Untying the Google Knot (It’s not me. It’s you!)

How therapy, vulnerability and cathartic writing saved me, and what happened right before I hit ‘send’ (A PREQUEL to “The Devil Wears Patagonia Swag”)

The shift in my narrative started when my doctor told me (with some extremely refreshing realism and much needed directness): “Marco, you are burned out, but you are not clinically anxious or depressed…you just have a shitty job!” BOOM! That changed everything for me. I wasn’t the weak, broken, incapacitated cog they wanted me to believe I was. Instead, I was on to something.

To explain the magic that happened after I hit ‘send’, I need to uncover all the s**t that happened right before (👉 or you can skip to the SEQUEL to find out…)

Robots vs. Humans

I had spent months writing the word cloud that then became “The Devil Wears Patagonia Swag”. It was my third month of medical leave and I had gone through a few therapy sessions by then — trying to make sense of it all. I was beaten up, my demeanor was low, I was feeling trapped. Wasn’t this time supposed to make me feel better and enable me to get back on track? And yet the same racing thoughts kept getting bigger.

Full sentences were taking shape inside my head, echoing in the dark, keeping me up at night and gaining power over me — things I wanted to say to my managers’ faces; things I wanted to bring up in team meetings; things I wanted to raise with leadership. J’accuse!

I had been suppressing those thoughts for a really long time — again — while too busy covering, playing the game, and running my race. I had kept my head down until then. An incessant feeling of uncontrollable rage was growing inside me — fueled by all that hypocrisy, that inauthentic disingenuous communication, and the pervading sense of unfairness. Why was I the only one feeling that way, while everyone around me looked so complacent?

As an Italian expat, during one of my therapy sessions I discussed how much I was struggling with the lack of authenticity and vulnerability in American (Californian?) culture. Where everything is built on storytelling, but stories are largely based on identity and a sense of (sometimes artificial) belonging. Where everyone tells the story other people expect to hear (e.g. “you’re gay, hence your struggles must arise from bullying / an abusive family / societal oppression / fill in the blank”). Corporate “culture” talking about diversity and inclusion felt like another episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race to me: dramatic soundtrack in the work room; zoom in on one of the “girls”; short outburst of a past trauma; suspense; some quick ‘aww-reactions’ by the other “girls”. All resolved, the equilibrium is restored. Back to the main challenge! All of this plays out and comes to a scripted end within 120 seconds.

Sounds familiar? “Let’s talk about these really important issues. Here’s a collection of resources. Here’s a TED Talk for you to watch. Done? Now back to work!” Everyone talks the talk, but no one really walks the walk. I used the example of a manager at the beginning of yet another Zoom call asking the group “what are you grateful for today?” The intent is positive (she is trying to apply what she learned from the HR ‘instruction manual’ to emulate empathy and foster some virtual team bonding). She gets them to open up and share. But then she entirely misses the point and fails when she herself gives a meaningless, safe, and fabricated answer of her own — and the ever-present danger is if you are too open and honest she may identify your vulnerabilities and weaponize them against you. Just hypothetically speaking…

Empathy and emotional intelligence can’t be taught to robots. Empathy and emotional intelligence can perhaps be observed, emulated, and artificially simulated, but I firmly believe that humans will always be able to smell the bullshit. At least I can, because it stinks so badly.

In this fictional world of the Golden Cage, corporate messages from above and American reality TV shows had started melding in my mind. Both sounded so scripted, constructed, artificial. I rejected them as inauthentic and disingenuous, as they started to cause a physical reaction of disgust.

The machine is trying really hard to act and sound human — let me give it some credit. When a couple of roles on my team were eliminated back in February 2020, I was assigned yet another lovely human face to “support’ me. Her title — ironically in retrospect — was “Retention and Progression Strategist”. She was such a kind, personable human and I really enjoyed our conversations — I fell for it as she provided me exactly with what I needed: a false sense of belonging, being heard, and that how I felt mattered.

(Then, soon thereafter I realized that my other teammate — white and straight — whose role had also been eliminated, did not get assigned a similar liaison. Google was trying to do right by me and other minority groups, by providing an additional layer of support, or at least the impression of it. That sounded nice. But what about my colleague? Did she not deserve to be supported and retained too? Why was I more worthy than her? It felt unfair, and it made me so incredibly uncomfortable. And yet — once again — I kept quiet. The machine made me quietly ashamed of my “diversity”.)

