Culture Change at Google

This is the personal blog of Ben Collins-Sussman.

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.

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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. ↩︎