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Transcript: Ex Google Employee Shares Culture Perspective (EP67)

 

Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

Voiceover: To all of our loyal listeners, The Culture of Things podcast will now also have specific episodes produced for YouTube. To ensure you don’t miss out on this exclusive YouTube content, head on over to YouTube, click the subscribe button and hit the notification bell. Now, let’s get into the episode...

Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I'm your host, Brendan Rodgers, and today is episode 67. Today, I'm talking with ex-Google employee, Taras Kobernyk. Taras is famous or infamous for a document he wrote as a Google employee questioning Google's anti-racism actions. He was eventually sacked by Google and shared his experiences on Tucker Carlson Tonight in the US, and TRIGGERnometry which is a free speech YouTube show and podcast.

Today, we're focused on having a chat about Taras' experiences at Google—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Taras, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. 

Taras: Hello, Brendan. I'm glad to be here. 

Brendan: How's my Ukrainian talking about your last name or pronouncing your last name?

Taras: It was pretty close. 

Brendan: Excellent, mate. I don't have this roll on the tongue, actually. 

Taras: No worries. 

Brendan: Mate, you were sacked by Google. We will go into a little bit of that, we'll get you to give some background, but I hear you got another job finally or you're about to start a job in the new year. 

Taras: Yes, unless they fire me before I even manage to start. We'll see how it goes. 

Brendan: Surely not. You can't have that happen twice, can you?

Taras: I try to exceed expectations. 

Brendan: Good on you, buddy. Thanks for coming on, Taras. I know you've said you've been in high demand a number of months ago around this experience and just sharing your experiences. I know when I watched TRIGGERnometry, you were very articulate, very measured, and it wasn't about beating anyone up. It was just sharing your experiences, which is fantastic, which is what I really look to unpack today, mate. Thanks again for coming on.

Taras: Thank you. My pleasure. 

Brendan: I gave you a little brief introduction and a brief biography. How about you share a little bit of your background, leading into Google, and now where you are at today?

Taras: I graduated from university with a degree in theoretical physics, though I wouldn't hire myself as a physicist. I've never worked in that field and probably wasn't that great to begin with. Most of my experience was in IT as a network engineer and everything related. I even actually switched to something closer to Google's specialty way later. I worked on some data processing, but Google was probably my first job as a software engineer, a proper job.

Brendan: Tell me about that first period of time at Google, that first sort of three months or so. You must have been excited, you got a job in a big company. Share those initial experiences with us.

Taras: Sure. It was very exciting, not just because of Google. It was basically my second trip outside of ex-USSR. My first trip was for my on-site interviews with Google for two days. Everything was new to me. I was excited to try to live in a new, more civilized country. I was excited about being a part of a huge company working on bleeding edge technologies. So yeah, I was very hopeful and I liked it. 

At the beginning, the experience was great because you just go through a lot of training and you get some slack because you're supposed to become familiar with a lot of internal technologies, tools, and so on. You can kind of do whatever you want to a degree. You still have to work on your projects, but you have much more freedom. And it was great. 

Generally, it can be great at Google because Google has so many resources of different clients—so many of them—a lot of different projects, and everyone can potentially find the project they're interested in. Generally, it's a huge gamble, a lottery, and because your success in the company depends not as much on your particular skills or even on your project, but on I would say the manager you get, and you don't often know that in advance. Even when you try to change things later, it's not always clear what kind of manager you're moving to. 

Despite everything that the company says, the manager has a huge influence on your future because your manager defines what kind of projects are available in the team, what kind of projects you get, what kind of approvals you get, how you're getting represented before the company in performance reviews. 

If your manager is not good at that or is not interested in that, if your manager is not capable of mentoring you, explaining the company's culture and processes that are in place, you are missing important information and just an additional burden on you, burden that is normally supposed to be handled by managers. 

Unfortunately, it's not as visible from the beginning. If you start looking around, you see that there are people that are very [...]. They have great managers and there are great managers there. There are people that are absolutely miserable there because of bad mismatches with managers or just with managers not being that great. There is a lot of hope there, but it is a lottery.

Brendan: Taras, what was it about that experience or your time at Google where you started to maybe question some of the things? What did you see that started to send your mind racing and eventually put you into a place of actually putting a document together?

Taras: It wasn't the first document that I tried to write and share. That particular document even started with a slightly different premise. It ended up describing racially-related initiatives at the company. We were getting some messages about changes to the language. 

For example, I believe it was 2018 or even 2017, Google has decided to stop using the words master/slave as in technical terminology like the main system, the backup system, and replace it with whatever main, secondary, something like that. 

Immediately, the company got a lot of proposals of what else to remove from the language. There was a pause for some time, but it started creeping in in 2020. While it wasn't getting official, we were getting messages that we shouldn't use offensive language. Some documents started appearing around describing things that could have been potentially questionable like the word grandfathering.

That to me, maybe a non-English native speaker, sounds to me like a fathering is when you create something or start something whatever. Grandfathering to me did sound like you doing something not directly but through something else, maybe through mentoring someone and helping to create something, but actually it was referring to segregation time. Mid-20th century in the US about some policies, limiting access for black people to voting or something. I don't know whether it's the only meaning of grandfathering, but it was one of the examples of words we were advised not to use. 

I was actually trying to list my thoughts on that topic, but I realized that my document was ending up to two different types of topics, on language and on race, because grandfathering in this case was both on language and on race. There were many other words that were not race-related, for example. 

I ended up writing my document regarding racial ideologies first because we have been having conversations inside the team, including with my manager, and my manager wanted to share my thoughts in order to escalate them if needed. I decided to help him a bit. List it in a document, share it with him, and it didn't go that well.

Brendan: What was it that didn't go well?

Taras: If only I knew. I believe I was never told something specific. I was told a lot of small stuff like that my document was listing cherry-picked examples, or I was putting fuel to the fire, or that it was offensive, or that the style of it was so bad that it was impossible to somehow edit it to improve it. 

