Google’s old guard is changing roles as the company searches for itself

Alphabet Inc. Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat speaks during a news conference at Michigan Central Station, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan.

Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images

one string Google managers changed their roles within a few months, a change that alienated many of the company’s remaining old guards.

The changes include CFO Ruth Porat, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and No. 8 employee Urs Hölzle, among others. Some say they are leaving their roles for a new challenge, while others are leaving to pursue opportunities in artificial intelligence.

In February, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki — one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent women — announced she was stepping down after nine years at the helm of the Google-owned social media network that has become the world’s most popular video service. He worked at Google for over 25 years after lending his garage to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Although he is still in a consulting role at Google, he said he wants to “start a new chapter.”

He wasn’t the only executive to leave YouTube. Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer for 12 years, left earlier in the year to become CEO of Warner Music Group.

In March, CapitalG founder and longtime Googler David Loi resigned from Alphabet after 17 years. Her announcement said she wants to explore new areas of interest and spend more time with her family.

Urs Hölzle, who has long overseen Google’s technical infrastructure and is its eighth employee, said he will step down from leadership after 24 years leading technical teams, CNBC reported in July. Hölzle will be classified as an “individual contributor,” meaning he will work independently and no longer manage employees.

Also in July, Ruth Porat announced that she would step down as Alphabet’s chief financial officer after eight years and take a new role as president and chief investment officer. When asked what caused the timing, Porat, who was earlier Morgan Stanley‘s CFO said it was time for him to face a different set of challenges.

Porat will also engage with policymakers on issues such as “recognizing the importance of technology” and expanding employment, economic, competitiveness and infrastructure.

“We have a stable and experienced leadership team, many of whom have been with the company for more than a decade,” Google spokeswoman Courtenay Mencini said in a statement about the changes. “We have a strong team of leaders who have long and successful careers at Google who can easily transition when they decide to pursue new opportunities inside and outside the company.”

He is looking for himself in a world with artificial intelligence

As Google looks for replacements for executives like Porat, it’s also looking for its own identity at a pivotal moment in the company’s history.

Last fall, when OpenAI launched its AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT, the company was caught flat-footed and suddenly found itself in a rare position where its core search business was threatened — if users could just get answers from an AI-powered chatbot, how long would they enter search engine queries? would they continue to do? It was an ironic moment, given that CEO Sundar Pichai has been talking about the company’s “Handheld Entertainment” strategy since 2016.

In June, Google executives admitted to employees that users were “still not entirely satisfied” with the search experience, CNBC reported. Within minutes, search boss Prabhakar Raghavan and VP of engineering HJ Kim promised employees they would do better, while CEO Sundar Pichai noted that it was still the most trusted search engine.

Geoffrey Hinton, known as the “Godfather of AI” and one of the most respected voices in the field, told the New York Times in May that he was leaving the Internet giant after a decade to warn the world about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. that he would come sooner than he had previously thought.

Shortly before that, Amid a reorganization of Google’s AI teams, the company has tapped Demis Hassabisi, CEO of its DeepMind subsidiary, to lead AI for the entire company, and former McKinsey executive James Manyika as Google’s senior vice president of technology and society and to oversee Google Research. pushed forward for

Google’s head of artificial intelligence, Jeff Dean, who has been with Google since 1999, became chief scientist as part of the change. The company called it a promotion, but it removed him from a big leadership role in AI and put him in the role of an individual contributor helping to oversee Gemini, one of the company’s important big language models.

The company is also cutting costs, another rarity. The company’s core search product is facing changing user behavior, ad pushbacks and an artificial intelligence boom that requires increased investment.

It is also facing multiple federal lawsuits, including an antitrust lawsuit set to begin in September that alleges Google illegally maintains a monopoly by cutting off competitors from search distribution channels.

More like other big companies, some employees say

In recent years, employees’ perceptions of the company have also changed.

While potential employees still consider Google the best place to work and it offers extremely competitive advantages, it’s growing and becoming more bureaucratic than it was in the old days.

