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On Identity, Solidarity, & Parenting in Late Capitalism: An Interview with Claire Stapleton
"There is an awakening to what it actually means to be living and operating in late capitalism and there's a deep yearning to live another way."
In these wild early weeks of 2023, amid the ongoing mass layoff middle-of-the-night-emails, the battle between reporters and Elon Musk on whether he created a secret system for boosting his own tweets, chat bots telling us that our marriages suck and that we should love them instead, and overall what-the-eff-is-going-on vibe, one thing has become clear: it’s time to phone a friend.
Claire Stapleton is the author of Tech Support, a newsletter/advice column offering “existential advice for the modern tech worker,” although, in many ways, her writing feels relevant beyond tech worker life. It started in 2020 and has since formed into a Discord community. The letters in this column, alongside Claire’s sharp wit and refreshing honesty, continue to both entertain and melt my senses in a omg-I-feel-so-seen way, unmasking our collective inner turmoil for the sake of getting all of us closer to the truth of the moment.
I met Claire a year ago, through a mutual connection. But I had heard of her writing, and organizing work, before then. From 2007-2019, she worked at Google as a writer, starting from the Internal Communications Department to the Creative Lab to Marketing at YouTube. She became known for her quirky, company-wide emails that earned her the title, “The Bard of Google,” by Larry Page. In her 2019 Elle piece, Google Loved Me, Until I Pointed Out Everything That Sucked About It, Claire wrote, “I didn’t just buy into the lore of Google—I helped write it.”
Then, in 2018, Claire became one of the lead organizers of the Google Walkout for Real Change, sparked, in part, by a New York Times report that revealed that Andy Rubin, a Google executive known as “the father of Android,” was paid a $90 million severance package in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, alongside other executives with similar allegations and severance packages. (Where is Rubin now, you ask? According to a 2022 Semafor article, he created a new hardware startup, backed by the same second-chance-for-men-in-scandals VC firm who also invested in WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann’s new startup.) But the 2018 Google Walkout remains a historic moment: over 20,000 employees worldwide walked out in protest, and a letter was written by the lead organizers demanding concrete changes, to which Google agreed to some of the demands, including an end to forced arbitration. (A clause that prohibits workers from suing an employer if they experience sexual harassment.)
I was one of the Google employees who walked out, and, watched the subsequent Retaliation Town Hall that was internally live-streamed a couple months later. During the livestream, Claire and some of the other organizers sat at a roundtable, sharing the news that their roles were being “restructured” and “changed dramatically.” It was shocking to watch, and it ultimately led to a wild chain of events that marked the end of Claire’s time at Google. But the Walkout and the Retaliation Town Hall remain as two of the most visceral moments of solidarity I’ve seen in the workplace.
In this interview, Claire reflects on that time–what it built upon, the seeds it planted, the lessons learned–and what cultivating solidarity looks like in this new era of tech. She also discusses the entangled relationship between identity and work, the theatrics of self-promotion, the existential plot twists of becoming a parent, and the urgent art of developing a strong sense of self when so many things feel outside our control. We spoke in early February, over Zoom. At the start of our conversation, the trials of late capitalism inevitably unearthed–the high cost of health care, waning bank accounts, trying to make a living without piercing the soul. We decided to turn our conversation outward, with the hope of helping people feel less alone. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Looking back on your career and life over the last decade, how have you come to understand the relationship between identity and work?
Oh, man. Every time that I've dug in on this, I feel that I look at it in new ways. I used to say, “I drank the Kool-Aid so hard that it poisoned me, and then I projectile vomited it up.” But then, I wonder, how authentic was drinking the Kool-Aid or manufacturing the Kool-Aid, because that's what I was paid to do. That was my job.
I was surprisingly good at understanding the expectations that were set for me in a Communications role, which was about reflecting the uniqueness of the company back to the employees to create this sense of shared ego. So where did I end and that role begin?
I think about this question all the time.
