Remember when more than 2,000 Google employees walked out of work to protest President Trump's immigration ban? Far from disciplining them for leaving their desks, CEO Sundar Pichai and co-founder Sergey Brin treated workers to impassioned speeches of support.
While Pichai and Brin were no doubt speaking from personal conviction Brin's family fled the former Soviet Union when he was a boy—they also had little choice but to back their employees. Trump's directive cut to the heart of Silicon Valley's treasured values of globalism and openness, values widely embraced by the workers themselves. And in Silicon Valley, where companies' success depends so deeply on their rosters of intellectual talent, it's the workers who have the leverage to force their bosses to respond when the president threatens those values. Only two weeks into Trump's presidency, it's clear Kalanick won't be the last CEO to face this kind of criticism not just from outsiders but from inside their companies themselves.
Silicon Valley's workforce is heavily liberal and deeply committed to the notion of itself as a meritocracy—a place where people succeed on the quality of their ideas, not where they're from. Given the seller's market for their talent, tech workers have real power to influence their bosses' postures toward the president. If their CEO doesn't stand up aggressively to Trump, they can always go work for a CEO who does.
At the most mercenary level, the competition is fierce because talented employees make tech companies lots of money. Facebook employees generate $1.9 million in revenue annually per person, while the median compensation is about $150,000. "An employee's return on investment is higher than drug dealing," says John Sullivan, a human resources strategist and management professor at San Francisco State University. "It's not the buildings, the location, or the equipment that make these tech firms excel at serial innovation. Instead, it's the quality and capabilities of the people that they attract and retain." The competition gets even fiercer in more specialized fields like machine learning and artificial intelligence, where the best command salaries more akin to professional athletes than office workers.
"The tech community, in general, contains a very high proportion of recent migrants or children of migrants," says Yoshua Bengio, director of the University of Montreal's Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, a hub for AI talent. "With near unanimity against the Trump immigration ban among all the people in that community, it is not surprising to see companies making public moves against this ban." For some, even those public displays are not enough. Bengio says he knows top researchers who are now looking for jobs outside of the US.