A Killing in Menlo Park: Qin Chen’s Death and the Need for Justice

Qin Chen, a 38-year-old software engineer working at Facebook, jumped to his death from a high building on September 19, 2019. One might say that, in proximate terms, the death was a suicide. I’m averse to that word in this case– it seems highly likely, given the evidence, that it is far more appropriate to say: he was killed.

It’s important to get this right. The word “suicide”, in our culture, implies personal failure and individual fault. It’s not appropriate, therefore,  o say that someone who leapt from the World Trade Center on 9/11, preferring impact over immolation, “committed suicide”, even if the mechanism of death was chosen by the deceased. A fox that chews off its own leg to escape a trap is not engaging in self-harm. Likewise, I don’t think it’s appropriate to present Aaron Swartz’s death as a suicide, without mentioning the malicious prosecution that led to his demise. As Quinn Norton said, “the old world killed him.” We tend to be quick to focus on the mechanism of death– far too quick to call an event an aberration and blame it on “mental health”– out of a misguided desire not to hang blame on the living.

If Patrick Shyu’s account is accurate, Qin Chen’s was killed, and his survivors have a right to justice. He was killed by his manager’s petty retaliation over his desire to do something else at Facebook. He was killed by HR officials who refused to override the libel of a rogue manager, who refused to let an employee acting in good faith restore his reputation. He was killed by his employer’s indifference, allowing the institution of a cruel system under which he could not transfer to a team more appropriate to his skills and interests.

The account linked gives a credible narrative. First, it alleges that Qin’s manager enticed him to stay on a project he disliked, in exchange for a guaranteed positive performance review. Having worked in large technology companies, side deals pertaining to “perf” scores are remarkably common. (It is also not uncommon for people in the HR office to accept side payments in order to fix an internal record.) That number means everything– it is one’s total human worth as assessed by the organization. It is also not uncommon for managers to break these arrangements, and they do so without consequence.

Though I don’t know whether Qin Chen’s story is true, I’ve encountered so many people with stories just like it that I see no reason to disbelieve it. Here’s the thing: managers running less desirable teams have chips on their shoulders and are quick to punish “disloyal” employees who deign to seek transfer. It’s disgustingly common for a naive software engineer, assuming good faith on the part of his manager and company, to make known his interest in internal mobility– and be shocked when he slagged with a negative “performance” review, often without explanation.

I’m getting old. I’m 36, which is 0x7F in software years. I’ve seen people repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over. Investigations into Enron’s culture of mendacity found responsible a style of high-stakes performance review notorious for creating a culture of suspicion, politicking, dishonesty, and widespread cheating of all forms on all levels. Funny thing is, Enron’s widely-hated performance review system (“stack ranking”) wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in a technology company. The buzzwords change every five years. The behaviors don’t, and as fascism– both the public nation-level variety, and its more contained private corporate form– becomes normalized, we should only expect this to get worse. We have to fight back. We have to crush fascism, and we have to bring unlawful killers to justice.

Facebook’s HR, by the account that has emerged to this point, did not repair the damage done to Qin Chen’s internal reputation by a malicious manager. They did not restore his right of internal mobility. As a result of their criminal negligence, Qin’s professional situation and reputation deteriorated to the point where he saw death as the only option.

This should not be pinned on a “difficult” or “tough” or (gag) “high-performance” company culture. Qin Chen was killed. His manager literally killed him. The HR “business partners” who did not intervene on his behalf are, at best, accessories and, at worst, killers themselves. Although a situation of intentional murder seems unlikely to be, these malefactors put a man in lethal danger– and he died.

Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. The public has a right to know who Qin Chen’s managers were, and which HR officers were involved in his case.

I am available as michael.o.church on Google’s email service. If I am furnished reliable information pertaining to the identities of Qin Chen’s managers, as well as HR officers involved in his case, I will publish it here. Furthermore, it is the public’s right to seek justice not only for this death but in future cases like it. Therefore, any personal or contact information about guilty individuals, I will also publish– after review and verification.

I do this without condemning nor condoning specific approaches to public justice. Whatever justice the affected portion of the public chooses to seek, it is not my call to make.