As civil unrest reverberated throughout virtually every corner of American life, culture, and industry this week, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian announced that he was resigning from the company’s board of directors. He hopes that his seat will be filled by a black person. ‘I’m doing this for myself, for my family, and for my country,’ Ohanian (who is married to tennis legend Serena Williams) wrote on Twitter. ‘I’m saying this as a father who needs to be able to answer his black daughter when she asks, “What did you do?”’
Later, Ohanian tweeted, ‘I’m seeing more and more people in tech who are frustrated and have been hitting a wall in their companies leaving! You don’t need to be in a position of power, [because] our job market is so healthy — resignation is protest, too!’ Ohanian, who I know from years ago in mid-Noughties startup-land, is a great guy and I applaud the overall stance he’s taken. But if I might chime in with a dissenting view: encouraging people to quit isn’t the right move. Even if they work for tech companies that have been deemed ‘problematic’.
I’ve long held the opinion that you should never pressure someone to quit their job for ideological reasons unless you’re prepared to pay their bills while they search for a new one. You never know what someone else’s financial circumstances may be; whether they have a pricey medical condition they haven’t told you about, or they’re supporting an elderly relative. They may not want to explain to you why it’s not feasible for them to ‘just quit’. But right now, with the economy reeling from COVID-19-related shutdowns and cutbacks, it’s more off-key than ever. Even with Facebook wavering on its jurisdiction over content, or whatever the heck YouTube is doing these days about its algorithm recommending extremist videos after you’ve just watched a clip of a capybara taking a bath.
There’s a widespread misconception, especially on the political left, that everyone who works full-time for a big tech company is a millionaire or sitting on a Scrooge McDuck-worthy stash of stock options that can double as a slip-’n’-slide. I can confirm, having worked for Google for several years, that this isn’t true. I still work in the industry and I am still waiting for my slip-’n’-slide. I’m not alone. Many employees still have student loans to pay off; many have families to support in one form or another. It gets more complicated for employees who are not US citizens or green card holders, many of whom not only come from considerably lower-income circumstances abroad but also for whom US visas are tied to employment.
Plus, is the job market in tech really that good? That depends on what your skill set is and how much risk you’re willing and able to take. Thanks to COVID-19, everything’s been upended. Many of the companies that are hiring are relatively early-stage, where salaries are often considerably lower because of plentiful but high-risk equity in the company, and benefits packages notably slimmer. And depending on your resume, the job market can actually be pretty bad. Data shows that sales and customer service roles at tech companies have been hit hard with layoffs, many companies have instituted hiring freezes, and salaries have been cut. (There have also been suggestions that employees of the New York Times quit in opposition to the much-maligned Tom Cotton op-ed, which is a fairly ridiculous request given the state of carnage the media industry is in right now.)
Most tech employees are now working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which affords some of them the opportunity to move out of expensive accommodations in the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City and save enough cash on rent to possibly take on a riskier job or lower salary. But it’s not yet clear just how long-term mass remote work policies will be, no matter what your favorite futurist pundit is tweeting about it. The distribution of talent and innovation outside of a handful of pricey coastal cities is something that I very much hope happens, but things remain uncertain enough that I wouldn’t fault anyone for not wanting to gamble on it.
It’s both a good thing and a bad thing that the tech industry has become our latest first-world-problem bête noire. On the one hand, it certainly needs some accountability and perspective; I’m sure there are more effective uses for company dollars than giant ice sculptures at holiday parties and team offsites in Hawaii. It is an extraordinarily privileged industry with a reputation for, well, dumbassery. But on the other hand, the excesses of company leadership rarely trickle down to the rank and file, and even when they do they’re in the form of showy corporate gestures, not actual benefits to your livelihood. You can’t pay your rent with selfies taken next to the ice sculpture. (If you can, your landlord is an interesting character.)
But I digress. Big Tech is here to stay in one form or another, regardless of what sabers Sen. Josh Hawley is rattling this week, and if you’re pressuring employees to leave ‘because they care’, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to effect change from within. If you’re an activist who knows people who work at Facebook, Google or the like, you’re well positioned to help. I can attest that many of them are deeply conflicted about working where they do right now, and may feel powerless. For example: The book Road Map For Revolutionaries, while firmly oriented toward the left, has an entire chapter about pushing for change within an employer (dealing with shareholders, for example) that’s relevant to anyone along the ideological spectrum.
I speak from experience when I say that tech companies and venture capital funds have historically tackled ‘diversity’ and ‘social change’ with splashy, PR-friendly initiatives that are frequently ineffective, or with cringey ad campaigns that mask a far less sunny working environment. (And, of course, many employees haven’t felt comfortable publicly scrutinizing them lest it sound like they’re criticizing the need for improved diversity.) But addressing the need for change won’t come down to people quitting in frustration, leaving the mess to someone else, and paving the way for more sunshine-and-rainbows diversity programs that don’t work. There’s never been a better time for encouraging tech companies’ rank-and-file to speak up. Don’t shame them — steer them in the right direction instead.