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Google Should Not Have Fired Their Engineer over Sexist Memo

A pig.

Anyone who knows me personally knows my politics are generally liberal sprinkled with a strong respect for tradition. I also am willing to label myself a feminist in the traditional sense of the word – an advocate for the equality of women in all aspects of society. The reason I mention this is to provide context for my contention that Google was wrong to fire an employee for his wrongheaded remarks about women in tech. And also, to head off arguments that I am some right-wing, women bashing, pig.

Like many in the tech community, I have been following the story of Google engineer James Damore’s internal memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”. I was taken aback by two aspects of the memo: how well written it is and how weak the data is. In most cases, Mr. Damore does rely on stereotypes and not real data. That makes his arguments less than defensible. Firing him for those arguments though, is draconian. Google action also helps to prove Mr. Damore’s point about the intolerance of views that don’t meet with, what he perceives, as a left leaning bias. Let me put this another way – you don’t fire someone because you find their views odious. That’s not liberal. Liberals revel in freedom of thought and respectful public discourse. Mr. Damore sought out a dialog and, in this case, is more “liberal” than Google management.

Unfortunately, Google also missed a rare opportunity to discuss gender stereotypes and the biases they drive. That would have been a great service to Google, the tech industry, and society at large. It may have been a teachable moment not just for Mr. Damore but for everyone in tech who believe we are untouched by the hidden biases of the greater society. Here’s where the scientific literature may have helped. Mr. Damore’s fellow Googlers (Googlites? Googles? Whatever…) could have used reason to dispel his notions about gender, citing real scientific fact and respected data. He does not come across as an unreasonable person, just lacking in appropriate facts. Politely pointing out where the research doesn’t support his ascertains may have swayed him and any other readers who hold the same views.

Change almost never happens by silencing critics who act in a respectful manner and ask for dialog. It only provides a bigger soapbox from which to pronounce distorted views. Change happens when we learn from each other, something that Mr. Damore says he is open to. Removing him doesn’t remove his point of view. Googlers who share his views won’t suddenly abandon them. Instead they will see evidence that he is right and Google is biased against dissenting viewpoints.

Ultimately, Mr. Damore asked for a discussion. Wouldn’t that have been better approach? Legalities aside, removing someone from their livelihood is harsh. It is especially so when he was encouraged to share his views openly. By firing Mr. Damore, Google seems to prove his point that the company may be authoritarian, biased, and intolerant. It’s just too bad that Google missed an opportunity to prove him wrong – wrong about Google and wrong about women in tech.

I certainly don’t agree with Mr. Damore. My 33 years in the tech industry (which are likely a few more than his) have taught me that women engineers are every bit as capable as men. That more women are not in tech has more to do with a company culture that is not family friendly and managers with views such as Mr. Damore’s, than the ability of women to do the job. That doesn’t mean that he should be fired for having these views, even if they are antediluvian. Instead, respectful discourse would have accomplished so much more.

SAP States the Obvious But That’s Alright

The recently concluded SAP’s SAPPHIRE 2016 conference left me with an odd feeling. On the one hand, I really liked much of what I heard – machine learning, microservices, design thinking, and API catalogs. On the other hand, these are all topics that are well-known to SAP’s customers, even though they were presented as if they were brand new. In addition, SAPs competitors have been talking about these subjects for a long time and most already have products in the field. That left me thinking that SAP is moving in the right direction but just a little behind the curve set by their competitors and the market.

To be honest, that’s not necessarily a problem. It’s not so much that SAP’s customers are overly conservative. SAP’s software, however, runs the most important, mission critical, functions of many of the world’s largest companies. These companies need to have software that is rock solid, all the time. The bleeding edge is not for them. Viewing SAP’s announcements through this lens, it seems that they are following an old pattern of releasing software only when it’s completely thought through. A great example of this approach has been SAP Jam. SAP was not, by any means, the first company to release social collaboration or enterprise social network software. There were dozens of competitors who had developed or acquired solutions in this space long before what has become SAP Jam truly crystalized. SAP took the time to get this right, especially with introduction of work patterns. It’s why SAP Jam is a successful product with solid customer implementations.

What gave me pause most was the way these new technologies were presented. Company executives acted as if these were new concepts, insinuating that SAP customers are unaware of what is going on in their industry. I doubt that. More likely, SAPs new product announcements were driven by the demands of customers for the kind of useful and important technology that many of their peers already had. I’m pretty sure that the emerging needs of their business had something to do with it as well. In some cases, SAP seemed compelled to talk about technology they don’t quite have yet. For example, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of machine learning technology that is actually in the field or even in products. It was discussed quite often but always in the future tense.

Something that was clear was that SAP is finally getting around to integrating the products of their recently acquired companies, such as FieldGass, their contingency workforce applications, and Successfactors’ human resources software. This was an obvious integration that creates tremendous value but, understandably, takes time to get right. The same is true of Successfactors and the Concur travel platform, and SAP Ariba’s procurement platform and S4/HANA ERP. This series of interlocking, mutually supportive but independently deployable applications allows customers to recognize the most leverage from SAP purchases. By integrating the operating units’ products, they create value for the customer that has been just waiting to be unlocked.

In the opening keynote of SAPPHIRE 2016, SAP CEO Bill McDermott stressed empathy with customers. In that spirit, I’m trying to have empathy for SAP even though they seem to be trailing behind their competitors. I get the impression that SAP is willing to appear to lag behind the market if it allows them to deliver unbreakable and more relevant solutions to their customers. Hopefully, this is an example of good things coming to customers who wait.