Writings from sussman@

This is the personal blog of Ben Collins-Sussman.

Culture Change at Google

Disclaimer: this post is solely based on my lived experience of working at Google for 18 years. I don't actually know the reasoning of the company's highest leaders, so all I can do is share my personal hypotheses.

I've tried to write this essay three times over the past couple of months; it's tricky.

It's always trendy and click-baity to attack big targets, especially when those targets are full of hubris like Silicon Valley tech companies. People love "fall from grace" stories. But my goal isn't to throw dirt; Google is still a great place to work -- far better than most companies -- and still doing amazing things. My goal here is to call out a unique, beautiful thing that happened... put it out into the universe, with the hope that it can come back again someday, somewhere.

There's no doubt that the early days of Google were "over the top". I deliberately saved this email for 18 years, waiting for the day I left the company, because I knew it would be a fascinating time-capsule comparison. But the email mostly focuses on superficial differentiators, like free gourmet food. In truth, that's not why Googlers come to work. I want to talk about a deeper, more substantive aspect of the culture.

When Ian Hickson -- another old-timer -- left Google last fall, he wrote a blog post talking about the shift in the types of decisions being made. I generally agree with him, but I won't repeat it all here -- I'm going to talk about a different shift.

The most incredible and unusual thing that struck me about Google's early culture was the tendency to value employees above all else. I had worked in other companies, and never seen anything like this before. This culture lasted for at least my first decade at the company, perhaps longer.

Let me explain. In a typical company, when priorities shift, you "downsize" (or cancel) a project, and then use the money to add people to a different, more important project. The common way to do this is fire people from the first project, then rehire a bunch of new people in the second project. It's easy, it's simple, it's expected.

Google, however, had a different approach: they had an absolutely intense hiring process to find talented people who were also generalists -- that is, were able to thrive in a whole number of roles. The interviews were grueling for both applicants and interviewers, often taking months. But in the end, Google was convinced that it was worth the effort: they believed they had hired the best, brightest, and most flexible.

And so, when priorities would change, Google did not fire people, but rather moved them carefully between projects. The unstated cultural principle was: "products come and go, but we worked so hard to get our employees... so we should preserve them at all costs. They are our most precious resource." And so a tremendous amount of energy was put into high-touch resettlement of each employee into new projects. They were generalists. We knew they'd thrive, and that Google would continue to make use of their talent in new ways.

As I moved up into leadership over the years, I became ever more involved in this process. In the early days as an individual contributor, I experienced re-orgs directly and got "re-homed" into new projects. As a leader, I got involved in finding new homes for teams during re-orgs. Eventually I wrote an internal handbook for other directors on how to gracefully execute these re-orgs. One of my fondest memories is getting a peer-bonus from an engineer whose own team re-org I had personally instigated -- he was much happier working on the new "more important" project!

But things change. In my first month at Google, I remember a co-worker whispering to me, "the day Google revenue stops growing without bound, is also the day all of this will change." The change was very gradual for a long time -- but then things accelerated during the pandemic. Revenue began to slow, and now, coming out of the pandemic, we're seeing waves of layoffs. Yes, we knew things would change, but we didn't expect it would accelerate this quickly, in the span of just a couple of years. The academic founders are gone, much of the C-suite is now former Wall Street execs; combine that with revenue flattening toward a stable horizontal asymptote, and the obvious, expected thing happens: the company suddenly moves from a "culture of infinite abundance" to a standard "culture of limited resources." It's a predictable regression toward becoming a 'normal' company.[1]

So what does a culture of "limited resources" mean? It means the execs start thinking about financial efficiency like every other company. You begin by trimming the more superficial perks: less fancy food, limiting travel budgets, no more swag, smaller and fewer internal parties and events, no more onsite dry cleaning or daycare. But again, these things weren't the reasons Googlers came to work. No big deal.

But then you begin to cut costs further by changing the ornate hiring and promotion processes to become "traditional". Hiring changes from a laborious global process (of checks and balances) to a localized one within divisions that can tightly control their labor costs. Meanwhile, internal promotion processes change from "competing against yourself" to "competing against your co-workers for limited positions." In the early days, titles were attached to people, but now they're increasingly attached to roles, and the number of roles (for any given title) can be limited to save cost.

Finally, it comes time to do large re-orgs of projects around new urgent priorities (like AI, for example). But gone is the high-touch re-homing of employees. Instead, we see waves of impersonal layoffs, followed by (modest) rehiring in the newer projects that matter. In other words: doing what a normal company does.

Is Google evil here? Of course not. As I mentioned in a prior post, Google is not a person. And -- whether or not one agrees with it -- its leaders are trying to be fiscally responsible and efficient, just as all public companies are pressured to do when resources become finite.

