Why the Google Walkout Was a Watershed Moment in Tech

By F Manjoo

Outsiders have little leverage to force the industry to change. The companies’ own workers are another matter.

For a few hours last Thursday, just about everything at Google ground to a halt. At 11 a.m. local time in a movement that rolled like an angry and jubilant tide around the globe, more than 20,000 employees walked out to protest the company’s long history of protecting executives accused of sexual harassment.

Then the walkout was done, and the media’s bright glare returned to the midterm elections. A Google spokesman told me that its executives were now pondering workers’ demands, which include specific changes to hiring and management policies, but the company had no comment beyond that.

However Google responds, little at the internet search giant — and, perhaps, little in Silicon Valley — will be the same again.

For two years, regulators, lawmakers, academics and the media have pushed Silicon Valley to alter its world-swallowing ways. But outsiders have few points of leverage in tech; there are few laws governing the industry’s practices, and lawmakers have struggled to get up to speed on tech’s implications for society. Protests by workers are an important new avenue for pressure; the very people who make these companies work can change what they do in the world.

Their effectiveness at pushing the industry to address issues is already clear. In the summer, a worker-led movement at Google contributed to its decision to abandon Project Maven, a plan to work with the Pentagon on software for targeting drone strikes. Workers at Amazon and Microsoft are also calling on their companies to shift how they work with law enforcement.

But the Google walkout suggests something bigger could be afoot.

In just a week, the organizers used Google’s own collaborative tools, and leveraged its open company culture, to create a wide-ranging movement. Their demands reflect the comments and suggestions of more than 1,000 people who participated in internal conversations about the walkout. They include points of view that have long been marginalized in tech — of minority workers, for instance, and of contractors, the industry’s second-class citizens.

The walkout’s organizers told me that they were aiming to keep that movement alive — to ask the most important questions about how their company operates in the world, and to inspire those in other parts of the tech industry to take up similar arms.

“Something we’ve discussed as a group, something we’ve locked arms over, is that we’re assembled now,” said Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at Google-owned YouTube who created the internal discussion forum in which organizers planned the walkout.

“We have an incredibly engaged group of people, and we aren’t going to stop escalating this,” she continued. “The group isn’t really going to back down from this or a host of other things. The walkout was not like a blowing-off-steam exercise.”

The walkout was sparked by a specific grievance: a report in The New York Times that Google gave a $90 million exit payment to Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, after he was accused of coercing a woman to perform oral sex in a hotel room (a charge that he denies but that the company found credible).

The organizers said their aims were far larger, though, than sexual harassment and abuse.

“Our discussions expanded very quickly,” Stapleton said. “What is it that we want the company to be, and what should we do with the power that we very quickly see we are harnessing? Is Google for good? Do we think that technology is toxic? Are we navigating through a host of complex issues online in a positive way?”

Speaking to Stapleton and several of her fellow organizers, I was struck by their intoxicating optimism. They brimmed with confidence about their capacity to push for a new moral, ethical and social framework in tech. And because Google’s culture is a model for the industry and much of corporate America, they saw the idea of changing the company as part of a larger social and political struggle to make a dent in the universe.

“I think what we did was disprove the myth that it’s too hard to take collective action,” said Celie O’Neil-Hart, who works in YouTube’s marketing department. She described the meticulous way that she and other organizers of the walkout distilled the thousands of discussions flowing through their group into a list of demands. Their secret? Google’s own technology.

“I was getting hundreds of pieces of feedback on these demands, but ironically thanks to Google’s products, like Google Groups and Docs and comments, I was able to get this constant stream of real-time feedback from a collective group of hundreds of Googlers, all while doing my day job,” O’Neil-Hart said. She noted, too, that many Googlers had been hired for their work-endless-hours drive; now that drive was marshaled in the service of a movement.

Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at YouTube, described organizing the protest in a way that sounded to me like designing and releasing a new Google product, only with a group that was more passionate and personally invested.

“It was really fun to see my fellow employees flex the skills that a lot of them had developed at Google — their program management skills, their marketing skills, their PR skills, but in the service of this movement,” she said.

A lot about the walkout was particular to Google’s culture, which has always encouraged a more open form of debate than many tech peers. Companies more consumed with secrecy — Facebook, for instance, or Amazon or Apple — may be less tolerant of a large number of employees who use their tech skills to go rogue.

But such a prospect is not out of the question. Tech workers have endless options when it comes to employment; the tight labor market gives them greater leeway in voicing their concerns, and the promise that their voices are valued gives them an expectation that they can effect change.

“I didn’t think this would happen, but it’s amazing to see,” said Ellen Pao, a venture capitalist who sued her former firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for sexual harassment and now works at the nonprofit group Project Include.

“It’s another point of pressure — maybe the most powerful one yet,” she said. “And until recently, there really hasn’t been much pressure at all.”