The [Tech Bro CEO] Strikes Back

What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter right now is what happens when someone with the same ideology and worldview as James Damore has enough power and money to be in charge of a company instead of just a worker. When I first wrote about Damore a little over 5 years ago, I wrote about the ways in which the ideas in his muddled, poorly-written manifesto were easily disproven. Subsequent years have demonstrated that Damore’s worldview has plenty of representation not merely within the rank-and-file of tech companies, but at the very top as well. While Damore did not use this term in his manifesto, with today’s perspective it’s clearly recognizable as an a long accusation about the ways in which the Google in 2017 was too “woke”. His manifesto is still available online, along with much of the criticism of it, but for the purposes of this piece I will summarize the tech bro worldview this way:

  • The status quo composition of our companies, with its relative lack of women, black people, brown people, etc is the “natural order” of things
  • Diversity initiatives require a “lowering of standards” and are therefore not meritocratic 

The tech bro worldview bears enough similarities to the worldview of those who lead businesses outside of tech, hold political office, lead certain of our religious institutions, and those who populate newsrooms and shape popular opinion that Damore’s manifesto even found a defender on the opinion page of the New York Times. Despite Brooks’ call for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to resign, the National Labor Relations Board found the company acted lawfully in terminating Damore’s employment for violating the company’s code of conduct (an unsurprising outcome in my view, given the way at-will employment works).

There is plenty of evidence to debunk both the “natural order” and “lowering of standards” assertions (to say nothing of the idea of meritocracy itself). Nor can the timing of this particular conflict realistically be separated from what was happening in our politics at the time. But let us proceed to another example of how these false assertions nevertheless shape the thinking and actions not just of rank-and-file tech bros, but of those who typically lead them.

Fast-forward to April 2021, and I’ve been asked to be a co-panelist for a discussion on the intersection of race and technology. This discussion occurred just a day after Jane Yang (a now former employee of Basecamp) wrote an open letter to the founders while on medical leave. Yang was responding to the decision of the CEO (Jason Fried) to ban “societal and political discussions” from the company’s internal chat forums. Yang’s letter painted a picture of Basecamp’s leaders that looked very familiar to me from my own experience with similar people in the industry. The letter is well-worth reading in full, but here is paragraph that makes it clear Basecamp’s leaders were no different than those at other companies they’d criticized for years:

“But there were also some yellow flags. Whiffs of smoke that I was starting to pick up on. Your disproportionate, chilling response to a retrospective that you asked for. The whispers of how you had handled a prior company discussion when someone raised the able-ist language in the title of a recently published company book. The continued mourning years later of an executive who had centered the employees as her job, and then was summarily fired for not living up to the additional expectations of working miracles in marketing. The quiet departures of women and people of color, all of whom held their heads up high and left a better place behind than they found it.”

from Jane Yang’s open letter to Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Fried and Hansson also announced the end of committees (including a committee for diversity, equity, and inclusion) and the end of 360 reviews (among other changes). As it turned out, Fried and Hansson were dealing (quite poorly) with an internal reckoning over a long-standing company practice of maintaining a list of “funny” customer names. The founders knew about the existence of this list for years, and predictably, the names that Basecamp customer service reps found ripe for mockery included Asian and African names. Particularly because of how public and opinionated Fried and Hanson have been regarding workplace culture–to the extent of having written five books on the subject, including a New York Times bestseller–and held up their own company as an example of how to do things better, it was (and still is) quite difficult to ignore the rank hypocrisy of their choice to shut down internal discussion of a significant cultural failure that they allowed to persist for years. The company all-hands called by the co-founders to try and mitigate the blowback from their decisions instead resulted in the departure of one-third of the entire company.

Over time, marginalized groups (and some of their allies) have mastered online tools and social media and leveraged them to amplify their voices. We saw that mastery at work in the responses to Damore’s manifesto. At Basecamp, marginalized people used these tools to challenge the worldview of the company founders. Fried and Hansson’s attempt to squash the backlash by fiat failed miserably.

