In 2006, Google bought YouTube for more than $US1 billion, Apple was preparing to announce the first iPhone, and the US housing bubble began to deflate. Claire Stapleton, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, faced the same question over and over: What did she plan to do with that English degree? She flirted, non-committally, with Teach for America.
Then, a Google recruiter came to campus and, Stapleton said, she “won ‘American Idol.'” The company flew her to Mountain View, California, which felt to her “like the promised land” — 15 cafeterias, beach volleyball courts, Zumba classes, haircuts and laundry on-site.
But for Stapleton, now 34, the real appeal in a job at Google was what seemed to be a perfect balance of working for income and according to one’s conscience. Naturally, she said yes to an offer in the corporate communications department.
“There was this ambient glow of being part of a company that was changing the world,” Stapleton said. “I was totally googly-eyed about it.”
More than a decade later, college seniors and recent graduates looking for jobs that are both principled and high-paying are doing so in a world that has soured on Big Tech. The positive perceptions of Google, Facebook and other large tech firms are crumbling.
Many students still see employment in tech as a ticket to prosperity, but for job seekers who can afford to be choosy, there is a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley’s most lucrative positions aren’t worth the ethical quandaries.
“Working at Google or Facebook seemed like the coolest thing ever in my freshman year, because you’d get paid a tonne of money but it was socially responsible,” said Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan. “It was like a utopian workplace.”
Now, he said, “there’s more hesitation about the moral qualities of these jobs. It’s like how people look at Wall Street.”
Investment banking, but worse
The growing scepticism of Silicon Valley, sometimes referred to as the “techlash,” has spared few major players.
In 2019, Facebook was fined nearly $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Amazon cancelled its plans for a New York City headquarters after residents, union leaders and local legislators contested the idea that the behemoth should receive $3 billion from the state to set up shop. Google, in 2018, faced internal protests over its plans for a censored search engine in China and handling of sexual harassment.
The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 per cent in 2015 to 50 per cent in 2019, according to a Pew Research Centre survey.
At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in movie JoJo Rabbit: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends”.
That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise.
Belce Dogru, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science last year said: “There has definitely been a shift in conversation on campus.”
Stanford is the second-biggest feeder school for jobs in Silicon Valley, according to data from HiringSolved, a software company focused on recruiting. Some companies pay as much as $US12,000 ($17,000) to advertise at the university’s computer science job fairs.
“It felt like in my freshman year Google, [data analytics firm] Palantir and Facebook were these shiny places everyone wanted to be. It was like, ‘Wow, you work at Facebook. You must be really smart,'” said Dogru, 23. “Now if a classmate tells me they’re joining Palantir or Facebook, there’s an awkward gap where they feel like they have to justify themselves.”
Audrey Steinkamp, a 19-year-old at Yale, which sends about 10 per cent of each graduating class into tech, said that taking a job in Silicon Valley is seen as “selling out”.
That is especially true, some of the students said, when a classmate chooses to work for Facebook, whose products have spread disinformation and helped influence a presidential election.
“The work you do at a place like Facebook could be harmful at a much larger scale than an investment bank,” Dogru said. “It’s in the pockets of millions of people, and it’s a source of news for millions of people. It’s working at a scary scale.”
Many students still believe that technology can help change the world for good. As Glaser put it for Slate, some of them are opting out of the Big Tech pipeline and trying, instead, “to use technical skills as an insurance policy against dystopia.”
“Students have an opportunity to look at where they can have the most impact that’s in line with their values,” said Leslie Miley, a former director of engineering at Google and Slack. “The fact of the matter is Google, Facebook, Twitter are not in line with those values because they’re huge companies beholden to a lot of different masters.”
Still got that college spirit
Anna Geiduschek, a software engineer who graduated from Stanford in 2014, was working at Dropbox last year when she received an email from an Amazon Web Services recruiter. She replied that she wouldn’t consider a job with the company unless Amazon cut its contract with Palantir.
“These companies go out of their way to try and woo software engineers, and I realised it would send a powerful message for me as a potential employee to tell them no,” Geiduschek, 27, said. “You could basically cut them off at their supply.”
Her recruiter responded: “Wow I honestly had no idea. I will run this up to leadership.” Days later, Geiduschek received another template email from an Amazon hiring manager, so she scheduled a call and aired her grievances by phone.
Some engineers are sharing screenshots of their protest emails on Twitter with the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt. Jackie Luo, an engineer, sent an email to Google saying that she wouldn’t consider a job there given its plans to re-enter China with a censored search engine.
Kelly Carter, a web developer, emailed a Tesla recruiter with her concerns about the company’s anti-union tactics.
These protests echo mounting public concerns about the power of these corporations. But it’s not clear whether they have moved the needle for prospective hires.
Former recruiters for Facebook told CNBC in May that the acceptance rate for full-time engineering job offers at the company had dropped precipitously, as much as 40 per cent.
After publication, Facebook disputed the figure; the company “regularly ranks high on industry lists of most attractive employers,” a spokesman said. Data published by LinkedIn showed that tech firms continued to hire at high rates, especially for entry-level employees.
But at campus career centres, students are struggling with the dual, and sometimes duelling, desires for prestige and purpose.
“It started with millennials, but now Gen Z-ers are getting educated because they want to do good in the world,” said Sue Harbour, senior associate director of the career centre at the University of California, Berkeley, which is Silicon Valley’s top feeder, according to HiringSolved. “And as we’ve seen tech companies grow, we’ve also seen the need for more tech oriented to social responsibility.”
Good luck changing the culture
For years, students were told they could tackle ethical concerns about technology from the inside, working within the mammoth structures of companies like Google. Stapleton said that was part of the company’s allure: its ostensible commitment to empowering even its youngest employees to weigh in on critical problems.
Stapleton spent 12 years at Google and YouTube. Her weekly emails to staff, she said, were the stuff of corporate legend. In 2012 Larry Page, one of the company’s founders, called her onstage to celebrate her work as colleagues presented her with a wooden plaque that read: “The Bard of Google.”
Then, in 2018, Stapleton helped organise a Google walkout, after reporting in The New York Times revealed that the company gave a $US90 million severance package to Android creator Andy Rubin, who was accused of sexual misconduct.
Twenty-thousand workers left their desks in protest. Within six months, Stapleton said, she was demoted and pushed to resign. In December, she wrote about her experience in an essay for Elle.
Google maintained that Stapleton was not sidelined for her role in the walkout. “We thank Claire for her work at Google and wish her all the best,” a Google spokesperson responded. “To reiterate, we don’t tolerate retaliation. Our employee relations team did a thorough investigation of her claims and found no evidence of retaliation. They found that Claire’s management team supported her contributions to our workplace, including awarding her their team Culture Award for her role in the Walkout.”
But Stapleton said her story should give bright-eyed students pause about whether Big Tech and altruism are aligned.
“I don’t know if Google can credibly sell young people on the promise of doing good in the world anymore,” she said. “That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful people there and interesting things to work on. But if you care about a company’s values, ethics and contributions to society, you should take your talents elsewhere.”
New York Times
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