S1: There was this moment in the fall of last year when executives from three big tech companies were called to testify in front of the Senate, but call this hearing to order and I’d like to welcome our witnesses today. They were supposed to talk about the run up to the 2016 election and whether foreigners, mostly Russians, had manipulated their platforms.
S2: And Jaglom, I’m glad you decided to appear.
S1: Jack Dorsey from Twitter. Shut up. So did Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook. But Larry Page, who was supposed to be representing Google, wasn’t there? No one from the company came.
S2: Disappointed, Google decided against sending the right senior level executive to participate. Senators were kind of performative about it, but they were annoyed from Google search, which continues to have problems surfacing. Absurd conspiracies to YouTube, where Russian backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds advice videos to G-mail were state sponsored operatives, attempted countless hacking attempts.
S3: Google has an immense responsibility in this space.
S4: Not long after that, Mark Burgin, who covers Google for Bloomberg News and BusinessWeek, wrote a story headlined Where in the World is Larry Page implying that the company’s co-founder had kind of checked out with that story.
S5: We found difficulty finding people who actually talked to him on a regular basis. At the same time, you know, he was funding and working on these sell flying car projects, doing a lot more around sort of the really crazy moon shots at the company. But from what we’ve gathered, he just didn’t want to work anymore, didn’t want to work as hard, which I guess if you’re a billionaire, you can make that decision.
S5: You know, I talk to people, a company that say they had this intentional idea to keep him out of the press to avoid the Bill Gates problem. Right. So Bill Gates famously during the Department of Justice hearings in the 90s was sort of the figurehead for Microsoft’s monopoly. And Google essentially wanted to keep Larry as far away from that as possible.
S4: The thing is, nowadays, a CEO can’t just step away from controversy. Google is in the middle of wrestling with antitrust regulators. Attorneys general around the country and several of its own unhappy employees. This week, we learned that Larry Page and his co-founder, Sergei Brin, the guys responsible for the company’s ethos, are stepping down from Google’s parent company. Today on the show, Growing Pains at Google, what it will take to win back the trust of the workforce and keep regulators happy. And how much Larry and Sergei’s departures matter. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and this is What Next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.
S6: You know, people who cover Silicon Valley like you and live there are sort of obsessed with founders. But a lot of people aren’t. So if you have to explain on the most basic level, who are Larry Page and Sergey Brin and why they matter.
S7: The others think this mythology around founders and Google and Apple were both critical in forming that right.
S8: Like Google’s culture, Larry and Sergei are sort of the ones responsible for setting that right. They were quirky Stanford beasty students. They they were engineers and they like to hire engineers for a long time. Initially, the two of them actually approved every single hire. Google’s early years. And they had this all these different kind of abuse and credit roles that were we don’t want to be a conventional company. And, you know, we can work on sort of these crazy moonshots. They had like a 20 percent project. Every person, a company was entitled to go off and work on something with 20 percent of their time that was totally unrelated to their day job.
S7: People came to work for Google in the early days because they came to work for Larry and Sergey.
S9: They sort of believed in this impossible dreams of building artificial intelligence, of working on these technical problems like self-driving cars, like an early days project of Google Books. Right. This idea that they could digitized all of humanity’s books, that sort of thing, was an inspiration for people to come come to work for their company.
S1: It’s been a while since those early days at Google. And since then, the founders have stepped back about four years ago. They created a new parent company that they would run called Alphabet and put a new CEO in charge of Google in 2015. So now Pro-child becomes CEO of Google and Page and Brin become the CEO and president of Alphabet, the the parent company. Who is. And how did he end up in that position sooner?
S7: Chai is a longtime Google executive, came in 2004 to the company after working at the Kinzie. Actually, he was in his first job at Google. First prominent job was managing like the tiny little toolbar. So Sundar worked on that. He actually ended up to be a co-creators of Google Chrome, which is arguably one of the most successful sort of homegrown Google products ever. The description of him as a leader is he’s sort of very consensus oriented, very personable, incredibly intelligent engineer who doesn’t really have sharp elbows and that sort of I think given that a lot of prominent leaders at Google, they were known for having a lot of sharp elbows. So they’re sort of seen as like the nice guy. That’s the rationale for why the founders picked him as a successor, both for his technical skill and managerial skills, but also because he he didn’t like flight with as many people as others.
