My Decision to Leave Google
Isaac Hollander McCreery, 11 July 2016
“That’s so noble!”
Or shut up.
This isn’t about being noble.
It’s about being free.
It’s funny that I begin this essay aboard a Boeing 737, but I hope it’s as good an example as any to remind me that my actions aren’t attempts to gain a moral high ground. On the contrary, they are, more than anything else, attempts to rekindle deep moral vision and action in myself and those around me, from my closest family—given and chosen—to my furthest acquaintances. I recently left a cushy job as a software engineer at Google to pursue activism full time. I’ve been learning for a few years now that community organizing is one of the hardest and most inspiring things I’ve ever done, and my decision to redouble my investment in it comes from deep violence I see around me in that world—including parts of myself that I wish to shed—as well as inspiring vision for the future I’ve gained the last few years: the building of something new.
So allow me some space to try to respond to countless well-meaning, infuriatingly apologetic responses to my decision to leave Google. “You’re the noblest person I’ve ever known.” “I wish I had the guts to do that.” “The world needs more people like you.”
The first one I think I already took care of, sitting aboard this multi-ton death machine called an airplane. If I’m the noblest person you’ve ever known, let me assure you that you’re hanging out with the wrong people. Get new friends. (Come hang out with my friends, because I know a hell of a lot of people way nobler than I.) Activism is not something that we ever do alone. How can it be, if it’s about changing hearts and minds? Whose hearts and minds are we changing? Our own, certainly, but also those around us. So if I’m doing this, I’m only doing it because I’m part of a strong, inspiring community of organizers and other activists, all of whom are, contrary to popular belief, ordinary people like you. Yes, you.
What I’m losing and what I’m gaining
I don’t delude myself; there’s plenty I’m losing by leaving Google. They are the same things that kept me there for the last fifteen months. I’m losing a day-to-day fun, easy job. Software engineering is about solving complex technical problems, and that was fun. And God knows it was easy: I worked a flexible schedule and got great, free breakfast and lunch. I got great, free healthcare. I got a lot of other incredible benefits. But what about the power I’m losing? As an employee, I had access to power that I don’t have outside: individual power to suggest changes inside of a very large and powerful corporation, but also power to organize fellow employees to build a better world inside and outside of Google. Most importantly to me, I got paid a lot of money. That’s important because I was able to give a lot of that money away. In my first year working at Google, I donated more than $25,000 to amazing organizations doing incredible community organizing. With my six-figure paycheck disappearing, I won’t be giving away nearly that (though I will still give).
In return loss of a nice job, power inside a huge multinational corporation, and a huge pay cut, I’m gaining a lot, though. And that’s what this decision has been about for me. Friends have remarked that my decision to leave was abrupt, and it was. But there was no precipitating event inside of Google; what made my decision for me was being surrounded by people doing incredible things I wanted to give my whole self to.
By leaving Google, I’m investing myself in a better world in ways I haven’t before. I no longer have the earnings or benefits to buy myself my own personal safety net like I did before. Society doesn’t provide any of us with the right to survive, let alone the right to thrive. When I worked at Google, my paycheck and benefits provided that for me. I was above the rest, fighting for justice without any skin in the game. Now, I’m on medicaid, and health care reform feels a whole lot realer. I’m feeding myself three meals a day, so food justice is a thing that meets me at my table every morning, midday, and night. And my organizing work has never been recognized by society as worthy of the title of “work”; now, that recognition that I and countless other activists have never gotten is the difference between having a roof over my head and not. And with the possibilities of surveillance and arrest becoming ever more real, my own government’s policing and prisons loom larger than they ever did before.
Of course, none of these issues affect me the way they do most people. Medicaid in Washington State is much better than most places. I come from quite a bit of class privilege, so I have a community with more than enough resources to provide a safety net if society continues to refuse to provide one for me. And, as a white person, the government’s surveillance and violence don’t affect me nearly as much as people of color in my own neighborhood and all over the world.
I’m invested in winning the battles I and my communities are fighting in ways I wasn’t just a month ago. But I’m also more divested from the systems I’ve been opposing on my nights and weekends for so long. The tech industry is propped up by so many systems of injustice and oppression, it’s hard to know where to begin. But, the topic de jour in silicon valley seems to be women in tech, (no, they’re not yet talking about trans people), so we can talk about sexism.
According to recently released information by the White House, “there are over 600,000 unfilled jobs in information technology alone—yet women hold only 29 percent of STEM jobs.” Those half-million-plus open jobs that aren’t filled by women are what make six figure salaries by tech workers possible. The longer and stronger that systemic sexism can hold its grip on the tech job market, the more those with tech jobs will benefit by vastly inflated salaries. As someone continuing to work at Google, I was directly invested in that salary inflation (via systemic sexism) continuing to drive up my salary. Of course if someone came to me and asked, “Would you give up half your salary to end systemic sexism in STEM,” I would have said yes. But that wasn’t the choice, and my wages were astronomically inflated by sexism, cissexism, and racism that have kept vast swaths of brilliant people out of the workforce, and by staying in that career because it had excellent chance of keeping my income exorbitantly high, I was betting my future on the perpetuation of sexism (and racism, cissexism, classism, etc.). I was profiting off of those systems I so strongly oppose, and I was tired of it. And I was tired of building a career and living a narrative that was literally invested in the upholding of these systems: the stronger and deeper sexism, racism, cissexism, and classism hold on, the more extraordinarily inflated my wages would be (1).