But, coming back to my first decade at Google, it was incredible to see employees valued above everything else. Perhaps this is a privilege only possible in a culture of infinite abundance. Or maybe not? Maybe it's possible in a limited-resource culture too, but only if the company is small. It leaves me wondering if the sheer size of Google (170,000+ employees) simply makes high-touch re-orgs intractable.

The takeaway here is this: we should all learn from early-Google's example. When employees feel truly valued (which is rare!), it creates psychological safety, high morale, productivity, and creativity. Early employees would often encourage each other to "fail fast" as a means to innovation, but that's no longer easy in an environment where failure implies a layoff. If you're someone building a company, challenge yourself to value employees above all else, then watch and be amazed at the ROI.

bookcase knicknacks

published January 19, 2024

  1. To be clear, I believe Google is still nowhere near being a normal company yet. It has a tremendous distance to fall. ↩︎

Sabbatical Projects

I'm not sure how long my hiatus will be, but I've got a bunch of creative projects that I'd love to finish. I'm making this list to remind myself of goals and keep myself accountable.

Are you interested in these hobbies as well? If you have thoughts, feel free to reach out. :-)

Photo of my creative writing environment, using a Freewrite typewriter. とてもここちよい!

typewriter by chair

published January 15, 2024

Surprised by the Response

When I was laid off a couple of days ago, I knew folks would be surprised and upset... which is why I wrote my short FAQ. What I didn't expect, though, was the absolute flood to my DMs and email inbox.

Over the last three years, my universe at Google gradually shrunk. My projects and teams became more niche; not necessarily less impactful, but harder to measure and less visible. My power to make decisions became diluted, while my career options continued to diminish amid the ongoing corporate contraction -- particularly at the leadership level. As you'd expect, these things eroded my morale, making me question my own effectiveness and relevance.

And so in exiting the company, I had some sense of relief that I'd be able to find impact elsewhere. I wrote my good-bye note with the intent to provide perspective and calm for everyone I worked with.

But the reaction to my note was much more than I expected. My DMs and inbox have been absolutely flooded with messages of gratitude -- many from people I no longer even remember. Every note brought up examples of the "one time I helped them" or coached or advised, or even inspired someone to do something. They reminded me of every talk I've ever given, how my examples set cultural precedent, the problems solved on whiteboards, or even how I made them feel safe or important. It honestly felt like the ending scene of "It's a Wonderful life".

So I admit: I was a victim of recency bias. While I may have felt underutilized these last few years, I've been collectively reminded of how I've touched hundreds of lives at Google, and I'm really grateful for that. Thank you for the perspective!

published January 12, 2024

FAQ on leaving Google

Context: When I was laid off from Google, I knew I'd be deluged with questions. I wrote this FAQ to share with friends and family, to prevent repeated explanation. But my other goal was to help so many of my co-workers process and understand the repeated waves of mass layoffs.

What happened?

Google just did another big round of layoffs. I was part of them, along with hundreds of others. Many of us had long tenure or seniority; my run was 18 years!

Oh no! But why were you targeted?

I wasn’t personally targeted, I didn’t mess up. In fact these layoffs were extremely impersonal. Google seems to be carrying out generic initiatives to save operational cost. I was an Engineering Director with “only” 35 reports (rather than a typical 80+ people), and so it’s likely that some heuristic decided that the business could do fine without me.

This is unfair! After all you’ve done, how could Google do this to you?

Please understand: Google is not a person. It’s many groups of people following locally-varying processes, rules, and culture. To that end, it makes no sense to either love or be angry at “Google”; it’s not a consciousness, and it has no sense of duty nor debt.

Are you OK? I’m so sorry! How are you coping?

I’m fine. :-) Google culture changed dramatically last year with its first major round of layoffs, and I saw the writing on the wall. I’ve been preparing myself for this (increasingly inevitable) event for months now – which included plenty of time for all the stages of grief. If anything, I have a mixed set of emotions:

What happens next?

I’ve seen long-tenured leaders exit Google and go into an identity crisis; that’s not me. :-)

I have a zillion hobbies and shadow careers – plenty of things to do and paths to follow. The first order of business, however, is probably a long-overdue sabbatical. After 25+ years in tech, I need a few months to rest and recover!

I’ll soon publish a couple of ‘post-mortem’ stories. The first will be about my own career at Google, and the second will be about how I’ve seen Google culture change over time.

image: the first three software engineers at Google Chicago, 2006

the first three software engineers at Google Chicago,

published January 10, 2024

My first week at Google

Context: I sent this email to my wife and friends as I was wrapping up my first week of "noogler" orientation at Google's headquarters in 2005. It's a bit of a glimpse into Silicon Valley at the start of its peak 'creative culture' era.

