Google workers protested President Trump's immigration ban last week.(Photo: Mark Rose, for USA TODAY)
SAN FRANCISCO — Maryam Aghamirzadeh accomplished a lot in her 30-plus-year high-tech career. She produced goods and services. She created jobs. And she generated economic value.
These days, she's determined to make something else: change. She's donating her time to a new grassroots organization opposing the Trump administration, Tech Stands Up, to fight for causes about which she cares deeply, such as women's rights, immigration and environmental protection.
"I have never seen this kind of mobilization" in the tech industry, says Aghamirzadeh, a 58-year-old retired Cisco Systems executive and electrical engineer who emigrated to the U.S. from Iran. "I think it's the first time we have seen it coming from the bottom up."
She's part off a new wave of activism sweeping Silicon Valley. For the first time, legions of tech workers are on the front lines in what Aghamirzadeh and others in Silicon Valley are calling a political awakening.
Mobilization in the form of rallies, volunteering time and skills, fundraising and even the threat to walk off their jobs is bubbling up here. In the process, the rank and file are joining forces with outside organizations to create a broad coalition they hope can flex political muscle in Washington.
More than 1,200 Silicon Valley technology workers in the Bay Area are planning to walk off the job on March 14, turning a special day for math geeks into a protest against President Trump.
During the waning moments of Super Bowl LI, a group of 100 tech workers gathered to lay out a plan of attack against Trump's immigration ban. The new group, Tech Solidarity, raised $30,000 in funding for three legal aid groups and discussed how to sway reluctant tech executives.
Next week, another group of social activists in Silicon Valley, the Tech Workers Coalition, whose 40 members include employees from Facebook, Google and Twitter, is planning a "No Ban No Wall No Registry" rally in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.
Silicon Valley workers — often derided as disengaged and narcissistic on HBO's namesake sitcom — are exercising their voice "and exerting power from within their company," says Matt Schaefer, a spokesman for Tech Workers Coalition.
And they are turning up the pressure on their employers to more forcefully push back against the administration policies such as its recent ban on immigrants from mostly Muslim nations.
Brad Taylor has organized a tech protest on March 14. (Photo: Brad Taylor, for USA TODAY)
"The things (Trump) is proposing goes against everything Silicon Valley stands for: openness, equality," says Brad Taylor, a 37-year-old software engineer with Optimizely who has organized a walk-out of 1,200 tech workers next month through Tech Stands Up. "There is a running joke here that we want to make the world a better place. Now's our chance."
Another split with Middle America
The $3.5 trillion tech industry, which had unparalleled access to levers of power during the Obama administration, does not speak with one voice. Not everyone in tech is opposed to Trump or his policies.
“Trump is changing all the rules” and tech should embrace the “instability and uncertainty” he brings, says J.J. Thompson, 35, CEO of Rook Security in Indianapolis. He attended Trump’s inauguration last month, and says Trump should appeal to entrepreneurs because, like them, he’s a risk taker.
The tech industry’s opposition underscores a chasm between a workforce highly concentrated on the coasts and workers in Middle America, where Trump won handily in the election, say academics. Silicon Valley, which is pioneering technologies and automation that will eliminate American jobs, has been blamed for being perilously out of touch with what matters to much of the country.
“Middle America is worried about jobs and protectionism, and Silicon Valley is just another example of the things it is afraid of,” says Irene Bloemraad, a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “Silicon Valley won’t change their hearts and minds.”
'Silent majority of sorts'
Comcast tech employees rally against President Trump's recent immigration order in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images)
Energized programmers aren't the only ones hitting the pavement. Workers from Comcast and drivers from Uber have also protested the ban on immigrants from mostly Muslim countries.
"This is what is possible when tech workers galvanize and get engaged on national issues," says Catherine Bracy, co-founder and executive director at TechEquity Collaborative, a community-activist group. "They are a silent majority of sorts, but one that is now more civically activated."
The tech workers in question are young and old, software engineers, product managers, lawyers and marketing professionals. They represent companies that make some of the world's best known products as well as lesser known hopefuls.
On nights and weekends, Mark Rose, a product leader at Alphabet's Nest, is working to organize technology workers and build coalitions with Tech Stands Up. He's also building an online platform where technology workers can vote up the issues that matter to them, be it immigration or network neutrality, to present the issues that matter most to the technology community.
Rose says he's not surprised by the outpouring from tech workers looking to volunteer their time or the high fives he gets on Google's Silicon Valley campus, even from employees he doesn't know. Opposition to the Trump administration is Silicon Valley's new start-up, he says.
"Most of Silicon Valley works like this. It's every start-up ever," Rose says of his work on Tech Stands Up. "When people join the group, they say, Where do we start? And we say, It's just like a start-up. Find something. Do something. Get something done. It's very grassroots and it's relying heavily on people communicating with each other very quickly and understanding what to build and building it quickly."
Protesters against President Trump's executive order on immigration at San Francisco International Airport January 29. Many Silicon Valley tech workers, including Google co-funder Sergey Brin, joined these and other protests against the new president's policies. (Photo: Peter DaSilva/EPA)
Frustration with IBM
"We're in the midst of a grassroots movement," says Daniel Hanley, a security-software engineer for IBM in Atlanta who started an online petition and has collected 1,625 signatures — most of them from Big Blue employees, some of them from unnamed executives — in protest of CEO Ginni Rometty's open letter to Trump in November about creating jobs.
"We are disappointed that IBM CEO Ginni Rometty's open letter to President-elect Donald Trump does not affirm IBMers' core values of diversity, inclusiveness, and ethical business conduct," the petition begins.
Hanley, who says the petition reflects "disappointment, outrage and frustration" toward Trump Administration policies that violate civil liberties of marginalized groups, will be delivered to IBM management soon. It has gained momentum, and signatures, since Trump signed his executive order on travel last month, Hanley says.
The level of political engagement coursing through the tech industry has stunned Kat Manalac, a partner at Y Combinator.
She says traffic to the Y Combinator blog post announcing it had enrolled the ACLU in its tech start-up incubator crashed the page. Y Combinator will work closely with the ACLU for three months and then the nonprofit will present at Demo Day in front of potential donors.
Within 24 hours of the announcement, Y Combinator had 1,500 people reach out with offers of help, Manalac says. The incubator is setting up an email list to notify volunteers of nonprofit needs and eventually may build a platform to connect techies with nonprofits.
"I haven't seen this kind of engagement for any political action or movement as long as I have been in Silicon Valley," she said. "It's like tsunami of support. It's just really incredible. I think part of it is that there's a feeling of powerlessness, of wanting to help and not knowing where to plug in or how we can be most effective. And I think people are looking for that right now."
Follow USA TODAY technology reporters Jessica Guynn @jguynn and Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.