Silicon Valley execs grow a backbone

After a period of uneasy silence, tech leaders are moved to rally in opposition to the Muslim ban

Silicon Valley execs grow a backbone
Michael Dorausch

Since November, leaders in Silicon Valley have been trapped in an uneasy détente, pussyfooting around a president-elect who opposes the tech industry on myriad key issues. While their employees organized and protested, most tech execs remained silent or issued platitudes about cooperation.

When Silicon Valley leaders were summoned to the White House for a tech summit in December, Kara Swisher berated them for climbing the "Trumplethinskin Tower" in silence. "Now [they] have to become reality show star[s] in a new episode of 'The Apprentice: Nerd Edition,' bowing and scraping to that luddite Trump, who will probably simultaneously berate [them] in person and bully [them] on Twitter later with a lot of poop emoticons," she wrote.

After denouncing the "symphony of compromise," Swisher excoriated the execs to "realize again that you have the smarts and invention and the innovative spirit to do whatever you like. Realize you have untold money and power and influence and massive platforms to do what you think is right. Realize that you are inventing the frigging future."

Trump disagrees with the tech industry on net neutrality, encryption, privacy, trade, and many social issues. Venture capitalist Sam Altman cautioned: "Think now about what action President Trump might take that you would consider crossing a line -- and write it down."

That line in the sand proved to be immigration.

When push comes to shove

More than 125 companies signed an amicus brief filed in support of a Washington state lawsuit against a Trump executive order that bans travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. Tech execs fell over each other in their rush to issue statements opposing the order.  

Trump's ban strikes uncomfortably close to home for tech companies, many of which have CEOs who were immigrants. Immigrants or their children founded more than 200 of the companies on the Fortune 500 list, companies that collectively generate annual revenue of $4.2 trillion and employ millions of Americans.  

The brief spells out the threat to American business: "The Order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world's best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies' ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States."  

The Computing Research Association also issued a statement, warning of the potential brain drain.  "[The ban] may discourage foreign-born researchers from bringing their talents to the U.S. in the future, which would have significantly detrimental impacts on our national competitiveness."

Leading the leaders

But well before tech company leaders were moved to take a stand, frustration among their employees was fueling protests and walkouts at work campuses ranging from Google to Palantir.  The election "awakened the nerdy set" who fear tech companies might end up serving Trump's interests, Recode wrote. In December, more than 2,840 tech workers signed the Never Again pledge, which stated their refusal to cooperate in creating a database of Muslims -- or people of any religious belief -- or aiding in mass deportations.

IBM employees launched a petition to put pressure on their company (which did not sign the amicus brief). Many are skeptical they'll see action from CEO Ginni Rometty, who sits on Trump's business advisory council. "There are employee petitions that have gone ignored. People have openly quit because of [Rometty's] stance on Trump. People have quit without jobs," a source with knowledge of the inner workings of IBM told Gizmodo

Employee protest can prove powerful, however. "Tech companies go to extraordinary lengths to recruit and retain employees; those employees have a lot of leverage," Y Combinator's Altman wrote. "If employees push companies to do something, I believe they'll have to."  

Activist group Tech Against Trump is currently planning a tech-employee walkout on March 14, and grassroots groups like Tech Solidarity are also organizing to fight Trump. The building momentum will be "impossible for tech companies' management to walk back," Valerie Aurora, a former Intel engineer and an activist in Silicon Valley, told Quartz. "It feels like the tipping point was last week. I'm sad that it took this direct threat to the business models for direct management to act, but the workers were already there," she said.

Principle leavened with pragmatism

When principle aligns with self-interest, Silicon Valley companies have stood together. Tech companies united behind Apple last year in its fight with the FBI over encryption. The unifying factor then was a "shared resistance to government-imposed orders on software security built into devices," writes Forbes. "Now, it's the widely held belief in Silicon Valley that immigrants have and continue to be a driving force in the American economy -- or at least, for the Valley's own bottom line."

It's also possible the industry believes it can reap political capital from opposition to the travel order.  Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau calls the ban "a PR gift" for the industry, which will use it as "a cudgel against H-1B reform."

The industry doesn't like Trump's ideas for visa reform, he continued, because they would raise wages and "make H-1B visa workers less indentured and give them more flexibility to quit one firm and move to another without risk of deportation." The industry wants H-1B caps to increase, with no change in the rules.

"If [Silicon Valley] really wants immigration, then [it should] support green cards, not temporary work visas," Thibodeau said. "The industry says it supports both. It's lobbying, however, is direct[ed] heavily on H-1Bs."