Jan 20, 2022
Google Team That Keeps Services Online Rocked by Mental Health Crisis
(Bloomberg) -- When Chewy Shaw left Google’s site reliability group in April, he told colleagues in a memo that interactions with his managers had made him depressed and suicidal.
“I no longer feel psychological safety on this team,” wrote Shaw, who is Black and had accused his leaders of racism. “I no longer have a manager focused on treating me in a ‘Googley’ manner,” he added, using his own shorthand to describe respect and fairness. “And so, with many tears, I am now looking for a Googley manager at the company who will take me.”
Shaw, who is 29, worked at Borg SRE, which plays an essential role for Google, and the broader internet, by keeping the tech giant’s global network online, allowing billions of people to use the company’s websites, such as YouTube and Gmail. He acknowledges that the job is hard and can be stressful. Site reliability engineers like him—whether at Google, Amazon or Microsoft—are expected to solve thorny problems that can pop up at any moment, from outages to shoring up complex digital infrastructure.
But Shaw and several other employees say their bosses made working at Borg SRE that much harder. They say managers, including the team’s leader Pierre Aubert, fostered a work culture where discrimination and termination threats were tolerated, if not encouraged. Several members of the 100-person group, they say, took leaves to preserve their well-being. An internal “Googlegeist” survey that tracks employee sentiment found in January 2021 that just 49% of the 76 Borg team members who responded had a favorable view of what their work group was doing to help their well-being, 12 percentage points lower than employees companywide, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg.
In November, “team temperature” surveys found dissatisfaction among Borg employees. Out of a top score of 10, Borg’s three sub-teams scored 5.07, 6.5 and 6.73—all short of the 7.5 rating Google considers satisfactory. In meetings with human-resources officials, some Borg employees described a toxic and overwhelming work environment, according to notes HR shared with the team that were reviewed by Bloomberg, but Google left the management team in place and promoted Aubert.
The atmosphere at Borg SRE reflects a broader erosion of what was once attractive about Google, according to three current and four former employees. For many of the Generation Xers who joined the search giant in the last 20 years, a Google gig was akin to being recruited for the U.S. space program in the 1960s. They toiled away on world-changing technology, freely exchanged ideas with some of techdom’s brightest minds and believed in the righteousness of their mission. While Google has always been a hard-charging, Type-A kind of place, most of the rank-and-file commanded a level of respect that was uncommon in less egalitarian workplaces.
But the culture was changing. In 2017, engineer James Damore fired off a manifesto dismissing Google’s efforts to close the gender gap and arguing that women were less able technologists than men. He was fired, but a significant minority of Googlers agreed with his views, according to several current and former employees. A year later, staff were disturbed to learn that, in an effort to find new growth opportunities, Google parent Alphabet Inc. was bidding on U.S. military contracts and secretly working on a censored search engine for the Chinese market. Employees were also dismayed that executives accused of sexual misconduct received generous exit packages, a controversy that prompted a shareholder lawsuit and, ultimately, a $310 million settlement.
Like employees at other tech companies, Googlers began speaking out—creating a quandary for executives. Should they honor Google’s open culture or crack down on what some viewed as damaging dissent? They chose the latter approach, according to several current and former employees, preventing staff from asking unfiltered questions at all-hands meetings, policing virtual spaces where workers convene, monitoring and enforcing content rules for email lists and taking down posts on internal boards. In the process, the employees say, Google’s leadership ushered in a culture where bosses felt empowered to put results ahead of comity.
David W. Baker, a former Google engineering director, said the company’s attempt to impose order has had “a lot of negative consequences” for employees. “Since the Damore memo, Google has tried to tamp down on outrage and to get individuals less preoccupied to address societal issues,” said Baker, who left Google to protest the treatment of Timnit Gebru, a prominent Black artificial intelligence researcher who said the company fired her for criticizing its technology and diversity practices. “Google unfortunately tends to want to be wishy-washy and avoid controversy,” he said.
Google declined to comment on specific employee complaints. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said: “At Google, creating a respectful, safe and inclusive workplace is our top priority. We recognize we will not always get it right, and there will be situations where disagreements may arise. While we can’t speak to individual circumstances, we thoroughly investigate employee concerns and take appropriate action when our policies are violated. We also have programs and resources in place to support employees and managers with coaching, culture building, career development, conflict resolution and more.” The spokesperson also said Googlegeist surveys highlight both managers’ strengths and areas needing improvement.
