Tech company Chef won’t renew U.S. immigration contracts, changing course amid employee activism

Chef CEO Barry Crist. (GeekWire File Photo / Todd Bishop)

Software engineers are powerful players in the technology industry. Typically, they exercise that power to negotiate sky-high salaries that companies competing in a tight labor market are eager to offer. But last week one developer pulled a different lever, deleting code he wrote for Chef in protest of the company’s contracts with federal immigration agencies. The move kicked off a series of events leading Chef this morning to say it will sunset contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The controversy surrounding Chef’s relationship with immigration authorities has been building over the past week but its CEO Barry Crist remained firm in his resolve to continue working with the agencies. He reversed course on Monday, announcing Chef will not renew contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire in the next year. Chef plans to donate 2019 revenues from those contracts to charities that help families separated and detained by immigration officials.

“I do not believe that it is appropriate, practical, or within our mission to examine specific government projects with the purpose of selecting which U.S. agencies we should or should not do business,” Crist said in a blog post last week.

On Monday, his position changed. “Chef, as well as other companies, can take stronger positions against these policies that violate basic human rights. Over the past year, many of our employees have constructively advocated for a change in our position, and I want to thank them,” he said in another blog post.

The reversal shows the power of a rising tide of employee activism that has pushed technology companies to take stands on political issues from immigration to climate change. It’s a new phenomenon driven by the leverage that tech workers have over their employers and a rising millennial workforce with higher standards for corporate social responsibility than previous generations of employees.

Chef is a Seattle-based technology firm that started out helping organizations automatically configure and manage their servers. But the company, which caters to the growing DevOps trend that unites software developers with technology operations teams, has broadened its focus to enterprise and application automation, along with new capabilities in areas like compliance and security, as many of its customers move away from enterprise servers and data centers to the cloud.

Inside Chef’s headquarters in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Chef landed in hot water last week when a #NoTechForICE activist flagged the company’s contract with immigration officials in a tweet. Tech contracts with ICE and CBP have become a lightning rod, largely due to the federal government’s family separation policy. Seth Vargo, a former Chef employee, was surprised to learn that some of the code he had written was now being used by immigration authorities.

On Sept. 19, Vargo deleted the code and removed its other owners, according to a Chef blog post. The result was Chef products failed for some customers. The company had resolved the issue by the following morning.

“Chef was found to have entered into an agreement with US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), best known for their inhumane treatment, denial of basic human rights, and detaining children in cages,” Vargo wrote on GitHub. “In response, I have removed my code from the Chef ecosystem. I have a moral and ethical obligation to prevent my source from being used for evil.”

Vargo declined to comment on Chef’s decision to cancel the ICE and CBP contracts.

Chef is the latest company dragged into a political debate by the wave of employee activism that has been swelling over the past year. Last summer, Google decided not to renew a contract with for the Pentagon’s Project Maven after 4,000 employees expressed concerns about their work being used for lethal purposes.

Protestors march from Amazon’s campus to Seattle City Hall as part of the Global Climate Strike. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Last week, thousands of employees at Amazon, Google, and other tech companies walked out to demand their employers take bolder action to address the climate crisis. On the eve of the climate strike, Amazon unveiled its carbon footprint and new sustainability goals for the first time.

In the case of Chef and other cloud companies that base their work on open-source projects, political issues become even more complicated. Businesses that leverage an open-source community are subject to criticism and pressure from a broader group of software engineers.

Though employee activists have enjoyed early success, canceling government contracts can have unintended consequences, as Chef CTO Corey Scobie noted in a Sept. 20 blog post.

“What if the IT professionals tasked with their role inside ICE could actually help reduce the number of separated families by having visibility and the information they need to stop raids before they happened? I want so badly to believe that to be true,” he wrote. “The reality is, withholding access to better software and systems for IT departments doesn’t change the policies that agencies have been given by their commander in chief.”

Subpar software can have unintended consequences for the people impacted by the federal government’s policies. One reason immigration officials are struggling to reunite families separated at the border has to do with CBP’s software, according to reporting from the New York Times. The program was designed to identify immigrants as unaccompanied minors, individual adults, or families but the software does not have an option to classify families that have been separated as connected individuals. The result? The government doesn’t have a digital record of how separated family members are connected to one another.

Despite these nuances, companies are increasingly canceling government contracts in response to employee activism.

“I had hoped that traditional political checks and balances would provide remedy and that our relationship with our various government customers could avoid getting intermingled with these policies,” Crist wrote. “However, it is clear that checks and balances have not provided relief to the fundamental issues of the policies in question.”

GeekWire is in contact with Chef about the issue and will update this post with additional information as it’s available.

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