“There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”
<All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan, the true “bard” of the modern age>
I joined Google just before the pandemic when the company I had co-founded, AppSheet, was acquired by Google Cloud. The acquiring team and executives welcomed us and treated us well. We joined with great enthusiasm and commitment to integrate AppSheet into Google and make it a success. Yet, now at the expiry of my three year mandatory retention period, I have left Google understanding how a once-great company has slowly ceased to function.
Google has 175,000+ capable and well-compensated employees who get very little done quarter over quarter, year over year. Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, exec reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-hands summits, and inevitable reorgs. The mice are regularly fed their “cheese” (promotions, bonuses, fancy food, fancier perks) and despite many wanting to experience personal satisfaction and impact from their work, the system trains them to quell these inappropriate desires and learn what it actually means to be “Googley” — just don’t rock the boat. As Deepak Malhotra put it in his excellent business fable, at some point the problem is no longer that the mouse is in a maze. The problem is that “the maze is in the mouse”.
It is a fragile moment for Google with the pressure from OpenAI + Microsoft. Most people view this challenge along the technology axis, although there is now the gnawing suspicion that it might be a symptom of some deeper malaise. The recent layoffs have caused angst within the company as many employees view this as a failure of management or a surrender to activist investors. In a way, this reflects a general lack of self-awareness across both management and employees. Google’s fundamental problems are along the culture axis and everything else is a reflection of it. Of course, I’m not the only person to observe these issues (see the post by Noam Bardin, Waze founder and ex-Googler).
The way I see it, Google has four core cultural problems. They are all the natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called “Ads” that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins.
(1) no mission, (2) no urgency, (3) delusions of exceptionalism, (4) mismanagement.
Unfortunately, this is not my first experience watching the gradual decay of a dominant empire. I lived through more than a decade (1999–2011) at another great company (Microsoft) as it slowly degraded and lost its way. Yet, Google has a few strengths that Microsoft didn’t have as it tried to recover — it isn’t a culture of ego and fiefdoms, the environment values introspection, the stated core values of the company are rock solid, and there is still immense respect for Google in the external world. There is hope for Google and for my friends who work there, but it will require an intervention.
“Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth”
Does anyone at Google come into work actually thinking about “organizing the world’s information”? They have lost track of who they serve and why. Having worked every day at a startup for eight years, the answer was crystal clear for me — — I serve our users. But very few Googlers come into work thinking they serve a customer or user. They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for reviewing privacy design”) or some technology (“I keep the CI/CD system working”). They serve their manager or their VP. They serve other employees. They will even serve some general Google technical or religious beliefs (“I am a code readability expert”, “I maintain the SWE ladder description document”). This is a closed world where almost everyone is working only for other Googlers, and the feedback loop is based on what your colleagues and managers think of your work. Working extra hard or extra smart doesn’t create any fundamental new value in such a world. In fact, in a bizarre way, it is the opposite.
While two of Google’s core values are “respect the user” and “respect the opportunity”, in practice the systems and processes are intentionally designed to “respect risk”. Risk mitigation trumps everything else. This makes sense if everything is going wonderfully and the most important thing is to avoid rocking the boat and keep sailing on the rising tide of ads revenue. In such a world, potential risk lies everywhere you look. People act accordingly:
- every line of code you change is risk, so put in a ton of processes to ensure that that every code change is perfect at avoiding risk (never mind if it is uninspiring for the user)
- anything you launch is risk, so put in a ton of reviews and approvals (literally 15+ approvals in a “launch” process that mirrors the complexity of a Nasa space launch) just to deploy each minor change to a minor product
- any non-obvious decision is risk, so avoid anything that isn’t group think and conventional wisdom
- any change from the way things used to be done is risk, so stick to how it was
- any employee you dissatisfy is career risk, so managers aim for 100% satisfaction among their employees, and employ kid gloves even with their worst under-performers (on the other hand, any individual customer you dissatisfy creates zero risk unless it is a mega-customer, so customer satisfaction is just a concept on a dashboard to be trotted out at an all-hands meeting, tut-tutted about, and then forgotten about)
- any disagreement with the management chain is career risk, so always say yes to the VP, and the VP says yes to the senior VP, all the way up.