I can understand such criticism, but at the same time, people telling me were totally ignoring examples listed in my document. Examples about the company actually cherry-picking some evidence to support racially-related ideologies instead of moderating things and calming everything down. Actually, also putting fuel to the fire, as they said.

It was kind of hypocritical of the approach of the company and the reaction to my document, but the main reason for it going wrong was probably the topic being too sensitive. The company was just afraid that it might become some sort of scandal and just decided to shut it down as soon as possible.

Brendan: Taras, can you give us a little bit of flavor on the timeline that happened, maybe from the initial sort of document and then maybe these revised documents, and the full page one that's easily accessible on the internet. We'll certainly link to that in the show notes. Just a bit of a time series when those things happen, conversation with the manager, and eventually you being sacked.

Taras: These racial ideologies went into overdrive after the death of George Floyd in the US. I don't remember the date, but it was something like the beginning of summer, I believe. Then we started getting messages from all the management, basically cascading. First, the CEO sends a message, then some Senior Vice-President, Vice-President for your project, Vice-President for your location. Everyone was advising us to educate ourselves on racism, read books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, or the book by Ibram X. Kendi.

We were told that things are so racist that basically, all the problems for black people are because all white people are inherently racist. First of all, it was (to me) a huge exaggeration, and second, I didn't see what it was trying to achieve because to me, it did look like it wasn't solving the problem. It was just getting some PR credit from the whole situation. 

I wrote my document at the end of July, something like the 29th of July 2020. My manager read it a week later and over three weeks, I was getting some pressure to remove the document. I was asking for help to rewrite the document so it would be more acceptable if my version wasn't. 

You can certainly argue that my language was not that great in English and the style's not perfect, but I was asking okay, maybe I don't know how to do these things. Could you please help me to understand how to properly do that? I was getting responses like no, we are not going to spend time on that.  I was just getting pressured into removing the document. 

I had a meeting on the 31st of August 2020 with my manager and with an HR representative, where I was given a written warning listing every transgression that the company was able to find and demanding the removal of the document, which was by the way, is related to the official statement given to Tucker Carlson's show this summer when I was there. 

The company has stated that I was absolutely not fired for writing this or any other document, but all my communications with my manager over three weeks were about this document. The written warning was explicitly stating the displeasure of the company with my document and was demanding the removal of the document. 

I don't know whether it was, on one hand, not knowing what the other was doing, that different parts of the company were not able to communicate inside of each other, or it was an attempt to misrepresent the truth. Like no, he wasn't fired for writing the document. He was fired for not removing the document. Or it was just a clear lie. That was the statement by the company. 

In that meeting, I did the last attempt to explain myself and to get some assistance in improving the situation. I asked two things. First, whether it was possible for me to update the document and in order to make it more compliant with the [...] by the company, and I was told no, the document had to disappear. The second question of mine was, okay, I removed the document, but I have concerns. What do I do with these concerns? I was told that later the company might get me in touch with someone to talk to that was not specific and the outcome wasn't clear. 

I basically was told to make the document inaccessible without having a chance to make my concerns heard. As such, I didn't see a point in continuing that, so I refused to remove the document. Technically, they were asking me to make the document inaccessible. They were stating explicitly, they were not asking me to delete the document, but it was a strange demand. Like you can keep the document, just make sure nobody ever sees it again. I refused that and they immediately fired me. 

Brendan: At any stage before some of these conversations and some of the written documents took place, where you were led to believe that you’re an employee that was producing subpar work or some behavioral issues? It was noted by Google that you're a really disruptive employee to others as well. Did you have any indications that that was the case?

Taras: There are two things here. First of all, behavior. The company has listed multiple examples of people reporting my messages on internal messaging boards. I have mentioned something on TRIGGERnometry, but basically at some point, I recommended university lecturer's Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson. I got reported for recommending them and mentioning this terrible, terrible person. 

I asked once questions about not even diversity initiatives at the company but a proposal to change those diversity initiatives, and I asked for a reason behind that. Basically, someone was asking why the company wasn't hiring more veterans. The question is fine, but I decided to ask what's the purpose of hiring veterans, specifically. If they have some specific skills useful, then can we talk about those skills and maybe we can figure out who else in the population might have those skills? 

For asking this question, I was reported for allegedly questioning and challenging diversity initiatives at the company. HR acted on that, which was contrary to the previous statement by the CEO after James Damore got fired. The official blog that Google, Sundar Pichai wrote a statement back then saying that actions by James Damore were not okay, but also people being afraid to ask questions and speak their minds which was also not okay. People should be able to dissent and even challenge diversity programs. 

Less than a year later, HR reprimanded me for asking a question about diversity initiatives. Again, I don't know whether stating something about this year wasn't going to enforce, or whether it was the total inability of the CEO to actually make the company move into that direction. It's just yet another example of how the state of things and actual things differ at Google.

Brendan: What would you say to people out there that listen to this and think, oh Taras is just a disgruntled ex-employee of Google?

Taras: Sure, they should think that because what else do they know that might just be? I'm hoping people won't just believe my words. I am trying to mention certain facts, like the post by the CEO, the document. My document is available on the Fox News website. It lists other examples of what happened there and people can just check and use it as a bunch of examples. 

The company hasn’t challenged the facts stated there. The company challenged my perception of these facts, basically. I'm not asking people to believe me. I'm just trying to lay out certain facts and I hope that I would be able to outline where facts end and my evaluation of these facts start. People are free, of course, to make their own decisions. If someone decides to challenge my perception, great.

Brendan: After all, you are a software engineer, mate. You love a challenge, right?

Taras: It's not always comfortable, but it would be a certainly dumb idea to demand people to just trust my work for all of this. If I was listening to this podcast, for example, I would keep in mind that yeah, I might be lying—that's a possibility—but if I'm lying about facts about a lot of people know and most of the things that I mentioned are common knowledge at least inside the company and some are even outside, then there are going to be plenty of people challenging my lies and I probably wouldn't risk it.