Borg SRE chief Aubert declined to comment, but in a Nov. 16 presentation to his team reviewed by Bloomberg he acknowledged workplace challenges. “You all have seen the note from Chewy which was a trigger point for me realizing that our culture has to change,” Aubert wrote. He pledged to promote racial equity, listen to team members and accept their feedback.
Shortly before publication, Google provided three members of Borg SRE to discuss their experiences on the team. Two requested anonymity. All three occupy more senior roles on their subteams than rank-and-file site reliability engineers. The employees said that they and many of their colleagues had positive experiences on the team and with Aubert. When asked about HR’s efforts to improve the team’s culture last year, Nejc Trdin, who is based in Zurich, said, “The culture is not perfect. I think it's fairly good, by the standard of what we want to strive for, but it not being perfect, I guess there is room for improvement.” A Zurich-based technical lead who declined to be named said efforts to improve the culture and team happiness happen “continuously,” and that he had only heard of “minor” complaints from team members before and after Shaw’s memo. The third employee, a U.S.-based senior site reliability engineer, says he introduced team temperature surveys on Borg SRE, after finding them a useful way to get feedback when he was a manager on his last Google team.
On Jan. 18, after Bloomberg had requested comment, Google sent employees an email announcing a Black executive named Felicia Guity had been named chief of staff chief to Ben Treynor Sloss, the executive who oversees SRE. Guity said she has a passion for understanding emotional intelligence in the workplace and helping people meet their full potential, according to the email, which was reviewed by Bloomberg.
Before Google’s search engine, few companies had attempted to keep such hugely popular and essential websites up and running around the clock. The gargantuan task fell to the site reliability department, including the Borg group named after the hive-mind cybernetic organisms in Star Trek. The department won respect for inventing many of the tools required to get the job done. It also had a reputation as a boys club. In the early days, engineers “cultivated this reputation as whisky-drinking badasses,” said Mike Knell, who joined SRE in 2008.
The drinking gradually subsided, but Knell said more aggressive managers began to change what had been a largely collegial operation. Firings became more frequent, he said, and one manager was nicknamed the “Terminator” for behavior employees considered random and cruel. One day, Knell said a senior engineer relayed a message from his boss: Knell would be fired if he didn’t “get his life together.” When Knell eventually reported the conversation to human resources, he was told the incident was inappropriate but that no action would be taken.
Knell later won approval for a transfer to Google’s privacy team, only to learn it wouldn’t take place after all. About a week later, Knell said he contacted the company-provided psychiatrist he had been seeing. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and I took two months off for mental health.” Knell said there was so much demand for counseling from engineers in Zurich, the company was forced to add extra sessions.
Knell eventually left the team, before quitting Google in 2016. Four years later, as the company’s workplace issues spilled into the public arena, Knell weighed in online. “SRE at least in Zurich has an abusive and downright sociopathic management culture, which will drain you, burn you out and not give a damn,” he tweeted in May 2020.
Chewy Shaw recalls feeling welcome when he joined Google at its Mountain View, California, headquarters in 2014. He and other employees credited the company for its willingness to hire people with unconventional educational and work backgrounds, including self-taught coders. The heavy drinking of the early days was done, and whisky Wednesdays had swapped alcohol for tea. Shaw, who has dissociative identity disorder, a psychological condition in which a person has two or more personalities, said he received promotions, grew close with his colleagues and met, exceeded or strongly exceeded expectations in his performance reviews.
Shaw said everything changed in December 2019, when Pierre Aubert was named site reliability engineering manager and began overseeing staff in Switzerland and California from Zurich. Aubert’s appointment created fractures no one had experienced before, according to several current employees, who say a once egalitarian and empathetic culture began to erode.
Especially jarring, according to these employees, was Aubert’s treatment of Shari McHenry, who at the time handled budgeting and made sure there were enough machines in place to run each digital service. Aubert gave many of her responsibilities to a newly recruited male manager, who wasn’t ready or able to take on the duty for months. In an interview, McHenry said Aubert began saying to people on the team, “Can’t Shari retire? She should have enough money.” Almost 60 at the time, McHenry said she had no plans to leave.
The climate worsened, according to four former and current employees, when the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020 and the team was forced to manage Google’s technical infrastructure from home and take on new projects. Despite the new travails, Aubert directed his managers to take aggressive action when a worker’s productivity slipped, McHenry said. He recommended performance-improvement plans—often a prelude to termination—for many employees, she said, including for an engineer who took time off to care for his family when his wife’s lupus flared up. “It felt like they were using the pandemic to justify getting rid of people they didn’t like,” said Shaw, who helped start the Alphabet Workers Union, a group of more than 800 workers trying to advance social and economic justice at the company.
