Google’s Brain Drain Should Alarm Us All

The casual outside observer can be readily excused for not noticing the multiplying red flags.

At first glance, so much seems golden for Google.

Google is still expanding its physical infrastructure by leaps and bounds. New buildings, new data centers, new offices — just last week we learned that Google will be taking over virtually the entire old Westside Pavilion for offices here in L.A. I used to hang out there many years ago, back when it was a relatively new shopping mall.

The pipeline of graduating students into Google’s HR machine remains packed to overflowing, and as usual there are vastly more applicants than positions available.

But to those of us with deeper connections to the firm and its employees, there are alarm bells sounding loudly.

Google is in the midst of a user trust and ethics crisis, and an increasing number of their best long-term employees are leaving.

Their reasons vary — after all, nobody is expected to stay with one firm forever, and there are career paths to be considered. 

However, it is undeniable to anyone who really knows Google that there is an increasing internal glumness, a sense of melancholy and in some cases anger, toward some key decisions that management has been making of late, and regarding the predicted trajectory for Google that logically could result.

As at most firms, there has always been some degree of friction at Google between management and the “rank and file” employees — traditionally staying largely internal to the firm and out of public view.

This has changed recently, with a series of controversial internal issues spilling out dramatically into the external world, in the form of employee protests and other employee actions really never seen before in modern Big Tech workplaces. 

Consternation over Google’s links to military projects, a potential censored search project for China, and a massive payout to a high-ranking employee accused of sexual harassment — the world at large has taken note of these issues and more.

Just in the last few days, a major shareholder lawsuit has been filed against Google relating to the sexual harassment case. And coincidentally a couple of days ago, the Arms Control Association named the 4000 Googlers who opposed Google’s contract with the Pentagon’s “Project Maven” as the “Arms Control Person(s) of the Year.”

There have indeed been some positive internal changes at Google resulting from this unprecedented level of employee activism — for example, Google has formalized an important and positive set of AI Principles.

For many Googlers, this has been too little, too late. Particularly among female and LGTBQ employees — but by no means restricted to those groups — the atmosphere at Google is no longer seen as welcoming and ethical. And increasing numbers of Googlers — alarmingly including those who have been at Google for many years, who have been the representatives of Google’s culture at its best, and who have constituted the ethical heart of the company — have left or are about to leave.

And this appears to be only the beginning. I’ve lost count of the Googlers I know who have asked me to keep an ear open for outside positions that fall into their areas of expertise — a bit ironic since I’m always looking for work myself. 

These kinds of situations can be devastating to a firm in the long run, in and of themselves.

They also hand Google’s political and other enemies — the haters and more — political ammunition that can be used against Google not only to the detriment of the firm at a time when Big Tech is increasingly being inappropriately framed as “enemies of the people” by Luddite forces on the left and the right — but to the ultimate detriment of Google’s users and everyone else as well.

Yet compared to Google’s competition — for example firms like Amazon and Microsoft who happily accept military combat contracts, or Apple with its highly problematic actions to help China block open Internet access by removing VPN and other apps — Google’s ethics have traditionally been a cut above the others.

As Google’s brain and ethics drains continue, as more of their best and most principled employees leave, Google’s moral advantage over those other firms is rapidly deteriorating, and the exodus of such employees is always a “canary in the coal mine” warning that something fundamental has gone awry. 

So long as Google management chooses not to directly and effectively address these issues, to not dedicate significant resources toward reclaiming the ethical, user trust, and employee trust high grounds, there is little reason to anticipate a course correction from the increasingly dark path on which Google now appears to be traveling. 


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2 thoughts on “Google’s Brain Drain Should Alarm Us All”

  1. Thanks Lauren, you are absolutely right. Years ago, I was asked to defend why I had such a high opinion of Google – I was very open about saying that I trusted and respected it more than any other company or government I knew of (recognising that’s not a very high bar). I said it was two things: 1) the Google employees I experienced were extremely intelligent, well informed, ethical, thoughtful, challenging and willing to be challenged, and just damn decent people I respected the hell out of; and 2) that Google allowed these employees to be this way publicly, on a platform they owned (Google Plus). Google employees could share their personal thoughts on controversial issues and engage in intelligent and fascinating discussions and their employer didn’t shut them down (normal disclaimers about opinions being the individual’s, not Google’s, of course). They always showed that they cared deeply not just about making sure that products or services delivered what was “on the label” really well, but also about considering how things could go wrong and what unintended consequences there might be – and minimising those risks. Google employees were truly great brand ambassadors for Google, and that face and character transformed my opinion of Google from being merely a company that gave me great free products and services to being a company I actually felt an emotional connection with. I defended Google enthusiastically, as much as someone completely on the outside can.

    Then they started leaving. Yonatan Zunger’s exit, in particular, was a huge blow to my confidence in Google; he had always been such an ardent champion of ethics and privacy and he was one of the most visible (to me) Googlers. More of what Google has done in the last few years that’s appeared on my radar has been negative (people leaving, the China search, etc) or neutral/slightly positive (many products are still great, but meh) than positive.

    Killing G+ was the death blow. Google is now just another company and that really makes me sad.

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