You can challenge my decisions and my perception, but at least you can verify facts or beliefs that if some facts were not true, then they would have been challenged already. Then people can make their own decisions based on that.

Brendan: As I said at the top of the show, we will put a link to the document in the show notes to make it very easy for people to access. There are a number of links in your document. I want to talk about one of those links because it's one of the key things at the start of the document that you go into. It's the Anti-Racist Allyship Starter Pack that you refer to. Can you just give us a little bit of context about what is the Anti-Racist Allyship Starter Pack at Google?

Taras: It was a spreadsheet listing a bunch of articles people were getting recommended to read and educate themselves on the topic of racism. I saw about Allyship Pack getting shared inside of the company. From my perspective, it was a grassroots initiative. It wasn't the company forcing that onto people. The excuse that it was a grassroots initiative stopped working since I later got reprimanded for asking questions whether this Allyship Pack was within policies. 

At some point, I submitted a couple of questions to some company-wide meeting. One of these questions was linking (I believe) to that pack, and I was asking whether statements like white people have no culture and are considered to be within company’s policies that prohibit racially-based discrimination.

Someone reported me for posting that question through official channels, specifically for people asking questions. I was reported for questioning anti-racism materials or something like that. Again, HR acted on that. It wasn't just some person reporting me. It was probably some HR accepting that report, then sending it to the HR responsible for our team, that HR was sharing it with my manager. 

They both wrote and signed the written warning with quotes from these cases when I was getting reported. It was the responsibility of at least two or three managers on the charts at the company for reprimanding me for asking a question whether it was within policies. If you do that, you cannot already avoid responsibility for that pack going around. 

In addition to that, while that was a grassroots initiative, there was a different document for listing slightly different things about what's getting shared by the top management, I believe from the CEO himself, but certainly from Senior VP, from our Vice-President responsible for our office. That other pack also encourages white people to educate themselves and their children and lists as advice reading books by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. 

Brendan: I've had an extensive look at the document. It is a Google document, not a Microsoft spreadsheet so they're at least using their own tools.

Taras: I meant one that’s in a Google spreadsheet. 

Brendan: Yes, mate. One of the first things I see and the first section is titled, On Whiteness, and it says there are links to all sorts of documents, as you say, but 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels. White Fragility, as you referred to, and white people have no culture. 

I'm a big believer in the phrase culture is a reflection of leadership, and the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, what sort of evidence did you see coming from the top, from the CEO, that supports or maybe promotes the thinking that this has in the Google organization? 

Taras: It's hard to say what kind of signals are there from the CEO. He seems to be very careful not to say things, as if he is even sleeping with an earpiece with a dozen of lawyers in it at any given time telling him to avoid talking. Generally, he is very cautious so it's hard to understand what he wants the company to do, and that is partially a problem because the CEO is supposed to lead the company to define the vision for the company. Maybe he is great in his interactions with top-level managers, but for the company itself, they could have hired any person to just post for photo ops, basically. 

I can say that he is ideological or that he's pushing all this stuff. It might as well be a result of the company not having any idea how to act in such circumstances and they are just trying to again, be careful and take the current liberal approach in the US of that yeah, racism is bad, we should educate ourselves, and all white people are bad. I can understand that, but even then, it could have been done better. 

I've seen one director-level manager who, instead of just propagating all these messages about white people being inherently racist, simply said that listen, people in the US. It is a difficult time because of the racially-related tension, and there are certain events that are happening that increase that tension. Please keep that in mind, especially when you're talking to the public from the US. Be careful about that. It was a reasonable message. Yeah, there is a problem. Or maybe we don't know what exactly to do. Be careful, think twice when you do something. Instead of just so indiscriminately discriminating white people by calling them racists. 

Unfortunately, that would be approached by [...] punishment [...]. I don't think that the CEO is pushing his agenda, but he's certainly not preventing it from happening. As I have mentioned again on TRIGGERnometry, there was a case where a lot of people inside the company were mobbing and harassing one employee who was unlucky to call the police on a black person who looked like a trespasser back in the US. 

Neither the CEO of YouTube Susan Wojcicki nor the CEO of Google Sundar Pichai said anything to stop that harassment from happening to indicate that this behavior is inappropriate. They just both made statements about the safety of black employees being important for the company, which is totally true, but it wasn't the topic of the conversation. 

Brendan: There’s a statement in the White Fragility reference. It says if you disagree, that you are a racist. You are a racist. What’s your take on that?

Taras: That was me basically paraphrasing it. Honestly, I haven't read the book myself. I’ve checked a few excerpts from it, and I checked a few videos by Robin D'Angelo from different seminars a week later, and I checked a couple of reviews of the White Fragility book, including the one listed in my document by Sean Mcwherter, I believe. 

The premise of White Fragility seems to be about white people are racist. If you tell them they are racists, they become uncomfortable because of that and start disagreeing with you, that they are racists. That is White Fragility which is a sign of them being racists. You either agree that you are a racist or you disagree and that's white fragility and you’re a racist. There is no exit from there.

Brendan: In your opinion Taras, how is all of these descriptive words about color and all that bringing people together in the culture of Google?

Taras: It's bringing people together specifically because it creates lines that we're not there, because people are trying not to treat each other by the color of their skin. Now, all the attention is on race and you have to think about race when you talk to someone or you talk about someone. This just divides people. There might be an argument, sure. You get another round of segregation, just with different intentions. 

I haven't heard a good argument for actually solving the problem about this being stated as in white people are racists and black people suffer because of that. There seems to be no good way to take this, at least from the point of view of the problem as it is being stated. You can only isolate one group from another in order to avoid any infractions. 