Digging deep

My therapist interrupted and asked me: “So what’s the one American movie or TV show you do identify yourself with?” I’m absolutely terrible at impromptu questions so I froze and did not reply on the spot (a scene that played way too many times with colleagues over lunch or drinks…they must have thought I was so aloof!) But I did think about it and a few days later — while fantasizing about resigning — “The Devil Wears Prada’’ came to mind (especially the final scene where Andy throws her Blackberry into the fountain). I’ve watched that movie probably ten times, and — although it has such a clichéd storyline — there’s something about it that always gets me and transports me to a different world. A world that is so comfortingly relatable, where good values, integrity, and the truth all triumph by the end. And that ending…when Andy looks finally liberated and wearing her true skin, walking through Manhattan’s skyscrapers, finally in her own element (while Miranda gets trapped in that dark and corrupted world, but she finally sees Andy — and for a moment, a minuscule instant, she shows an inch of humanity, a smile, a “that could have been me”, but yet she’s trapped in the machine).

That is the ending I always wanted for myself too. To finally reconcile with my true self, embrace it, step into the light, and be seen for who I really am. That scene always gave me goosebumps of excitement and hope.

My experience almost perfectly fit that story arc and I soon realized that, the only way to get rid of all those thoughts was to put them down on paper (obviously after watching the movie one more time and collecting some GIFs from the web). I didn’t know who I was going to write that for — if it was a journal entry, a writing exercise, or a blog post — all I knew was that I had to write). Like a purge, I started vomiting one word after another and my story started to take shape. I didn’t want to start from the rage or the pain, I wanted to start from the joy, the novelty, the youth — right at the beginning of this rollercoaster that lasted a decade. I owed it to myself to put things in the right perspective and consider the whole journey to now.

(When did I forget I can write? Another thing about me people were surprised to discover. And another part of me I had forgotten to give oxygen to).

There weren’t chapters in the beginning — it was just a massive blurb — and the whole narrative changed and evolved day to day, just like I did. I was modeling this thing like clay, and as it became alive, I could finally see and make sense of all those thoughts, feelings and emotions I had been neglecting for a long time. The more my hands regained confidence, the more I was able to give my story the right shape. It started with a lot of shame. At the beginning, I was still trying to fit the mold — just like those thousands of googlers leaving the company and writing empty and prescriptive farewell emails filled with “thank yous”, “I learned a lot”, “wonderful people”, “empowering this, empowering that”, “grateful for the opportunity”, “next adventure”, “memories” etc.

They write those emails because — like me — they were ashamed of leaving the Golden Cage. They were made to believe that, deep inside, it was such a failure on their part. Or simply because they’re taught not to burn bridges and that everything needs to appear perfect and intact — even when it’s absolutely not.

My ‘story’ started exactly in the same way: with lots of gratitude, admissions of guilt (as if it was my fault — “I pushed myself too hard and then I ended up breaking myself”), and only positive notes about Google. When I re-read it the first time, I didn’t recognize myself — that wasn’t my writing…it was what they taught me people would expect of me. Like an inception, I couldn’t get rid of this forma mentis, it was deeply rooted inside my soul (ten years in a “corporate cult” do that to you).

Into the Tunnel

The shift in my narrative started when my doctor told me (with some extremely refreshing realism and much needed directness): “Marco, you are burned out, but you are not clinically anxious or depressed…you just have a shitty job!” BOOM! That changed everything for me. I wasn’t the weak, broken, incapacitated cog they wanted me to believe I was. Instead, I was on to something.

By then, all the HR complaints I had raised right before initiating my medical leave in November 2020, had been dismissed with no resolution in my favor — “consider this matter closed!” So this past February, I found myself in a corner, drained of energies and out of options. My leave was coming to an end; I hadn’t found another suitable role (to “start again from scratch”, remember?); and I wasn’t going to head back to the robots (to “rebuild trust and get promoted next time, you were so close!”) Therefore, I started to raise my voice with HR and escalated to one of their Directors (who never bothered to respond or get involved).

