The New York Times: ‘Sundar Pichai Faces Internal Criticism at Google’

Daisuke Wakabayashi, reporting for The New York Times:

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 work force 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.

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the 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 company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.

I think there’s something interesting going on here, but Wakabayashi’s lede is far juicier than the meat of the article warrants. I’d argue that it boils down to the fact that Pichai has transformed Google into a more focused, and perhaps more boring, company, and that his internal critics preferred the old Google culture — one that did things just because they seemed clever or cool, not because they were necessarily strategically useful to the company. Google Glass, for example.

A comparison to Apple (shocking, coming from me, I know) is apt. Apple has touted that when it comes to product ideas, they have “a thousand no’s for every yes”. Coincidentally, that WWDC-opening video is from 2013, the same year Google Glass became available. In 2013, Steve Jobs’s death was still a fresh emotional wound. But that “thousand no’s for every yes” mantra wasn’t defining a new Apple, it was clarifying that post-Jobs Apple would remain the same Apple. Here’s Jobs at that extraordinary open-question session at WWDC 1997, at the very start of the Apple-NeXT reunification that marks the beginning of modern Apple, explaining that “Focusing is about saying no.”

It seems undeniable that under Pichai, Google is more focused: more no’s, fewer yes’s. The sources in Wakabayashi’s report clearly want more yes’s. Maybe they’re right! Google is quite obviously a different company with a very different culture than Apple. But the results under Pichai, so far, are pretty good.

Here’s one of the examples cited by Wakabayashi:

A common critique among current and former executives is that Mr. 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. Mr. 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 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 almost tenfold in the last few years. Jason Post, a Google spokesman, said, “There was never a serious discussion of this acquisition.”

One former executive said the company’s risk aversion was embodied by a state of perpetual research and development known internally as “pantry mode.” Teams will stash away products in case a rival creates something new and Google needs to respond quickly.

One person’s overcaution is another’s focus.