Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook and Google (if she is elected, of course). But how would her proposal impact the market value, compensation and careers of working tech professionals? What could prove some of the positive and negative consequences of breaking up tech monopolies?
While no one knows exactly how the situation will play out (even if Warren isn’t elected, breakups or heightened government oversight of the tech industry could still happen), the prospect of industry-wide change should still impact how you plan your career. (Meanwhile, Dice data shows that many tech pros favor breaking up the biggest of the big firms, interestingly enough.)
Reduced Funding for Innovation
In the event of a breakup or increased government oversight, tech pros who are interested in working on intriguing projects involving cutting-edge technologies could find fewer job opportunities going forward. Impacted firms may become more selective about investing, and opt to take less risk.
Forcing companies to spin off divisions into stand-alone businesses, or separating platforms from services, could impact revenue and the discretionary spending that has been allocated toward ancillary projects that aren’t profitable on their own. For instance, Alphabet invested over $800 million in Moonshot projects in the first quarter of 2016; imagine if it had to restructure in a way that deprived those projects of cash.
Many of these big companies offer something for free and make money by selling online ads or doing something else, explained Dr. Hemant Bhargava, professor, MSBA Program Co-Founder, Jerome and Elsie Suran Chair in Technology Management at the University of California, Davis: “If you break the link between the two sides, you may cripple the model and limit the funding that has gone towards innovation.”
In fact, separating platforms may actually end up limiting competition, reducing the prices for ads or the number of placements. “We could see these companies redirect their focus from engineering and privacy to regulatory compliance,” noted Will Rinehart, director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum.
At the very least, companies would be forced to spend more on attorneys and accountants to deal with regulatory issues and administration.
Sometimes, these actions have unintended consequences that change the entire market. For example, when AT&T was forced to break up, the company shrunk and job security diminished. And IBM’s market-share shrunk (and its culture changed permanently) after the tech giant spent tens of millions of dollars defending itself against anti-trust lawsuits. Breaking up big tech firms could easily stifle dynamic markets.
For better or worse, complying with trust-busting actions may also require breaking up the company’s technology stack, Rinehart added, which in turn would redefine roles, skills and responsibilities.
Keep your ear to the ground and get a contingency plan together. If you get a sense that a major break-up and reorganization is coming, it may be time to start looking for a new job.
Acquisition is often the end goal for many startup founders. In fact, among the top 15 acquirers in the U.S., over 70 percent are Silicon Valley companies. Under Warren’s proposal, existing tech mergers (such as Google’s acquisition of Waze and Nest, and Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram) would be unwound by regulators. While unwinding a closed transaction is technically possible, it is complicated and can have a big impact on employees.
Meanwhile, her pledge to revive antitrust enforcement may impact startup activity, job creation and exits via acquisition going forward. “The race to become big fast creates a frenzy for software engineers and developers that impacts the entire market,” Bhargava said. If the need for talent diminishes, it will limit career growth and the opportunity to elevate pay, skill building and experience through job hopping.
The idea that someone else will step up and fill the innovation gap doesn’t hold water with Bhargava, who added that the dream of being acquired is a strong motivator for tech entrepreneurs. There’s a need for small, nimble companies that can focus on design and innovate quickly.
Ultimately, if the decision is made to break up the big tech companies, the process could be simple and have minimal impact—or it could be messy and lead to unintended consequences and the destruction of value. At this point, your best bet is to develop a contingency plan… just in case.