Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking
Google just went through its biggest reorganization since cofounder Larry Page took back the CEO reins in 2011.The changes show a company in flux, pushed by a contrarian who wants startup-like speed at the same time that he demands a unified, cohesive approach to product development. A CEO who expects his management team to be driven, independent types who are also team players.
No one said Google was an easy place to work. And with Page aiming for seemingly impossible goals—what he calls “moonshots”—a little turmoil seems inevitable.
Two executives—Andy Rubin and Jeff Huber—lost out, moving to ill-defined new projects. (Huber is officially joining Google X, Google’s skunk works for projects like self-driving cars and Google Glass, the new Internet-connected headsets people are buzzing about. Rubin’s new remit is less clear.)
When Page took over, he replaced Google’s all-powerful operating committee of top executives with what people call the “L-team”—a set of senior vice presidents, some newly promoted, who reported directly to him and worked in close physical proximity to each other at Google headquarters for some part of every week.
That structure served Page’s two simultaneous goals—both at tension with each other from the get-go.
The first goal was to break Google up into smaller parts that moved more like startups. The model here was Android, which Rubin founded as a startup and sold to Google in 2005, and YouTube, bought a year later. Both were initially left to run under their founders as semi-autonomous units.
At the same time that Page gave his new leadership team more autonomy, though, he demanded more collaboration, integration, and unity among Google’s products.
(You saw a very similar autonomy-versus-collaboration debate play out in the ousters of Scott Forstall at Apple and Steven Sinofsky at Microsoft.)
Winners and losers
One visible result of that is Google+. Say what you’ll want about the traction Google’s social hub has attained among consumers: It is a very clear triumph of internal politics, with Google+ head Vic Gundotra successfully winning over sceptical colleagues to go along with the plan to have a single way for users to share content from and on Google.
Android was a clear win on the autonomy front: In announcing that Rubin was stepping down and handing the group over to Pichai, Page said that Android had “exceeded even the crazy ambitious goals” initially set for it, becoming the world’s top smartphone operating system.
But Android was a less-clear success in achieving a hand-in-glove fit with other Google efforts. Until a year ago, Android had its own Web browser, even as Google’s Chrome, under Pichai, was on its way to becoming the top Web browser in the world. Google’s fragmented digital-content strategies, which included separate stores for apps, books, and music, likewise hobbled its competitive efforts with Apple until Google finally unified them in its iTunes-like Google Play store.
Huber’s Geo and Commerce unit, a conglomeration of disparate products like Maps, Wallet, and Offers, had some logic to it, especially in trying to tackle the gnarly local-business market. But Huber struggled to build a new organisation essentially from scratch. A steady stream of executives either left his organisation or left Google altogether—Marissa Mayer, Stephanie Tilenius, Sameer Samat, Eric Rosenblum, John Hanke, Ben Ling, and Jennifer Dulski, among others.
And other executives encroached on his territory: Google Shopping moved to Wojcicki’s Ads group, while Google+ more or less took over local-business listings.
Now the organisation is being completely broken up, with Maps going to Eustace’s Knowledge group, which runs search, and all the e-commerce-related efforts—those that hadn’t already moved—going to Wojcicki’s Ads group.
What’s next for Team Larry
So what does Page want? It’s pretty clear that executives like Pichai, Eustace, Gundotra, and Wojcicki are getting rewarded with more responsibility for making clear arguments for how Google’s products should fit together. Rubin and Huber appear to have been less successful in defining what businesses should or shouldn’t fall under their umbrellas, and now they’re heading to Google X.
All that said, at Google, working on secret new projects isn’t exactly a comedown. It has a certain cultural cachet—indeed, Google dangles the prospect of working on Google X projects as a way to retain restive engineers. So it’s not bad for Huber or Rubin that they get to work on fun projects instead of battling for turf at the Googleplex.
Heck, some of their newly empowered colleagues might be jealous.
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