Generally, I believe that whatever racist there is, often is a result of people facing things they are not familiar with. When people from different countries come to you and you are not used to people from other countries, you are cautious about them. Others can call that racism. Fair enough, again, there is an argument there, but that is getting fixed over time by exposure to people from different cultures, from different countries. This seems to be a measurable way to resolve this problem even if it is there, but it's not like people advocating for these anti-racism treatments who are trying to solve the problem. It looks like their goals are slightly different.

Brendan: You're one ex-employee of Google and I'm just wondering you've been outside of the Google walls for some time now. Are you the only one that felt this way within Google? Was it just you or there are other people that are raising the same questions? Or maybe just scared to raise questions?

Taras: There are plenty of people that are scared to ask questions there. These are questions not about racial ideologies but about other things like diversity and inclusion initiatives. But there are people that are not happy with this. They are not that many, but there are. There are people that are trying to keep their distance from any politics inside the company. Oh, as long as I don't touch this subject, I'm going to be fine and I can just do my job, be an engineer. Even these people started telling at some point that it was getting too much. 

First, someone was telling me, oh, you should have been more careful with your statements. Then the same person tells me, oh, look at the official Google blog. They have just made yet another post about all this nonsense. Another person who was joking about me being not happy with all the state of things all the time and telling me to just stay away and chill out. And that person started telling me at some point that no, it's just getting too much. All these messages from the top management and Google know that. There is all this pressure, it's nonsense, and just prevents you from doing your engineering job. 

After my appearance on TRIGGERnometry, some people contacted me—Google employees. They were also not happy and they were glad for someone to speak up. Some people try to raise their concerns, but obviously they are concerned about their future. If you have a family and you’re getting fired from Google for asking such questions, it's going to be hard on you because you're responsible for providing for your family.

Brendan: In previous conversations we've had, Taras, you talked about something called citizenship contributions. Can you tell us a little bit about that? The reason why it's really important for you to share because I've done quite a bit of research in preparation for our conversation today and I can't find anything on Google about citizenship contributions. If you could do that and help us, that’d be awesome.

Taras: First, it's useful to mention what is software engineering letter. It's an internal document at Google that describes requirements that you as a software engineer have to meet repeatedly because you have to demonstrate making them every performance review cycle that happens every half a year. Other job roles, different types of engineers, or not even engineers, have their own letter descriptions. 

Citizenship contribution was changed to this document, change of the [...], I believe at the end of summer 2019.  It basically stated that in addition to everything else, a whole other requirements were kept there, just added another requirement. In order to satisfy requirements, you as an engineer have to also demonstrate that you are a valuable member of the internal Google community. 

We were given four examples of what is going to be considered a citizenship contribution. One was performing interviews for people applying for jobs at Google. Like engineering interviews because these interviews are actually being done by engineers. 

The second example was performing a certain type of code review, so-called readability reviews not about how your code solves problems related to your project but more about your code in compliance with the company-wide style of writing code so everyone would have an easier time understanding it.

The third example was participation in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Before, it was giving classes, lessons to other employees inside the company. This change was getting marketed internally as an attempt to recognize contributions by people that already do all this stuff. But since all that stuff was not considered to be a part of requirements, people were not getting awarded for that, basically. 

That would be fine, but the change was mandatory. You were told that you were supposed to start providing such contributions, providing some proof of such contributions for your performance reviews. 

Google is an amazing company in many regards. To being an amazing company, they decided to make amazing things. I believe they have produced an amazing example that can be used in many textbooks under the section of how not to do things because if you want to just reward people, but instead you have the requirements for people, is already a contradiction. 

Let's simplify a little bit; change the scale. Let's say that we are not talking about the company as a whole or not about the company as big as Google but about some small team. The team is working on some projects or multiple projects. At some point the management of the team decides that it is worth putting additional effort into yet another thing. Fair enough. It might be useful, it might not, but at least it's a reasonable decision. 

Usually what should you do then, you try to figure out who would be the right person or people to work on this new initiative. You try to set priorities so others would know how important this new thing is. Like okay, well, working on thing A and when we are done with it or if there is some pause, then we’re switching to this thing B. Or maybe you allocate different amounts of resources, like, okay, four days a week we work on our regular projects and one day a week we will work on this new thing. That would work. 

Unfortunately, nothing on that was done. We were just told that we are supposed to provide these contributions. We were not supposed about the amount of these contributions. If you do code reviews, how many of these reviews? How difficult are these reviews supposed to satisfy these contributions? You should perform interviews. How many interviews would satisfy these requirements? We were just given an order to start doing yet another thing in addition to all other things. 

Then, I believe, another reason for it to be wrong was that instead of trying to incentivize things that the company wanted, the company decided to just give an order to everyone to work on something. 

Let's take interviews, for example. It's important for the company for these interviews to happen because the company grows all the time and the company does huge amounts of these interviews all the time. You want engineers to perform on these interviews. 

There are engineers that are interested in this, actually, because it's actually fun. You talk to so many people, you discuss some kind of computer science problem, you see how that person is doing. You may be trying to provide some hints, you train yourself in something related to teaching, you try to provide experience to the applicant, for the interviewee. Some people like that and wanted to do that. 

Others don't want that because they are more introverted, don’t want talking to people, whatever. Maybe they prefer some other tasks over interviewing. It would have been fine probably to let people interested in this, to do more interviews and to reward them for this. Instead of that, the company just ordered everyone to do something. 

If it was, let's say just about interviews, it would just mean that people that are not good at that and not happy doing these interviews, have to do these interviews, and probably create worse experiences for candidates. Overall, expanding the pool of interviewers but decreasing the quality of interviews. 

The same applies (for example) to classes because a lot of people teach and have been teaching classes at Google. But with this initiative, I saw people that were not interested in teaching classes starting looking for classes to teach as a way to satisfy such citizenship contribution requirements. That meant that people that were not interested, that were not great at teaching were starting to teach, again creating probably not that great experience to people around. 

