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InfoQ Homepage News How Big Tech Lost its Way - Accountability and Leadership

How Big Tech Lost its Way - Accountability and Leadership

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Accountability in big tech companies seems to be lacking; it’s rare for people in senior positions to be held accountable. Engineers should be conscious of the culture they want to work in and watch out for their well-being, whereas companies should invest in their leaders to support people’s best work. Andy Walker gave a talk about how big tech lost its way at QCon London 2023.

As the company matures, accountability at the very top seems to disappear at the same time as accountability at entry levels gets ramped up, Walker said. It’s perfectly possible to imagine that the layoffs across tech are a way of getting rid of people that the leaders of those companies don’t want there. Yet, at the same time, we see executive pay going through the roof and it’s incredibly rare for someone in a position of seniority in big tech (we are talking director and above level) being held to account for bad behaviour, Walker explained:

For example, Sundar Pichai getting a pay deal of over $200 million dollars while firing 12,000 people and saying he had no choice because he had over-hired seems like rewarding failure at the top. While, at the same time, the 12,000 people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own had to enter what is now a very crowded job market.

As engineers we need to be really conscious about the culture we want to work in, Walker argued:

One of the things I’ve told a lot of people affected by layoffs recently is that you are not the company you work for. If you work in tech you’re going to have opportunities elsewhere.

Staying somewhere where you feel unable to make a positive difference isn’t going to help your mental well-being later on, Walker mentioned. Not only are you not your job, but your first priority is to look after your own wellbeing.

The sad thing is that when your company culture has died then it requires someone coming in at the very top to reboot it - there may not be much you can do, Walker said. You can see something along those lines happening at Microsoft right now with Satya Nadella though even they have blindly followed the mass firing playbook from Twitter, he mentioned. What you can do, before that happens, is to reinforce your culture with everyone who walks through the door. You are unlikely to be able to prevent the corporatisation of your workplace, but you can slow it down, he said. Investment in culture is an ongoing activity. If you don’t then your culture becomes something that happens to you, rather than a conscious choice on your part.

Walker suggested that companies should invest in their leaders. Leaders are either a floor to support people’s best work or a ceiling that limits it. When you become a director or a VP, your job has changed, he concluded. Leadership is not about having the answers - it’s about framing the problems that are worth solving and providing an environment in which they can be solved. Warning signs to watch out for are when leaders are providing solutions rather than defining outcomes and when they start talking about "holding people to account". Both of these are about compliance rather than innovation.

InfoQ interviewed Andy Walker about how big tech measures success and what can be done to reverse the trends in the industry.

InfoQ: How does big tech measure success? What impact does this have?

Andy Walker: When you measure success by growth you run into Goodhart’s Law in a bad way. Goodhart’s Law can be summarised as "when a measure becomes a target then it ceases to be a good measure". If you look at the way Big Tech reports growth, it’s in active users (and in some cases engagement). If you look at the problems with accountability-free freedom of speech then you should be able to spot a problem immediately. Every user that a tech company blocks is a user they aren’t monetising and something which hurts their growth story.

This is particularly true for people with polarising or extreme viewpoints. Investing in user safety becomes something that is done under duress. It’s not possible to ever get to zero abuse, but Big Tech sees funding this as a cost centre and something that will harm growth. Therefore, it frequently gets deprioritised as opposed to things which will bring growth.

InfoQ: What can companies do to reverse the negative trends in the industry?

Walker: Companies need to be really specific in supporting people through these changes and setting clear expectations for their leaders. They need to have checks and balances in place so that people in senior positions are held to account before they can do real harm.

They need to stop rewarding cargo crating and empire building as a means for career progression and reward impact which is achieved responsibly. They need to reward people who are on the side of their users rather than those on the side of their shareholders. To take either view is bad for the company, and truly effective leaders are able to balance the two conflicting needs.

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