Google employees say CEO Sundar Pichai is too timid and risk averse

Google’s Sundar Pichai is accused of thwarting innovation with slow, cautious decisions by 15 current and former executives who say his timid leadership style is fueling infighting at the tech giant

  • Fifteen current and former Google executives aired frustrations with CEO Sundar Pichai in a New York Times article published Tuesday 
  • They criticized Pichai for being risk averse and dragging his feet on important decisions – causing the company to miss out on growth opportunities
  • This has led to a spike in resignations and at least 36 Google vice presidents have left since last year 
  • One former employee said: ‘The innovation challenges . . . will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down’ 
  • It took over a year for Google to hire Halimah DeLaine Prado as general counsel, even though she was at the top of a list of candidates given to Pichai 
  • Pichai refused to acquire Shopify when it was proposed, despite the company’s  rising share price  
  •  This comes at a time when Google is facing significant outside pressure from regulators worldwide

Current and former executives at Google have criticized CEO Sundar Pichai for his slow and cautious decision-making process which they say is thwarting innovation at the tech giant. 

Fifteen frustrated executives past and present raised their concerns in a New York Times article published Tuesday, which paints a portrait of growing discord at the company helmed by Pichai, who has for years kept a much lower-profile than his rivals – including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Tesla founder Elon Musk. 

The executives argued that Pichai’s timid management style and fears of stirring controversy have led the company to miss out on and pass up growth opportunities while fueling internal tension and fears of stagnation that he’s failed to address head-on. 

The result has been an uptick of resignations from officials at the company – which has lost at least 36 vice presidents in the past year. 

‘We start companies to build products that serve people, not to sit in meetings with lawyers,’ former employee Noam Bardin wrote in a blog post explaining his February resignation. ‘The innovation challenges . . . will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down.’

A number of current and former executives at Google have criticized CEO Sundar Pichai for being risk averse and dragging his feet on important decisions

They say this has led to a spike in resignations and at least 36 Google vice presidents have left since last year

Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired mapping service Waze, referenced the long-winded processes Pichai has had Google go through before taking action on important manners.

According to the New York Times, over a dozen vice presidents at Google wrote in an email to Pichai in 2018, saying that the company was experiencing significant growing pains. 

While not directly criticizing Pichai, they said that the company was taking too long to make important decisions and alleged that their input wasn’t being considered. 

Such was the case when Google executives proposed that the company acquire online commerce service Shopify as a way to challenge Amazon. 

Pichai rejected the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions told the New York Times.

They added, however, that Pichai seemed unnecessarily apprehensive and ‘the price was a convenient and ultimately misguided justification,’ the New York Times wrote. Shopify’s share price has spiked almost ten times what it was a decade ago.

Another example of Picahi’s sluggish leadership approach involves the company’s search for a successor for Kent Walker after he was promoted from general counsel to senior vice president of global affairs in 2018. 

It took over a year for Google to hire Halimah DeLaine Prado as general counsel, even though she was at the top of a list of candidates given to Pichai

It took over a year for Google to hire Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime deputy in the company’s legal team, even though she was at the top of a list of candidates given to Pichai.

According to the New York Times, Pichai asked to see more names and dragged his feet on the search for so long that it allegedly because a running joke among industry head-hunters.

Another trend regarding the company’s risk aversion could be seen in an internal process known as ‘pantry mode,’ during which teams hide away products in the case that a rival creates something newer and Googles has to respond to it.

Bardin also attacked Pichai and Google for focusing more on public perception than performance, he wrote, adding that the company values words over content. 

‘You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct or can say super important things but use one wrong word and it’s off to HR for you,’ reads his post.

Other former employees have said that Google’s attempts to appear politically correct and mitigate diversity woes are disingenuous and only exacerbate tensions.

Noam Bardin wrote a blog post explaining his February resignation that ‘The innovation challenges . . . will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down.’ He was above at a meeting for new recruits

Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently apologized for the company’s handing of the controversial departure of the well-respected co-founder of its ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) division

The company was in hot water last month after the controversial departure of AI ethicist Dr. Timnit Gebru, who left amid a row over a research paper she had submitted for a conference. The paper, rejected by Google, had scrutinized inherent bias in the company’s AI technology.

The incident involving Gebru has raised questions about Google’s dedication to not only AI ethics and academic freedom, but its commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion. 

More than 2,000 Google employees have signed a petition in support of Gebru since her departure. The petition also calls on leadership to offer a full explanation as to why her academic paper was rejected.

Pichai stopped short of directly apologizing to Gebru, and also made no mention to the possibility of reinstating her. Instead, Pichai pledged to ‘assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process,’ and promised to implement ‘de-escalation strategies’ in future disputes.

Gebru responded to Pichai’s note in a series on tweets accusing Pichai of ‘gaslighting’ her in his memo to employees.

‘Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,’ a 16-year employee named Mr. Baker told the New York Times. ‘The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.’

Criticism of Pichai comes at a time when Google is facing significant outside pressure from regulators worldwide. 

Timnit Gebru says she was terminated after refusing to retract the academic paper that she’d co-authored with a handful of other Googlers and academics, regarding inherent bias in AI

Most recently, the EU opened a sweeping new antitrust investigation into Google, looking into whether the tech giant unfairly stifled competition in online advertising.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s digital competition enforcer, announced the probe today and said Google may have unfairly handicapped those buying advertising space, tech firms selling ad space, and sites that rely on ad revenue to operate. 

If found guilty Google could be fined up to $18billion – 10 percent of its annual revenue, which stood at $180billion last year – and forced to change its behavior.

The new probe also comes amid investigations into Google in various countries over its ad business – including a case in France earlier this month which saw the tech firm fined $260million over an ‘extremely severe’ breach of competition rules.

A similar case is also ongoing in the US after states led by Texas filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Google conspired with Facebook to establish what amounted to an online advertising monopoly.

And UK regulators are examining Google’s plans to change the way it collects information on users’ browsing habits in such a way that it may harm competitors which rely on that information – an area the EU has said it will also look at.

Despite such mounting issues, Google is still reaching new heights as revenue and profits rise every three months, the Times reported.

‘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. 

She and Aparna Chennapragada, another former vice president, said that Pichai is a thoughtful and organized leader who focuses on his management team as opposed to his ego. 

‘Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,’ Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president, told the New York Times. ‘But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.’ Sengupta worked closely with Pichai during his 15 years at Google and left in March.

Since Pichai took the reins at Google in 2015, it has doubled its work force to about 140,000 people, and its parent company Alphabet has tripled in value, reported the New York Times. Some favored ideas he brought to the company involved his 2019 creation of new decision-making bodies so fewer decisions needed his signoff.

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