You can always talk about things like two of these examples—interviews and code reviews are essential for the company. It's fine for the company who wants to do that, but the company never was properly rewarding that. 

Let's take an extreme example. I highly doubt that you can get promoted at Google and getting promoted over time is important. You cannot get promoted by just doing interviews 48 hours a week. No way. You have to demonstrate some other skills. Not just other, but you have to do more. 

You cannot just get good grades and good results and promotions by doing a good job. You have to increase the quality of your job, increase the difficulty that you tackle all the time. Basically time spent on interviewing was time taken from your other projects, time that you gave up on your ability to produce better engineering results and get better grades, let’s say.

The company tells you that both things are important, but you are not to interview too much because it would not be what the company wants, and kind of a contradiction in the company statement because if the company really values these contributions, they have to be stated like that. If it doesn't fail you, then let people not spend time on that because you are setting priorities and people see other engineering tasks of higher priorities. 

I would say the overall approach to this citizenship contribution change was bad. I haven't seen anyone being actually happy with this, although I have seen many managers justify this again by the new ability to reward such contributions. But it wasn’t again the case. Make it optional and then you can justify this change with that. As long as these contributions are mandatory you cannot just say that this is just to reward people that already do that. 

At the very beginning, someone even a wrote a satirical short piece of how all this is going to look in the future, how the company is going to create precise metrics to finally measure all this stuff, and how you picking some litter from the floor and throwing it to the trash can would be valued as one mini-interview for purposes of measuring your citizenship contributions. Management was actually aware of that. We were given that short piece as a funny thing related to citizenship contributions at some point. 

Overall, nothing changed. The company postponed the introduction of these requirements for about a year, I believe, because people were not happy. But now people really have to produce all that stuff. 

You can see that the company has demonstrated first its ability to basically renegotiate your contract without even talking to you because they don't change the contract. They change an internal document and you have to comply with it because in the contract it says that you have to comply with internal policies. Into this internal document, they add things that are not directly related to engineering jobs. You can say that interviews and code reviews are related, but for example, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and even classes on whatever—yoga, growing tomatoes—it's good if you’re giving something in some programming language, but not necessarily you can give them whatever you want. 

Those are not part of engineering description anywhere as far as I am aware, but Google is suddenly facing a case when the company adds non-engineering requirements to engineering jobs. It doesn't explain how it is supposed to actually work and just tells you that you have to produce all that stuff. 

If I want to make an assumption, I would say the whole approach was out there for someone to secure some promotion because of other incentives that exist in the company. For example, you cannot just get promoted again by doing a regular job. You have to demonstrate that you finish some serious projects. You have to demonstrate some artifacts and that incentivizes sometimes bad behavior. 

For example, since you're supposed to demonstrate an ever increasing ideal level of performance in the company, you don't want some performance cycles where you demonstrate less results than the previous cycle. That makes some people reluctant to take on longer or more riskier projects because if they don't finish in time, you have nothing to demonstrate often for your performance review. 

Some people, even if unintentionally, start creating some projects, not as much for customers to benefit from them but in order to produce some artifacts for performance reviews. The next time you see some change in interface on your Android phone or whatever, maybe someone is getting a promotion finally. 

That makes me think about maybe all these approaches to citizenship contributions disrupt things to a large part of the company, to hold software engineers [...] and found by someone to demonstrate a big-enough impact toward internal culture and secure some kind of promotion, maybe.

Brendan: There's this part of me, Taras, if I'm understanding you correctly that says, it's just a company that's pushing something through the organization which they believe enhances their culture, and sort of a culture of other Googlers giving back to other Googlers into the organization. But I guess, also understanding what you shared earlier in the conversation today and we’ve (as you said) talk about the anti-racist Allyship Starter Pack and that bit about the working on the DEI side, and then the potential link to the financial remuneration process, it sort of says to me or raises a red flag in my head that if they're driving a certain potential narrative through the organization and if your narrative or if your questioning of that narrative is there, then you're not going to go too well with the citizenship contributions, which means it's going to have a financial impact on you, and you'll certainly won't have any opportunity for progression within the business. Is that a fair assumption to make?

Taras: You don’t have to do all these four things at once. You have to demonstrate just some kind of citizenship contribution. Some people try to escape this by getting into interviews or code reviews. Those are engineering-related things. But you cannot always do that, because when you join the company you are not familiar enough with the internal culture of writing code and you actually have to go through, sometimes, quite a lengthy process of getting experience and getting approvals for you to be able to perform such kinds of reviews yourself. 

Sometimes you can do that in a few months, but in other cases, it depends on the programming language. It might take a year or even more. During this time, these code reviews are out of question for you. 

Also, you cannot start interviewing people immediately after joining the company. At least when I joined in 2016 and I wanted to do interviews, education classes that you have to pay in order to start interviewing were only available for people with more than six months of experience at the company, I believe, maybe even a year. I'm not exactly sure but six months for sure. That also means that when you join the company, interviews are not an option for you. You have to choose between giving classes and participating in these DEI initiatives.

I've heard rumors about this DEI participation was actually the original idea behind citizenship contributions. I don't know whether it's true. I cannot claim it, but it might be a possibility. At least DEI initiatives are linked to the current US ideologies. Then being part of all these contributions without getting balanced by something else on the ideological side looks like leaning in one specific direction.

Brendan: I just want to go back a little bit. Google, given the behemoth that it is and the fact that it just touches so many places in the world really and so many people, in your insider knowledge, how worried, concerned are you and should we be potentially around the fact that some of the stuff that may be happening within Google—wrongly or rightly—has a real chance to change so many people’s mindset or to push certain forms of information, given that Google has the platform and the whole method of the Google search platform is to push certain information into people's eyeballs so they can read it and find it. How concerned should we be about some of these things, some of your perception, or some of your views that you shared today?

