The famous why I left Google blog

March 16th, 2012 at 9:35 am by David Farrar

Not often a blog on why you left a company becomes major news, but this one by James Whittaker on why he left Google has. Some extracts:

The I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

Under Eric Schmidt ads were always in the background. Google was run like an innovation factory, empowering employees to be entrepreneurial through founder’s awards, peer bonuses and 20% time. Our advertising revenue gave us the headroom to think, innovate and create. Forums like App Engine, Google Labs and open source served as staging grounds for our inventions. The fact that all this was paid for by a cash machine stuffed full of advertising loot was lost on most of us. Maybe the engineers who actually worked on ads felt it, but the rest of us were convinced that Google was a technology company first and foremost; a company that hired smart people and placed a big bet on their ability to innovate.

From this innovation machine came strategically important products like Gmail and Chrome, products that were the result of entrepreneurship at the lowest levels of the company. Of course, such runaway innovative spirit creates some duds, and Google has had their share of those, but Google has always known how to fail fast and learn from it.

In such an environment you don’t have to be part of some executive’s inner circle to succeed. You don’t have to get lucky and land on a sexy project to have a great career. Anyone with ideas or the skills to contribute could get involved. I had any number of opportunities to leave Google during this period, but it was hard to imagine a better place to work.

The Google described above is the traditional image of it.

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction. …

As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.” Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn’t invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation. The fact that no one came to Google’s party became the elephant in the room.

I’ve used Google+ once. A few people say it is quite good, but I couldn’t see it providing anything better than elsewhere.

Google+ and me, we were simply never meant to be. Truth is I’ve never been much on advertising. I don’t click on ads. When Gmail displays ads based on things I type into my email message it creeps me out. I don’t want my search results to contain the rants of Google+ posters (or Facebook’s or Twitter’s for that matter). When I search for “London pub walks” I want better than the sponsored suggestion to “Buy a London pub walk at Wal-Mart.”  

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

Perhaps Google is right. Perhaps the future lies in learning as much about people’s personal lives as possible. Perhaps Google is a better judge of when I should call my mom and that my life would be better if I shopped that Nordstrom sale. Perhaps if they nag me enough about all that open time on my calendar I’ll work out more often. Perhaps if they offer an ad for a divorce lawyer because I am writing an email about my 14 year old son breaking up with his girlfriend I’ll appreciate that ad enough to end my own marriage. Or perhaps I’ll figure all this stuff out on my own.

The old Google was a great place to work. The new one?

-1

Powerful stuff.

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20 Responses to “The famous why I left Google blog”

  1. KiwiGreg (3,234 comments) says:

    Google’s a company which should be trying to make money for shareholders. This guy sounds like a hippy. I despise these people who leave a company and then publicy bag it.

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  2. redqueen (553 comments) says:

    It’s funny that, in a way, we say around the office ‘Everyone is the new Microsoft…except Microsoft’. Having learned their lesson(s) in the 90s and 00s about being anti-competitive, they’ve made a real effort to develop useful products and hire good staff (this fellow’s gone back to them). By comparison, Google has gone from an excellent service to ‘we force you to do everything our way’ (a complaint I have about Apple as well). By comparison, nobody complains about Microsoft orIBM anymore, but I know plenty who can’t stand Google and Apple (not trying to pick on Apple here, just pointing out a similar philosophy from a consumer end).

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  3. anonymouse (709 comments) says:

    So he complains that Google has got too focused on Social and that it had become “became a state-owned, a corporate mandate”

    So his solution is to go back and work for Ballmer at Microsoft, which is where he worked before he jumped ship to go to google after saying this

    “You want to innovate in mobile?” said a former top Microsoft engineer named James Whittaker before leaving to take a job at Google. “Then deal with the made men who run the relevant cartel. And if they don’t like you or your idea, your innovation goes nowhere.”

    http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/03/29/the-problem-with-microsoft/

    oh well each to their own I guess…

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  4. xy (182 comments) says:

    If you can’t keep your expensive engineers happy and they’re jumping to competitors, then blaming them is pretty shortsighted – rational actors, man.