September 25, 2005

From: Ben

You know those sci-fi books where, if you work for The Firm, you end up living in perfect utopian communities, your every need satisfied... while the rest of humanity wallows in slums? This experience is creepily similar.

Note: as far as I know, none of the things I descibe below are confidential. These facts are all either described on public Google websites, or are independently verifiable by visiting Google's campus as a guest or as part of a tour group. In any case, if I suddenly disappear in the middle of the night, you'll know why...

So I headed out to my first week of training at Google. The campus is huge... several large buildings in Moutain View, built by SGI in the early 90's back when they were the 'hot company'. The buildings are spacious, and if you don't want to travel all the way across campus on foot, you can always hop on one of the many motorized scooters or segways to buzz around.

The words that best describe Google HQ are "university campus". Thousands (literally) of engineers walking around, sharing ideas, mulling in the halls and between buildings. Three separate cafeterias, on-site gym with trainers, swimming pools, laundry. All free. There's also on-site masseuses and oil changes, heavily subsidized.

What they say about the free food is absolutely true: it's not just cafeteria food, it's good food. They've hired famous chefs, and so the lunches and dinners are all pseudo-gourmet. Here's a sample of last weeks' menu (Thursday's lunch and dinner):

Phew! Now imagine this sort of stuff being available all day long, in addition to mini-kitchens every 100 feet permanently stocked with fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, candy, chips, snacks, espresso, coffee, tea, milk, and 27 types of carbonated drinks.

The sheer quantity of food makes for a near-toxic environment, if you love food like I do. It's really hard to resist snacking constantly. I managed to eat way too much the first couple of days, got sick, then had to very carefully measure my intake the rest of the week. I felt like a mouse with infinite cheese laid before me. No wonder they have personal trainers in the gym! Instead of gaining the 'freshman 15' in college, everyone at Google talks about gaining the "first year 20".

We had a big outdoor BBQ last Friday, and the Food Network TV guys came to film the party and the chefs. My coworker took some photos on her phone, so I could show you guys:

BBQ photos

But enough about the food, let's talk about the culture.

Most software companies are driven by management. Folks in suits (marketeers and middle-management) talk to customers, figure out what they want, then tell the programmers what to write, usually through several levels of chain-of-command. It's not uncommon for two programmers sitting next to each other to not even know what the other is working on.

Google is the opposite: it's like a giant grad-school. Half the programmers have PhD's, and everyone treats the place like a giant research playground. While the company is hush-hush to the outside world, it's 100% open on the inside. Everyone knows what everyone is doing, everyone is working on pet projects. Every once in a while, a manager skims over the bubbling activity, looking for products to "reap" from the creative harvest. The programmers completely drive the company, it's really amazing. I kept waiting for people to walk up to me and ask me if I had declared my major yet. They not only encourage personal experimentation and innovation, they demand it. Every programmer is required to spend 20% of their time working on random personal projects. If you get overloaded by a crisis, then that 20% personal time accrues anyway. Nearly every Google technology you know (maps, earth, gmail) started out as somebody's 20% project, I think.

Needless to say, in the process of talking to people and taking 'classes', I was exposed to many amazing technologies. I'm rather stunned at the things going on inside Google... I wonder if the Pentagon will be able to keep up! This is truly the cutting edge -- bleeding edge -- of computer science research. Every technology that Google releases to the public is heavily tested internally first, so I got to spend the week testing a bunch of incredible things that the world hasn't yet seen, which is really exciting.

Even the IT department works differently. In every building, there are little offices called "tech stops". They sort of look like miniature computer stores. If you have a problem with your computer, just walk it right into the tech stop and show a technician. They generally help you on the spot. If you need hardware, just ask. "Hey, I need a new mouse"... "sure, what kind would you like?", says the tech, opening a cabinet full of peripherals. No bureaucracy, no forms, no requests. Just ask for hardware, and get it. The same goes for office supplies... cabinets full of office supplies everywhere, always stocked full. Just take what you need, whenever you feel like it.

Tomorrow I'll be settling into the Chicago office, which is mostly salespeople. Still, the techstop guys told me that my new Linux machine (with TWO 24" flat-panel monitors) is ready and waiting for me... standard equipment for programmers, I'm told. The techstop guys also gave me something called an "ipass", which is a piece of software that allows me to use wireless internet in essentially every wi-fi-hotspot in the country: every Starbucks, coffee shop, airport, etc. Google foots the bill for it.

All in all, I guess this is the result of a company that has more money than they possibly know what to do with. I wonder how long this utopian "do no evil" culture can last. Wealth creates power, and power corrupts. And boy, have I seen a lot of power this last week.

"May you live in interesting times."