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Google’s Sundar Pichai has no time for an employee rebellion

Google’s Sundar Pichai has no time for an employee rebellion

With a fight on Alphabet’s hands, the pressure is on the mild-mannered Pichai to get things in order. This hasn’t been going altogether well.

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Last Updated : 25 April 2024, 03:37 IST
Last Updated : 25 April 2024, 03:37 IST
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By Dave Lee

It has become clear over the last year that Silicon Valley companies, which for the longest time could keep Wall Street happy with enormous growth alone, finally had to begin existing in the real world. This meant layoffs, cost savings and doubling down on profit. It also meant trimming wild moonshot ideas that sounded cool but burned through cash.

And it meant putting to bed the tedious myth that these companies ever cared about employees bringing their “whole selves” to work.

That was the stern message from Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai’s recent memo to workers, sent amid the latest round of discontent at the company — this time over the company’s $1.2 billion contract (shared with Amazon.com Inc.) to provide cloud services to Israel. By Tuesday, at least 50 employees had been fired for involvement in several protests at Google’s offices.

Pichai’s tone was a stark departure from the company’s historically touchy-feely approach to facilitating and heeding employee activism. Not now, Pichai wrote: “This is too important a moment as a company for us to be distracted.”

For most of his tenure, Pichai has been described in many quarters as a “peacetime CEO,” a highly capable executive steering a ship whose course had already been set by the visionaries who came before him — in his case, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

That changed when OpenAI fired the first salvo in the artificial intelligence wars in late 2022 with the release of ChatGPT, embarrassing Google by beating it to the breakthrough moment. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who quickly invested in OpenAI, would lay down the battle lines in the following months, making it clear he thought Google’s business model was now at risk. “They have to defend it all,” he told the Financial Times.

With a fight on Alphabet’s hands, the pressure is on the mild-mannered Pichai to get things in order. This hasn’t been going altogether well. The company’s rollout of AI has been confused, controversial and suffering from the perception it is lagging behind competitors. Its cloud business remains a distant third in market share behind Microsoft and Amazon. It’s telling that Brin has recently returned to Google, like a retired old general “back in the trenches,” as the Wall Street Journal put it.

So when Google employees held sit-ins and other protests against the company’s involvement in Project Nimbus, the company did not hesitate to force out the unruly. “Every single one of those whose employment was terminated was personally and definitively involved in disruptive activity inside our buildings,” Google said in a memo to employees. The No Tech for Apartheid group disputes this, saying some “non-participating bystanders” were also let go.

Would things have been handled differently had it been several years ago? It’s difficult to say. Sit-ins are a particularly egregious form of business disruption. And it’s not the first time Google has fired workers who have become outspoken on company ethics, offered poorly researched treatises on the differences between male and female engineers or claimed that the company’s AI had become sentient.

What seems certain, though, is that Google is not remotely considering heeding to the protesters’ demands, unlike in 2018 when it decided to back away from Project Maven, a Pentagon contract involving the use of AI. That episode provoked a fresh debate on what role American tech companies should play, or perhaps be obliged to play, in bolstering the tech capabilities of the US and its allies. Google erred on keeping its employees happy and the “don’t be evil” culture intact.

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon took a different approach: “This is a great country and it does need to be defended,” he said at the time as the company was jostling with Microsoft for a lucrative Pentagon cloud contract. Employees not on board with that could work somewhere else. Google is now directing its employees to consider the same.

Defense money is flowing to technology companies. “America’s military-industrial complex has been rapidly expanding from the Capital Beltway to Silicon Valley,” concluded a recent report from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. From 2018 to 2022, Alphabet received $4.3 billion from US defense spending compared with $13.5 billion for Microsoft and $10.2 billion for Amazon. As the defense sector, like every other industry, works to integrate cutting-edge AI, venture capital is pouring into defense tech startups: $100 billion between 2021 and 2023, according to Pitchbook, more than the amount in the previous seven years combined.

There’s opportunity on the table. Google wants it and fears missing out. There is no time for employees to spend work time talking about “disruptive issues” or “debate politics,” Pichai has decreed. Looking at Google’s predicament, he’s probably right.

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