Saturday, August 12, 2017

Some thoughts on the firing of James Damore from Google

As the world knows by now James Damore was fired from Google for writing a memo that questioned Google's diversity policies.

As a holder of Google stock I have a few thoughts on this.

Software engineering is a job where you cannot replace one brilliant software engineer with six adequate ones. It really is a job where the best people can lever their work over millions of computers and the whole world.

If you are Sundar Pichai (the CEO of Google) your job is to attract, hold, motivate and direct the very best software engineers - and to make sure their work does scale over the whole world.

In doing this he literally should not care whether men are better software engineers or mathematicians on average than women. Google should not interested in average. Google should be interested in the best.

I will hold Emmy Noether up as better than pretty well all men in all current mathematics and physics faculties. There may be a dozen in the world who can match her.  Probably less. If she pops along you should hire her. Even if women are less good on average at maths than men that should not matter. Emmy Noether is clearly better than anyone else you are going to hire this year.

The truth or falsity of James Damore's assertions in the memo literally do not interest me and should not interest Sundar Pichai. His memo made his job of hiring the the best harder. If the best happened to be a woman or another minority they might prefer work somewhere more welcoming.

If I were the Google CEO I would not have just fired James Damore. I would have been proud to fire him.

There is a lot of talk about Mr Damore receiving compensation from Google for his firing. For what? He broke the Google code of conduct and was fired for cause.

Yes, his feelings and the feelings of many delicate petals on the right are hurt.

But they are no more entitled to compensation for hurt feelings than anyone else.

If Sundar Pichai wastes shareholder funds compensating him I will be disappointed.

And don't think for a moment that this is a liberal line. Google is and should be a proudly elitist place for a software engineer to work. And Mr Damore was fired because he offered a phoney elitism (based on gender rather than competence).

Phoney elitists like him don't deserve to work in such a place.

Mr Damore was right on one thing. Diversity shouldn't be valued for its own sake in such a place either. But I haven't noticed a lack of elitism in Google staff I have met. They positively drip elitism.

Diversity is valued though and it seems is valued for the right reason. It gets you a better chance of recruiting the best.



Sean O`Neill said...

John, this is a great post. A good example of 2nd or 3rd order thinking. Latent ability of men or women is literally irrelevant for Google - hire the best, whatever it takes.

However, I believe that your claim "And Mr Damore was fired because he offered a phoney elitism (based on gender rather than competence." is incorrect. Damore says:

"Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business."

At least one part of his argument is that Google is using positive discrimination to achieve 50-50 balance of genders. Google is not hiring the best - it is hiring to achieve equal representation.

He also says:

"However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices:

● Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
● A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
● Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by
decreasing the false negative rate
● Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same
scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)
● Setting org level OKRs for increased representation which can incentivize illegal

Among other things he says that Google's positive discrimination is effectively lowering the bar for its employees.

Anonymous said...

Really well put, this is an excellent post.

TheAcsMan said...

I agree with the various observations you've made. I would also have been proud to show Damore the door. A true sign of intelligence is just how quickly Google responsed.

The potential damage done by Damore, in making Google less hospitable, strikes at its very infrastructure. Their products are a reflection of extraordinary minds that undoubtedly function better in welcoming, secure and friendly environments.

While Damore may have been gifted, it is self-deprecating to say that gender plays a role. While genetics may play a role in intelligence, there is no suggestion that those genetic loci reside on a Y chromosome. If the Y chromosome is critical, Damore simply got lucky.

What is more likely is that whatever role genetics may play, it is to set a potential, that a child's environment is then tasked to bring to its fullest.

What Damore and others who believe that males have intellectual supremacy in any area, such as mathematics, fail to accept, is that so much of the capacity for intelligence is probably due to a fortunate accident of neural wiring during gestation, that itself could be related to other accidental or incidental events, such as maternal hormonal levels, oxygen transfer, etc...

In a place like Google, where the experience of the human mind is sought to be translated into various algorithms to enhance human thinking, the role of a diverse workplace can't be minimized. With diversity, with exposure to different environments and ways of thinking comes a more complete ability to draw upon the broad perspectives to create truly encompassing algorithms that consider nuances of thought not all communities may have.

