In 2006, Google bought YouTube for more than $1 billion, Apple was preparing to announce the first iPhone, and the American housing bubble began to deflate. Claire Stapleton, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, faced the same question over and over: What did she plan to do with that English degree? She flirted, noncommittally, with Teach for America.
Then, a Google recruiter came to campus and, Stapleton said, she “won ‘American Idol.’” The company flew her out to Mountain View, California, which felt to her “like the promised land” — 15 cafeterias, beach volleyball courts, Zumba classes, haircuts and laundry on-site.
But for Stapleton, now 34, the real appeal in a job at Google was what seemed to be a perfect balance of working for income and according to one’s conscience. Naturally, she said yes to an offer in the corporate communications department.
“There was this ambient glow of being part of a company that was changing the world,” Stapleton said. “I was totally googly-eyed about it.”
More than a decade later, college seniors and recent graduates looking for jobs that are both principled and high-paying are doing so in a world that has soured on Big Tech. The positive perceptions of Google, Facebook and other large tech firms are crumbling.
Many students still see employment in tech as a ticket to prosperity, but for job seekers who can afford to be choosy, there is a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley’s most lucrative positions aren’t worth the ethical quandaries.
“Working at Google or Facebook seemed like the coolest thing ever my freshman year, because you’d get paid a ton of money but it was socially responsible,” said Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan. “It was like a utopian workplace.”
Now, he said, “there’s more hesitation about the moral qualities of these jobs. It’s like how people look at Wall Street.”
Investment Banking, but Worse
The growing skepticism of Silicon Valley, sometimes referred to as the “techlash,” has spared few of technology’s major players.
In 2019, Facebook was fined nearly $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Amazon canceled its plans for a New York City headquarters after residents, union leaders and local legislators contested the idea that the behemoth should receive $3 billion from the state to set up shop. Google, in 2018, faced internal protests over its plans for a censored search engine in China and handling of sexual harassment. (High-ranking Google employees have stated that the company never planned to expand search into China but also that plans for a China project had been “terminated.”)
The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71% in 2015 to 50% in 2019, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in “JoJo Rabbit”: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends.”
That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise. In August, reporter April Glaser wrote about campus techlash for Slate. She found that at Stanford, known for its competitive computer science program, some students said they had no interest in working for a major tech company, while others sought “to push for change from within.”
Belce Dogru, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science last year and is completing a master’s program at the university, said: “There has definitely been a shift in conversation on campus.”
Stanford is the second-biggest feeder school for jobs in Silicon Valley, according to data from HiringSolved, a software company focused on recruiting. Some companies pay as much as $12,000 to advertise at the university’s computer science job fairs; recruiters at those events didn’t always have to make a hard sell.
“It felt like in my freshman year Google, Palantir and Facebook were these shiny places everyone wanted to be. It was like, ‘Wow, you work at Facebook. You must be really smart,’” said Dogru, 23. “Now if a classmate tells me they’re joining Palantir or Facebook, there’s an awkward gap where they feel like they have to justify themselves.”
Palantir, in particular, has drawn the ire of students at Stanford for providing services to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (also known as ICE).
Last summer, a campus activist group, Students for the Liberation of All People, visited the company’s office, a 15-minute walk from campus, and hung a banner nearby that read: “Our software is so powerful it separates families.” Similar protests took place at the University of California, Berkeley, Brown and Yale, according to Recode. The protests, and the attitudes they reflected, were also covered in the Los Angeles Times.
Audrey Steinkamp, a 19-year-old sophomore at Yale, which sends about 10% of each graduating class into tech, said that taking a job in Silicon Valley is seen as “selling out,” no different from the economics majors going into consulting who are “lovingly and not-so-lovingly called ‘snakes.’”
That is especially true, some of the students said, when a classmate chooses to work for Facebook, whose products have spread disinformation and helped influence a presidential election.
“The work you do at a place like Facebook could be harmful at a much larger scale than an investment bank,” Dogru said. “It’s in the pockets of millions of people, and it’s a source of news for millions of people. It’s working at a scary scale.”
Many students still believe that technology can help change the world for good. As Glaser put it for Slate, some of them are opting out of the Big Tech pipeline and trying, instead, “to use technical skills as an insurance policy against dystopia.”
“Students have an opportunity to look at where they can have the most impact that’s in line with their values,” said Leslie Miley, a former director of engineering at Google and Slack. “The fact of the matter is Google, Facebook, Twitter are not in line with those values because they’re huge companies beholden to a lot of different masters.”
Still Got That College Spirit
Anna Geiduschek, a software engineer who graduated from Stanford in 2014, was working at Dropbox last year when she received an email from an Amazon Web Services recruiter. She replied that she wouldn’t consider a job with the company unless Amazon cut its contract with Palantir.
“These companies go out of their way to try and woo software engineers, and I realized it would send a powerful message for me as a potential employee to tell them no,” Geiduschek, 27, said, noting that top tech companies sometimes spend roughly $20,000 to recruit a single engineer. “You could basically cut them off at their supply.”
Her recruiter responded: “Wow I honestly had no idea. I will run this up to leadership.” Days later, Geiduschek received another template email from an Amazon hiring manager, so she scheduled a call and aired her grievances by phone.
Some engineers are sharing screenshots of their protest emails on Twitter with the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt. Jackie Luo, an engineer, sent an email to Google saying that she wouldn’t consider a job there given its plans to reenter China with a censored search engine.
