A new wave of employee activism is forcing tech companies to rethink — and in several cases cancel — contracts with the federal government because of some of President Donald Trump’s controversial policies. While a number of tech companies are responding to employee concerns by pulling out of agreements with federal agencies, Microsoft is charting a different course.
Employee activism has been building in Silicon Valley for more than a year. Last summer, Google decided not to renew a contract for the Pentagon’s Project Maven after 4,000 employees expressed concerns about their work being used for lethal purposes. The trend spread to sister tech hub Seattle, reaching a fever pitch over the past few days.
Google and Amazon employees walked out recently to demand their employers take a bolder stance on climate change, joining a broader demonstration. Amazon unveiled its carbon footprint for the first time and announced new environmental goals the day before the planned walkout. And the software company Chef decided not to renew its contracts with immigration officials after employees expressed concerns and a former worker even deleted code he had written for the firm.
But the Seattle region’s first tech giant, Microsoft, has held firm in its resolve not to unplug public agencies even when the company vehemently disagrees with the government’s policies. Microsoft President Brad Smith explained why during an interview with me at Seattle’s Town Hall.
“The only way we’re going to achieve our goals is ultimately to change other peoples minds,” he said. “If the only people we can work with are those who agree with us already, then we’re probably just sentencing ourselves to a permanent state of gridlock.”
Smith also noted that unintended consequences arise when technology is yanked from the government. In our conversation and in his new book “Tools and Weapons,” written with Carol Ann Browne, Smith explained that the odds of reuniting families split up by Trump’s child separation policy are slim without the help of technology.
“We felt very strongly about it,” he said. “But if we turn off email, we turn off databases, we’ll never get people and families back together. The government won’t be able to figure out who belongs with whom.”
Addressing the larger issue in the Q&A below, he makes the case that marriage equality and Microsoft’s other political aims were only possible because the company engaged with people who did not share the same values.
Monica Nickelsburg: What is your strategy when presented with the opportunity to work with groups who go against Microsoft’s values?
Brad Smith: This is a fascinating question and it’s one that’s asked of us every day, including in the context of our Political Action Committee because as a company, there are definite values that we hold quite strongly. It’s about opportunities, in an appropriate and lawful way, for immigrants. It’s about protection and advances for diversity. It’s protecting the rights of minorities, members of the LGBT community and the like. People often ask us why do you interact with people who don’t share your values and your point of view? There’s lots of reasons but to me, the one that speaks most strongly and powerfully is because the only way we’re going to achieve our goals is, ultimately, to change other peoples’ minds. If the only people we can work with are those who agree with us already, then we’re probably just sentencing ourselves to a permanent state of gridlock.
I take hope, and even a certain degree of faith, from our own experience on some of these issues in Washington state. It’s easy to forget because things have changed so quickly but it was only seven years ago in 2012 that Washington state became one of the first states to pass marriage equality in the state legislature. At the time, it passed in the House, which was controlled by the Democrats. The question was whether we could win enough votes in the Senate which, at the time, could only pass marriage equality if we could win over four Republican votes.
The question was whether any business would go forward and actually call on the legislature to pass a bill. We decided to do that. I was very much at the center of that at the time and the question was how would we win over four Republican votes? The answer was by winning over four people who had never agreed with us before. It wasn’t the same arguments that appealed to the Democrats. We knew that Republicans … we would have to win over based on an argument about business and the economy and argue why marriage equality was going to be good for the Washington state economy. And we did. We passed it first in the legislature then we passed it on the ballot that fall. We did it because we stayed connected to people who didn’t agree with us and we worked with them every day until we did.
We care about these issues enough that we are committed to outcomes, to change, to getting things done even if it means that some days you have to deal with the world of politics. Politics is often about pragmatism and not principle alone.
MN: This reminds me of a section in the book when you talk about President Trump’s child separation policy because we’re living in this age of employees activism. This afternoon I was at Amazon and employees had organized a demonstration to pressure the company to take a bolder stance climate change and in some cases, that activism has caused tech companies to cancel contracts with the government like Google. You say that Microsoft avoids doing that. That’s not your policy because there are situations where you might vehemently disagree with the political policy but the technology that the government uses could still play a critical role. I wonder if you could talk about how that played out with the child separation policy?
Smith: First, I would say I think it is so fascinating to see this new era of employee activism and that’s why we talk about it as much as we do in the book. It’s so different from employee activism in the past. In the past, it was really driven by unions and it was all about the rights of the workers and the benefits of the workers as employees. The employee activism today, at least in the tech sector, is not, ‘pay us more money or give us more vacation or better healthcare.’ It’s like, ‘do what we think is the right thing for society.’ I think that’s good. As we say in the book, sometimes you may disagree with people. You may think they don’t have the right answers, but they may still be asking the right questions.
Our view is, we actually don’t think it makes sense to just cancel contracts in democratically elected societies and start unplugging people from technology. In part, we do feel that way as a matter of principle. The government was elected, the companies were not. Imagine if you’re the electric company and you say, ‘hey we don’t like what this government agency enacted so we’re going to unplug them. They no longer get electricity.’ There’s a lot of unforeseen, unintended consequences that can result from this. We have not been comfortable, in the United States, saying, ‘you know what? We’re turning off the immigration authorities.’
We share this story in the book. We felt very strongly about the child separation policies. We used our voice. I personally, as the chair of Kids in Need of Defense — the largest legal pro bono group in the country, one that I co-founded 12 years ago for the sole purpose of ensuring that kids could be represented by a lawyer going through an immigration proceeding — we felt very strongly about it. But if we turn off email, we turn off databases, we’ll never get people and families back together. The government won’t be able to figure out who belongs with whom.
We said we’re not going to turn off the technology but we are going to use our voice. We’ll lobby. At times we’ll go to court. I am actually very proud of the fact that on the twelfth of November the United States Supreme Court is going to have a hearing of huge importance. It’s about DACA. It’s about the Dreamers. It’s going to affect 800,000 young people in this country and there’s only one company that is a named plaintiff in the cases that are going to be heard by the Supreme Court. It’s Microsoft. So you can see the balance that we can try to strike and other people have different views. We absolutely respect the different views that people have, we just think this is the right approach for us to take.
MN: In the child separation incident, what really struck me in the book was that one of the reasons the government is now having such a hard time reuniting families is a program that was not designed to identify families as connected once they’ve been separated. There’s a drop-down menu that says single or family and once families were separated, the government has no record of how they’re connected. If they had a more sophisticated software tool, those families might be reconnected.
Smith: Absolutely. To us, it was such an interesting story because it just showed how so many other things in life actually depend on technology so the unintended consequences of turning off technology are just difficult to fathom.