Beyond all of these eventualities, though, of the real threat to my body, health, and wellbeing, to the more abstract notion of divestment from exploitative systems, the most concrete stuff that I’m getting back are time and energy. I’ll be devoting 40 or more hours a week to activism, where before I was giving no more than 10 a week. And I hope I’ll have more time and energy to devote to growing in ways I want to grow.
What I’m fighting (for)
So what am I fighting for?
First, I’m fighting for collectivism instead of individualism. I’ve already mentioned that activism is about changing hearts and minds, and that we need to work together to change the world. But collectivism goes deeper than that. All our lives, we’ve been given only one narrative for survival: me and mine. Get a job, get ahead, so you can guarantee your own survival and the survival of your immediate family. Because there isn’t enough to go around. But there’s another way. If we pool our resources, we have more than enough to go around. When I was in Detroit recently, I visited Auntie Na’s House, a community and project that inspires me every day. As Auntie Na told me when I visited, they don’t have a lot, but they have enough. And they give it freely. So I’m fighting individualism, and I’m fighting for collectivism. We’ll all be better off if we learn to lean on each other, take what we need, and give what we can. I don’t know what collectivism in my life will look like in three years, or even six months, but it’s what I’m fighting for.
And that fight is a part of something else: I’m also fighting for radical vision instead of fulfilling expectations. The last few years have left me deeply hopeful for a different world, a world in which wealth, land, and power are equitably distributed. A world in which people and communities not only survive, but thrive. A world in which resources are shared, not hoarded. A world in which we are free. I feel a radical vision inside of me, and it needs to get out. I’ll have to fight the whole way, against expectations that my friends have for me, that my family has for me, and that I have for myself, but I believe in that radical vision that’s in me and in everyone around me.
Which brings me to the last thing I’m fighting for: growth in ways I want to grow. What finally tipped my decision was realizing that, as a software engineer at Google, I wasn’t becoming the person I wanted to be. I was atrophying emotionally. I was losing touch with the radical vision I have for the world, and settling into the belief that it could not be realized. I was losing empathy and emotional connection, and I was losing hope. I don’t know what focusing on activism will bring me, but I hope it will help me become the person I want to be, and inspire those around me to become their best selves as well.
This will be a daily struggle. All of these philosophies will play themselves out—or not—in the next months or years. I’ve just begun reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia right now, and even in the first few pages, I can see why he, perhaps more than any other author of political work I’ve read, has earned a name as an honest reporter of how things went, free from the fog of how they ought to have gone. It’s inspiring for me, particularly at this juncture, to consider how I can strive to make decisions on how things go, not how they ought to be going.
I think part of the terror in this decision is that as I defect from one dogma, accumulative individualism another, collective liberation, the dogma I’m defecting to is yet-unrealized. I know the reality that individualism in the corporate capitalist economy can bring me: a nice house along with white guilt and political nihilism, a cushy job and free food along with emotional isolation from work and coworkers. I’ve seen it secondhand, in my family and friends, and I’ve seen it firsthand, in my own life. But I know no one who is free. I know organizers, and I know more ex-organizers, burnt out on long hours, little pay, and, yes, political nihilism. But they were not free: they weren’t part of a beloved community. The project that I’m embarking on I have no first- or secondhand knowledge of. Beloved communities have existed, perhaps, and they’ve been bombed. So we build them.
In the introduction to this essay, I talked a bit about collectivism and the importance of having other incredible activists around me. Here’s really what I’m trying to say: don’t praise me and don’t apologize to me. Join me! Because I’m nothing without you.
Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it takes courage. Yes, you’re busy. Don’t give as much as I am—it’s taken me years to build up to this—but start by giving something. Money or time: pick one (or both). If you don’t know how, email me. Seriously. My email address is at the bottom of this post. And I promise you there’s plenty to do. In her call-to-action analysis of capitalism and the climate, Naomi Klein remarks,
During extraordinary historical moments—both world wars, the aftermath of the Great Depression, or the peak of the civil rights era—the usual categories dividing “activists” and “regular people” became meaningless because the project of changing society was so deeply woven into the project of life. Activists were, quite simply, everyone. (459)
Now needs to be one of those times.
(1) There are lots of other systems at play here: capitalism and extractivism being the two that come to mind. Again, I refer to Klein’s This Changes Everything for an in-depth look at extractivism, specifically.