It feels so impossible to parse, because, for many years, there were plenty of times where I was feeling really restless. I felt like my job was bullshit. I mean, I was working in internal communications at a corporation. It didn't really feel legitimate to me in some ways. But then there were all these other ways where I deeply identified with Google as a company. I felt tremendously overwhelmed by the perks and the outside world's perception of the company.
In 2012, I remember there was a book called, Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google, and I would be going on these business trips and seeing that book, and asking myself, “Am I really, you know, special and amazing enough to be part of this company?” It's really hard to avoid a sense of imposter syndrome when the outside world is reinforcing that you should feel so awesome and special to be there.
It really is.
My grandmother, who is an immigrant, and didn't speak English until she was in elementary school, lived in Los Gatos near Google, and I used to go sleep at her house one night a week. She was so proud of me working there. She told everybody that I worked there. She would clip news articles about Google and show me all of it.
A few years ago, I gave my parents Google t-shirts and hoodies for Christmas. They still wear them today.
The status that was associated with Google was so deeply ingrained. I envied people who came to Google for a year, and said, “This is so not my vibe, I'm just gonna quit.” Meanwhile, I was just toiling to try to fit into that environment. I was trying to use all my tricks, trying hard to figure out what this department wants of me, and to be that person, and I really couldn't figure that out there. But it was also very, very hard to leave. And I think that part of the material, the perks and the pay, and all these other things, it just makes it hard to extricate yourself.
What role did your grandmother’s pride for you (and Google) play in the way you saw your career and identity at that time?
God rest her soul. I'm so happy she wasn't alive to see everything that went down towards the end of my time at Google. I think about the way different generations have viewed work, and I think that the Google model of these workplaces was a shocking novelty and innovation. It did feel like the future. It was so progressive. And also, there was this feeling among that generation: “Don't bite the hand that feeds you. Don't complain. You have it so good.”
But there were plenty of times where I was really not “purpose-aligned” (to use a life coaching term) with the work I was doing. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, or what my career was, or what my path was. I felt like a cat with nine lives. I just kept following these different opportunities that crossed my desk at Google, like moving to New York to go to Creative Lab. I was focused on keeping the work fun and stimulating. I wasn’t asking: but what is my vocation? Now, I would say, okay, I'm a writer. How am I applying my writing and other skills in ways that feel meaningful, a self-generated career path, instead of asking, “Well, what does Google need?”
Speaking of identity and work, I find it ironic that Britt Lower, the actress who plays Helly from the show, Severance, came to a frumpy toddler holiday party you recently attended. What was it like watching the lead actress from Severance walk into the party?
So surreal. She was like, “What do you do? No wait, sorry, what do you like to do?” The show Severance was so real. It really encapsulated a lot of very deep existential issues that I'm surprised so many people resonate with. I just assumed that people had a healthier relationship to work than I did, or they didn't get so caught up in it in the way that I did.
Do you think it’s possible to successfully detach our identity from our work?
In the Tech Support Discord, there was a really interesting discussion about this. I don't know if people can fully divorce their identity from work, but there are people operating from a sense of groundedness in what their skills are and what they want to contribute to the world. And when you have that groundedness, you can deploy that in many different contexts and environments. And then you can also assess and gut check environments in a more honest and authentic way. I really do feel like a lot of this is about developing more of a sense of self.
In your latest newsletter piece, game over, some thoughts on layoffs and life, you write, “I’ve come to the view that organizational culture in tech is about normative control, strategic influence over employees’ hearts and minds in order to serve the company’s interests/goals…They weren’t creating these crazy workplaces with ballpits for the fun of it…They did it because that’s how they attracted, retained, and got the most out of people in those freewheeling, creative, high-growth, get-in-loser-we’re-curing-death years.”
Do you think this moment in tech is a wake-up call to the realities of what the industry is really like after decades of ball pits and extravagant perks? And if so, what realities do you think we’re waking up to as an industry?
People keep saying, “Well, I guess the golden age of tech is over,” but, like, not the financial aspect of it. Yes, they probably did over hire during Covid, but I find it hard to imagine that this is some well-rationaled financial decision that these companies feel like they have to make in lean times. That doesn't add up for me.
