“Not OK, Google.” These three words — chanted and splashed on signs during November’s worldwide walkout of an estimated 20,000 Google employees — summed up the newly combative mood emerging from the campuses of Silicon Valley. In November, the tech industry’s most cherished assets — its employees — mobilized with speed and scale to question their companies’ controversial defense contracts, protest inequities in pay and promotion, and demand better protections for the contractors and part-timers who make up a significant chunk of tech’s workforce.
The pushback presents yet another headache for tech executives, challenging some of the business fundamentals that have made the industry so successful and profitable. Considered in the context of Silicon Valley’s longer history, however, this new worker activism is a promising and exciting development — and it might end up being one of the best things to happen in the tech world in 2019.
Even before the arrival of the silicon chips that gave the valley its name, the region’s iconic companies consciously styled themselves as a new breed, one that treated employees well in a distinctive California-casual environment.
Tech can’t afford to have its talented white-collar workers walk out permanently.
Hewlett-Packard, founded in 1939 by two engineers who had spent little time in corporate America and had little enthusiasm for emulating it, set the tone from the start. Everyone wore shirtsleeves, enjoyed alfresco lunches at the employee cafeteria and played games of horseshoes out back when they needed a break. Co-founder Bill Hewlett called it “management by wandering.” When HP went public in the late 1950s, the entire white-collar workforce — from founders to secretaries — got a chunk of ownership in the company.
As electronics and computer industries mushroomed up around Silicon Valley in successive decades, other companies invoked “the HP way” as their model. It became a land of open-space offices, jogging paths and raucous company happy hours.
There was plenty that was problematic about this culture. By the 1980s, employees might have had Ferraris in their driveways, but 80- and 90-hour workweeks were common. One early Microsoft employee cheerfully referred to the company as “a velvet sweatshop.” The growing number of women in the industry quickly learned that success depended on their willingness to pull long hours and fit into a culture that was a strange mix of high school computer lab and frat house.
The industry professed to be a meritocracy but placed a premium on recruiting people from a handful of top schools or, better yet, hired those referred by current employees. In the dot-com boom of the 1990s, Sun Microsystems filled 60% of its jobs through referral; Netscape hung a sign in its headquarters asking, “Who is the best person you’ve ever worked with? How can we hire him/her?” While the rest of corporate America diversified, tech’s culture become more homogeneous. Yet the considerable financial upside — not to mention the genuine satisfaction gained from working on world-transforming products — curbed employee dissent.
Today, techies still work hard and play hard. The pay and perks of full-time employment have become richer than ever. At the same time, contract and temp work proliferates, both as a way for companies to keep costs lean and as a path for employees to step away from the punishing pace. (Not surprisingly, a number of white-collar contractors are mothers of small children.)
The surge of worker activism came partly as a result of these long-building disparities. But it also is a sign that the technology industry is growing up.
“Management by wandering,” pingpong tables, and hiring by referral may have worked well when technology was somewhat off to the side of American capitalism. Now, however, these companies and their products are the main event, driving the global economy in ways unimagined in the days of Hewlett and Packard. And the problematic things about current Silicon Valley culture — the lack of diversity, the tolerance of bad behavior, the dramatic inequities within its workforce — are limiting tech companies’ ability to continue their remarkable track record of innovation.
Talent is the most precious commodity in Silicon Valley. “Our employees,” Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page told investors back in 2004, “are everything.” The climbing walls and free snacks — those aren’t PR gimmicks; they’re signals of a job market that remains fiercely competitive.
Here are grounds for optimism. Tech can’t afford to have its talented white-collar workers walk out permanently. Lawmakers in Washington may make noise about regulation and antitrust enforcement. Customers may delete their accounts. But, in 2019, sustained worker activism could have the most power of them all to alter the trajectory of where tech could go next.
Margaret O’Mara is a professor of history at the University of Washington. Her next book, “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” will be published in July.