Sophie Zhang, a data scientist at Facebook for two years, recently left the social media giant over ethical concerns about how the company handles user data. In a blog post by Zhang and made public after her departure, she outlines her concerns and struggles in the months leading up to her decision.
Therefore, it is important to understand and consider the factors that led to Zhang’s decision to leave Facebook and the implications of it for the tech industry and users in general.
Background of Sophie Zhang
Sophie Zhang is a former software engineer at Facebook. She spent almost four years at the company, working on projects related to combating spam, fake accounts, and other forms of abuse and misuse of its platform. Recently, she left Facebook after speaking out about how her team was dealing with this issue.
Zhang was born in China and came to the United States for college when she was seventeen. She attended Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science program and later continued her studies in Computational Media at Stanford. After graduating from Stanford, Zhang joined Facebook in 2016 as a software engineer where she worked on the global policy team in Menlo Park, California. During her time spent at Facebook she wrote code that helped automate investigations into false reports of harassment on the site and rooted out fake accounts used to spread misinformation.
When Zhang left Facebook in 2020, she posted a widely-shared memo alleging that her team had been intentionally ignoring emerging threats from foreign country actors because they weren’t deemed ‘sexy’. This inspired other former employees to speak out about their own experiences of corporate politics preventing action from being taken against abuse on the platform until public outcry reached its peak.
Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook
In January 2020, Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, announced she was leaving the social media giant after almost three years. She detailed her reasons for leaving in a letter to her former colleagues on her way out.
In this article, we will explore why Zhang decided to leave Facebook and the implications of her departure on the company.
Unsatisfactory Working Environment
In a series of tweets from journalist and writer Vivian Wang, Sophie Zhang, formerly an engineer at Facebook, reported that she had left the company after a contentious three-year career with the platform. According to the tweets, Sophie had become increasingly dissatisfied with the company’s decision-making and lack of transparency.
Specifically, Sophie criticised Facebook for prioritising profits over employee well-being and caring more about increasing its bottom line than providing a safe working environment. Furthermore, she was dismayed that her previous reports of policy violations had been inadequately addressed or ignored by senior management.
Sophie also expounded upon how many engineers were mistreated due to misallocation of resources — often receiving significantly lower pay or fewer benefits than those in higher ranks — adding that many felt utterly powerless against unreasonable demands from leadership. She even described how colleagues were asked to work unpaid overtime on tasks they deemed unethical while promises for change went unfulfilled due to internal politics.
Ultimately, Sophie concluded her statement noting that “for too long and too often have I seen transgressions both big and small overlooked and excused time after time” making it clear why she chose to walk away from Facebook despite all the potential opportunities it offered her in return for her efforts.
Lack of Creative Freedom
In early 2019, research scientist Sophie Zhang had enough of Facebook’s liberal attitude toward data use and unethical behaviour. So she left her job at the social networking giant to pursue a career that promised her more creative freedom and an ethical line she wouldn’t have to cross.
As a former product manager and engineer for Facebook, Zhang knew too well the company’s failure to abide by its stated policies around advertising, data collection and privacy. She described various instances of abuse, seemingly intentional false advertising and other questionable behaviour under the guise of “data science experimentation.”
She also highlighted how algorithms used for services such as recommendations constantly change based on user feedback, leading to biases that can prevent certain voices from being heard in large-scale conversations. On top of this, she found that boundaries on creativity were tight when developing products or features within Facebook’s ecosystem, leaving her little room to take risks or stand out with her own ideas.
Ultimately, it was these lack of boundaries when it came to behaviour and creativity that were two major reasons behind why Sophie Zhang decided to leave Facebook.
When Sophie Zhang, an information operations analyst at Facebook, resigned from her post in August 2020, she cited “non-monetary” motivations such as the company’s “insufficient” efforts to counter hate speech and misinformation. However, a recent report from BuzzFeed News reveals that her job dissatisfaction may have also extended to salary issues.
According to the report, Zhang was paid $52,000 yearly and rated her remuneration as “unsatisfactory”. She felt this was insufficient compared to what other experienced analysts in the area were earning. Despite raising these issues multiple times with management, Zhang did not receive an increase or other meaningful response. This lack of action ultimately contributed to her decision to leave the company.
Zhang isn’t the only person who’s left Facebook due to remuneration issues; Buzzfeed News identified several former employees who felt they were underpaid for their roles and responsibilities at the company. With high prices of living in some areas where Facebook offices are situated – such as San Francisco – salaries must compete with other tech companies if they are to remain competitive hires in these markets. In addition, there may be an issue with Facebook’s remuneration policy regarding keeping talented employees onboard—especially analysts with advanced skill sets.
Impact of Her Departure
Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, left the company in August 2020, raising many questions about her exit. Her departure has greatly impacted the social media giant, leaving them without one of their key people in the data science world.
Let’s take a look at the impact of her departure and why she decided to leave.
Loss of Talent
Sophie Zhang’s departure from Facebook has been a major blow to the social media giant as it was revealed that she was one of the key people driving the company’s consumer-facing products. With her leaving, Facebook has lost a valuable asset and its consumer product focus may now be weaker.
Sophie Zhang had been with Facebook since 2011 and was known for her technical expertise that helped shape important projects on the platform. Her work touched nearly all facets of the consumer product experience, from core experiences such as News Feed and Messenger, to emerging areas like Graph Search, Connected Apps and Camera Effects. She also worked closely on several internal privacy initiatives which she reportedly believed were instrumental in maintaining customer trust on the platform.
Her considerable contributions made Sophie Zhang an irreplaceable resource for Facebook and her departure is likely to be felt throughout its entire user base as new products are developed and released. Her impact at Facebook cannot be underestimated; she was one of its most influential figures in working towards achieving successful consumer products, a challenge which will now become significantly more difficult without her expertise.
Impact on Company Culture
The departure of Sophie Zhang from Facebook has caused waves across the industry, and both employees and the public have taken notice. How she chose to leave the company prompted a discussion on the corporate culture at Facebook, with many questioning if enough was done to protect her while in her workplace.
Since her departure was not voluntary, it is unclear what exact effect it had on decisions made at Facebook or on the overall company culture. However, it appeared to trigger a response from Zuckerberg himself as he wrote an open letter expressing regret for Zhang’s situation, particularly emphasising that everyone at Facebook should feel safe and supported. As one of its key developers resigned under such circumstances, it can be seen as an example of how serious issues such as lack of support for employees should be taken seriously within any work environment.
At the same time, some have argued that despite the importance of this issue, it is not representative of all employees’ experiences during their time at Facebook. Others have pointed out that this technology giant may have implemented other policies leading up to this incident for such a situation to take place as Zhang alleges in her resignation letter. Whatever course of action is announced as a result, Sophie Zhang’s exit has reportedly started an important discussion among staff members surrounding corporate accountability and expecting more resources to be put towards creating respectful work environments where everyone can thrive.