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  5. krazykiwi (9,186 comments) says:

    Companies that enjoy rampant, unchecked growth almost always do so on the back of an empowered staff who are given the lattitude and resources to dream, innovate, and try stuff. The growth become self defeating at scale, the inevitable cock-ups, and a creeping need for process slowly kills all this off.

    I’ve been involved in two companies that have gone though this cycle. One my own, and another a multi-national setting up in NZ. It’s fun on the up, and kinda depressing on the down.

    There will be new employee at Google who probably feel things are still rocketing away. Good for them. Best enjoy it while the feeling lasts. Then do a blog post like James Whittaker

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  6. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    I have said for years that Google is the new Microsoft. Google is pissing off staff and customers, and has moved away from what made it great.

    It has changed from being unobtrusive to being intrusive. That’s fatal if you are also ubiquitous.

    But that was inevitable. As soon as it listed, its days were numbered. When it was privately owned, it could give up some return in pursuing development opportunities, agnostic of the final outcome. But then they got shareholders who demanded a return. They have a ‘cost of capital’ they have to satisfy.

    It used to be they could fail and move on. Now, when they fail, they have people adding up the cost of that failure.

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  7. Dick (80 comments) says:

    A socialist who’s unhappy with capitalism? Why doesn’t he just go fuck himself then.

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  8. redqueen (553 comments) says:

    @ Kimble

    It’s not that Google has shareholders which causes this. They listed in 2004. By comparison, IBM has been around for over a century now (in one form or another) and remains a vibrant company which continually re-invents itself (same with General Electric). The problem is that transforming so quickly has led to its ‘growing pains’ and the people who purchase such a speculative enterprise are probably not the best ‘long-term’ thinkers. By comparison, well run, and yet still innovative, ‘boring’ IT companies are often the ones which produce the most useful tools. Don’t mean to get all value investing, but it’s not surprising that Apple, IBM, and Microsoft continue to prosper even after listing and have their consumer followers as well as long-term shareholders.

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  9. wreck1080 (3,862 comments) says:

    The people are already on facebook are resistant to change.

    People want to be where the other people are and that is positive feedback loop, very difficult to break.

    Google is just a search engine for me.

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  10. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    By comparison, IBM has been around for over a century now (in one form or another) and remains a vibrant company which continually re-invents itself (same with General Electric).

    IBM and GE does not continually reinvent themselves. They simply change their branding.

    I dont think you appreciate the innovativeness of Google, recently abandoned. Nothing GE or IBM have done come anywhere near what Google managed in their early years.

    Googles strength did not come from being “long-term” thinkers, quite the opposite. They avoided grand strategic planning in favour of “lets try a bunch of stuff and see what sticks”. It is actually the requirement to think “long-term, brought about by investors looking to earnings many years down the track, that has led to the change.

    Google was a cashed-up start-up, now it is more mature. Money could previously be wasted on dead-ends, now there is much less tolerance for blind alleys.

    I am not saying the shareholders sat Google down and said, “hey guys, you need to make changes to your culture of innovation, to place more importance on outcomes?”. Instead, the mere act of having to justify a course of action/development naturally changed the culture.

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  11. seanmaitland (498 comments) says:

    @Kimble – I stopped reading when you said IBM don’t reinvent themselves – If you think that, you DO NOT know what you’re talking about. Started work drinks early today?

    They’ve been around since 1911, and are known as being THE gold standard example for how to reinvent a big company. Try googling it….

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  12. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    Oh, and Apple is doomed.

    They are a company that must keep innovating to survive. They have to come out with the Next Big Thing every few years to remain relevant. If they arent 1st, they’re last.

    They did it in the 80’s with the home computer. After changing the game, they struggled and almost died.

    The IPod, IPhone, and now IPad are great innovations, and they have built up a dedicated following. But how much further can they take that idea?

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  13. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    seanmaitland, how many times has IBM reinvented itself since 2004? Its not comparable to Google. Any changes in that time scale are merely branding.

    There is no comparison between a company reinventing itself, decade to decade, to one that was reinventing itself on a year to year basis.

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  14. ephemera (556 comments) says:

    @Kimble

    The IPod, IPhone, and now IPad are great innovations, and they have built up a dedicated following. But how much further can they take that idea?

    Television, photography, augmented reality goggles, whatever.

