When Waymo engineer Paul Roales got word that he and employees from sister company Google would be working from home until the summer of 2021, his first reaction wasn't to get out of dodge like many others. Instead, he felt the city of Mountain View, Calif. — where his company's headquartered and where he lives — would never be the same and wanted to help it manage the transition.
After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Roales — who had already been involved in local politics — developed an urgent desire to run for city council in Mountain View, where many large tech companies like LinkedIn and Google are headquartered, he said in an interview with CNBC. Foreseeing changes to a city once bustling with tech employees, Roales said he wants to be part of decisions that make the city more livable and "not just be the home of Google or other tech companies."
"For a long time, cities in the Bay Area had free economic growth on the basis of the companies in their community," Roales said. "Mountain View didn't have to do a lot to have a cushy budget and headcount but now we're going to have to operate city hall a little tighter and do more to make sure it's a great place to live."
Roales' decision to double down on Silicon Valley comes amid a contrasting trend of tech employees fleeing the region since most companies have announced that the bulk of employees can work from home through the end of the year. Facebook, Google and others have enabled working from home through the summer of 2021 while Twitter and Atlassian are among those that have allowed employees to work from home forever if they wish.
Roales has been working on self-driving technology and simulation since joining Alphabet's self-driving car subsidiary in 2016. Prior to that, he worked as a software engineer at Google's Maps division for two years. But he also has some background in local politics: At Purdue University, he served on the West Lafayette City Council for two years.
Roales said West Lafayette bares some resemblances to Mountain View, which has more than 75,000 residents and is located 35 miles south of San Francisco.
"There's a huge difference between my work and how fast things get done in Mountain View's government," Roales said. "Having worked at Google and now at Waymo gives me a lot of perspective on high-performing organizations and I hope it's the start of a trend that we see more people in tech get more involved in their local government."
He said since Covid-19 hit, he's seen two big trends strike Mountain View residents: Wanting more space or leaving the area.
"That's going to reshape the city potentially because there's going to be more demand for larger units and some vacancies so —to me—that's an opportunity to rethink things like how our city's laid out and how infrastructure supports that. This period of disruption can create a lot of opportunity if you proactively go into it and think: how can we make this better? I think it's an opportunity that could slip by the city if someone's not thinking about how do we make a city in this new normal?"
Roales said he also wants to try and make local politics more inclusive by giving residents better access to city meetings, which are often held for long hours after normal work hours, which he said can be inconvenient for families and single mothers. "Maybe you can submit a comment via video or pre-recorded that can be presented with live commenters," he proposed. "That's a small example but I think there's a lot of people who's voices we're just not hearing in city hall right now."
Roales is hoping to tackle the region's housing shortage, ultimately faulting slow-moving city government for the high costs of housing. "I think it's easy to vilify tech because of high housing costs but we need cities to respond to the changes in a way that's appropriate large and appropriately quick and, in both areas, they're failing," he said. "Today, it's a six-month debate to decide where to build 10 houses."
Roales said he is keeping his candidacy separate from his work at Waymo. "I keep it largely separate but I do get a lot of messages on my private email or on Twitter from co-workers who are supportive," he said. "People are like 'this is great, we need a voice for the employees of large tech companies in our community.'" Along the way, the company's public relations employees reminds him to tell people that he works for Waymo and not Google, he said.
While he'd recuse himself for Google-related projects during city council votes in line with council rules, he's not worried because the issues come up only a few times each year from his experience. However, he said he'd still make his opinion known, regardless.
"The needs of Google as a corporation and the needs of Google's employees are very different and I'm going to represent the citizens and the voters and the employees," he said. "The company can ask for one thing but if it's not the best thing for the citizens, I wouldn't be for that."
Roales said that while he's not overly concerned about the differences, he first became aware of them during the 2018 Google Walkout where nearly all Mountain View employees joined a company-wide 20,000-person walkout in protest of the company's handling of sexual misconduct. "The Walkout was so surprising to me because the leadership had been often in touch and happy to act in the best interest of employees," he said, referring to the large turnout of people concerned with such misconduct. "But I do think we're dealing with high-quality employers that do care about their employees — we're not dealing with the Enrons of the world so I don't see that being a huge problem."
Roales said he finds it "bizarre" that more tech workers aren't involved in their local communities in the Silicon Valley. He theorized it has to do with the scale of reach. "At work, we often think on a global scale or in the billions," Roales said. "I'm improving a feature on Google Maps, which has more than a billion users worldwide and then going to a city council meeting and listening to two hours about local parking rules feels very different from that."
"What bridges that for me is that you can have a very small impact on a billion users' lives that makes Maps work a little better or you can have a very large impact on tens of thousands or a hundred thousand lives. If you multiply the size of impacts — local involvement can be even more impactful."