McHenry and Shaw filed HR complaints in the fall of 2020, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg. McHenry, who is Native American, alleged Aubert had “become emotionally and verbally abusive” to her and targeted her because of her age, gender and race, as well as her willingness to disagree with him. Shaw alleged Aubert’s conduct had been racist, and he and McHenry both claimed their boss fostered a harmful culture. Shaw said Aubert had called him “lazy” and “disrespectful” because he dozed off during part of a meeting after working through the night. Shaw said he believed these were racial tropes and that Aubert had more broadly targeted teammates from underrepresented groups.
HR completed the investigations in March 2021. In a video recorded by McHenry and reviewed by Bloomberg, an HR representative verified that Aubert had made comments to other managers about her age and retirement. “Pierre’s been given feedback that, ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’” with people who didn’t supervise McHenry, the representative said. But the HR official went on to say that while the conduct was inappropriate, it didn’t violate Google policy. The HR representative declined to comment. For his part, Shaw said in an interview that HR didn’t believe it had enough evidence that Aubert demonstrated a pattern of exclusion against a particular group but urged him to adjust his communication style.
By February of 2021, McHenry said, she was depressed and losing sleep. Her doctor recommended she take a break from work and she went on a four-month mental-health leave.
Shaw said Aubert and his deputy ratcheted up the pressure in McHenry’s absence. Shaw said his new manager suggested he didn’t deserve his paycheck because he wrote an inconsistent amount of code. Shaw recalls assuring his boss that he met—and would continue to meet—deadlines. Shaw said he requested suggestions on how he could maintain his performance but said his manager declined to offer any. Shaw said he expressed concern that losing his job could torpedo his career and that he might even wind up homeless. His boss brushed the concerns aside, Shaw said. The manager, who also oversaw McHenry, declined to comment.
Shaw sought a transfer to another team and sent his memo in April. HR connected him with the Bungee team, set up to help employees rebound from setbacks and boost retention, especially those from underrepresented groups, Shaw said. He was put on a six-month rotation on a transition team, where he would work on a non-critical project and then find a new full-time team, according to a May email reviewed by Bloomberg.
Rajeev Ram, a technical program manager who joined Google in 2019, was tasked with singlehandedly reviving a long-stalled project that sought to make a more efficient internal marketplace where the company’s teams could exchange computing power. Ram said in an interview that despite his efforts, Aubert and other managers made him feel he was failing. After telling a manager he was feeling suicidal, Ram took time off before deciding to leave Google. He moved to the Ozarks to help a friend build a cabin and recover.
Not long after Shaw sent his memo, HR invited small groups of Borg employees to relate their experiences. Attendees variously described the atmosphere on bad days as “toxic,” “overwhelming” and “exhausting,” according to notes from the meeting reviewed by Bloomberg. Several expressed disappointment and guilt about what happened to Shaw, with one saying he “went to HR and asked for help; Google systematically failed him.”
Aubert told the team on June 17 that he was committed to improving Borg SRE’s culture to make it “more respectful, more coherent, more friendly, more welcoming and more inclusive,” according to an email reviewed by Bloomberg. McHenry said that in the same month Aubert told her in a one-on-one meeting that people on the team didn’t like her, she lacked leadership skills and should consider moving to another team. She recalls breaking down in tears. McHenry said HR determined Aubert hadn’t violated Google policies, but the team assigned “happiness champions” to assess mental health and publish monthly “happiness newsletters,” according to a newsletter seen by Bloomberg. These include yoga class recommendations, interviews with managers, employee milestones and links to articles about overwork. McHenry, who was asked to be a happiness champion after returning from her leave, calls the response “fluff on top of the real issues.”
In October, Aubert was promoted to director, an executive-level position. He has been expanding the team, although employees say he has struggled to recruit internally owing to Borg’s sullied reputation. McHenry received a “needs improvement” performance evaluation and another nudge to consider leaving from her manager, who she said told her HR was afraid to fire her. McHenry said she agreed to give up her team to make it easier for her former subordinates to thrive. Her managers want her to leave on Feb. 1, but she said she feels pushed out and hasn’t finalized the date. Shaw said the emotional duress took a physical toll and that he was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a painful stress-induced disorder. In October, Shaw began a two-month mental-health break—the second such leave in 2021. In many ways, he still loves the company, but is afraid that it may no longer love him. “It’s better than so many other places,” Shaw said. “And that’s what’s so heartbreaking.”
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