Google made $224 billion from ad revenue in 2022, which has helped hide four major cultural problems within the company, according to former Google engineer Praveen Seshadri.

Why we care. Although Seshadri was not a member of the search team, he offers some interesting insights from within Google that may help us understand why Google has been lagging behind Microsoft and OpenAI in the ongoing AI wars – and why Google brought back co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin during its “code red” period.

Google’s four cultural problems. Seshadri, who worked at Google for three years, wrote that Google has four cultural problems:

  • No mission.
  • No urgency.
  • Delusions of exceptionalism.
  • Mismanagement.

Seshadri wrote these are all “natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called ‘Ads’ that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins.” He added:

“While two of Google’s core values are ‘respect the user’ and ‘respect the opportunity’, in practice the systems and processes are intentionally designed to ‘respect risk’. Risk mitigation trumps everything else. This makes sense if everything is going wonderfully and the most important thing is to avoid rocking the boat and keep sailing on the rising tide of ads revenue.”

Not the Google of 10 years ago. I was reminded of the 2013 Founders’ Letter, published by then-CEO Page in May 2013.

“It’s amazing what you can achieve with a small dedicated team when you start from first principles and aren’t encumbered by the established way of doing things.  Yet I’ve learned over time that it’s surprisingly difficult to get teams to be super ambitious because most people haven’t been educated in this kind of moonshot thinking.  They tend to assume that things are impossible, or get frightened of failure.  It’s why we’ve put so much energy into hiring independent thinkers at Google, and setting big goals.  Because if you hire the right people and have bold enough dreams, you’ll usually get there.   And even if you fail, you’ll probably learn something important.

It’s also true that over time many companies get comfortable doing what they have always done, with a few incremental changes.  This kind of incrementalism leads to irrelevance over time, especially in technology, because change tends to be revolutionary, not evolutionary.”

– Google CEO Larry Page, 2013 Founders’ Letter

Based on what Seshadri wrote (among others), it sounds like Google has drifted away from that 2013 vision Page laid out. Now Google seems to have become what it used to be against, where at least some of its teams are essentially “swimming in molasses.”

While Google is hardly irrelevant in 2023, Google is facing challenges on several fronts. Google’s rushed Bard announcement truly was the opposite of the risk mitigation Seshadri wrote about – and Google employees bashed CEO Sundar Pichai after the launch, calling it “botched”.

Read Seshadri’s article. The maze is in the mouse

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