Tech and Science

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

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

Jeff Kowalski | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A thread from Google Executives have changed roles in a matter of months, resulting in many of the company's remaining old guard being sidelined.

The changes include high-profile executives like CFO Ruth Porat, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Employee #8 Urs Hölzle, among others. Some say they left their role for a new challenge, while others are looking for opportunities in AI.

In February, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki — one of Silicon Valley's most prominent women — announced that she was stepping down after nine years at the helm of Google's social media network, which has grown into the world's most popular video service. She has been with Google for more than 25 years, having famously lent her garage to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to use as their first office during the company's inception.

She will continue to have an advisory role at Google saidShe wanted to “open a new chapter”.

She wasn't the only executive to leave YouTube. Robert Kyncl, YouTube's chief business officer for 12 years, resigned earlier this year to become CEO of Warner Music Group.

In March, David Lawee, founder of CapitalG and longtime Google employee, resigned after 17 years at Alphabet. Be Notice said he wants to explore new areas of interest and spend more time with his family.

Urs Hölzle, who was long in charge of Google's technical infrastructure and was its eighth employee, said he was stepping down from management after 24 years leading technical teams, CNBC reported in July. Hölzle is classified as a “single employee”, which means that he will work independently and no longer manage any employees.

Also in July, Ruth Porat announced that she was stepping down after eight years as Alphabet's chief financial officer and taking on a new role as president and chief investment officer. When asked what was the trigger for the timing, Porat replied who was before MorganStanleysaid it was time for her to take on other challenges.

Porat will also work with policymakers to “recognize the importance of technology” and address issues such as jobs, the economy, competitiveness and infrastructure development.

“We have a stable and experienced leadership team, many of whom have been with the company well over a decade,” Google spokesman Courtenay Mencini said in a statement about the changes. “Additionally, at Google we have a strong leadership group that will ensure a smooth transition as people with long and successful careers here decide to pursue new opportunities both inside and outside of the company.”

Searching for himself in an AI-first world

As Google searches for successors to leaders like Porat, it is also searching for its own identity at a pivotal moment in the company's history.

When OpenAI launched its AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT last fall, the company was caught flat-footed and suddenly found itself in a rare situation where its core search business was threatened — when users were simply getting answers from an AI -supported chatbot, how long? Would they keep typing queries into a search engine? It was an ironic moment considering CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company's “AI-first” strategy since 2016, without showing little of this achievement on the outside.

In June, Google executives admitted to employees that users are “still not entirely satisfied” with the search experience, CNBC reported. Search chief Prabhakar Raghavan and vice president of technology HJ Kim spent several minutes pledging to do a better job for staff, while CEO Sundar Pichai noted that it is 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 of the potential threat posed by AI. which he believes will come sooner than he previously thought.

Shortly before, As part of a reshuffle of Google's AI teams, the company promoted the CEO of its DeepMind subsidiary, Demis Hassabis, to lead AI across the company and promoted former McKinsey executive James Manyika to Google's senior vice president of technology and society, as well for overseeing Google Research.

Google's AI chief Jeff Dean, who has been with Google since 1999, has been appointed chief scientist as part of the shift. The company called it a promotion, but it effectively stripped him of a major leadership role in AI and relegated him to the role of a single contributor. allegedly Assisted in monitoring Gemini, one of the company's key large language models.

The company is also cutting costs, which is also a rarity. The company's core search product is facing changing user behavior, advertising declines, and an AI boom that requires increasing investments — all against the backdrop of a slowing economy and investor calls for spending cuts.

It also dismisses several federal lawsuits, including an upcoming antitrust case due to start in September alleging that Google illegally maintained a monopoly by cutting off competitors from search distribution channels.

More like other big companies, some employees say

Employees' perception of the company has also changed in recent years.

While potential employees still see Google as a great place to work and offer highly competitive perks, the company has grown and become more bureaucratic than in its earlier days.

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

“I made Google understand how a once-great company is starting to fail,” Seshadri wrote in his blog post, detailing the challenges of Google's growing bureaucracy.

“Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, onboarding processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, executive reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-man summits, and the inevitable reorgs.”

Former Waze CEO Noam Bardin, who left Google in 2021, shared Seshadri's post On Linkedin. In a blog post A few years earlier, Noam had written that employees have no incentive to develop Google products.

“The problem was me – I believed I could keep the startup magic within a company despite all the evidence to the contrary,” he wrote in his critique of the company.

Like Seshadr and Bardin, several AI specialists have left the company because it has become too bureaucratic to get things done.

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

The latest and most recent was Llion Jones, who left Google this month to start his own AI-focused company, telling CNBC's Jordan Novet: “The bureaucracy had grown to the point that I just felt like I could nothing more to do.”

Other AI researchers at Google have succeeded similar complaints in the last few months. Several have subsequently started their own companies focused on AI where they have more control over vision and speed.

In February, longtime product manager Clay Bavor said he was leaving after 18 “wonderful years” at Google to start an artificial intelligence company with former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor. “We are obsessed with recent advances in AI and excited to create a new company that will use AI to solve some of the most critical problems in business,” Bavor wrote at the time.

“We made it intentional efforts year-round to move quickly with nimble teams,” said Google spokesman Courtenay Mencini. “Products like Bard and SGE, for example, are developed by small, fast-acting teams built for these high-priority tasks.”

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

Also, the company has become less flexible as it seeks to bring employees back into the office.

As CNBC previously reported, Google recently scrapped its three-day-a-week hybrid office policy and now introduced ID tracking as well. Noted attendance is now included in performance appraisals. Additionally, for employees who have already received approval to work remotely, this status can now be reassessed.

There's also a new take on cost-cutting that has surprised some employees.

While the company was considered slower, it was at least considered safe — commonly known as a place for employees to “rest and rest.” That changed with the company's first mass layoffs in January, when Alphabet abruptly announced in an overnight email that it would be shedding about 12,000 jobs, or 6% of its workforce. Several employees allegedly When they got to work, they found their badges were no longer working. It then refused payment of the remainder of the employees' approved leave.

While the company offered competitive severance packages, some employees lost faith in leadership, which had long encouraged employees to be kind, humble, and outgoing, hence “Googley.”

The company has also reduced the footprint, even requiring employees in its cloud unit to share desks. Also, fewer desktop PCs and device updates are required for employees. At the end of last year, travel and events began to be restricted.

At a plenary meeting last September, employees voted to ask CEO Sundar Pichai why the company is “ripoffing employees” with some cuts to perks and travel.

Google's culture can still be fun even if some things, such as certain promotional items, are taken away, Pichai argued.

“I remember when Google was small and battered,” Pichai said. “We shouldn't always equate fun with money. I think you can go into a hard working startup and people might have fun and it shouldn't always equate to money.”

Pichai's statement hit a nerve. Yes, many people joined Google because their work has an immediate impact on many more users than the typical company. It's still considered one of the best places to work and offers an opportunity to tackle some of the biggest issues in the industry. But alongside that, money and perks flowed lavishly, regardless of the speed at which the projects progressed.

Now the company faces its biggest challenge yet, resting on the shoulders of Pichai and the next guard – attempting to recreate the magic of its early days and generate revenue under greater pressure than ever.

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