Shashi Ramchandani, who manages a team of engineers at Google, has never been shy about being a conservative working in Silicon Valley. He showed co-workers emails he exchanged with Ivanka Trump after he mailed her photos he took at the Republican convention. On election night, he texted colleagues snapshots from the floor of Trump's victory party in New York.
"They saw me first as a Googler, then as a conservative," Ramchandani said.
In his 14 years at the company, he said he hasn't felt like he had to keep his mouth shut -- until last month, when Google fired an engineer who penned a memo saying biological differences partly explain why more men work in tech than women.
Politics often don't mix easily at work, but it's particularly fraught in tech, where free-thinking is prized yet the workforce is predominantly liberal. Now, as President Donald Trump stirs up the culture wars at the same time as Silicon Valley faces a backlash for being so white and so male, conservatives in tech have their guards up as never before.
Ramchandani, whose parents came to the United States from India, wasn't a fan of the memo. He particularly objected to its assumption that Google's hiring favors women and minorities, which ran counter to his experience as a hiring manager. While he understood why Google fired the engineer, he was also "extremely disappointed" by the whole situation. Ramchandani felt, for the first time, that he had to reconcile his love of Google with his conservative support for free speech and distaste for bureaucracy.
Tech has seen ousters for unpopular political or cultural views before, like when the chief technology officer at Business Insider was forced out in 2013 over old racist and homophobic tweets, and the next year, when the chief executive officer of Mozilla stepped down after facing criticism for a $1,000 donation he'd made to a group that opposed same-sex marriage.
But those were executives. The Google memo, which exposed a rank-and-file engineer in a public way, hit closer to home for many conservatives, who said the current environment is more hostile than ever before.
"Before it was, 'I don't agree with you,' but now it has evolved into this new thing that is much more aggressive, 'don't even say something that is counter to what I believe,'" says Aaron Ginn, co-founder of Lincoln Network, which looks to connect conservative techies with government and political work.
Some fear losing their jobs while others worry they'll be ostracized by colleagues in a sector. Adding to the stress is Silicon Valley's penchant for open floor plans, which make it hard to tune out an office mate on a rant, and the way companies encourage workers to socialize and bring their whole selves to their job. Several tech workers said they don't post about politics on Facebook, where they're friends with many co-workers.
"My wife is very paranoid about me sharing my opinion, even on private WhatsApp groups with my friends," said a former Amazon engineer who now works at Oracle. Most employees who spoke asked not to be identified because they worried about their job security.
An engineer at Microsoft Corp. first realized just how in the minority his political views were in 2004, when George W. Bush was up for re-election. At lunch one day, his co-workers one by one slammed the Republican candidate. The engineer, just a few years out of college, recalls saying, "I'm probably going to vote for him." He wasn't prepared for the response.
"They said, 'You stupid person. How can you think about that?'" Things got so heated, he said, his manager sent a memo to his 100-person team, that said, in essence, "Hey, cool it. We have engineering tasks we have to focus on."
As contentious as 2004 may have been, it's nothing compared to the polarizing election and presidency of Donald Trump. The Microsoft engineer said now it's even harder to have a productive political conversation, as colleagues lump him with a president whom he said doesn't represent his conservative values, threatening the ability to do his job well.
"Thirty years ago, there was somebody in their garage doing something amazing," he said. "Now these projects have thousands of people on them. People have to work with you and like you. If you get labeled as a bad person because you voted the wrong way and start getting ostracized, it will impede on your job because most people can't flip modes. They can't have a heated political debate with you and then flip modes and have a heated technical debate with you."
Google's office felt like a funeral the day after Trump was elected, according to an employee who describes himself as libertarian. "A lot of people didn't come," he said. "The people who did were very quiet, almost like their aunt died."
This Google employee believes the now infamous memo was relatively well-reasoned and that Silicon Valley's diversity initiatives ignore data that conflict with their ideology. He's regularly reminded of what he refers to as the company's "social justice agenda," like when he gets corporate email touting a donation to a nonprofit that supports minorities, or hears an executive talk about hoping to have half of his leadership team be female,which he believes shows the company prioritizes some groups over others. He worries that the company is under pressure to reach 50-50 gender equity too fast, and it will impede the promotion opportunities for men.
"Just do the math," he says.
SundayMonday Business on 09/11/2017
Print Headline: Conservative in a sea of liberals