On Leaving Google

A sunset over an industrial area with a train passing through.

At the end of February I will be leaving the Ethical AI team and joining Timnit Gebru at the Distributed AI Research Institute.

I’m one of many people leaving Google with ethical concerns in mind; there’s little I can say about that that hasn’t been said. I’m standing among people who’ve put their careers on the line to speak up, who’ve anatomized Google’s harms and injustices more thoroughly and articulately than I could.

So, I’m writing this to share a few experiences and observations that feel important to me.

I first came to Google through the Engineering Residency Program. When I joined in 2017, the program assembled extremely diverse cohorts of new graduates in computer science and related fields, and gave us a lower-paying, fixed-term version of a new-grad engineering job. While this program has been more or less discontinued (after ceaseless organizing on the part of many current and former Residents!), finding ways to codify the undervaluation of marginalized professionals through “opportunities” has certainly not ended, at Google or elsewhere in tech.

This was the start of a lot of cognitive dissonance.

As a Resident, I was cocooned by the office perks that make full-time Googlers feel so valuable — and was reminded that this was all temporary unless I had proven myself worthy within a year. As a full-time engineer in Google Research, I heard managers and leaders speak earnestly about the critical importance of a diverse workforce, about the role our work could be playing in addressing hardships and injustices, about how fortunate we were to be able to operate so freely — and the hiring demographics looked the same to me year after year. Most of the work I saw rewarded was, at most, superficially engaged with material ethical concerns (a veritable ocean of disability dongles!). And all those “Googley” perks drew a firm, uncomfortable line between us as full-time workers and the temps, vendors, and contract workers that worked alongside us.

At first, I coped with this cognitive dissonance the way a lot of people do, by giving Google as much benefit of the doubt as I could at the time. These Are Challenging And Complex Issues, after all. At least leadership Sees Us And Hears Our Concerns. And I could brush off the paternalism — being an early career engineer from a marginalized background, I was often patronized, anyhow.

It also helped to find other optimistic, ideologically-motivated colleagues. The way they saw their own roles gave me a sense of purpose, too — Google has a massive impact on the world, and that impact is driven by us. By Googlers.

But “us” was never meant to include over half of Google’s own workers. It was never meant to include April Curley or Shannon Wait, not workers trying to curtail Google’s military involvement, not Drs. Gebru or Mitchell.

Maybe at the company’s founding, Google was a place where the impact really was driven by the employees. But when the employees are a small clique of largely white Stanford graduates in a skyrocketing industry with a firehose of capital and limited legal oversight, there was no reason for it not to be.

Now, Google leadership has made it clear that there is simply no reason to let employees impact the direction of the company if that direction deviates from ravenous, short-sighted consumption and growth at any cost. They’ll continue to isolate, silence, and divide workers who speak up about critical issues in the future of technology; they’ll continue to consolidate power and evade responsibility. Responding to petitions, transparency in town halls, “don’t be evil” — they’re simply not perks worth offering anymore.

When I joined Google, I was cautiously optimistic about the promise of making the world better with technology. I’m a lot less techno-solutionist now. I understand in vivid detail how far Google leadership will go to feel like they’re protecting their precious bottom line. I feel viscerally how easy it is to become jaded to the point of exhaustion.

At the same time, I can’t speak highly enough of how insightful, brilliant, and unwaveringly collaborative my colleagues have been. I have never felt so valued, trusted, and encouraged in a work environment as I have on the Ethical AI team. Drs. Gebru and Mitchell laid incredible groundwork, and I owe them — and the entire team — an enormous debt of gratitude.

And organizing with my fellow Engineering Residents and the Alphabet Workers’ Union were deeply grounding, heartening experiences. I’ve found solidarity to be not only indispensable in effecting change but also personally restorative. Being in community with other people, taking care of each other, taking action together — it motivates me in a way no free company-provided 1-on-1 counseling or motivational wellness talk ever could.

Meredith Whittaker put it really well in a recent interview in Logic Magazine:

We’re trying to figure out how we, as people within these environments, protect ourselves and each other. In my view, the answer to this question doesn’t start with building a better HR, or hiring a diversity consultant. It’s rooted in solidarity, mutual care, and in a willingness to understand ourselves as committed to our own and others’ wellbeing over our commitments to institutional standing or professional identity.

So, even after four years at Google, I remain cautiously optimistic.

I believe technology can be good. I want efficiency to mean everyone can work less, I want it to mean justice and accessibility and less suffering and more leisure and joy. I want us to be able to spend more time planting seeds and less time putting out fires.

I have enormous faith in Dr. Gebru and the DAIR team in working towards just that. I’m tremendously excited to start my next chapter there.

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