    It isn’t just technical innovation Apple pioneered, but also product design, marketing and – crucially – veritically integrated operations. Apple are always first to market and able to lock down global supplies of componentry for up to two years at a time.

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  15. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    Which gives them a little time in which to make great profits. Then…

    Back in the 70’s and 80’s Apple owned home computing, and they tried to lock it up. You had to buy an Apple monitor, Apple keyboard, Apple software, Apple everything. If something broke, you had to pay a premium for a genuine replacement.

    One of the reasons PC’s gained dominance is that they were built from components that competing companies could manufacture. They were cheaper, more flexible, and offered more choice. If something broke, buy a new piece from any of a large number of suppliers.

    Apple have repeated those mistakes today. Android will win the smart phone war, just like PCs won the home computing war.

    Vertical integration means less competition, higher prices, and less choice. When the fleeting interest in novel design and the bamboozlement of marketing fades away consumers will move on. They will always be a ‘premium’ product. Their appeal comes from being fashionable.

    The marginal value of each iteration of the iphone, for example, is decreasing. The leap from the Iphone 2 to the Iphone 3 was greater than the leap from the iphone 3 to the Iphone 4. How long before there is an iphone 10, but few can be bothered updgrading from their iphone 7?

    My point is that Apple HAS to be first to the market. They cannot go more than a few years without The Next Big Thing.

    A business model relying on the whims of fashion to justify a premium price and perpetual leaps of innovation to retain a fickle customer base is doomed.

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  16. ephemera (556 comments) says:

    That’s a fair point – Android is to IoS what Windows was to Mac.

    Vertical integration – as far as Apple is concerned – means greater margins, which is why they are sitting on a gigantic wad of cash. I see them as being a consumer electronic company more akin to Sony, than a computing company like they used to be.

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  17. ephemera (556 comments) says:

    To add (on reflection) I think when the upgrade cycle slows down – as it did with Windows – Apple intends to bank on auxilliary services that Apple products are plugged into. They still have a vast ecosystem of music, app and – soon – video and magazines to monetise.

    Google and Microsoft are trying to construct their own markets a bit too late in the game. The Android market suffers from myriad OS versions spread across proprietory devices, while Apple’s still maintains simplified versioning for app developers.

    Google has search, email, and video, but is insecure because there is no inherent relationship between content and device.

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  18. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    Vertical integration – as far as Apple is concerned – means greater margins…

    Which is brought about by high prices, not cost savings. They have a captured market, and they can exploit it. Until, that is, alternatives arrive on the scene and consumers leave Apples “walled garden”.

    There is little competitive pressure in Apple’s walled garden, but there is just outside it. Which do you think will end up serving the interests of consumers better in the long run?

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  19. PaulL (5,954 comments) says:

    Apple aren’t really vertically integrated in the old sense of that term – which was that you own all the companies in your supply chain. Apple are in fact the poster child of the opposite – contracting out everything except for the design and marketing. Their point of difference is that whilst they don’t own their supply chain, they exercise an unusual amount of control over that supply chain – they’re not just buying commodity components and stitching them together.

    I think Apple are definitely in an innovate or die business. It’s amazing that they have such a massive market capitalisation given how risky their business is – they’re only as good as their next product. Effectively people are betting that Apple are good enough to stay ahead of the curve – that they are an innovation machine. That might be true, but I personally think Apple are overvalued given the risk. I give them even odds of succeeding, but their valuation would suggest more like 90% chance of succeeding. Although they do have an incredible cash pile, which is presumably intended to bridge them across a couple of bad decisions if they happen.

    IBM are not really an reinvention machine. Sure, they’ve reinvented themselves a few times, but as others have noted, on about a 20 year cycle, and usually in response to crisis, not before one. Google reinvented every day for a long time. IBM supposedly reinvented themselves into a services company a few years back, but in the market at the moment they’re really just selling tin and products. Their software business is going so well and making such good margins (as is, funnily enough, the mainframe business) that the ex-PWC guys are playing second fiddle – and voting with their feet. When the next round of product competition starts hurting IBM’s core business they’ll go back to services – and realise they killed it through lack of attention.

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  20. Kimble (4,428 comments) says:

    yep

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