Taras: I think that most of the people at Google are not trying to push such ideologies. They try to do a good engineering job. Many products might be just fine. Unfortunately, there is constant pressure from the leadership and HR with regard to all this stuff—diversity and inclusion, racial stuff. Since I was getting reprimanded several times for just asking different questions and got fired for raising my concerns, I can imagine that other people might not risk pushing back against all this stuff. 

As a result it creates two things. First of all, when you cannot detect the problem, you don't have a chance to fix the problem. How do you know when these things start getting too far and really start hurting something if people that ask questions and dissent are getting reprimanded? The company is just basically breaking internal feedback mechanisms to detect problems and fix them. That goes against principles that Google has in relation to hardware and software, let's say, and I think they are good approaches. 

For example, Google approaches both software and hardware as if it's going to inevitably fail sooner or later, whatever you do. As far as I'm aware, Google had started back in the day with data centers consisting with some junk computers. If some computer stopped working, that computer was just getting thrown away and getting replaced by something else. 

In order for that to work, Google designed a system to manage all that stuff, to detect failures, and to start new servers as necessary. For example, if you decide that you want three copies of your server, like a web server or whatever, running on that data center, and the system managing data center detects that one of the hardware servers running your program dies, it just makes a decision and starts a copy of your program on a server that is healthy. Such failures happen, but they get mitigated pretty fast. 

Similar with software. You design software and you expect parts of your systems that you depend on to fail. You have to think how would your program work if that specific subsystem becomes unavailable for whatever reason. Maybe you provide some messages to customers that the functionality is degraded temporarily or maybe you just start trying to use that subsystem and save yourself some effort, but you make sure that the rest of your system works as much as possible.

The whole idea is that you design everything to detect any failures and to mitigate the consequences of these failures. You decide backup mechanisms. But when it comes to managing people or to managing the company as a whole, the company seems to have a different approach, that things just supposed to work.

As I have mentioned with managers, it doesn't look like the company has a good way to detect when managers are bad. There are some mechanisms that the companies seem to rely on, but they don't seem to be good enough from the perspective of employees. 

If you start asking questions, the company might decide, oh, but we have such a great system for managing things. If you are asking questions, probably you are not seeing something and you're getting dismissed. The company has two different approaches to hardware and software, and managing of things in the company.

The second thing that starts with all this pressure from HR and top management, let's say that engineers that work on a product are not ideological, but you have to, somehow, evaluate the quality of your product. 

For example, when you work on search, you evaluate quality of search by taking a sample of a huge amount of search queries. You run these queries through the system and you record answers of that system. You make some changes to the system and you don't know whether it's a good change or not because the system is so complex that you cannot predict all possible outcomes. Then you run all the same queries again and you compare results to previously recorded ones. You check differences, and you decide if this difference is good or this difference is bad, and then you make a decision on your change as a whole. 

When you have to grade these changes, when the topic is not friendly to these kind of ideologies, do you try to protect quality of the system as you can see it or do you just accept that if you start asking questions, you're going to get into trouble? Maybe people would just start deciding, okay, it's not worth it. I will just accept that this change is neutral or whatever. We won’t hear about this. 

Maybe that's what happened to ranking on YouTube for Tucker Carlson as I was asked on TRIGGERnometry. That's a possibility of one-off. It is certainly necessary to investigate when things start getting badly for high-visibility resources.

It might be just a mistake of some algorithm, but it might be a result of people not catching this because they think, okay, this is Tucker Carlson. Tucker Carlson seems to be not compliant with current ideologies so we would like to stay away from that topic and we won't even evaluate changes to Tucker Carlson, for example, or whatever. 

Because you have no brakes, you have no ability to detect a problem, you have no ability to correct it, over time, your system starts creeping in the direction of reducing quality changing results for things that you're not interested in. That is probably a real issue that I see.

Brendan: Absolutely. In Australia, specifically, the government is making some moves to bring in first laws around social media companies and these big tech companies. I don't know the details and it's really fascinating to listen to what you're saying and the possibilities that are there. I guess it's a watch-this-space, isn't it?

With your move from Google and being sacked from Google, my understanding is you found it very, very difficult to find another role. As we said at the top of the show, you're lucky enough to have found one now and hopefully starting the new year. You've felt and indicated on other shows that Google hasn't made it easy for you. Can you just elaborate on that for us so we understand what's happened?

Taras: I don't know whether it was an intentional attempt to make things harder for me or it was just yet another inefficiency by the bureaucracy, but here in Switzerland and as far as I understand in Germany and Austria, it's a cultural thing. You are supposed to have references from your previous employers. I was told by recruiters working on different projects that some companies don't even consider your application if you don't have a reference letter.

It might have contributed to my difficulties. Certainly, it wasn't the only one because there are other reasons as well. For example, my German is far from being fluent and it's important to have a good German for many projects here. Some companies just being afraid to talk to ex-employees by Google because Google, at least in Switzerland, pays nicely. I would say, as far as I am aware, Google pays much better than it pays in London and probably in other places.

Switzerland seems to be an anomaly in that regard. I don't know exactly why. But people coming from Google often expect Google-level salaries, and they cannot often find them around. Some companies just don't want to even bother talking to people because it would be a waste of time, because they wouldn't be able to afford such salary. And then there were other reasons as well.

One of the things was this reference letter that first, Google waited for half a year to provide me with one, though an employer is obliged by law, as far as I understand, to provide one to a former employee. I only got mine when I pushed it towards court. With lawyers, basically, we had to go to a judge. Then a few days before the court meeting with Google representatives, I was getting sent suddenly the reference letter.

We finally did it despite several previous requests to provide new [...]. But even then, that reference letter was written in such a way that I probably wouldn't hire myself because it was questioning my social skills, my interactions with employees, my engineering skills. That was another problem from a Swiss perspective because here these reference letters are regulated by law. Companies have to write them in such a way for these letters to be helpful for the employee to find a new job.