The clearest trend in my mind amid all of this is that tech worker consciousness has changed a lot. There is an awakening to what it actually means to be living and operating in late capitalism, in the matrix, and there's a deep yearning to live another way. I keep complaining about my health insurance costs, like, everything is tied to employment in the world that we live in, which is really tough. And I think there's a constant cat-mouse, push-pull of labor growing power, growing solidarity, and an awakening with how the bosses and managers are going to deal with that.
One thing that genuinely scared me, and made me sad, was when a friend who's a product director at Facebook (Meta) texted me last week about the vibe shift: the shift of power back into decision-makers hands, and how it feels so profound and so overnight and so scary.
Because, whether or not it was ever really genuine, these work environments had specifically said they would prioritize psychological safety. If you spoke up, you were supposed to be able to speak up, and for a time, people did feel comfortable dissenting or pushing managers or teams towards ethical decisions. But in a climate where fear is the dominant cultural vibe, it's just a completely different thing. I don't think that this is going to work out for the bosses the way that they think it will because people will leave. You’re not going to be able to retain people in the same way if your culture sucks.
You also write in your newsletter, “I would assume the culture of self-promotion and the theatrics of selling your impact (that’s totally divorced from, like, real-world impact) is only going to intensify in this post-layoffs, am-I-next era.”
How can a tech worker create and protect a space for themselves and their colleagues to stay focused and accountable to the real world impact of their work amid the escalating theatrics of self-promotion?
During my time at YouTube, someone said, “the best part of this department are the haters.” Haters were defined as a catch-all term for people who were developing their own power analysis, you know, looking at how power worked and how hierarchies worked, and thinking about the real world impact of the work we were doing and the strategic issues involved with it.
To find other people asking those same questions became a source of refuge. That was the traditional “lunch table organizing,” talking about the outcomes of the promotions process, and what kind of messages are being telegraphed by that. I felt that what helped me see life outside Google were the people I could go to. I think it's important to have your circle of people that are willing to, even if in small ways, challenge and resist.
Otherwise, it can get very lonely very fast.
I thought, for most of my career, that I would be able to show, not tell, the contributions of my work, like, I didn't really have to play the corporate promotions game. And part of that was because I stopped caring about getting promoted. I just wanted my life to be manageable. I didn't really want to play the game on that level. But in the last couple of years of my time at Google, there was a clear shift: you were not going to get promoted unless you were saying for it. Selling it. That didn't feel authentic to me, and I couldn't do it.
I think you can do it as a manager to create an open and good environment with your team again. There are people in the Tech Support Discord who feel a genuine, virtuous sense of purpose around raising the tide for people on their team. It's certainly possible.
What were the first steps you took in organizing the 2018 Google Walkout? How did this effort come about for you?
The walkout really came about, not just from having lots of conversations about the Andy Rubin pay out, but because I was reading the Expecting and New Mom's list. I love a listserv. This was a group that discussed a lot of logistics and strategies on parenting. So I was genuinely surprised and fascinated to see so many women bring their own stories of being a woman in tech to this thread. It was sort of like a “I'm fed-up,” moment.
I wasn’t like, “and here's all the stories I have to tell.” If anything, I felt like a conduit. There's all this fire, the traditional communication channels have sort of collapsed, and there’s no longer a meaningful way to have a conversation around people's very real frustration with HR and the response from executives. And then, I think, someone made a meme about doing a walkout. So I was just, like, if this is what this group needs, someone to say, “I'm willing to raise my hand and put my name to this,” then I'll do it. I felt like there was no way I would lose my job because of this, but I also felt like, after a couple of years of less than an amazing experience, I didn't have all that much to lose.
How did it figure into any conversations you were having with yourself about risk? Did you feel afraid in the midst of organizing?
