While she might be best known as Google’s former public relations chief, Jessica Powell is making it clear that her scathing new book is about the tech industry as a whole, not any particular company.
In a satirical essay published this week, she referenced the book and her motivation to write it.
Powell described several major concerns she had during her career working for Silicon Valley startups and other innovative new tech firms.
As the U.K. Daily Mail reported, Powell believes that the industry is “building these amazing things and doing great things for the world but we’re also causing a lot of serious problems.”
Though she was drawn to the promise of change and innovation, she said she witnessed toxic work environments.
“Should I start with the early stage companies?” she wrote. “Like the time I was at a startup and the founder I was working for — a guy who owned a hundred shirts in the same color and quoted Steve Jobs on a daily basis — asked me whether we should hand out dildos as company swag or consider converting our social media platform into an anonymous sex club. (We even whiteboarded it.)”
She wrote that a partner at one company “‘jokingly’ offered up my female friend, his employee, as an enticement for a founder to work with his firm.”
In addition to a lack of ethnic and gender diversity, which created a workforce that “doesn’t remotely resemble the outside world,” Powell described staffers as spoiled — despite their obvious desire to make the world a better place.
“The employees at my most recent job — running PR at a huge tech company — were some of the smartest, most passionate people I’ve ever worked with,” she wrote. “They worked through the night to help people in a natural disaster. They gave money and vacation time to help the sick family members of other employees. They ran marathons on the weekend to raise money for clean water in Africa.”
At the same time, Powell said her colleagues would devote their time to “complaining on company message boards about the brand of water stocked in the micro-kitchens.”
Beyond the “progressive politics” and “mighty ethical stands against evil,” she said Silicon Valley is not the enlightened nirvana some might think it is.
“But there is also what drove me to leave the big tech company last fall and take a break,” she wrote. “The issues that I got tired of defending at parties. The endless use of ‘scale’ as an excuse for being unable to solve problems in a human way. The faux earnestness, the self-righteousness. All those cheery product ads set to ukulele music.”
Powell said she felt moved to write a book based on her experiences in the hopes of raising some red flags that could help create a better tech industry for employees and consumers alike.
“First, I wanted to explore what drives the insatiable expansion of the big tech companies,” she wrote. “Despite how the industry is sometimes portrayed in the media, I don’t really think the management teams at Facebook, Google, Apple, Uber, or Amazon wake up each morning thinking about how to steal more user data or drive us all out of our jobs. Those are real consequences, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the desperation to stay on top and avoid being relegated to a dusty corner of the Computer History Museum that pushes these companies into further and further reaches of our lives.”
The other reason she wrote the book is to help bring an end to the “self-delusion” of those at the top of major tech corporations.
“Because if you’re going to tell people you’re their savior, you better be ready to be held to a higher standard,” she wrote. “This book is my small way of trying to push us all to be better.”
Powell’s book, The Big Disruption, is available exclusively through the blogging platform Medium, which also published her essay this week.
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