John Doerr
John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins

Michael Arrington’s report that Google has a “high-level mole” at Twitter has Silicon Valley buzzing.Arrington said Google was tipped off in advance that Twitter was trying to poach a senior Google engineer and that Google had made a “counter-offer” to the engineer before the Twitter offer came through.

The suspicion of some in the Valley is that the mole is legendary Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr.

As we described a few weeks ago, Doerr has raised the hackles of several tech industry veterans with an attitude that Doerr himself is said to have described as “no conflict, no interest.”

Recently, for example, after receiving a legal opinion that, as a member of Google’s board of directors, it would be a conflict of interest for Doerr to also join Twitter’s board, Doerr showed up at Twitter’s January board meeting as a board observer.

One insider we spoke with defended Doerr’s presence at this Twitter board meeting, saying that Kleiner now has a lot of skin in the Twitter game (a $150 million investment) and that Kleiner therefore has a right to have an observer there. The Doerr defender added that Twitter’s board went into “executive sessions” that excluded Doerr and other observers whenever sensitive topics came up.

Sundar Pichai
Google SVP Sundar Pichai, who just got a massive retention bonus and promotion as a reward for not going to Twitter.

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Another insider, however, ridiculed this logic, arguing that “board observer” and “board member” are a distinction without a difference.The reason Doerr’s presence on the board was deemed a conflict of interest, the second insider said, was that Doerr would learn information at both Google and Twitter that would be competitive and proprietary, especially in the hands of the other company.  Such information would include knowledge of particular executives that Twitter might be trying to hire from Google. 

If Doerr–or anyone–felt that a Google executive who Twitter was trying to poach was very valuable to Google, he might feel that he or she should let Google know about it (especially if he or she had a fiduciary duty to Google, which board members do).

This is why, from a broader level, people are concerned about conflicts of interest. And it’s why one of the industry insiders we spoke with was frustrated by Doerr’s apparently cavalier attitude toward them.

The moment Michael Arrington’s story about Google having a “high-level mole at Twitter” appeared, lots of folks thought of John Doerr. As an observer at the Twitter board meeting, Doerr would likely know who Twitter was trying to hire to fill its key product slot. And as a Google board member, Doerr might also feel a duty to convey to Google that it was on the verge of losing one of its stars, especially in light of the brain-drain that has plagued Google in recent years.

Of course, if John Doerr were to have relayed this sort of confidential information to Google, however indirectly, it would be a huge violation of trust and, thereby, a blow to his reputation and that of Kleiner Perkins. Doerr and Kleiner are legendary for a reason, and even those who have no issue with Doerr’s “no conflict, no interest” attitude would likely agree that this would be a major violation of trust.

So does Google really have a “mole” at Twitter?

And is it really John Doerr?

Here’s what we know so far.

We have talked to several sources familiar with aspects of the situation. Thus far, we have not been able to confirm either assertion.

First, no one has even confirmed that Google was tipped off in advance of Twitter’s poaching effort, much less by a Twitter mole.

This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

But having been involved in several high-level “poaching” situations ourselves, we think there’s a possible innocent explanation for the story that has nothing to do with a “mole.”

The innocent explanation is that one or both of the two engineers Twitter was trying to poach, Sundar Pichai and Neal Mohan, told Google about Twitter’s interest themselves, in advance of getting a formal offer.

This often happens in such situations, especially when the executive in question isn’t really sure he or she wants to leave the company (and, more specifically, when there’s something that would make them stay–like a huge raise or stock grant).

In such a situation, instead of actually waiting for a hard offer, the executive might say to the powers-that-be something like the following:

“Look, I’m sorry to say this, but a company is trying to recruit me, and they’re going to make me a positively huge offer. I love Google, and I don’t want to leave, but this is the sort of offer that I would be nuts to turn down.”

And at that point, the powers-that-be, if they wanted to keep the exec at Google, might say:

“Well, thanks for the heads-up. We absolutely don’t want you to leave. And I assume that because you’re telling me this instead of just leaving, there is something we can do to make you stay. So tell me what that is and I’ll see if we can make it happen.”

At which point the executive, having thought through this in advance, might float a number and/or added responsibilities that would make it worth their while to stay.

Then, if Google delivered on these requests, the executive might explain to the company trying to poach him or her that Google had just made a gigantic counter-offer that he or she couldn’t refuse. (It’s easier and more polite to say that than to say, “while I was talking to you I was secretly hoping Google would offer me a fortune to stay, because I really didn’t want to leave–and so I went in and told Google before you made me an offer.”) 

From an observer’s perspective, or the poaching company’s perspective, it might look that Google was “tipped off,” when, in reality, the executive in question just told Google him or herself.

(Sundar Pichai, one of the two executives Twitter was trying to poach, was a big winner in Google’s latest re-org, by the way. In addition to getting a reported $50 million in restricted stock, he’s also now an SVP at the company.)

So we haven’t been able to confirm the “high-level mole at Twitter” story. And we think there’s a good explanation for why there might not be a mole at all.

Secondly, we have talked to no one who has any evidence other than the logic above that, even if there is a Google mole at Twitter, the mole is John Doerr. One insider we spoke to, in fact, dismissed the idea out of hand.

We’ve reached out to additional sources who may be able to shed light on this situation. We’ll let you know if/when we learn more. ([email protected])

See Also:
The Inside Story Of Google’s Big Re-Org: Here Are The Winners and Losers
NO CONFLICT, NO INTEREST: John Doerr Crashes The Twitter Board Meeting