not clear how much he remains involved in the hiring process at Google after the creation of Alphabet, Page personally signed off on every Google hire as of just two years ago.

That means Page had an opportunity to foster a different type of culture at Google, if he had believed it truly important. You can’t be a tech powerhouse these days without giving lip service to diversity goals, but the proof is in the people you select for your organization. Damore’s essay, and the internal support for it, shows that Google retains a strong culture of white male programmers who believe themselves inherently superior to anyone else who dares play their game, and a lot of those people are people Larry Page thought essential to the future of Google.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (Flickr Photo / Maurizio Pesce)

Software engineering, while not the easiest way to make a living, has been elevated to ludicrous proportions by those who would like you to think they are superhuman wizards of the computer. It’s a skill that could be shared equally by motivated men, women, or anyone else with an aptitude for math and problem-solving given proper training and encouragement, much the same way medicine, education, or music is taught. And as Zunger wrote, those at the higher levels of software engineering owe as much of their success to empathy as to skillful coding.

Pichai — a tech executive as universally admired as anyone else I’ve encountered in this cutthroat world — is facing the biggest test of his career. Google has long chalked up its success to its ability to hire and train what it believes to be the best tech talent, but the problems of the 21st century will require new ways of thinking about tech talent.

All Pichai needs to do is balance the righteous anger of those who called for Damore’s head against those who think he has a point. It’s as big a challenge as Google has ever faced, and it’s one of its own making.