HR’s only suggested solution? Asking my doctors to further extend my medical leave! I said my providers didn’t believe there was anything medically wrong with me. So HR nudged (obviously not in writing, always via video call) that I should “go back to them and put more emphasis on my [alleged] mental health issues” to convince them to grant me another extension…or alternatively, “find yourself another doctor”…

I told my therapist what Google HR recommendation was and she was indignant, warning me that what they were encouraging was an ethically fraught position, at the absolute least. (She also sent me this NBC News article: Google advised mental health care when workers complained about racism and sexism.)

For the first time ever, I started to see a pattern of malpractice and my sense of justice blew up even more. First, they failed to recognize, progress, and retain me; then they made me question my mental state by conflating an HR issue with a medical one; now they were asking me to misrepresent my case to keep me warehoused.

My moral compass had enough: no more spinning looking for directions! All the way towards the North from now on, following the flow of my magnetic fields.

That’s when I went back to my story and I rewrote it almost entirely. The narrative suddenly changed, not just in my writing, but also in my mind. Something in my psyche had finally clicked. I, and I now recognized many other people, had been abused by a system that wanted us to feel bad — disabled, incapacitated — and I was none of those things.

I decided I had no choice but to go. Google, it’s not me — it was you all along!

New Chapter

Having made up my mind, and in a final attempt to get some sense of justice or reparation after such a torrid year with no satisfactory conclusion, I asked HR for a severance package. No figure in mind, just a token. Why? I wanted to give one last chance to reset the clock and go back to what they had offered when this saga began back in early 2020, when they eliminated my role and they put me in the position of finding and settling for that “shitty” job — my doctor’s words, not mine — to save myself and my partner from both having to give up everything and leave the country. After ten years of service, it sounded reasonable to me — and the final opportunity for the machine to redeem itself and do right by me.

I gave a clear, unmistakable message: I was not going to leave quietly.

The (latest assigned) HR People Consultant paused and swallowed, then asked me: “What do you mean by you’re not leaving quietly..? Can you elaborate on that?” (Which in retrospect is a fair clarifying question to ask, as I’m sure certain disgruntled employees may represent a severe threat to these companies and the safety of their people). With a firm, icy calmness unknown to me until that point, I responded that I wrote a piece, that I had an audience, and that I was going to make it my mission to make it as publicly available as possible, to ensure that every person I know and can reach is aware of what I was put through.

To my surprise, that’s when she mentioned severance could be back on the table, and then she went off and initiated a second “investigation” into my case. (I really did feel for these poor people. I thought I was the one with a shitty job, but what about them? All they do is listen to googlers’ bad experiences: complaints, harassments, frustration, abuse, unfairness, injustices).

Two weeks later she came back with the verdict: unsurprisingly, they (they who?) established there was no wrong doing on their side and that I was not entitled to any severance (clearly the “threat” of an insignificant blogger wasn’t intimidating enough to a tech giant, but — again — I wasn’t expecting anything different). Given I would not play the ‘extending leave’ game, I was due back to work the next day.

I mentioned my article again, she said it was OK for me to openly tell the story of my personal experience at Google, obviously without publicly disclosing any confidential or proprietary information. I said “very well, I think we know where we stand then”. I was given less than 24 hours to make my decision (was I really given a choice?) and was told that — obviously — she was there to support me in case I needed anything (???) Again — support, what an abused word..!

It may sound strange to you, but I was electrified to not have received any form of payout — it empowered me to tell my story even more vocally. To maintain my integrity and to walk away keeping my head held high. I was suddenly liberated of any (non-contractual) obligations, of any residual gratitude, and it just reinforced my conviction that I was making the best decision for myself — not because I felt forced to leave, but because I no longer felt forced to stay quiet. I had been unmuzzled.

I had no idea what would happen once I finally shared my story. I didn’t write it for a mass audience. I didn’t write it for press or for attention. I wrote it for me, to help me — hoping to help somebody else too in the process. It wasn’t a rant, it wasn’t resentful, it wasn’t the work of yet another disgruntled employee.

In its final iteration, I was finally proud of it — because for the first time in a while, I saw myself in it — my values, my writing skills, my creativity, my love, my pain, my truth. Just writing it was such a cathartic experience.

The following day — a Tuesday — from our hotel room in Vieques, Puerto Rico (my husband and I had timed a trip to these Caribbean islands, specifically in anticipation of this moment), I initiated the “exit protocol”, formatted my story into the Medium post you’re now familiar with, saved it as a draft, and then ascended to the rooftop pool to celebrate with a beer at sunset (soon followed by dinner and some proper — well deserved — champagne).

