Why That Google Memo Is So Familiar

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Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Of the many sad things about the ten-page anti-diversity memo written by an anonymous Google employee, the saddest might be how deeply familiar it is. The screed, which circulated around Google’s internal social network last week before being reported on by Motherboard and published by Gizmodo this weekend, has set the tech-industry internet on fire, but there’s nothing new in it. It’s recognizable in form and content to veterans of the comments section on Reddit and Hacker News. Its self-professed eminent rationality, its bullet-pointed plod through long-debunked myths about gender performance, its pleas for open debate and discussion are exactly the same ones you find in any forum discussion anywhere on the differences between men and women and their inherent technical abilities.

But just because it’s boring doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. In fact, it’s important not to overlook how boring it truly is, how rote and bland this type of thinking is, and how prevalent it is across the technology industry. It’s easy to pretend that the droning commenters we’re all familiar with are frustrated wannabes on the periphery of the tech industry, but the memo — and the response — makes it clear to anyone who couldn’t tell that many who hold the Googler’s stance are employed at its beating heart. Not long after the full text of the screed appeared online, Motherboard sought out quotes from Googlers using an anonymous-forum app called Blind. “I’m impressed. It took serious guts to post that,” one person wrote. Another said, “We should all go and respond with support. The more the supporters, the safer he is.”

It’s important to recognize how widespread this sensibility is because it’s important to understand that sexism in the tech industry is not only carryover sexism from the rest of society: It’s a consequence of a series of myths and stories that programmers and engineers tell themselves and each other. When you strip away the wrongheaded ideas about gender, the self-regarding appeals to reason, and the sense of self-importance that led the author to worry about the presence of women “harming” Google, what’s left at the core of the memo is a set of ideas about technology, and what it takes to be good at it. The computer industry is built upon the myth of a few antisocial hackers in a garage, creating entire worlds on their own. Qualities like narrowly defined rationality are prized, while qualities like empathy or social aptitude are regarded as irrelevant to the core function of a technology worker: solving discrete problems efficiently.

This idea of who can code and who can’t was probably never accurate, but as software has swallowed the world, it’s become more than just inaccurate — it’s harmful. As recent ex-Googler Yonatan Zunger wrote on Medium, this idea of the lone hero coder dragged down by teamwork, and collaboration, and diversity doesn’t work at a company the size of Google, where the products they make are gargantuan coordinated efforts with dozens of moving parts, which affect end-users, who are — just to remind you — real people. “The truly hard parts about this job,” he wrote, “are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.”

To their credit, some companies have recognized this. Last year, when an anonymous employee crossed out “Black Lives Matter” and wrote “All Lives Matter” on a message wall at the Facebook office, Mark Zuckerberg publicly reprimanded the behavior — an institutional signal that skills like “knowing how to not be an asshole” were important to continued employment at Facebook. Facebook has plenty of work to do to make its workforce diverse and equitably compensated, but top-down signals matter. Google, as large and profitable as it is, must also recognize the importance of expanding the narrow understanding of what makes a good technical employee. But the simple fact is that the person who wrote this memo has plenty of support within his company — and within the broader tech industry. Just read any comment thread on the subject.

Why That Google Memo Is So Familiar