While Coinbase didn’t figure prominently in our panel discussion at the time, that’s one of a number of companies whose lead Basecamp was following in being “mission-focused”, and supposedly apolitical. So discovering that barely two years later, CEO Brian Armstrong has decided that politics is ok when it comes to tracking the “crypto-friendliness” of politicians prior to the recent midterm elections here in the U.S. was … interesting to say the least. People and companies advocating for cryptocurrency have been far from apolitical when it comes to targeting black and brown investors, so the same groups targeted by unscrupulous operators in the mortgage space prior to the crash of 2008 have piled into crypto in disproportionate numbers relative to other investors–and have taken disproportionate losses as cryptocurrencies have plunged in value and multiple crypto companies have gone bankrupt.

Now we’re just over a month into Twitter’s takeover by Elon Musk–a takeover entered only because he faced certain defeat in Delaware Chancery Court. Musk has fired half the staff in layoffs so haphazardly executed that he ended up trying to rehire those not correctly identified as critical. He undermined the company’s current verification scheme by pushing the launch of a feature enabling anyone to be verified by paying $8/month, only for numerous pranksters to pay the fee and impersonate numerous brands on Twitter like Eli Lilly. Musk’s ultimatum to remaining Twitter staff to be “hardcore” or be gone resulted in a wave of resignations much larger than anyone anticipated, not unlike Fried and Hansson’s attempt to mitigate the damage from their attempt to squash internal dissent. The same thin-skinned reaction to criticism displayed by Fried and Hansson has been even more on display from Elon Musk. He’s fired those who tried to correct his ill-informed assertions regarding the ways the tech behind Twitter actually works–and mocked the skills and intelligence of the people he fired after the fact. Musk blames “activists” for the precipitous drop in ad revenue instead of being accountable for his own poor decision-making.

The reaction in various quarters to Musk’s floundering incompetence as CEO of Twitter has been very telling. According to the reporting of Casey Newton and Zoe Schiffer, some tech CEOs are hoping Musk succeeds. The same Hansson who not long ago “encouraged employees to read Between the World and Me, a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s exploration of the racist nature of mass incarceration”, is now writing tributes to Elon Musk cheering the likely end of affirmative action in higher eduction. Hansson even touts John McWhorter’s Woke Racism these days, and speaks favorably of the likes of Glenn Loury and Bill Maher. Loury and McWhorter are regularly quoted by white conservatives too cowardly to share the stereotypical views of black people they already believed anyway without a black conservative to hide behind. We’re already starting to see layoffs across tech, and as economic conditions change and COVID-19 (hopefully) recedes, these CEOs almost certainly see an opportunity to re-establish their worldview within their spheres of control without having to account for marginalized people. That desire is almost certainly behind the persistent belief in some quarters that what Elon Musk is doing is on purpose.

There is plenty of criticism that can and should be leveled at Mark Zuckerberg (particularly his continued pursuit of the failed metaverse strategy and cavalier approach to customer privacy). But when it comes to how to handle layoff news, he delivered a masterclass in how to handle layoffs professionally not long after Musk’s deliberately cruel and haphazard ones. Other tech CEOs rooting for the man who treats his employees the worst will definitely be a trend to keep an eye on as time progresses.

Leading by example

I found this post on technical leadership particularly useful because it’s my role at work. Humility, discretion, tact, and willingness to “walk the walk” are necessary to succeed as a leader. The only thing I would add to the author’s list is the importance of patience in leading development staff. You can follow all the advice and still not see changes for awhile. I’ve been in that situation before, and always found it frustrating.

The comments on the post were enlightening as well, particularly this one by Greg Askew:

“Individuals are responsible for fixing themselves. Leading by example is a noble concept, but at the end of the day everyone is accountable for their own performance.”

The quote is a great reminder that as managers, we can only influence–not control–employees. Askew makes two other strong arguments about hiring and motivation. His latter point is echoed by Steven McConnell’s summary of classic mistakes and by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Undermining people’s motivation (and/or hiring people who aren’t self-motivated) can be counted on to yield a substandard result in the end.

The full article that inspired Jeff Atwood’s post is an excellent read as well.