You are prohibited from writing anything negative there unless that negative stuff is related directly to your job. Like if I was a driver and I was drinking alcohol during working hours, that would be on the reference letter. Otherwise, it's supposed to be at least neutral. As a result, the whole company tries to compete with each other on how to write bad things without writing bad things.

If you've got a neutral reference letter that's considered to be negative and if you've got a mediocre, maybe it's neutral. There are complications there, but Google did provide me with a letter too late with a letter that was clearly negative. As such, it contributed to me having difficulty with finding a new job, unfortunately.

We even tried to negotiate it with Google. Google agreed to rewrite it and provide me with a decent letter. Just as a comparison, it's possible to find on the bad story by another employee, actually from the same project because my last project was who got fired, I believe in something like 2016 or something, and got fired for underperforming. Basically, that person burned out.

That person says that despite of that and despite the company thinking that engineer had been trying to game the system to keep, basically, getting salary without actually improving the results, and just waiting for unfortunate outcome, still, that engineer despite all that, got a stellar reference letter. That's what I've heard from other people that even if you're getting fired, you're getting a good reference letter from Google because the company just doesn't want any legal issues. It’s just cheaper for them to write you a good letter and let you go. But in my case, it was negative.

We tried to negotiate a better letter and the company even agreed to that, but then, renegotiated it suddenly and added privacy requirements. Basically, they wanted me to sign a nondisclosure agreement if I wanted to get a new reference letter. Since I wasn't able to trust the company and it did look shady, I decided not to sign that agreement. And such, I didn't get a better reference letter.

Brendan: Taras, what gave you the courage to speak up? You've put yourself out on a limb here. Again, you seem to have suffered whether that's directly or indirectly. As a result of Google again, you're not sure. Maybe there's some just pure coincidences. Who knows? But what gave you the courage to speak up?

Taras: Maybe I’m just not smart enough to be worth the trouble. Generally, there are multiple elements out there. You can think of activists, whatever. What's the difference between me speaking up against something and some radical left activist also speaking against something and trying to shut something down? I don't have an answer to that question. I cannot say why and if I'm better than those activists, let's say. If they can speak up, why it is so surprising that I can speak up?

There are some things that are making this easier for me. First of all, I unfortunately don't have a family, so the risk for me was smaller. I was just risking my future, not the future of my family. Second, as I've mentioned, since I had been getting reported for different messages internally and because of some other things unrelated to ideologies, you asked me at the beginning whether the company was considering me a good engineer or not, and I, unfortunately missed that part.

From the company's perspective, I hadn't been the best engineer and that is the topic of a whole additional conversation. But again, getting a good manager is a lottery. For example, I started with a manager who reported me for underperformance because I decided to write a bunch of so-called design documents, documents outlining some problem that you see, some idea how to solve it, and arguments why your solution is better than alternatives, let's say.

My manager claimed that those documents were useless and were just a waste of my working time. He claimed that I had wasted at least a week of my time on writing them and as such, I was not doing my engineering job. It's hard to argue about usefulness of those ideas, but it was pretty easy for me to prove writing these documents first half of the time, and second, mostly in my spare time because everything is written in Google Docs. Google Docs have timestamps. You can check when things were getting edited there.

I knew that I wrote these documents on a weekend, and one evening, and I took something like maybe four hours of work time. I was hoping that it was going to be a proof of me exceeding expectations because I wrote these documents faster than my manager assumed. And also that I would be clear of these underperforming perception because I was using my spare time. 

I did provide that evidence to my manager, to the manager of my manager, to our HR representative, and nobody did anything. Later I was told, well, maybe you didn't write the documents during your working hours. But you had certainly thought about writing them in your working hours. The accusation stands, and how do you defend against that? You've been thinking something wrong. How do you prove that it wasn't the case? 

I got in trouble there and it later harmed my future prospects at Google. Together, all these things were contributing to me not having a future and even when I was getting fired at some point or another. I decided the additional risk wasn't already that great, so I was speaking up.

As for speaking up in general, I believe it just mostly because of some books you read as a child or whatever, depending on what kind of heroes you read about. If you read about some people spending their lives on Twitter and complaining about stuff, you probably act differently.

Brendan: As I say, Taras, not all heroes wear capes. With this whole situation, what would you have liked to have happened? If you were still a Google employee, and I imagine if some of this sort of thinking and some of this scenarios didn't play out the way it is, when you've written the document and you've had conversation with the manager, what would you have liked that to have look like as opposed to what's actually happened?

Taras: Ideally, I was hoping for reduction of this pressure and what looked as racial discrimination. I was totally up to trying to figure out actual problems and solutions to them, including potential problems with racism or whatever, but that's unfortunately a problem with bureaucracy. 

Bureaucracy isn't good at solving problems or even detecting what the problem is, but it's good at giving orders. That was the attempt by the company to influence the situation. Instead of figuring out problems and good solutions, they were just giving directives to people to educate themselves.

I don't think that some huge changes could have happened. I was just hoping that my concerns would be a signal to the management for something not being provided. Usually, when you hear that something's might be wrong, you don't just jump on the first mention unless the evidence is pretty clear. But it's useful to keep something in mind in case you start seeing the same issue again and again in other places. And it has to start somewhere.

I was just hoping to create some form of understanding of things getting too far. The management is detecting it over time and then, somehow, changing the atmosphere in the company, but it was too much hoping. I still hope, but you can also ask what I was expecting going public with this, and the answer there is slightly different because I still have friends at Google. I believe that Google, at least, was an amazing company at some point and still has a lot of amazing potential.

I don't want people that are there to suffer through all this nonsense. In order for that to change, something has to be done. Some kind of incentive has to be created for the company to change its ways. I haven't seen any such incentive coming from the top management. I haven't seen much of this incentive coming from employees because those that disagree pretend that they're fine with everything.