More diversity, more openness of thought, combined with the rigors of mathematics, will make better Google products.

Anonymous said...


I completely disagree with this post and believe you need to revisit it. The memo says to treat everyone as individuals and to evaluate candidates as individuals. Then it goes on to offer potential biological reasons for why there may be, on average, fewer qualified female candidates.

You claim that you would be "proud" to fire him for this view because it could cause women to work elsewhere. Would you want to hire a worker who felt this view had any impact on their job, or even felt this implied anything about them? Suppose someone said testosterone causes males to be more violent than females, on average, and that's why more men are in jail. Would you find that to be a slight to you? Would you think that's a valid excuse to not want to work at the same company as someone who held such a view? You're not violent, so it doesn't apply to you.

It seems to me that articles like this, that do not focus on or take positions on the ideas in the memo but find other reasons to fire Damore, are attempts to maintain some sort of societal status given the left holds a near monopoly in the intellectual sphere. Other excuses are, I would have fired him for his lack of citations (never mind that you can find scientific citations for it- although this doesn't mean the claims are true), or I would have fired him for poor writing ability, etc. Your use of the word "proud" implies strong moral condemnation, yet you offer no moral evaluation of his ideas.

There is a real element of primitive tribalism in the Google training programs Damore cites, where only women are allowed, despite men potentially having the same difficulties. The leftist idea that ALL women think differently and therefore we need to focus on hiring more women full stop is tribalism that denies the existence of the individual. If Damore had said that all women are biologically inferior so we need to focus on hiring more men, I would condemn that as well. But to write an article like this, and not address the collectivism and sexism inherent in seeking applicants of a particular sex BECAUSE they're a particular sex is dishonest.

Just to reiterate the collectivism at play in Google's diversity programs- Google seeks to hire women, period. If you're a woman and you think and act the same as the men at Google, Google treats you differently by giving you preferential treatment in the hiring process, special programs and training etc, because of your genitals. If you're a man and you think and act differently than the men at google, Google places you in the 'man' collective and treats you accordingly. How can you write this article and not explicitly condemn that?

Unknown said...

Thanks for this great post. I fully agree with it.

Anonymous said...

>While genetics may play a role in intelligence, there is no suggestion that those genetic loci reside on a Y chromosome.

This is not how development works. An example: men are taller than women, I think this is uncontroversial. Does this mean that genes for that extra height must reside on the Y chromosome? Of course not. Sex influences aspects like height through the regulation of gene expression (eg through hormones).

This is why, for example, women with a male twin have more masculine mental abilities (check out "Mental rotation in female fraternal twins: Evidence for intra-uterine hormone transfer?"). Or, to give another example, why women with CAH (a condition that results in hormone balance similar to males) have mental characteristics more similar to those of males (see eg "Early Androgen Effects on Spatial and Mechanical Abilities: Evidence from Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia").

Anonymous said...

John, have you read Damore's entire original doc, with charts and links to sources? Your piece suggests not.

anonymous said...

Only one note: you say "other minority," but women are not a minority. We are a slight majority, if anything. It's just important to keep in mind, since white men do sometimes seem to believe they are the "norm" from which all others diverge.

Max said...

I agree. Damone's 15minutes of fame are up.

Anonymous said...

Following your argument you should really look at what the programming community thinks about this. E.g. .

I don't doubt to fire him was the best move for the Google share price. I doubt it made it easier to attract good engineers.
But then I doubt engineering prowess is all that important for the Google share price even in the long term, it is more about defending their ad monopoly (i.e. politics), which is why the best move here was the political correct one.

Rick from Austin, TX said...

Wow, it would certainly appear that you did not read his actual memo and are just responding to the current MSM reporting on it. I thought you were more rigorously intellectual than that. Truly disappointed in your lack of intellectual curiosity on this topic.

Rick from Austin, TX said...

Follow on to my earlier message. Please watch this youtube interview (with a psychology professor from a Canadian university) of Mr Damore shortly after his memo caused such a firestorm. It shows a totally different view than what you seem to have taken away from the issue:

Anonymous said...

