What really happened with Google’s memo?

Disclaimer: None of the views here portrayed are those of Google. These are all personal ideas and points of view.

Google HQ image
Google

Google has been all over the news lately (here, here, here and many more). For the sake of clarifying some confusions and giving my own point of view of the whole situation, I am writing this post.

How it all started

It all started when a James Damore, now a former Google engineer, decided to write a 10 page document about how political correctness was affecting Google as whole.  It seems James released first the document to internal Google forums early last week. By Friday the whole company was going at it. Discussions started erupting from all outlets. And then suddenly someone decided to leak a piece of the document to Motherboard. Only a snippet was released, however it did not take too much time for Gizmodo to obtain the (almost) full copy.  The following weekend, people around the globe were learning of Damore’s ideas. It is worth noting that somewhere in the Gizmodo leak, the document lost some important information like the original doc’s references to various studies.

As a Google engineer I try to distance myself from the internal forums where Damore’s document was first discussed since I think they are a waste of my and Google’s time. However on Friday evening even the normal outlets where bustling with people discussing the document. By Monday the whole globe was reading the news. By Monday night Google fired Damore. That was impressive to me since we rarely hear Google firing employees. However what followed impressed me even more. Instead of stopping the leaks, firing Damore had the opposite effect. Soon after the media wrote on what had happened, Sundar sent an email to the whole company. The message stated what Google’s values are, and why was Damore fired. Basically he was fired because he had breached the Code of conduct. Soon after I read the letter, the media was already commenting on Sundar’s letter.

And this is what surprises me the most. During my last three years at Google, leaks had been sporadic and  dealt with (every leaker I read about had been fired). However after Damore was fired, there was a profound twist to Google’s culture. Leaking became commonplace so much so that even the all hands meeting to discuss all of this was canceled. Even the fact that the meeting was canceled was leaked. It seems that leaking has now become a tool for Googlers to attack other Googlers. And the attacks have become so insidious that Googlers’ names have started to appear in the public eye. This has in turn lead to more serious security issues for Googlers. To think that so little has become so much in a matter of days still amazes me.

The document

So what can this document contain to have caused all this? This is a basic summary of what he says in the document:

My interpretation goes as follows with some of my opinions (marked in blue):

1 Google and scientists in general are biased because most of them are left leaning:

Left Biases Right Biases
Compassion for the weak Respect for the strong/authority
Disparities are due to injustices Disparities are natural and just
Humans are inherently cooperative Humans are inherently competitive
Change is good (unstable) Change is dangerous (stable)
Open Closed
Idealist Pragmatic

I agree in this part with James. Google should not chastise or silence groups with opinions contrary to the majority. However I do think that opinions can become offensive to people. Where do we draw the line? A very tricky question.

2 Explanations of why there are less women in tech other than common biases:

  1. Because of biological predisposition to personality differences (on average):
    1. Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas
    2. Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness
    3. Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance)
  2. Because men have a natural predisposition to have a drive for higher status

There have been several research studies which contradict what James says. Firstly the gender gap in tech can be explained by media constructs from the last century. Secondly there are other studies which suggest that women are less productive than men not because of their  innate traits, but because of their family responsibilities. 

One other thing he mentions is that all these studies are biased because scientists are left leaning. My question is, did he check each and every one? 

3 Ways we can reduce the gender gap without relying on 1:1 gender equality:

  1. Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things, so software should be more about people than things
  2. Women on average are more cooperative, so reduce competitiveness metrics for performance review of women 
  3. Women on average are more prone to anxiety, so we should make tech less stressful
  4. Women on average look for more work-life balance, so we should increase part-time roles
  5. The male gender role is currently inflexible, we should allow men to feel more feminine

4 The harm of Google being left biased. Google has created several discriminatory practices:

  • Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
  • A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
  • Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate
  • Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)

What James misses here is that Google spends more money to get people in disadvantaged groups to apply for the job. Once the candidates enter the hiring process, there is absolutely no discrimination either direct or reversed towards candidates.

5 Why Google biases came to be. Basically because left leaning is affected by a natural disposition to protect females and the weak

6 Suggestions

  1. De-moralize diversity. Good point
  2. Stop alienating conservativesGood point
  3. Confront Google’s biases. Do they really exist?
  4. Stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races. Good point although I don’t see majority groups attending these classes
  5. Have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs. That already happens
  6. Focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity. Already happens
  7. De-emphasize emotional empathy for policy making. 
  8. Prioritize intention.
  9. Be open about the science of human nature. Good point
  10. Reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory for promo committees.

Conclusion

I am not sure James Damore should have been fired over what he wrote. Some of his points are pretty good and should be discussed. Some of his other points are offensive even if they are his own opinion. I guess if people had not leaked the story, maybe Google would not have fired him. My own opinion is that Google practices are fine, I think spending more money to recruit less traditional CS candidates is good option. Should we treat women and men differently when talking about promotion and salary? Should we judge women by their cooperativeness and men by their competitiveness? I would say probably not. It is a tough problem and the current solution is good enough. Maybe there’s a better solution, however it’s not what was portrayed in the Google memo.

Author: Andres Paez

Tech’er, writer, programmer, life enthusiast.

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