The equation would change if the focus instead were on value creation. If you asked daily: “who did I create value for today”, you’d get to very different behavior. If every half-yearly plan identified “how much value will be generated in the world”, then that would lead to different thinking. I’d work harder if I could create more value and have more impact. But I won’t work harder to prevent people from making mistakes — it is easier and more effective to work slower and slow them down. Just ask a few more clarifications and schedule another round of meetings two weeks from now. There is a reason I didn’t become a regulator or home inspector or government bureaucrat. Those are fine professions, but those aren’t the kind of professions that should dominate in a place like Google if it really “respects the opportunity” to change the world.
“No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”
One of Google’s core values is “respect each other”. There’s two ways to interpret this : I’d hoped it would be to respect the unique strengths of each person and figure out how to get each person to maximize their potential and impact. Unfortunately, this runs into the general organizational lack of desire to change anything. “Respect each other” is translated into “find a way to include and agree with every person’s opinion”. In an inclusive culture (good —it doesn’t withhold information and opportunity) with very distributed ownership (bad), you rapidly get to needing approval from many people before any decision can be made. If this were an algorithm, we’d call it “most cautious wins” and there is almost always someone who is cautious tending to should-do-nothing. Add in that often the people involved have wildly different knowledge and capability and skin-in-the-game, and there’s always going to be someone uncomfortable enough to want to do nothing. Therefore any decision out of the existing pre-approved plan or diverging from conventional wisdom is near impossible to achieve, just as the existing pre-approved plan is near impossible to change.
Now within the pre-approved plan (eg: team X works on product X), the priority is to seek predictability with minimal risk. Every manager tries to sound uniquely wise with their own version of “underpromise and over-deliver”, although this is folly not wisdom. I’ve yet to meet an engineering team that over-delivered on its commitments. This folly is rooted in a culture of managing up by setting low expectations. There are documents that explicitly and proudly deride “heroism” and assert that not only should product teams not encourage “heroes”, they should actively dissuade them. If someone chooses to work twice as hard as is expected of them, they usually will be prevented from doing so because they have to work with others and doing so would force the others to work harder too. If someone says they can finish a project in a month, their manager will tell them to be realistic, pad it to four months, and tell the VP it is six months. They may claim and even think it is better to be slow and do it right, but it doesn’t mean it is done right — — but it sure is done slow.
Overall, it is a soft peacetime culture where nothing is worth fighting for. The people who are inclined to fight on behalf of customers or new ideas or creativity soon learn the downside of doing so. By definition, there is a disincentive to go above and beyond, and your peers and managers will look askance if you try to. You are expected to perform to the definitions of your level in your career ladder, as defined in a very rigidly defined ladder system. A L5 software engineer is expected to do certain things and will be evaluated to that rubric. The word “customer” is not part of that rubric, so don’t you bother supporting customers and don’t expect to be appreciated if you do. Don’t bother being innovative or doing something that wasn’t in the official plan set six months ago, because even if you did, your managers will not line up the associated dev, PM, Pgm, UX, docs, legal, and marketing resources to make it launchable anyway. However, your code better be well-formatted (the dev ladder expects that!) and make sure you have a lot of checkins (exactly what they do doesn’t really matter to anyone). Just wait two years, you’ll be promoted, and you can move onto a different team within Google. It’s just like Noam Bardin from Waze said — although every individual is well intentioned, the system has its own dynamic. And in this system, nothing is worth fighting for.
