Striking a balance between morals and career prospects
I used to work in Silicon Valley at some of the most respected and admired companies in both tech and pharma. I never felt good about how they were proselytizing to their employees, how they were considered great places to work and how I seemingly felt differently from all my colleagues. I wanted to love my employers, but I was unable to muster the enthusiasm and zealotry they demanded. I always felt that the employer-employee relationship was an even exchange, more or less, in which one would offer services in exchange for a salary. Despite the amount of work, effort and dedication I put in, I felt that these companies were operating at odds with my values of family, work-life balance and caring for the greater good. Until recently, I thought I was among the few who held this perspective.
Starting in 2012, I noticed a different trend in my various places of work. Some of the companies seemed to be starting efforts to host volunteer days. On these days, the entire staff might go to a nonprofit and assemble food kits, walk for a cause or some similar act of service. I thought these days of volunteering, while noble in conception, were a false promise. I did plenty of volunteering on my own time, and I didn’t see why my employer should get credit for the work that I put into my causes. Many of the firms claimed to care about causes, but their public behavior illustrated a different message: one charged too much for their products, another used investor money for expensive dinners and a third claimed employees could work remotely but insisted they show up for pizza on Fridays.
In the fall of 2018, I began my MBA studies, and this May I will be graduating with my cohort. Many undergraduates are in the midst of searching for a summer internship, and those in their final semester are looking for that “life defining” job.
Many are looking to work at the same companies that have come to be denoted as FAANG: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. The pay is sweet, with starting salaries well into six figures, plus stock compensation, as well as all the amenities coupled with the California weather. But I wonder if these students have stopped to consider how the work they do could impact our society in the future. Not only is the current culture of an organization important, so too is the legacy that it will leave behind.
Working at Google seems like the perfect job just out of college: they pay relocation, there’s a steady salary, there are many young people there and the perks of free food, commuter benefits and the opportunity to work alongside the best of the best. But there’s also a downside: Google collects your data, and they sell ads based upon that aggregated data. Every time you use Google Maps they know where you are. Cookies link your browser history, and Google even stores passwords if you’re using their Chrome browser. Google owns Nest, which makes your home “smart,” and it recently acquired FitBit, so now it knows where you are outside your home too. Their self-driving cars collect more than just the street view of your home, they also collect passwords and emails. According to Wired, Google isn’t a software company, it’s an ad company, and it knows your location, both online and offline. As they share this data with retailers and credit card companies, the level of ad personalization becomes particularly insidious.
Facebook is no better. They too sell your aggregated data to advertisers. The posts are euphemistically called “sponsored,” but they are highly targeted ads based upon what you type into Google, Amazon, Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook claims that the purpose behind these ads is to continue to offer its customers product(s) for free. But the advertisers can also cross-reference that data with data obtained from other outlets and very quickly develop a fairly accurate profile of you, the real product being sold. Besides that, they don’t censor fake news, don’t strictly enforce their software partners’ activities and try to conceal that they own other social media platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. For most of us, unplugging from Facebook could be difficult: we use it to log into other sites, to buy and sell stuff and to stay in touch with friends and family. In the beginning, there were only a few thousand people on Facebook, and by the end of 2004 there were over one million. By the third quarter of 2019, there were over 2.45 billion monthly active users.
So, in the early days, Facebook was not as useful, at least not to the first users, and it also had limited functionality. But, over time, more people joined, and the more people joined, the more content was created. The more content that was created, the more useful Facebook became to everyone on the platform. The more useful Facebook became, the more people wanted to sign up. This is the network effect in a nutshell: “The network effect is a phenomenon whereby increased numbers of people or participants improve the value of a good or service.” As a result, social media has become such a major part of our lives that it would be difficult to successfully extract ourselves from it and still feel whole.
I understand accepting a job offer even if it does not align with your moral values. Once a student graduates, unless your family is reasonably wealthy or you were able to go to school on a scholarship, you, like me, are besieged by student loans, with the first payments due about six months after you receive your diploma. Neglect to pay those, and your credit report along with your FICO score will be down the toilet before you’ve even had a chance to start your young adult life. And that’s just the beginning of the bills we all must pay. Once taxes are taken out (and there are a LOT of deductions from a paycheck before an individual even sees their hard-earned money), and necessary expenses are paid off, we want to enjoy our lives and also save for the future. A fat paycheck from a big tech or big pharma company would help immensely.
Not everyone can afford to turn down a job at a well-known company. Working at Google, Facebook or other big names could open a lot of doors for inevitable future job searches. These companies are big enough now that you will make plenty of connections that could last a lifetime. Still, there are ethical issues to be considered. What, exactly, will the tech or product that you are working on ultimately be used for? Few of us have received a full class in ethics, and, in some cases, the ethics chapter in the book is skipped due to time constraints.
As a programmer, it is difficult to know exactly where and how your code might be deployed. If hired into a support department, such as Human Resources, gauging your personal contribution across the myriad projects that may or may not align with your values could be murky. In the past, Google was known for their motto to “do no evil,” which is at odds with what has recently come to light about how it was planning to sell AI technology to the Pentagon, how it paid sexual predators to quietly leave the company and how it has quashed worker protests. Facebook has had scandals involving data and privacy hacks and selling user data without authorization, and most recently they have refused to fact-check political ads posted on their site.
These types of events have caused big tech to lose its luster in the eyes of many recent college graduates and those about to graduate. Working in tech isn’t the panacea it once was, when it was the antidote to working in finance if you wanted to earn serious money and make the world a better place. Defined as “the growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents,” techlash means that big tech is no longer the place to look for a dream job.