OAKLAND, California – The seeds of business failure, as it is often said in the business world, are sown when all goes well.
It’s hard to argue that things aren’t going well for Google. Sales and profits hit new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $ 1.6 trillion. Google has become deeper and deeper in the lives of Americans.
But a recalcitrant group of Google executives fear the company is cracking. They say that Google’s staff are becoming more and more open. Personnel problems spill over into the public. Determined leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those leaders go out and let everyone know exactly why.
“I keep getting asked why I left now? I think the better question is why did I stay so long? ”Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired the Waze map service, wrote a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.
“The innovation challenges,” he wrote, “only get worse when risk tolerance decreases.”
Many of Google’s problems, current and recently retired executives said, result from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the affable, low-key CEO of the company.
Fifteen current and former Google executives, on condition of anonymity, for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told the New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing corporation – a crippling bureaucracy, a bias in Direction inactivity and fixation on public perception.
The executives, some of whom had regular interactions with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not act quickly on major business and personnel changes because it chewed on decisions and delayed action. They said that fights for culture in the workplace continued to rock Google, and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect – fueling problems while avoiding difficult and sometimes unpopular positions.
A Google spokesman said internal surveys of Mr. Pichai’s leadership have been positive. The company declined to provide Mr. Pichai, 49, for comment, but arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on its leadership.
“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes, ”said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Mr. Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I glad that he makes almost all of his decisions correctly? Yes.”
Google is facing a dangerous moment. She combats regulatory challenges at home and abroad. Politicians on the left and right agree on their distrust of the company, which makes Mr. Pichai a staple at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to get through these hearings without quizzing lawmakers or supplying more ammunition to his company’s enemies.
The Google executives who complain about Mr. Pichai’s leadership acknowledge this and say that he is a thoughtful and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days – a bigger, more professionally run company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.
During his time at the helm of Google, it doubled its workforce to approximately 140,000 people, and Alphabet tripled in value. It’s not uncommon for a company that got this big to appear sluggish or unwilling to risk what made it so rich. Mr. Pichai has taken some steps to counter this. In 2019, for example, he reorganized Google and created new decision-making bodies so that fewer decisions required his approval.
But Google, founded in 1998, is haunted by the notion that its best days are behind. In Silicon Valley, where talent recruitment and retention serves as a referendum on a company’s prospects, executives from other tech companies said it has never been easier to convince a Google executive to forego a stable seven-figure salary for another opportunity .
Mr. Pichai, a former McKinsey consultant, joined Google in 2004 and quickly demonstrated a knack for navigating a company teeming with big egos and sharp elbows.
When Google became part of Alphabet in 2015, Mr. Pichai took over the position of Chief Executive of Google. He was promoted again to oversee the parent company when Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, stepped down as Alphabet chief four years later.
In 2018, more than a dozen vice presidents at Google attempted an email warning Mr. Pichai that the company was experiencing significant growing pains. They said there are problems coordinating technical decisions and feedback from Vice Presidents is often ignored.
The executives – many of whom had spent more than a decade with the company – wrote that it took Google too long to make big decisions, which five people who knew the email said made it difficult to get things done. Although they do not criticize Mr. Pichai directly, the message is clear: Google needs more determined leadership at the top.
Since then, several of the executives who signed up to the email have resigned to take jobs elsewhere. According to LinkedIn profiles, at least 36 Google vice presidents have left the company since last year.
There is significant brain drain from Vice Presidents, who total about 400 managers and serve as the backbone of leadership across the company. Google said it was happy with its vice president’s turnover rates, which have remained constant over the past five years.
A common criticism among current and former executives is that Mr. Pichai’s slow deliberations often feel like a way to play it safe and come to a “no”.
Google executives suggested the idea of acquiring Shopify a few years ago to challenge Amazon in online commerce. Mr Pichai turned down the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, said two people familiar with the discussions.
But these people said they never thought that Mr. Pichai had the stomach for a deal and that the price was a convenient and ultimately misguided justification. Shopify’s share price has increased nearly tenfold in the past few years. Jason Post, a Google spokesman, said, “There was never any serious discussion about this acquisition.”
A former executive said the company’s risk aversion is embodied in a state of constant research and development known internally as “pantry mode.” Teams will stash products in case a rival comes up with something new and Google needs to react quickly.
Mr. Pichai is also known to be slow in making personnel decisions. When Google promoted Kent Walker to Senior Vice President of Global Affairs in 2018, the company was looking for a General Counsel to replace him. It took Google over a year to select Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime assistant on the company’s legal team.
Ms. Prado headed an initial list of candidates made available to Mr. Pichai, who asked for additional names, said several people familiar with the search. The exhaustive search took so long that it became a joke among headhunters in the industry.
Mr Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive action against Google’s volatile workforce was palpable.
In December, Timnit Gebru, a co-head of Google’s Ethical AI team and one of the best-known black women employees, said she was fired after criticizing Google’s approach to minority recruitment and authoring a research paper detailing the in Prejudices built into its artificial intelligence technology were highlighted. At first, Mr. Pichai stayed out of the fight.
After 2,000 employees signed a petition against their dismissal, Mr. Pichai sent an email promising to restore lost trust while continuing to enforce Google’s view that Dr. Gebru was not released. But it wasn’t an excuse, she said, looking like public relations were flattering some of the staff.
David Baker, a former director of engineering at Google’s Trust and Security Group, who protested Dr. Gebru stepped down, saying Google should admit it made a mistake instead of trying to save face.
“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem ultimately evaporated my passion for the job,” said Mr. Baker, who worked for the company for 16 years. “The safer Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.”
Some criticisms of Mr. Pichai can be traced back to the challenge of maintaining Google’s outspoken culture among a far larger workforce than it used to be, said Google executives who asked the company to speak to the Times.
“I don’t think anyone else could handle these problems as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s senior technical executives.
Mr. Pichai’s goal is not to act like a “messiah” in the corner office – a larger-than-life, autocratic boss who is often romanticized in the tech industry but can create a toxic job, said Aparna Chennapragada, who is a vice president at Google before overseeing product development for the Robinhood trading app in April.
Mr. Pichai has also made tough, unpopular decisions, such as cutting back on “vanity projects” that didn’t do much for the business, Ms. Chennapragada said.
His emphasis on the management team – and not on his ego – has led Mr. Pichai to get his alternates to make more decisions without him, Google executives said. But it was especially crucial when it was perhaps most important: telling employees to work from home as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States.
Talks about the Fitbit activity tracker acquisition, which closed in January, lasted about a year as Mr Pichai struggled with aspects of the deal, including the company’s integration, its product plans, and protecting user data, said Sameer Samat, a Google Vice President. Pushing for the deal, Mr Samat said Mr Pichai had identified potential issues that he had not fully considered.
“I could see that these multiple discussions could make someone feel like we were making decisions,” said Samat. “The reality is that these are very big decisions.”