“But you and I have been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late”
Within Google, there is a collective delusion that the company is exceptional. And as is the case in all such delusions, the deluded ones are just mortals standing on the shoulders of the truly exceptional people who went before them and created an environment of wild success. Eventually, the exceptional environment starts to fade, but the lingering delusion has abolished humility among the mere mortals who remain. You don’t wake up everyday thinking about how you should be doing better and how your customers deserve better and how you could be working better. Instead, you believe that things you are doing already are so perfect that they are the only way to do it. Propaganda becomes important internally and externally. When new people join your company, you indoctrinate them. You insist on doing things because “that’s the way we do it at Google”. Never mind if most people quietly complain about the overall inefficiency and incompetence. Here are some examples:
- Google has a unique homegrown internal tech stack called “Google3”. All the company’s massive-scale consumer products are built on that stack. There is a core delusion that Google has the best tech stack in the world. Now this might have been true a decade ago but it certainly isn’t true today. A lot of other companies have built massive scale consumer services without that specific stack. So what does that mean? Perhaps you don’t want to ban every other useful technology that other people in the world are learning and using to accelerate their work. Like React for example! Or SaaS services like Twilio and Intercom and Mixpanel! Perhaps they will help the company hire better and innovate faster. At least be open to keeping up with the world.
- Google has unarguably antiquated internal processes. It is almost as though the company is stuck in a time warp from two decades ago, with waterfall planning processes. If all the senior managers in a team spend one month in every six planning, and one month goes on vacations and one month goes doing performance reviews, there’s suddenly just about enough time to do a reorg and change in strategy once a year, right? Nothing gets done, no problem, no risk — hand out the promos and bonuses and keep going.
- Google’s values may say “respect the user”, but it is obviously far from exceptional in focusing on customer success. Unless a customer pays an awful lot of money, they get some poorly-informed frontline support engineer who knows far less about the product than the customer themselves and they are made to run the gauntlet of receiving useless answers (but yay, time to first answer was less than 30 mins, so the customer success dashboard is all green!). Everyone at every level will spend hundreds of hours preparing a single executive presentation, but it will be the most junior employee and often not even a full-time employee who is tasked with helping a customer for ten minutes.
“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too”
I interviewed with and received offers to join Google first in 2005 and then again in 2009. Although I declined both times, I was super impressed by how different this company was. They wanted to know if I had ambitious ideas on how to change the world. That’s how they thought at the time and that’s the kind of people they wanted to hire. Want to guess if it is that way now?
Google has more than doubled in size in a matter of just a few years, despite ongoing attrition. I joined at the start of 2020, and by sometime in 2022, I had been at Google longer than half of all Googlers. Hiring at this pace is always a problem because it leads to bad hires and those bad hires create more bad hires. “Bad” is subjective — every person can be individually good, but are they placed in positions that maximize the strengths and minimize their weaknesses? That’s tough to do in a hurry. At the junior levels, Google has a challenging interview process and the general caliber of hires is good. Most of this raw talent is wasted and their skills gradually atrophy (but enjoy some free massages to help get over that!). The problem and negative impact lies in the manager ranks and intensifies at the director level and higher. Hiring interviews at this level are entirely subjective and the quality of the interviewers matters. Google Cloud in particular has grown rapidly by hiring mid-level and senior talent from every enterprise company around. In most cases, the skills needed to become a director at not-so-elite enterprise company X are not aligned with the skills needed to become an effective director at Google. And when people are hired from an elite tech company Y, is it really because they were killing it there but still got lured away, or it is because they ran out of runway there and Google was a good place to land. Sometimes the former but too often the latter. In the absence of a stable and effective existing culture, you get some chaotic amalgam of these different enterprise company transplants, all figuring out how to be effective in a new place.
The flip side of hiring is talent management and retention. From what I saw at Google Cloud, they could do a lot better identifying and nurturing talent, moving talent to the best fit roles, and overall optimizing the people already in the company. Instead, the pattern seems to be wait till someone is unhappy and leaves, then just open a req to replace them. Minimal effort to steer people to alternative roles and maximize talent. Such a waste.