There was this one Friday night in the office. I hadn't gone home yet. There were a few people still around, and we had been talking about all this stuff, and I was typing out this internal email that was creating a route for people to organize this walkout together. And as I was writing it, I remember feeling, like, this might change my life.
Not because I expected the walkout to be as huge as it was or that it would attract media attention–we really didn’t see that coming at all. I just knew that there was risk in it. Even though I was willing to put my career on the line, if I would have known at that moment the full extent to which, six months later, I'd be escorted out of the building, then it would have been a very different calculus.
There was also the context of this time too.
It was early on in the Trump administration, that memo from James Damore had been released a year before, there was Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement, and it all coincided with the fact that I was a new mom, which was also a significant part of my own awakening. And struggle. A big part of my struggle.
It affected me greatly, the experience of going through something as primal and universal and humbling as having a baby, and then I was also in a fog trying to figure out life with a newborn. It made me think about how alienated we are from ourselves, from our bodies, from the most rewarding, grounding, and connecting parts of life. I found myself endlessly researching things online. I had no instincts, like zero instincts, about what to do with a baby, and you feel like you're alienated from yourself. Who am I now? Matrescence, I think that’s the term for it. Trying to do that work of tuning into myself and my baby, it inevitably reminded me of how much I hated my job–how unfulfilling, ungrounding, and unconnected it all really was.
And then you went back to work.
I had this conversation about onboarding back with my manager and she was like, “you should come to San Bruno for the face-time with everyone, get back in the mix.” So I was like, okay, great. I can make that happen. I'll bring my baby out by myself. He was like, four or five months old, and it was incredibly stressful. I bit off way more than I could chew. I got to the office that week, feeling like a freaking alien as you do when you come back from maternity leave, but my boss wasn't there.
Meanwhile, while I was gone, we had hired someone to be my maternity cover. And during that time, she had built a case for why we were doing everything wrong. The strategy switched. And then my boss gave me a performance review–this very week that I’m back, because there had been some performance review cycle going on–which included this vague negging stuff like, “you need to be a bit hungrier.” It felt incredibly weird. I just felt crushed by this first week back. This happens to people all the time.
That is wild.
When I left Google I was pregnant again, and I needed to do a lot of work again to figure out who I was as a parent and I just went into this completely radical other mode of, like, I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m going to deeply immerse myself in this very meaningful role that I have to play here, that I have no idea how to play, and it's changed me very much.
People say that kids kick your butt in one way or the other, and they will kick your butt at some point in some big way. And I think for me that was really early on, because I just had no idea how to deal with, like, babies.
On the topic of feeling alienated from our bodies, there was something about watching the Retaliation Town Hall livestream in 2019 that still stays with me.
It was a group of people sitting at a table sharing their stories, being vulnerable, demanding change, and trusting their values–not only by walking outside the office, but also by doing this inside the office too. That, in itself, felt radical.
And I think, to protect myself in the workplace, I had shut down my own body, my nervous system. I became numb. I struggled to listen to myself and my intuition. My values. I felt alienated from my body. But participating in the walkout and watching the livestream, it made me feel grounded. That’s when I began to trust myself again.
So surreal. And scary.
I think cultivating solidarity, in part, is a process of learning how to trust ourselves again. And this feels critical in a time when our bodies and minds are receiving so many confusing and overwhelming messages on a daily basis.
Looking back on the walkout now, five years later, what do you think was the biggest success from it?
I think the biggest success was making visible and tangible that there was all this stuff stirring underneath the surface for tech workers, and that the story of what was once called “the best place to work” was actually dealing with a lot of the broader, societal issues of the time. It was a true rupture point.
It built upon the organizing against Project Maven and Dragonfly, and added a lot of scale to it. But then what was really cool afterwards was when we started doing these lunches in New York, which also gave me the strength to push back when the retaliation went down. The organizing lunches were so blended; they included personal issues, the overall strategic and ethical issues of the company, the political discussions of the times, and all those things, of course, are interconnected. So those lunches were quite educational, I think, for me and others. And there was some organizing that came out of those lunches, like the ATEAC ethics council. I'm really proud of that, how we leaned in and trusted each other and built lasting bonds, and tried new kinds of organizing.
