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Google executives see cracks in their company's success

Many of Google's problems stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company's affable, low-key chief executive

By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Published: Jun 22, 2021

Google executives see cracks in their company's successSundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018. Despite record profits, a number of Google executives are worried that the company is suffering from both its size and leadership from Pichai. (Ting Shen/The New York Times)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The seeds of a company’s downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going great.

It is hard to argue that things aren’t going great for Google. Revenue and profits are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the lives of everyday Americans.

But a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s workforce is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.

“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired the mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.

“The innovation challenges,” he wrote, “will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down.”

Many of Google’s problems, current and recently departed executives said, stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.

The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.

A Google spokesperson said internal surveys about Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on his leadership.

“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,” said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.”

Google is facing a perilous moment. It is fighting regulatory challenges at home and abroad. Politicians on the left and the right are united in their mistrust of the company, making Pichai a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling the feathers of lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s foes.

The Google executives complaining about Pichai’s leadership acknowledge that, and say 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 Pichai inherited six years ago.

During his time leading Google, it has doubled its workforce to about 140,000 people, and Alphabet has tripled in value. It is not unusual for a company that has grown so large to appear sluggish or unwilling to risk what has made it so wealthy. Pichai has taken some steps to counter that. In 2019, for example, he reorganized Google and created new decision-making bodies so fewer decisions needed his signoff.

Yet Google, which was founded in 1998, is dogged by the perception that its best days are behind it. In Silicon Valley, where recruiting and retaining talent serve as a referendum on a company’s prospects, executives at other tech companies said it had never been easier to persuade a Google executive to forgo a stable, seven-figure salary for an opportunity elsewhere.

In 2018, more than a dozen vice presidents at Google tried to warn Pichai in an email that the company was experiencing significant growing pains. They said that there were problems coordinating technical decisions and that feedback from vice presidents was often disregarded.

The executives — many of whom had spent more than a decade at the company — wrote that Google took too long with big decisions, making it hard to get anything done, according to five people with knowledge of the email. While not directly critical of Pichai, they said, the message was clear: Google needed more decisive leadership at the top.

Since then, several of the executives who signed onto the email resigned to take jobs elsewhere. At least 36 Google vice presidents have left the company since last year, according to profiles from LinkedIn.

It’s a significant brain drain of vice presidents, who total about 400 managers and serve as the leadership backbone across the company. Google said it was comfortable with its vice president attrition rates, which have been steady the last five years.

A common critique among current and former executives is that Pichai’s slow deliberations often feel like a way to play it safe and arrive at a “no.”

Google executives proposed the idea of acquiring Shopify as a way to challenge Amazon in online commerce a few years ago. Pichai rejected the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions said.

But those people said that they had never thought Pichai had the stomach for a deal and that the price was a convenient and ultimately misguided justification. Shopify’s share price has increased almost tenfold in the last few years. Jason Post, a Google spokesperson, said, “There was never a serious discussion of this acquisition.”

Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive measures on Google’s volatile workforce has been noticeable.

In December, Timnit Gebru, a co-leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team and one of its best-known Black female employees, said she had been fired after criticizing Google’s approach to minority hiring and writing a research paper highlighting biases built into its artificial intelligence technology. Initially, Pichai stayed out of the fray.

After 2,000 employees signed a petition protesting her dismissal, Pichai sent an email vowing to restore lost trust, while continuing to push Google’s view that Gebru was not fired. But it fell short of an apology, she said, and came across as public-relations pandering to some employees.

David Baker, a former director of engineering at Google’s trust and safety group who resigned in protest of Gebru’s dismissal, said Google should admit that it had made a mistake instead of trying to save face.

“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,” said Baker, who worked at the company for 16 years. “The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.”

Some critiques of Pichai can be attributed to the challenge of maintaining Google’s outspoken culture among a workforce that is far larger than it once was, said the Google executives whom the company asked to speak to The Times.

“I don’t think anyone else could manage these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s most senior technical executives.

Discussions to acquire the activity tracker Fitbit, which closed in January, took about a year as Pichai wrestled with aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company, its product plans and how it intended to protect user data, said Sameer Samat, a Google vice president. Samat, who was pushing for the deal, said Pichai had identified potential problems that he had not fully considered.

“I could see how those multiple discussions could make somebody feel like we’re slow to make decisions,” Samat said. “The reality is that these are very large decisions.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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