The quality of managerial ability varies widely across teams, and so the interpretation of performance reviews is very team-dependent. Yet, Googlers continue to believe in a myth from its first decade as a company — that all performance reviews are standardized and anyone on any other team X at Google will be a good hire at the same level in your own team. This means teams do not conduct thorough internal interviews before an internal transfer — just polite softball conversation.
There’s a number of other leadership challenges as well, reflected in poor strategic as well as tactical decisions. Mainly because decisions are made by people with roles or titles rather than people with expertise (wouldn’t it be nice if those were aligned!). Almost all important decisions are made at the VP level or above, usually by people who have position power and like to voice their opinion. To make matters worse, VPs rotate to different products or come from other companies, but start making critical decisions often barely knowing their product or its customers. Strategy is rarely articulated clearly (that would be career risk), and in any case is usually changed upon review with the next VP up the chain or if it doesn’t immediately translate to success. Many internal projects are started by one VP and killed by the next. Meanwhile all the mid-level managers abandon what they’d just been working on, embrace the new direction du jour, and wait for the next reorg.
“Outside in the distance, a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”
Google can no longer seek success by avoiding risk. The path forward has to start with culture change and that has to start at the very top. Google’s senior executives should look at what Satya Nadella did at Microsoft and execute a similar playbook:
- Lead with commitment to a mission. It has to go beyond technology (eg: using AI) or making money (eg: Google cloud revenue). It has to be about making positive change in the world, for real people (users, customers) in the real world. Googlers are idealists at heart and their work needs to mean something. They also need to believe that their executives are pursuing an authentic mission versus just parroting slogans. For example, if they “respect the user”, how about each VP and every director cancel one hour of meetings per week and instead use the time to do some direct customer support themselves? It is not too much to ask — the customer deserves the attention and who wants that extra meeting anyway.
- Set aside the peacetime generals who underpromise and underdeliver. Define ambitious causes that you will collectively fight for. Expect and reward individual sacrifice towards those causes. Such battle requires heroes whom you should enable and reward. The best people want to make a difference. Motivated people are capable of immense and uniquely valuable contributions in the right circumstances.
- Winnow the layers of middle management that have accumulated over time, many promoted gradually beyond their capability, and now incapable of change. They are often out of touch with the products and teams that they own. They compound the problem by hiring more layers of directors, program managers, product managers, chiefs of staff, and more people to meet with and get presentations from and delegate to. Instead, increase manager fanout and decrease the depth of the organizational hierarchy. The recent layoffs should perhaps have focused more on managers and directors and VPs. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but maybe they should learn to become valuable individual contributors again, get their hands dirty, and do real tangible valuable work.
For the mid-level managers and leads, please question some of the conventional wisdom accumulated over the last 25 years. An isolated tech stack guarantees inefficiency not efficiency. Embrace agile or lean development — waterfall techniques are antiquated. “Enterprise customers” is not an excuse to build complicated crap slowly. Decide which (few!) products need legal review and let the others run faster. Treat employees as unique people with special talents rather than replaceable lego blocks at generic ladder levels. Expect and incentivize each employee to do their unique best, rather than restrict them to the low-bar average expectation for their level. Encourage teams to make promises to customers and keep those promises. Build some things that the customers wanted vs only what the VP wanted.
And finally, for all the employees, don’t spend your time on memegen. It is a wallow chamber and all that internal finger pointing doesn’t help anything. Look in the mirror and see if you can change something positive at the level of your team and your product and your customer. It may be a small step only, but it is a constructive step.
Can Google achieve a “soft-landing” — i.e. gradually transform and become a powerhouse again while continuing to grow steadily? Most companies fail this test. Either they gradually wither and then linger on as a shadow of themselves (eg: IBM), or they spectacularly fail (eg: AT&T). Microsoft managed to turn things around, but it required exceptional leadership and good fortune. Google has a chance and I’ll be rooting for it. The world will benefit immensely if Google rediscovers its roots as an ambitious company that will “do no evil” and strive to make the world a better place. Mice can unlearn their maze.