Google’s Tangle over Diversity may have Long Term Implications

The row surrounding Google’s diversity policy may have unexpected business implications. Fired engineer James Damore’s memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, pertains not only to hiring practices at the company, but also to the focus of management attention.

Most of the reaction quoted in the media has come from other U.S. technology companies. A quick and dirty poll by Blind, an anonymous corporate chat app, found that more than 50% of responders thought Google had been wrong to fire Damore — at companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon. Participants were more or less evenly split at Apple and LinkedIn.

But what of the broader world of engineering, where people combine business and project management with the need to manage engineering talent effectively? An admittedly far less extensive poll by this author raised some deeper questions.

“I would not invest in a company like Google at the moment. It is clearly distracted from technology. You cannot follow technology wherever it leads if your primary concern is with HR,” said one contact.

“This diversity policy is all about trying to manage outcomes,” said another. “The only way to make people equal is to cut down the tall poppies. The Soviet Union tried this for 70 years and the effect was a disaster. I would have thought someone born in Russia like Sergey Brin would understand that.” Brin serves as president of Google’s parent company Alphabet, launched two years ago this week.

These are views of people far from Silicon Valley. I would not expect any meeting of minds but perspective has a value.

One should be clear what was the core issue Damore raised in his memo. It was the same one that former Harvard University president Larry Summers raised in 2005: why has 30 years of active discrimination in favor of women and minorities failed to deliver parity in engineering? How to proceed? At what cost and to what end does that effort continue?

The reaction was split between a loud chorus of “You can’t say that” and a more muted gesturing in the direction of scientific research that finds women are excellently represented among students of advanced mathematics and scientific disciplines like medicine

Turning our back on the tennis match of lobbed epithets, we return to investors and their attempt to make sense of it all.

Engineers in very different fields hold Google in awe, ascribing to the company a reputation for superhuman feats of technology, part adventurer of the Golden Age and part-engineering titan of the Industrial Revolution.

The reality may be more prosaic. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP (WPP-GB: London Stock Exchange) says Google and Facebook (FB) are media companies as much as technology, engaged in disrupting the traditional advertising market.

Perhaps the focus on process and the mechanics of the workplace is society’s way to avoid an uncomfortable truth: that technology is not helping society advance as much as we’d like to believe. In the place of actual progress we have an ism. Viewed as one of Kondratiev’s waves we may not be at the beginning of the Internet age but at the end of Telegraph Road — the era of data over wires that began 170 years ago.

The electric vehicle is even older. There were more electric cars a century ago as a proportion of the total fleet. The technologies that get most airtime are not particularly new. Less start-up than Start Me Up.

Experiments with genetically homogenized corn were the rage in the 1930s. Similar experiments with high-yielding tubers predate the Irish famine. GMOs are a much-tilled furrow.

It was exactly in the field of genetics that the world saw arguably the most disgraceful triumph of dogma over science, in which scientists and engineers were silenced for their views. Trofim Lysenko became the director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, promoting the politically correct view that plants could acquire characteristics in their lifetime and pass those attributes to their offspring. It was politically correct because it suited the Marxist theories of nurture over nature: that nature was not set in stone but could be modified and improved by social engineering.

Lysenko was not able to prove his theories with science but did ensure their temporary dominance by denouncing his rivals and getting them fired. In this way he effectively buried the research of one of the discoverers of modern genetics, the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel.

On a corporate level, Google faces the further distraction of Damore’s legal action, the publicity he attracts — and of leakers willing to spill information from within Google.

I must admit that Google’s share price (GOOG:NASDAQ GS) did not reflect my concerns but one comment, from former Google executive Yonatan Zunger did, saying the brouhaha “has caused significant harm… to the company’s entire ability to function”.

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