S6: Talk to me about the corporate culture. You know, for several years, Google had a lot of active internal message boards and regular meetings and discussion and sort of this culture of airing things out. And I’m curious how that has changed.
S10: Yeah, that is one of the biggest flashpoints right now. I mean, you can go back to the early days, right? Google’s set up this app.
S9: Funny, cheeky motto, don’t be evil. Yeah. Do you remember that? And people described it as sort of like feeling like a grad school that just happened to print money. And they had these famous weekly meetings where the founders and an early company leaders stood up and and fielded questions. And the most seminal example was when in 2010, when they decided to remove the search engine from China. And so that people that were there at the time talk about how this like really heated and sort of emotional debate inside the company about this decision. People talk about the early days of Google as this was sort of this robust internal conversation right before being made. If you go back, a lot of the controversies they’ve had internally in the past few years, people consistently say they no longer really exists.
S1: But as time went on, that culture of debate became more pointed. Employees protested actions by the Trump administration and other employees, notably, one male engineer protested the culture inside Google and critiqued his female colleagues. Let’s talk about the past few years. I’m just thinking about the things that have happened.
S11: Protests around the so-called Muslim ban. James Domore, who wrote a memo that argued against diversity and essentially said women were less biologically suited to working in tech after experiencing mistreatment and harassment, harassment claims that were uncovered and harassers walking away with with big payouts and and the subsequent women’s walkout.
S1: And then complaints over military contracts.
S12: Nearly a dozen Google workers reportedly resigned in protest.
S6: I mean, there have been so many things that employees were upset about. What’s the culture like sort of post all of that?
S10: Yeah. And you didn’t even mention the Dragonfly, which is a project to go back to China. Yeah. Yeah, so yeah. There’s ongoing list. I mean, I guess there’s two things one is for. A lot of people. It’s still it’s a day job.
S13: It’s a very comfortable day job. I think at this point, close to a hundred twenty thousand full time employees. So for a large majority of them, these series of contraries aren’t aren’t necessarily front center.
S10: That being said, in recent weeks, they’ve canceled the sort of regular all hands meeting the company has.
S7: They’ve made it much more difficult to have these sort of internal conversations. There are people at Google who think this is long overdue. Like we need to kind of grow up and just get back to work. And then there are a lot of people who’ve been very vocal. They feel like the company they signed up to join is turning in direction they feel very uncomfortable with. And so they’re speaking up about that in a ways that we’ve never seen before.
S6: Do you think Larry and Sergei, moving out of their formal roles changes things in that respect?
S13: There’s certainly, you know, speaking to someone at the company who did say, like, we hoped that they either lead or leave because they they were sort of there, but not really.
S9: They’re the big asterix here is they are so on the board and they still own a majority of like the super voting stock. So they’re effectively still in charge despite stepping down.
S14: I think there was this sense that if they came and address some of these issues head on. Right. If they came and talked about sexual harassment and the changes they’re going to make or that they came out and said, here’s our stance on any number of issues, military or going back to China or here’s here’s our relationship with the Trump administration. That’s certainly something that a lot of employees have been asking for them. The parting is clearly an indication that that’s just not going to happen.
S1: At the same time, the Google has been dealing with increasing unrest within the company. Pressure has been mounting from the outside to an antitrust case in Europe. Investigations by state attorneys general and attacks on the Trump administration.
S6: Larry Page largely stayed out of the public eye. But Sundar Pichai has been more visible when you think about the role of tech CEO in twenty nineteen. How much of it is running a company and how much of it is appearing in front of Congress doing damage control either externally or within the company? You know, being that kind of public face?
S13: Yeah, my guess is that it’s a lot more dealing with this sort of diplomacy than he expected when he signed up for the job. Part of that is the new world. Under President Trump, right. Like Google is just how to deal with a lot more issues that it never dealt with under the Obama administration or at least publicly.
S6: Let me play devil’s advocate with you. There are certainly headlines that have come out since this news broke that say May day to day, this doesn’t really matter. Sundar Pichai was in charge of Google. You know, since 2015. And yet I at least had the wow reaction to this. So is it a big deal?
