The Doublethink at Google

The great entrepreneur, mentor, technologist Amr Awadallah told his story as a journey of learning and overcoming his own prejudice and narrative bias. He lost his job for so doing.

“We learn from each other, and part of having people come is not coming in as guests but we want your full self; we want you to help shape the company, help us learn, bring what you have to the table…”

“We have to have the courage to have the conversations. I believe that leaders really have to be role models here, leaders have to be vulnerable, they themselves have to admit where they have failed, and they themselves have to create the space for others to fail. At the same time pointing in the direction of how each and every one of their team members can find the resources to progress and evolve…”

“If we are going to sustain this we are going to have to make it sustainable. And create institutions, cultures, possibilities so I hope that we are starting to be more bridge builders, being more deliberate both at the institutional level as well as the personal level…”

-- From Google’s YouTube video, “2021 Diversity Annual Report + A conversation with Melonie Parker, Pedro Pina and John A. Powell.”

It is impossible to square Google’s alleged mission and statements like these with their firing last week of Amr Awadallah. In fact, their Orwellian action sent a signal to their employees and customers alike to keep their mouths shut. His simple and greatest mistake was to take Google at its word.

You may not have heard of Amr, but in the cloud computing worlds of Silicon Valley and around the globe, he is something of a quiet legend. He was the co-founder and Global CTO of Cloudera, one of the great enterprise successes in this field, currently valued at over $4.6 billion. This Stanford PhD has spent his 25 year career with giants like Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, Nortel Networks, Yahoo! and more, and joined Google Cloud as their VP of Developer Relations in 2019 mostly because he loved the company, its talent and the massive global problems it aspires to solve.

He has also been a model from the beginning for the robust tech startup ecosystem from his beloved home in Egypt, and across the Middle East. I remember meeting him a decade ago, well before Amazon acquired the largest eCommerce player in the region, and Uber bought the regional ride sharing juggernaut Careem which they could not defeat. Throughout those years until today, while building his own startup in a blindingly competitive environment in the States, Amr makes time for any entrepreneur who wants advice, to speak about the rising potential of the region to any gathering that would have him. He builds bridges where often there was once suspicions, doubt and mistrust.

In the spirit, and belief, that a place like Google – allegedly data and evidence based – there could be a free market of ideas he wrote a poignant, perhaps too long, deeply personal blog titled "We are One!" last month. He leaned into his own journey in the Middle East and coming to America, confronting his own past prejudice and how by being open to people and experiences he reframed his world view.  And he made clear that in the spirit Google espoused, his voice and experience could be valuable in setting a different tone for the deeply sensitive challenges, recently front and center in the headlines, of Israel and Palestine.

His purpose?

“I want to tell you my story of redemption with four goals in mind:

1)     I acknowledge that prejudice, and especially hateful prejudice, is a vile philosophy that should be eradicated from our society. And by that, I specifically mean “irrational hate towards an entire class of people because of their affiliation to that class.”

 2)     Religious zeal, nationalism, and ideologies are abstract concepts that we adopted to unite us on purposeful missions, which is a good thing. But let’s not have these abstract constructs supersede our humanity. Humans are real— you can touch another human, but you can’t touch Zionism or Jihad. Furthermore, we all share 99.9% of our DNA, so don’t let the 0.1% of genes that flipped divide us, instead focus on the 99.9% that binds us.

 3)     There is hope. Modern history has shown us, more often than not, that peace always prevails. This is the way.

 4)     I paint a dream for how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can possibly be resolved once the irrational fear is subdued.”

If my extensive travels across the globe, across deeply rich and complex societies, have taught me anything it is that the only way to understand better is to listen, ask questions, make mistakes, debate and walk humbly. My favorite quote from the novel that likely had most influence on me as a kid is from To Kill A Mocking Bird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

The market place of ideas is about listening and civil debate – what we seem to have all but abandoned today. What it isn’t about is “comfort.” By definition, to walk around in someone’s shoes – I mean really and seriously at least try to – means that those shoes won’t always and may rarely fit, will be uncomfortable, even hurt. But in that walk we become stronger, and evolve our stride.

What vexes me most is that the very people who most seem to get this and most defend this concept for people who agree with them, are so often the ones that criticize, even demonize and silence, those who do not. Google claims to be different. They claim to embrace genuine exchange of ideas and debate. It has been becoming clear for some time – with Amr now crystal clear – that what they really mean is debate is welcomed as long as it agrees with the prevailing orthodoxy.   

Who benefits from this? What change comes from it?

It is not my purpose to judge why someone may have been made uncomfortable by Amr’s attempt to create dialogue by first, to paraphrase from the Bible, addressing the plank in his own eye before looking at the speck of sawdust in another’s. He clearly loves the company and its talent and truly believes the mission of open discussion is at the foundation of freeing our minds to make change.

Google talks the same. They walk in the opposite direction.

The best outcomes come – in society and in innovation – when we are free to test hypotheses, debate openly differing views without judgement, to find solutions that create progress and, perhaps most importantly of all, to seek wonder in and lessons from being wrong. And to evolve and grow.