Top programmers will leave Facebook and Google if they gain ‘evil’ reputations

In many of the recent debates about tech, some people have suspected big tech companies of using their famously geeky, quirky cultures as a sort of public relations strategy. They see Google’s corporate motto “don’t be evil” as simply a cosmetic slogan.

Au contraire. For big tech companies, gaining a reputation for being “evil” can be the kiss of death from a purely financial standpoint. Software companies have to compete quite ferociously for top talent, so being seen as an “evil” company carries the serious risk of brain drain elsewhere. It can be a downward spiral, as the more people leave, the less attractive a company it becomes.

Even beyond recruiting, most tech companies go to great lengths to motivate their engineers to believe in the “mission”, the change that their technology is intended to bring about. Facebook, for example, cares so much it has a department dedicated to motivational posters, called the Analog Research Lab art studio.

This isn’t just a quirk of the industry. Large-scale software is more complex than building an aeroplane. Top-down planning has its limits, as engineers have to be flexible and work around uncertainty, and it is hard to measure each individual’s contribution to the final result. It’s hard to get people to collaborate without sharing goals and beliefs.

In fact, you might be able to argue that what makes tech companies so valuable relative to “old school” businesses, is they are able to manage hundreds or sometimes thousands of knowledge workers to build something complex like software. If these companies turn out to be a leading indicator for where the rest of the economy is going, that might raise interesting questions about freedom of conscience at work – because a level of shared belief might actually become relevant to the job.

It’s not just about posters and propaganda. The opinions of employees are so important, that they significantly influence top-level decisions. The crafts startup Etsy initially went public as a “public benefit corporation”, meaning it would be legally obligated to hold in prioritize non-financial goals such as helping the environment. It’s likely that making that sort of commitment made it easier to recruit the people they needed.

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