Hixie's Natural Log

2023-11-22 04:29 UTC Reflecting on 18 years at Google

I joined Google in October 2005, and handed in my resignation 18 years later. Last week was my last week at Google.

I feel very lucky to have experienced the early post-IPO Google; unlike most companies, and contrary to the popular narrative, Googlers, from the junior engineer all the way to the C-suite, were genuinely good people who cared very much about doing the right thing. The oft-mocked "don't be evil" truly was the guiding principle of the company at the time (largely a reaction to contemporaries like Microsoft whose operating procedures put profits far above the best interests of customers and humanity as a whole).

Many times I saw Google criticised for actions that were sincerely intended to be good for society. Google Books, for example. Much of the criticism Google received around Chrome and Search, especially around supposed conflicts of interest with Ads, was way off base (it's surprising how often coincidences and mistakes can appear malicious). I often saw privacy advocates argue against Google proposals in ways that were net harmful to users. Some of these fights have had lasting effects on the world at large; one of the most annoying is the prevalence of pointless cookie warnings we have to wade through today. I found it quite frustrating how teams would be legitimately actively pursuing ideas that would be good for the world, without prioritising short-term Google interests, only to be met with cynicism in the court of public opinion.

[Photograph] Charlie's patio at Google, 2011. Image has been manipulated to remove individuals.

Early Google was also an excellent place to work. Executives gave frank answers on a weekly basis, or were candid about their inability to do so (e.g. for legal reasons or because some topic was too sensitive to discuss broadly). Eric Schmidt regularly walked the whole company through the discussions of the board. The successes and failures of various products were presented more or less objectively, with successes celebrated and failures examined critically with an eye to learning lessons rather than assigning blame. The company had a vision, and deviations from that vision were explained. Having experienced Dilbert-level management during my internship at Netscape five years earlier, the uniform competence of people at Google was very refreshing.

For my first nine years at Google I worked on HTML and related standards. My mandate was to do the best thing for the web, as whatever was good for the web would be good for Google (I was explicitly told to ignore Google's interests). This was a continuation of the work I started while at Opera Software. Google was an excellent host for this effort. My team was nominally the open source team at Google, but I was entirely autonomous (for which I owe thanks to Chris DiBona). Most of my work was done on a laptop from random buildings on Google's campus; entire years went by where I didn't use my assigned desk.

In time, exceptions to Google's cultural strengths developed. For example, as much as I enjoyed Vic Gundotra's enthusiasm (and his initial vision for Google+, which again was quite well defined and, if not necessarily uniformly appreciated, at least unambiguous), I felt less confident in his ability to give clear answers when things were not going as well as hoped. He also started introducing silos to Google (e.g. locking down certain buildings to just the Google+ team), a distinct departure from the complete internal transparency of early Google. Another example is the Android team (originally an acquisition), who never really fully acclimated to Google's culture. Android's work/life balance was unhealthy, the team was not as transparent as older parts of Google, and the team focused on chasing the competition more than solving real problems for users.

My last nine years were spent on Flutter. Some of my fondest memories of my time at Google are of the early days of this effort. Flutter was one of the last projects to come out of the old Google, part of a stable of ambitious experiments started by Larry Page shortly before the creation of Alphabet. We essentially operated like a startup, discovering what we were building more than designing it. The Flutter team was very much built out of the culture of young Google; for example we prioritised internal transparency, work/life balance, and data-driven decision making (greatly helped by Tao Dong and his UXR team). We were radically open from the beginning, which made it easy for us to build a healthy open source project around the effort as well. Flutter was also very lucky to have excellent leadership throughout the years, such as Adam Barth as founding tech lead, Tim Sneath as PM, and Todd Volkert as engineering manager.

[Photograph] We also didn't follow engineering best practices for the first few years. For example we wrote no tests and had precious little documentation. This whiteboard is what passed for a design doc for the core Widget, RenderObject, and dart:ui layers. This allowed us to move fast at first, but we paid for it later.

Flutter grew in a bubble, largely insulated from the changes Google was experiencing at the same time. Google's culture eroded. Decisions went from being made for the benefit of users, to the benefit of Google, to the benefit of whoever was making the decision. Transparency evaporated. Where previously I would eagerly attend every company-wide meeting to learn what was happening, I found myself now able to predict the answers executives would give word for word. Today, I don't know anyone at Google who could explain what Google's vision is. Morale is at an all-time low. If you talk to therapists in the bay area, they will tell you all their Google clients are unhappy with Google.

Then Google had layoffs. The layoffs were an unforced error driven by a short-sighted drive to ensure the stock price would keep growing quarter-to-quarter, instead of following Google's erstwhile strategy of prioritising long-term success even if that led to short-term losses (the very essence of "don't be evil"). The effects of layoffs are insidious. Whereas before people might focus on the user, or at least their company, trusting that doing the right thing will eventually be rewarded even if it's not strictly part of their assigned duties, after a layoff people can no longer trust that their company has their back, and they dramatically dial back any risk-taking. Responsibilities are guarded jealously. Knowledge is hoarded, because making oneself irreplaceable is the only lever one has to protect oneself from future layoffs. I see all of this at Google now. The lack of trust in management is reflected by management no longer showing trust in the employees either, in the form of inane corporate policies. In 2004, Google's founders famously told Wall Street "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." but that Google is no more.

Much of these problems with Google today stem from a lack of visionary leadership from Sundar Pichai, and his clear lack of interest in maintaining the cultural norms of early Google. A symptom of this is the spreading contingent of inept middle management. Take Jeanine Banks, for example, who manages the department that somewhat arbitrarily contains (among other things) Flutter, Dart, Go, and Firebase. Her department nominally has a strategy, but I couldn't leak it if I wanted to; I literally could never figure out what any part of it meant, even after years of hearing her describe it. Her understanding of what her teams are doing is minimal at best; she frequently makes requests that are completely incoherent and inapplicable. She treats engineers as commodities in a way that is dehumanising, reassigning people against their will in ways that have no relationship to their skill set. She is completely unable to receive constructive feedback (as in, she literally doesn't even acknowledge it). I hear other teams (who have leaders more politically savvy than I) have learned how to "handle" her to keep her off their backs, feeding her just the right information at the right time. Having seen Google at its best, I find this new reality depressing.

There are still great people at Google. I've had the privilege to work with amazing people on the Flutter team such as JaYoung Lee, Kate Lovett, Kevin Chisholm, Zoey Fan, Dan Field, and dozens more (sorry folks, I know I should just name all of you but there's too many!). In recent years I started offering career advice to anyone at Google and through that met many great folks from around the company. It's definitely not too late to heal Google. It would require some shake-up at the top of the company, moving the centre of power from the CFO's office back to someone with a clear long-term vision for how to use Google's extensive resources to deliver value to users. I still believe there's lots of mileage to be had from Google's mission statement (to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful). Someone who wanted to lead Google into the next twenty years, maximising the good to humanity and disregarding the short-term fluctuations in stock price, could channel the skills and passion of Google into truly great achievements.

I do think the clock is ticking, though. The deterioration of Google's culture will eventually become irreversible, because the kinds of people whom you need to act as moral compass are the same kinds of people who don't join an organisation without a moral compass.

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