Kelly Carter, a web developer, emailed a Tesla recruiter with her concerns about the company’s anti-union tactics. Craig Chasseur, a software engineer, emailed the HR department at Salesforce to critique the company’s contract with ICE.
These protests echo mounting public concerns about the power of these corporations. But it’s not clear whether they have moved the needle for prospective hires.
Former recruiters for Facebook told CNBC in May that the acceptance rate for full-time engineering job offers at the company had dropped precipitously, as much as 40%.
After the article’s publication, Facebook disputed the figure; the company “regularly ranks high on industry lists of most attractive employers,” a spokesman said. Data published the same month by LinkedIn showed that tech firms continued to hire at high rates, especially for entry-level employees.
But at campus career centers, students are struggling with the dual, and sometimes dueling, desires for prestige and purpose.
“It started with millennials, but now Gen Z-ers are getting educated because they want to do good in the world,” said Sue Harbour, senior associate director of the career center at the University of California, Berkeley, which is Silicon Valley’s top feeder, according to HiringSolved. “And as we’ve seen tech companies grow, we’ve also seen the need for more tech oriented to social responsibility.”
Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at startups focused on health, education and privacy. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.
Geiduschek said she recently left Dropbox for Recidiviz, a nonprofit that builds technological tools for criminal justice reform.
But those so-called passion jobs are more challenging to come by, according to Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of a 2015 paper about elite colleges “funneling” graduates into certain kinds of “prestigious” careers.
“For other sectors like tech it’s easier to get on the conveyor belt and fill these positions,” Binder said. “I graduated from Stanford in the ’80s, and even back then there was talk on campus about people selling out and going to investment banks, but those jobs are still getting filled. The self-incrimination hasn’t stopped the juggernaut.”
Binder said elite schools have long steered students toward certain “high-status” industries — the CIA in the 1950s, finance and consulting in the aughts and tech today. It’s a “prestige system,” she said, that universities enable.
“As tech firms get more negative reviews in the media and it becomes clear what their political toll can be, students may have more circumspection about taking these jobs,” she said. “At the same time, they’ll continue taking these jobs because of the security and reputation that comes with them. And universities will keep sponsoring all this recruitment.”
Good Luck Changing the Culture
For years, students were told they could tackle ethical concerns about technology from the inside, working within the mammoth structures of companies like Google. Stapleton said that was part of the company’s allure: its ostensible commitment to empowering even its youngest employees to weigh in on critical problems.
She spent 12 years at Google and YouTube on various teams, including internal communications, where she wrote company talking points. Her weekly emails to staff, she said, were the stuff of corporate legend. At a 2012 all-hands, Larry Page, one of the company’s founders, called her onstage to celebrate her work as colleagues presented her with a wooden plaque that read: “The Bard of Google.”
Then, in 2018, Stapleton helped organize a Google walkout, after reporting in The New York Times revealed that the company gave a $90 million severance package to Android creator Andy Rubin, who was accused of sexual misconduct.
Twenty-thousand workers left their desks in protest. Within six months, Stapleton said, she was demoted and pushed to resign. In December, she wrote about her experience in an essay for Elle.
Google maintained that Stapleton was not sidelined for her role in the walkout. “We thank Claire for her work at Google and wish her all the best,” a Google spokesperson responded. “To reiterate, we don’t tolerate retaliation. Our employee relations team did a thorough investigation of her claims and found no evidence of retaliation. They found that Claire’s management team supported her contributions to our workplace, including awarding her their team Culture Award for her role in the Walkout.”
But Stapleton said her story should give bright-eyed students pause about whether Big Tech and altruism are aligned.
“I don’t know if Google can credibly sell young people on the promise of doing good in the world anymore,” she said. “That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful people there and interesting things to work on. But if you care about a company’s values, ethics and contributions to society, you should take your talents elsewhere.”
Miley, who left Google in 2019, echoed her sentiment: “It’s hard to change a system from within when the system doesn’t think it needs to be changed.”
A spokeswoman for Google said the company continues to see job application numbers grow annually and noted that the practice of having employees raise concerns about policies, whether on data privacy or human rights reviews, is part of the corporate culture.
The outside attention those concerns may draw is a reflection of Google’s growth and evolution from a search company to a larger entity with many products and services, the spokeswoman said.
But even companies with a market cap of over $970 billion (Google’s parent company, Alphabet) or over $614 billion (Facebook) aren’t immune to the punches of potential talent. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who also advises companies on recruitment, estimated that criticisms of Uber’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies cost the company roughly $100 million, largely because of talent lost to competitors.
Sarah Soule, a professor and senior associate dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said in an email that there is a long history of students protesting questionable corporate ethics, with several cases of protest directed toward recruiters, yielding powerful effects.
Take the case of Dow Chemical Co., which in 1965 accepted a $5 million Department of Defense contract to manufacture the flammable gel napalm during the Vietnam War. When recruiters turned up at New York University, they were met with hundreds of angry student demonstrators, The Times reported.
Brendon Sexton, the student government president at NYU at the time, demanded a moratorium on Dow’s campus recruitment efforts in 1968. “They don’t care that a sin is being committed here,” he told protesters near the job interview site.
Public pressure continued to mount, fueled largely by young activists. The company halted its production of napalm a year later.
Geiduschek said the behavior of tech companies is especially difficult to challenge because their products are ubiquitous.
“It’s hard to avoid spending your money at Amazon. I sometimes do it, especially in that Christmas-season binge,” she said. “If you want to sway this company to do the right thing, you have to attack it at places that are higher leverage, where it hurts.”