This shift in perception has created a “fragile moment” for Google under pressure from OpenAI and Microsoft, argued former Google employee Praveen Seshadri in a Medium post that went viral earlier this year.

“I found Google a once-great company slowly winding down,” Seshadri said in a blog post detailing the challenges of Google’s growing bureaucracy.

“Like mice, they get trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, executive reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-out summits and inevitable re-organizations.”

Former Waze CEO Noam Bardin, who left Google in 2021, shared Seshadri’s post on LinkedIn. In a blog post a few years ago, Noam wrote that employees were not encouraged to build Google products.

“The problem was with me—I believed I could hold the magic of startup within a corporation, despite all evidence to the contrary,” he said.

Like Seshadr and Bardin, a number of AI experts have left the company, saying it was too bureaucratic to do the job.

Eight AI researchers who built Transformers, part of the infrastructure behind ChatGPT and other chatbots, have left the search giant since 2017 — many of them leaving to start their own companies. Five of them left in 2021 alone.

The last and final one is Llion Jones, who left Google this month to start his own company focused on artificial intelligence, telling CNBC’s Jordan Novet that “the bureaucracy was built to a point where I felt like I couldn’t do anything.”

Other Google AI researchers have made similar complaints in recent months. A few have gone on to start their own AI-focused companies, where they have more control over vision and speed.

In February, longtime product executive Clay Bavor said he was leaving to start an artificial intelligence company with former Salesforce CEO Bret Taylor after 18 “great years” at Google. “We share a passion for the latest advances in artificial intelligence and are excited to launch a new company to apply artificial intelligence to solve some of the most important problems in business,” Bavor wrote at the time.

“We’ve made a deliberate effort to move quickly with agile teams throughout the year,” Google spokeswoman Courtenay Mencini said. “For example, products like Bard and SGE are developed by small, fast-moving teams built for these high-priority efforts.”

Despite its efforts, the company faced criticism from investors and its own employees when it tried to quickly announce its ChatGPT competitor Bard, which it began opening up to the wider public in March. Although the presentation’s reputation has rebounded after several updates and a successful developer conference, the company has yet to release SGE (Search Generative Experience) to the general public.

The company has become less flexible as it tries to get employees back into the office.

Google recently broke with its three-day-a-week hybrid office policy to include engagement tracking, noting that attendance will be included in performance reviews, CNBC reported earlier. Additionally, employees who have already received permission to work remotely can now re-evaluate that status.

There is also an air of new cost-cutting that has surprised some employees.

Even if the company was considered slower moving, it was at least considered safe – usually known as a place where workers could “relax and wear a vest”. That changed with the company’s first mass layoffs in January, where Alphabet suddenly announced via email overnight that it was eliminating nearly 12,000 jobs, or 6% of its workforce. Some employees reportedly arrived at work to find their badges no longer worked. It then refused to pay employees the rest of their approved vacation time.

Although the company included competitive severance packages, some employees lost faith in management, or “Googley,” who had long encouraged employees to be kind, humble and open-minded.

The company also reduced real estate, even asking employees in its cloud division to share desks. It is also reduced for desktop computers and equipment upgrades for employees. At the end of last year, he started cutting back on travel and events.

At an all-hands meeting last September, employees voted to ask CEO Sundar Pichai why the company is “nickel-and-dime employees” with some cuts in benefits and travel.

Pichai argued that even if some things were taken away, Google’s culture could still be pleasant.

“I remember when Google was small and scrappy,” Pichai said. “We shouldn’t always equate fun with money. I think you can walk into a hard-working startup and people are having fun and it doesn’t always have to equate to money.”

Pichai’s statement touched the nerves. Yes, many people joined Google so that their work would immediately affect more users than a typical company. It’s still considered one of the best places to work, with opportunities to solve some of the industry’s biggest challenges. But despite all this, no matter how fast the projects moved, money and benefits flowed in liberally.

Now the company faces its biggest challenge yet, which falls on the shoulders of Pichai and the next guard—trying to recreate the magic of its early days while generating revenue under more pressure than ever.

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