The rise of tech worker power in Silicon Valley -- self-organizing and winning

​Tech workers have been flexing their muscles this year with some success at Google and Salesforce in protest of military and government contracts.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Video: Are cloud providers responsible for how governments use their products?

There are no unions in Silicon Valley but maybe they aren't needed if software engineers can self-organize at a moment's notice -- using the same communications and collaborations tools they use at work and at leisure.

Will Silicon Valley's largest companies now have to clear all business deals with a workers' council of some sort? Will senior management need approval for their business strategies from their staff?

    Read also: Google, Microsoft, Amazon: Are they responsible for government use?

    Will the US military or government agencies trust Silicon Valley engineers to not sabotage or delay what they might consider to be immoral projects?

    Or will Silicon Valley companies use their own technologies to quickly sandbox and isolate internal protests before they spread?

    Military AI

    Google's management certainly tried hard to stop the internal protest to its Project Maven -- a contract with the US military to use machine learning to improve target image recognition by drones.

    Read also: After employee protest, Google backs off Pentagon drone AI project

    Ben Tarnoff has written a fascinating account in Jacobin magazine on how the protest was organized.

    A Google employee called "Kim" told Tarnoff that the initial September 2017 protests of Project Maven were small but really took off in early 2018 leading to Google senior management holding all-hands meetings to protect Project Maven.

    Diane Greene, head of the Google Cloud business group, came across as ill-prepared for the questions she was asked.

    An employee said, "Hey, I left the Defense Department so I wouldn't have to work on this kind of stuff. What kind of voice do we have besides this Q&A to explain why this project is not okay?"

    Co-founder Sergey Brin told the employee, "Letting you ask that question is the voice that you have. Very few companies would allow you to do that."


    Tech workers on parade at Pride in San Francisco.

    Photo: Tom Foremski

    Kim told Tarnoff: "His remark came across as tone deaf and out of touch to almost every Googler who heard it."

    Thousands of employees who heard that remark signed onto the protest -- leading to a stunning and historic victory which will have wide repercussions.

    Letter to Benioff

    Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of Salesforce, the largest tech company in San Francisco, had to answer a recent letter from 650 Salesforce staff protesting the business relationship with US Customs and Border Protection agency over its policy of separating immigrant families.

    Benioff praised his workers for the letter of protest but said Salesforce won't stop doing business with the agency because its software is only being used for recruitment and communications.

    Salesforce is well known for its social mission and employees volunteer at local schools and charities. Benioff built a $100 million children's hospital and tries to motivate Silicon Valley's successful entrepreneurs to donate more of their wealth to charities.

    But how will Salesforce react to a growing power among its tech workers? How will Google react?

    Read also: Microsoft employees protest: 'Stop work with ICE over cruel border policies'

    Google dropped "Don't be Evil" as a motto earlier this year -- a phrase that was extremely important in 2004 when it filed its IPO papers. "Don't be Evil" was in a letter to shareholders from the founders -- the first thing you read in the several hundred pages long SEC filing.

    It was important for Google's founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to cast the company as a force for good because it was really a letter addressed to future employees. They knew shareholders would not be the problem -- they had to make sure software engineers wouldn't be turned-off by the naked greed that surrounded tech IPOs -- and that they would feel excited at working for an online ad company.

    It addressed the stock issue by choosing a "Dutch auction" model with mixed success -- Wall Street firms still made a huge amount of money. And the letter stated its global social mission up front. It promised to establish Google Foundation as an institution eclipsing the corporate parent by solving the world's most pressing problems. It worked.

    Foremski's Take

    Google managed to attract top engineers and business leader, but has it grown too far away from the founding principles that appealed to so many people?

    Will Google's C-suite now share its executive powers with Googler representatives?

    There's little chance of that happening beyond some token concessions. Google's founders don't share.

    The same 2004 IPO document set out a dual shareholder structure where founders and other insiders have ten times the voting power. A small number of executives control every aspect of the company.

    Google will seek to control and eliminate any future dissent so it doesn't spread. It has to do this because it has to diversify from near total reliance on advertising revenues. Competing for multi-billion dollar military government contracts is absolutely essential to those efforts.

    Read also: Now Amazon employees rebel: 'End police facial-recognition contracts, ICE support'

    But how will it package such deals to appeal to its workers while also assuring customers its people won't sabotage projects they don't agree with?

    Silicon Valley will most certainly experience further resistance by tech workers beyond Google and Salesforce. It's not just because of the Project Maven victory but because there's a larger trend at work.

    Several studies this year have found a rise in expectations by employees that their business leaders take public positions on important issues.

    And if their CEOs won't take a position, Google and Salesforce workers have shown that they can force them to choose. Tech worker power has reached a tipping point in Silicon Valley.

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