Do you have any regrets?
There are times where I wish I'd stuck it out longer. The organizing gave me such a tremendous sense of purpose, but it did start to become completely irreconcilable with my day job, especially as a person who was in a position of optics management for the company. It was a tremendously painful couple of months.
And then there was a reporter, who, immediately within weeks of the walkout, was trying to put together this oral history and talk with everyone. We went to a Pain Quotidien near the Google office in New York and, absolutely soaring on cold brew, but also in the eagerness to share a story about what “radicalized” me, I ended up talking all about my terrible couple of years at Google Creative Lab. It was just an emotional spillover of the past few weeks and I’d say it was a pretty undisciplined moment. I didn’t consider the magnitude of what I was doing as a current Marketing employee of the company going off on one of the department’s sacred cows. If I had to guess, my doing that is what set my whole retaliation plot in motion. Live and learn!
Do you think the media attention affected the organizing efforts?
There was an absolutely enormous weight of expectation on us as a group, and we weren't elected democratically. It had all come together in this real-time, organic way. The question was: What is this movement going to give birth to? Not that nothing came of it. Different things have come from it. Different effects happened, seeds were planted, but in terms of that core group of organizers, rolling that moment into a sustainable movement, it didn't happen. And I think that partially was about all the attention.
In the last few weeks, there’s been an escalation of employee walkouts, across media, tech, publishing, and other industries, in protest of layoffs and unfair labor practices. What do you make of these walkouts now? How should workers be measuring progress in their organizing efforts?
I think there has to be a spirit of experimentation, which is almost resistant to measurement.
You always learn something. If I were still at Google I would be protecting those ethical lunches with all of my heart, because what ends up happening is people come in who need protection because something is going on. People need solidarity to help them find another place to go to in the company, or find ways to push back effectively as they navigate these systems. That kind of solidarity is so meaningful, as well as people just developing a more precise analysis, consciousness, commentary on what’s happening in their organization. It really is the plumbing. It’s not a sexy walkout, but that kind of stuff was really valuable to me.
What was the impetus for your newsletter, Tech Support?
Before I left Google, when the walkout happened–and I’m sure you’ve experienced this too–people reached out saying, "I'm going through this, what do you think?” There were a lot of people coming to us for advice, and I was kind of shocked by it, because, what do we know? Honestly, I'm a fellow traveler on all these issues.
So I was like, look, I want to publish some of these letters, because if anything, people are often like, “I feel so seen by what was written in this letter,” separate from anything I wrote. But then, through the act of writing, I’m parallel processing my own vast experience with Google, the many highs and lows. And it’s a way to stay connected to organizing.
Going back to the vocation stuff, and knowing Meredith Whittaker as well as I do, a co-organizer from the walkout, we have such different lanes. She takes such a rigorous, serious, academic approach to these issues. She's in Marxist reading groups! So I asked myself: What is my lane in the conversation that I want to participate in? Tech Support became a clear way forward.
What is the most surprising thing that has come from it?
The people who write to me who I knew personally at Google and always thought were really happy in their jobs but they’re actually deeply dealing with something. You just never know what people are actually dealing with, especially since this industry attracts a lot of perfectionistic people who can mask themselves really well.
Have you ever considered taking your self-expression beyond the written form? Live readings at a speakeasy, perhaps?
I’ve never thought about that! That warms my theater kid heart. I will say that so much about recovering yourself is thinking about your inner child, and I did love performing. But I've never thought about that. That's funny. Now I'm living out my dreams with my kids, and I'm like, which one of you is going to love acting?!
What’s giving you life right now?
I also just saw Kate Berlant's soul-affirming one-woman show, and it completely gave me life. When you're deep in your own process and experience, you find symmetries or connections in the world around you and Kate's show is all about the ridiculousness of living in the time of social media and self-promotion. But then there’s also the profoundness of a live gathering. That gives me life. ♦