This was finally me throwing my “Blackberry” into the “fountain”. It was simply the best middle finger I have ever given in my life. (My husband captured this moment below — and I can honestly tell you — this is not the face of a quitter!)

Throwing my “Blackberry” into the “fountain” in Vieques

But it wasn’t over yet. The cherry on top is when HR asked me if I wanted to send a note to the team or have my manager send an empty-shell communication saying “Marco’s last day will be Friday” (and “everything else will be kept confidential”). That actually made me laugh out loud: again, they failed to understand that I didn’t want confidentiality — I wanted the opposite of it. I wanted to spread awareness, tell my story out loud, and let it all out in the open. I don’t think they were ready for (or understood) the disrupting and liberating power of vulnerability.

The email continued: “If you plan to share your own note with the team, I only ask you to share with [manager’s name] what you intend to write and who you’re sending it to”…

WHAT THE ACTUAL F*CK!

I could literally not believe my eyes (I read it at least ten times and replayed it in my head 10x more). Was my manager really that delusional and detached from reality to expect she’d be the one to “review and approve” my ten year farewell email to friends and colleagues from across three geographies? A manager I never met in the flesh, who barely (and poorly) “managed” me for less than five months, blatantly lied to me, blindsided me, and pushed me off the cliff to mental health leave…to then email me four months later: “Welcome back. I have scheduled a 1:1 tomorrow to catch up, cover what’s new with the business, and discuss your responsibilities” (!!!) Can you believe that?

Was she even real, or for all that time had I been part of a top-secret AI-generated-manager pilot program? And now, was she seriously “kindly requesting” to read, review, and approve my goodbye message? How absurd was that!? I just couldn’t cope.

My first instinct was to reply immediately and crush her under an avalanche of words, to shake her out of her alternative reality. But then I counted to 1,000, took a lot of deep breaths, and waited until the next day. In pure tech-Californian style, using the same robotic, apathetic, unemotional, passive-aggressive weapon, I responded: “Thanks for confirming for Friday. I will send my own farewell email.” Full stop. That full stop meant more than any insult (and I had a lot running through my head). She had no idea what was coming. Shame on her.

We then flew back to San Juan, but I couldn’t sleep on Wednesday night. So I composed my farewell email (below) to all the people I have ever worked with. By then, I was no longer hot headed, I was extremely lucid and I knew exactly what message I wanted to send across. I added a link to “The Devil Wears Patagonia Swag” post in there and meticulously revised every word, every comma, every one of the contacts and email aliases on bcc. Again, it wasn’t the work of an angry, insane person. It was calculated and irrefutable. And — just like with every other project I had worked on at Google — I poured my heart in it (a heart Google never deserved).

On Thursday morning, while getting ready for check-out, I only had one thing left to do. I needed to pull the trigger and hit ‘send’.

I was paralyzed, terrified, and I had no idea what was going to come out of it. I knew I was probably going to get ignored — as usual — that I was going to be easily dismissed as that disgruntled whiny employee, that emotional Italian who settled for that shitty job and now was complaining. I was afraid of the consequences, or the possible retaliation, of the future job implications.

But the urge to take my story into my hands, spread its wings, and throw it out there into the wild, was much stronger and eventually prevailed. I hit ‘send’ with all the weight of my body, at 8:00 AM PST. Then, I shut my laptop and we headed to breakfast.

Turns out it was no longer my story. It became ours.

To be continued… 👉 CLICK HERE to read the final chapter

My farewell email sent to friends and colleagues on March 18, 2021, after 10 years at Google

👉 More from my ‘Google Trilogy’

The Devil Wears Patagonia Swag [Main Story]

❷ Untying the Google Knot (It’s not me. It’s you!) [Prequel] You are here!

Resonating. The Voice of a Thousand Googlers [Sequel]

LIFE after Google [Q&A Video Series]

If you’d like to chat, you can reach me at: marcoinabox@gmail.com

👋 Let’s connect on: YouTubeInstagramLinkedInFacebookTwitter

An old soul, a traveler, a dreamer. Italian expat living in San Francisco, I make videos, scribble things, and seek authentic connections with fellow explorers.

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