S10: It isn’t it, isn’t it?
S9: It’s I wouldn’t put it to me yesterday, like it gives a corporate structure to a reality, right? That Sundar was effectively running Google. Running Google is ninety nine percent of all of Alphabet revenue. It is close to that amount of personnel. Right. Like self-driving cars, life extension projects, all these things are sort of very small compared to the beast that is Google.
S13: It is a big deal in the sense of the it’s going to change the way the company structures.
S9: Its this big tech conglomeration that it’s built up. Since announcing Alphabet, it’s never really been clear how these larger moonshot projects and experiments are going to be turned into commercial operations that actually operate like companies.
S15: It’s a reflection that the board and the founders decided they’re comfortable with Sundar and he’s the one that has to sort this all out.
S16: Just a day after Google announced the change in leadership, they made another announcement, one that didn’t grab as many headlines but could be very important for the company.
S4: It became eligible to compete with other companies for data storage and computing contracts for the U.S. government.
S6: One other thing that happened this week is Google one hire federal security clearance, which allows it to compete with Microsoft and Amazon for some of these big cloud computing contracts. And I guess I wonder, is that something we can look at and say, oh, that’s the future of this company at this point?
S9: Google is like going in that direction right there at the Pentagon last year put out a 10 billion dollar contract for cloud computing. There’s a lot of money and it’s a big priority for the government and the military in particular to move over to the tools of artificial intelligence and cloud computing. There was some resistance from its employees, and I think there will continue to be resistance from its employees. But the senior management of the company are like they basically are see this as a huge market and they see this as like Google has the best technology. So why shouldn’t they be able to provide cloud computing for everyone, including the military?
S6: If you’re a user, if you’re someone who uses Gmail, use a search, you know, gets lost and uses maps. Does this matter to you?
S10: Not immediately.
S13: I am certainly not alone in that I’m you’ve been using G-mail for a long time and I’m not every so often I get this message where I might come bumping up against my like 100 percent capacity. You have that? Yeah. And part of that is I just haven’t cleaned out my inbox very well. Well, the other part is that is. Like I said, Google is becoming a cloud computing company and they’re trying to compete with Microsoft and they really want people to start paying for these kind of things. Right. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. You’re gonna have to start paying for your Gmail. But the company is as a business, thinking a lot more about, okay, how can we get people to pay a monthly rate for our services? And you’re seeing that in sort of Google Maps, right? They’re trying to turn that, whether it’s you’re going to see more ads and your Google Maps potentially or more companies using Google Maps as a tool that they have to pay for. I think that is a change that regular users are going to see.
S9: And that’s sort of indicative of Google is like when middle age and it’s growing up and it’s trying to no longer rely on this fantastic, wonderfully profitable business model that it had for its first two decades.
S1: Do you see this change in leadership as kind of emblematic of a change in the company or Google moving into this new phase?
S10: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there is people that work there just to describe it almost like a family company. Right.
S9: Like you have these two quirky founders and a lot of the executives or people that were in their inner circle for a long time. And now it’s much more of like a management company. And in some ways, like they’re no longer sort of building up new exciting technology in a way like they’re not really launching like self-driving car projects or something like that. But they’re trying to make these technologies know that they have proven that are billions of people are using or the ones that are like self-driving cars that they’ve invested enough time and money to. They’re basically in maintenance mode.
S13: And so the optimistic take on that and certainly Wall Street’s take on that is maintenance mode is great.
S17: And soon Everychild is like the perfect executive to maintain this. A hundred billion dollar company.
S18: Mark Bergen, thank you. Thanks so much. Mark Burgin is a technology reporter for Bloomberg.
S4: OK. That’s the show. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, hosted by me, Lizzie O’Leary, and as part of the larger What Next family? On Monday, Mary Harris will be speaking with former Senator Harry Reid about the latest in the impeachment proceedings.
S1: And in case you missed it, you should definitely go back and listen to Thursday’s episode, which is the incredible story of this one Montana town trying to clean up the effects of 100 years of mining. It’s fascinating. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.