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Thursday, September 18, 2014


Google, Intel and Apple are appealing Lucy Koh's rejection of their settlement about the anti-poaching case. It's very hard to get sides that don't want to sue each other to sue each other, so my expectations are that the court of appeals will reject Koh's decision.

Many of my former colleagues have said something like "I wasn't really exploited. I'm going to donate my money from the settlement anyway, so it doesn't matter how much it is." This tears me up.  It tears me up especially since the kind of people who say that tend to be white, privileged, and have never really had to struggle to make a living.

When I was 20 and a struggling student (yes, I actually did receive Pell grants), I had to work 2 jobs simultaneously while carrying a full time load to avoid having to take out crushing amounts of student loans. I had a deep aversion to carrying debt at that time and I still do now. I worked for a tiny company in Berkeley called Geoworks over the summer full time as an intern. Geoworks was your prototypical technology startup, and had lots of cool projects, including the idea that you could work on whatever you want and no manager would stop you provided you got your main job time. Of course, that meant that many of us worked 80-100 hour weeks for fun. (Google called this 20% time, Geoworks called it "anarchy time") In fact, the predecessor for gtags was a tool I wrote during anarchy time for Geoworks to browse and navigate the multi-million lines of assembly that encompassed GEOS. For all that, I was getting paid a nominal $15 an hour, but working way more than the 40 hours a week. I think I might have clocked 80 hours a week normally.

At the end of the summer, I was due to go back to school. The management team at Geoworks took me aside and said, "You'll be working fewer hours, and so as a result, we're going to cut your hourly rate because you will not be as focused on your work as you were when you were full time." They proposed to cut my pay to $12 an hour, in addition to giving me only 20 hours a week. I was by no means someone they were trying to get rid of, since they would try to hire me again next year as a full time engineer after I graduated. I was hopping mad. I quit and worked as an undergraduate TA at school instead, reasoning that if I was going to be exploited (Berkeley only paid $10/hour), I'd rather be exploited by a non-profit and help my fellow students and avoid the walk to downtown Berkeley and stay on campus instead.

Years later, other former interns from Geoworks would thank me for my actions, because after seeing someone they thought was loyal walk out over that 20% hourly rate cut, management at Geoworks backed off on that policy.

What relevance does this have today? Back then, tech workers were plentiful and companies didn't need as many. There wasn't as much competition back then as there are now for workers. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. Just a few years back, one of Google's early SREs left Google and joined Facebook, based on something very similar to my story above. After that event, Google gave everyone on his team a raise. Was that competition helping out? Or was it simply because Facebook refused to join the cartel that Google, Intel, Apple, Adobe, and several others put together? Regardless of how you feel about Facebook as an employer or product, engineers in the valley owe a huge favor to Facebook walking in and breaking the cartel and raising wages as a result.

Here's the thing: Google and Apple have engineers that are the strongest in the industry. You would think that it would be impossible to exploit such an incredibly valued bunch of folks, yet these large corporations got together and did it, and successfully got away with it, getting a slap-on-the-wrist settlement from the government. If these companies get away with murder when it comes to Google-class engineers, what do you think happens to the women and minority in the profession who aren't in the top tier? That marginal worker on average discovers that the low pay and long hours common in the profession does not pay enough to keep him or her working in software development. As a result, the average software career is much shorter than careers in other engineering professions, allowing the industry to claim a shortage.

I don't care if you personally don't need the money from the settlement (I don't, either). But when exploitation of workers happen, call it out. Don't sit back and behave like a spectator: let everyone knows how unfair it is, and how it shouldn't be allowed to happen. By doing so you're not just helping yourself, you're also helping engineers that aren't working at your tier. Otherwise, all the noise about trying to get more women and minorities into the profession is just noise; until you can get fairness in the workplace for the top tier workers, you don't have a prayer of making it attractive for the marginal tech worker or helping those who aren't in the 1%.

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