When James Damore got fired, I was among other people who were very hopeful that him going to court would incentivize the company to change something internally. That, unfortunately, never happened, but I was hoping for Damore back then to do something, basically, for me without even knowing about my existence. After I got fired, I got in a position where I had some slight chance to improve things for people who were still there.

Brendan: I do want to make it very, very clear to people listening and watching that all of the stuff that I've read, the documents you've put together, all of the stuff that I've watched over time in preparation for this interview, that at no stage have I seen you having written something or verbalize something that is actually rejecting some of these thoughts that is back to anti-racist, allyship, or all of these flavors that are coming through from your perspective in your experiences. I haven't heard you rejecting those or seeing you write any rejection. All you've really been asking, from what I've seen, is just for some clarification. To this date, I don't think you've received any form of clarification or had any respect from a former employee about some of the questions you've asked. Is that right?

Taras: Yes. Obviously, the company is reluctant to provide any clarifications because whatever the company says, the company might become liable. Not saying anything is just a safe way, but the company still takes actions. I was getting reprimanded again for even asking questions, not even for criticizing, but asking whether something was within policies. That is already an action by the company, but something that the company is fine taking.

The company doesn't want to talk about these things. It doesn't want to explain its decisions. I don't think the company is that capable because again, the bureaucracy is good at threatening people and creating some paperwork. The bureaucracy is not that great at explaining things. I haven't seen that many people in positions to make these decisions capable of having an honest discussion and on top of that, being courageous enough to have discussions in the current climate when any conversation might be against you, and certainly not, unfortunately, the top management.

I'm not surprised that there was no clarification. I hope that, eventually, the company has to say something. But for now, all I can do is try to draw some attention to all this stuff to the company being hypocritical, to the company issuing false statements to Tucker Carlson, for example, and on the Google blog by Sundar Pichai after firing James Damore. I just hope that at some point, either the company realizes that something is wrong and decides to change something even just to protect itself. Or maybe some people decide that it is not as dangerous to speak up at least a little.

Obviously, me getting fired was a big demonstration even if unintentional, that you're not supposed to talk about this stuff. But maybe if people would start asking questions, even a little, it's going to get to some kind of critical mass at some point and would change things because otherwise, how would things change?

Brendan: Taras, irrespective of what people think about some of the things you've shared today—they can agree or disagree—you are a courageous leader, there's no doubt at all in my mind. What is it that has had the greatest impact on your leadership journey through your life?

Taras: The books that I had read when I was a kid. Yeah, I did read a lot of adventure books. If you're talking about leadership as in management and whatever, the way people often use the term leadership, even when they refer to people just in position where leadership is expected, not to people that actually have leadership skills, I would say that Google was very useful. 

I've both witnessed possibility of what could be and the idea of some good goal of where management could lead because my experience in Ukraine was quite different. Their managers usually just act as conduits for orders from the top managers. There is no such thing as mentorship, or personal growth, or whatever. You're just supposed to comply with orders and do your job. 

At Google, I witnessed an attempt to actually make people grow over time and try to do good things, at least on paper. I have also witnessed a huge amount of things going around there, negative examples of what to try to avoid. That was very useful, even if not that healthy. I would say all these things could be learned in a better way, but it was certainly a useful experience.

Brendan: Taras, thank you for sharing that, mate. Just in wrapping this conversation up, once again, I want to say a massive thank you to you. In my experiences of the conversations we've had and the interviews I've watched of you, you are very articulate but very humble in the way that you approach these things. 

Maybe some could say that you have a right to have some bitterness about. I've never seen that in you, even in your answer just there, respecting your time at Google and lots of good stuff that you got from that experience and maybe some other things that maybe weren't fantastic experience, but they can make you a stronger person and a better leader moving forward.

I sincerely hope that we don't get de-ranked through this conversation. It's really just about opening up a conversation. You've been very professional in your dealings and the way you've articulated yourself today. I really appreciate you in sharing this information and opening the conversation around these things. It's an important conversation, mate. Thank you once again. I appreciate your time. Good luck with the new job. Thank you very much for being a guest on The Culture of Things podcast.

Taras: Thank you for the kind words. It was my pleasure. It's nice talking to you.

Brendan: Do you agree or disagree with Taras' views? If you agree or disagree both of the problem, too many of us take a view based on limited information or information that supports our narrative. Taras mentioned that during the interview, he doesn't expect people to agree with him or not. What he wants is for people to check out more sources of information and make up their own mind.

In the full page document Taras wrote, titled, Questions About Google's Anti-Racism Actions, he mentions the company is either unable or unwilling to have internal conversations on difficult topics. How can we work through differences and seek to understand if we can't talk about it?

These are my three key takeaways from my conversation with Taras. My first key takeaway: there's no perfect culture. Much has been written about Google's great culture, there'll be many employees who agree with that and there'll be many that don't. Each individual's experience will be different. What we must always strive for is to create an environment where all employees feel safe to have a genuine conversation. Creating this won't create the perfect culture, but it'd be pretty damn good.

My second key takeaway: leaders want to be challenged. They know the best outcomes are achieved by people challenging each other. Challenging ideas, perspectives, opinions, solutions. Questioning the status quo. In my opinion, this is what Taras was doing, challenging ideas, not following the herd. If you don't want to be challenged, you shouldn't be leading.

My third key takeaway: leaders learn from their experiences. Whether the experience is good or bad, it's always a learning opportunity. In all of the conversations I've had with Taras and watching his media appearances, I never heard him speak badly of Google or the experience he had. Despite the challenges, he considered it a learning experience.

In summary, my three key takeaways were: there's no perfect culture, leaders want to be challenged, and leaders learn from their experiences.

If you want to talk about culture, leadership, or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, you can leave me a comment on the socials or you can leave me a voice message at thecultureofthings.com. Thanks for joining me, and remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation!

Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.