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What the Google Manifesto Writer Seems to be Oblivious to

The recent drama at Google where its now ex-employee, James Damore, wrote and published a memo within the company has expectedly received a lot of attention everywhere, and more so on the social media.  It is not surprising that many have written in support of Mr. Damore, both in the content and spirit of what he wrote in his manifesto, and also against his firing from Google, and while others have been very critical about what he wrote and how it affected people around him, and why Google had to fire him.

After having read the manifesto myself — at least what appeared in several sites — I have pondered over the entire episode as it has been reported. What was he really trying to say? What was his intent in writing and publishing it? How might it have affected others working at Google? What did the powers-that-be at Google think about it?

In the spirit of freedom of expression, if you look at Mr. Damore’s writing as an effort to share his views in a scientific way, it would appear harsh for him to be fired. If a company clearly encourages its employees to openly share their views, what did he do wrong?

If you look a little deeper and try to understand his perspective when he tries to establish that women on an average would be less inclined to do what it takes to excel in engineering as men would, you will see some misgivings on his part. He seems to overly equate engineering to something like working mostly in solitude, like you so in some software engineering tasks, particularly as a young “individual contributor.” But anyone who has been an engineer long enough would recognize that engineering is about solving problems, making tradeoffs, and finding more efficient ways to do some things. It is not about just sitting in a cube and writing code all the time. It takes all kinds of skills — technical and human — for a company to work efficiently as a team and produce results in a consistent manner.

It is very natural for anyone who is good at his or her job to think they they can solve every problem single-handedly given the opportunity and the time. But as psychologists would tell you, we tend to overestimate our abilities, and oversimplify problems that others are trying to solve. “I know how to do that in a better way,” is something we might think, until we get our hands dirty.  Often it’s only after we try our hands at something that we admit “No one knew that healthcare was so complicated.”

I have worked as an engineer for many years, and I have had the good fortune to work with many brilliant people, and excellent teams. I have often reflected on how my own views my work and my abilities have evolved over time. I have seen others also go through such personal transformations. Without trying to over-generalize, I think if it is fair to see that when one is young and very capable in what they do, there is a tendency to think more about oneself, and less in the broader context of the team. With experience come greater appreciation of how others contribute, and how teamwork is essential when trying to solve complex problems.

It is futile to quantify and compare the value of an average man or an average woman,  or to form a generalized theory about where their biological attributes will make them more successful. I think it boils down to realizing that it’s a big world with many wide-ranging dynamics and not just what we have seen or experienced.

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