Your broad point is 100% correct. Google should hire the best, period. Damore's paper actually says as much. For some reason many people cannot receive that message.

Now, since we both agree that Google should be all about hiring the best, does making an example of Damore by firing him further that end? It might if many all star engineers feel supported by the action. On the other hand it may backfire because it shows that other things matter more than raw talent at Google (Damore was apparently highly rated internally) and that if you have views outside of the west coast liberal mainstream then you better not voice them too loudly at Google.

So will this firing attract more talent than it drives away? I think that is very much an open question. I think Google shareholders should prefer a management approach that actively attracts the best across the ideological spectrum. I think Pichai missed the mark on that with his handling of this.

Anonymous said...

John, I'm not sure you actually read the memo...

Damore's whole point is Google should hire entirely on merit, and if they do this, they might not end up with 50/50 gender split. Then attempts to move toward 50/50 will undermine hiring on merit.

You seem to be saying Google only hire on merit anyway. That is true historically, but Damore is pointing out that they are shift away from that. You're looking at historical hiring and agreeing with it, missing the fact that the winds have changed John - that is the old way, and it's no longer politically acceptable to only hire on merit. You *must* consider gender and increase female hires, even if more men than women met the historical standards.

Seriously - I think you should reread the memo if you've read it already.

Still might be the best move for google to fire him - if they hadn't I'm sure various law suits would have been lodged, and grandstanding politicians would have asked for investigations etc.

Anonymous said...

Good post John. For those rallying to Damore's defense, do Google, Facebook, Apple or any other bastions of supposedly liberal elitist culture seem to be suffering for their close-mindedness? No, they are kicking the living hell out of companies that compete with them. Progressivism in business seems to be good for business, precisely because as John identifies, you are better able to recruit talented people of all backgrounds and identities if they feel welcomed.

Also, a pivotal study that Damore cited involves babies staring at mobiles vs. faces. As this article points out, there are many flaws in this methodology and the results could not be duplicated (meaning they are not statistically valid).

Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

Nothing second-rate about Google's Raia Hadsell or Been Kim at ICML this week.

proctor said...

It feels like John is racing to play catch up with the diversity crowd, and using a very weird kind of logic to do so.

In this world, the actual content of the memo makes no difference - the issue is simply the reaction to it, and the effect this had.

The memo author is to be punished for violating the ruling ideology, which will make Google appear less attractive to the top people, who for the most part presumably share this ideology.

Yet the entire point of the memo is that
1) the diversity dogma is about shaming and ideological coercion, not merit
2) by refusing to allow free discussion of the substance of the issues at the heart of sex and gender differences, more problems are created

So John's solution is in a narrow sense quite apt and intriguing: since the smart kids (mostly) buy into the diversity dogma, it is best to keep everyone happy and get rid of the person whose challenge of that dogma caused a huge fuss.

Yet this doesn't really deal with the long-term issues that the memo brought up.

Overall it just feels like a big cop-out and a way to justify ideological coercion.

But it's a good lesson to readers of John's blog: No one is perfect. Even John Hempton, whose writings we enjoy and whose intellect we respect, has his ideological blinders.

Richard J said...

"The truth or falsity of James Damore's assertions in the memo literally do not interest me and should not interest Sundar Pichai. His memo made his job of hiring the the best harder. If the best happened to be a woman or another minority they might prefer work somewhere more welcoming."

Firing Damore just made Google a less attractive employer for other men. They might prefer work somewhere where diversity of opinion is considered acceptable. And since the majority of the talent are male, not female (see Damore's memo for evidence of this) this should be of much larger concern to Pichai in hiring the best.

Pichai has taken the easy option and Google will lose out because of it.

Anonymous said...

Read the actual memo John. It's obvious you haven't.

John Hempton said...

I read the memo. I literally do not care whether it is right or wrong. It is not relevant to running Google. It is not constructive.

The issue is that Google has (an entirely appropriate) code of conduct and like all private sector organisations it has the right to impose that on its staff.

The issue here is simply the private sector's right to hire or fire.

But apparently plenty of my readers have a problem with that.

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