Are big tech companies losing their allure for talented staff?

Big Tech may be losing its allure for talented staff

After decades as the world’s coolest place to work, Silicon Valley has an image problem.

Pizza stations, gyms, lavish headquarters conceptualised by starchitects, and the promise of a lucrative career that also has the potential to solve world problems. For a long time, working in Big Tech was the dream for many young people. But is its status starting to change? Big Tech might be concerned about government fines and PR emergencies, but its biggest problem could be failing to recruit and keep talented staff. Some high-profile leavers are going public with their complaints about the companies and the lure of Big Tech for graduates is being eroded.

Last month, for example, Meredith Whittaker — one of the leaders of 2018’s 20,000-strong Google staff walkout to protest against the company’s handling of sexual misconduct cases — announced she was leaving the company to focus on her work at the AI Now Institute (which researches the ethical implications of artificial intelligence). In April, Ms Whittaker said she had been told she would have to “abandon” that work if she wanted to remain at the group.

This month, an anonymous employee memo went viral at Google. “I’m Not Returning to Google after Maternity Leave, and Here is Why” alleged discrimination by a manager. According to a recent CNBC report based on conversations with former Facebook recruiters, the company has been struggling to win over graduates in the wake of last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. (Facebook has denied this.) The report says: “Among top schools, Facebook’s acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates has fallen from an average of 85 per cent for the 2017-2018 school year to between 35 per cent and 55 per cent as of December.” It also charted a flight from Facebook to competitors (Google), or rising companies such as Airbnb, Stripe and Lyft. The report cited ethical and political concerns among candidates, as well as the relevance of Facebook as a brand among young people.

Companies that started as plucky upstarts offering their staff autonomy, creativity and impact are now state-like global bureaucracies. And the long hours culture (fuelled by those free pizzas) has lost its appeal as burnt-out millennials seek work-life balance. PwC estimates 88 per cent of millennials want to work for companies whose values mirror their own.

Sarah Drinkwater, a former senior Google staffer and now director at the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network, says that revelations about the role of some tech companies during the Brexit vote and US election “presented so many interesting problems. Misinformation. Bias. Inequality. Tech workers are seeing the connection between all these things and wanting to do something about them.”

Do the tech groups need to worry? “Previously, if you wanted to work in a digital company, especially a global organisation, there were only a handful available. But now there are many, including Spotify, or Monzo,” says Ms Drinkwater. “Plus, 18-24-year-olds, it’s well established, are looking for more purpose in their work. Purpose can be defined in a few ways but it often comes down to having high-level vision and a sense of personal impact. With huge employee bases, both these things get diluted [in Big Tech]. If tech workers don’t want to feel like a cog in a massive machine, they no longer need to.”

While tech is still lucrative (according to the global average salary is $135,000) the distorting impact of tech companies on the cost of living in their stronghold cities increasingly cancels out much of the benefit.

“The money could never have been enough,” says Edward Vince, recently appointed Airbnb’s creative director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He has returned to the UK, having relocated to the US five years ago to work at Apple, then Facebook. “When you get to San Francisco, you soon realise that this amazing salary and lifestyle you’re offered comes at a huge compromise and cost, and won’t make you wealthy in the way that you envision, especially as you realise the cost of living. We spent over $40,000 on childcare last year.”

The lack of diversity in Big Tech was also an issue. “There’s a monoculture in the valley. You often don’t interact with anyone until you get to the office. You’re hermetically sealed and do not experience the real world and yet you are supposed to — in Facebook’s case — be serving a community of 2.5bn. But without any perspective on reality. I found that really concerning.” Having worked for small creative companies and in his own studio, Mr Vince also struggled with the culture. “You have this whole idea that you’re being hired for who you are as a person. But you quickly realise that was all just a nice-to-have. They hire all these amazing creatives from around the world to bring different and diverse perspectives then immediately just want you to fit in.” Mr Vince was also troubled by the lack of critical thinking. “The culture is, ‘Be nice. But don’t be critical’. You rarely find people who are critical of the work and the companies themselves. People want a good review and a good bonus.”

Mr Vince may be part of a growing trend. In May 2019, Doteveryone, a UK-based think-tank for responsible tech, released “People, Power and Technology: The Tech Workers’ View”, the first in-depth research into the attitudes of people who design and build digital technologies in the UK. It found that workers are “calling for an end to the era of moving fast and breaking things”.

And more than a quarter (28 per cent) of UK tech workers have seen decisions made about a technology that they felt could have negative consequences for people or society. Nearly one in five (18 per cent) of those went on to leave their companies as a result. The survey found that tech workers want more time and resources to think about the impact of their products. Despite their concerns, the vast majority of tech workers still believe technology is a force for good.

Ms Drinkwater believes that employees could be a key force in making much-needed changes at Big Tech companies. Experts in specialist areas of tech, AI and data have a unique vantage point that public policymakers might not. And empowering them in what she calls “positive dissent” could be the way to keep them. “Tech workers are well-placed to have foresight about impact of technologies on society and nuances of this, as they live it every day. Having this group involved in understanding implications and developing solutions could be a force for good inside tech companies.

And tech companies are increasingly receptive to this, they know they need help.” Ms Drinkwater is one of a number of Big Tech workers switching to the fields of state-work, think-tanks or more inclusive tech companies. Her Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network is part investment fund, part think-tank and lab, aimed at helping “technologists prevent, mitigate and correct societal downsides of technology — and maximise positive impact.” She was previously head of Campus London, Google’s start-up hub.

“I was working with this incredible array of start-ups, but I also saw that funding tended to get in the hands of quite a homogenous group.” Does Ms Drinkwater think Big Tech is evil? “It’s easy to take quite a binary view but technology can still be part of the solution . . . The problem is that there are two quite extreme points of view — one that tech workers are the new bankers, or defensiveness from tech workers about what they are building, pointing out immense utility we get from tech tools. And the utility is amazing. I worked on Google Maps and am still very proud of this. No one can deny the utility of Uber. I believe there’s a third way, though. One where tech can be responsible and a force for good.”

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