- Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been missing in action for more than a year, at a time when Google and parent company Alphabet have faced some of their biggest challenges.
- By handing the reins to Sundar Pichai, the two cofounders will give Google the leader it needs.
- Now it’s up to Pichai to prove he’s equal to the task.
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Alphabet’s executive shakeup Tuesday was both much-needed and a long-time coming.
Alphabet announced that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounders, are stepping down from their positions as its CEO and president, respectively, effective immediately. Pichai, previously the CEO of Google, will be the undisputed man in charge at Alphabet, taking over as its CEO.
Page and Brin will remain on Alphabet’s board and are expected to remain its most powerful shareholders. But they made clear in an open letter that they plan to take a hands-off approach to the company going forward and will put its future direction Pichai’s hands.
“While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents – offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!” they said in the letter.
Larry Page has been nowhere to be seen
As sudden as the decision was, it wasn’t much of a surprise. From nearly all appearances, Page and Brin checked out of the company a long time ago.
Despite being the CEO of one of the most valuable and powerful companies on the planet — and one that’s been under increasing scrutiny worldwide — Page hasn’t made a public appearance on Alphabet’s behalf in years. While Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and other tech execs have repeatedly placed themselves in the public eye in recent years, Page has shied away from it.
When Googlers walked out by the thousands last year to protest gender discrimination, he was nowhere to be seen. When Congress called tech executives to testify about foreign interference in US elections, Page infamously skipped the hearing. Later, when the body wanted to talk with a top figure at the company about its power and its consumers’ personal data, Pichai, not Page, represented Google and Alphabet. With Alphabet under fire for everything from antitrust concerns to violating the privacy of kids, Page has let others, including Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speak for the company.
Despite being Alphabet’s top executives and its controlling owners, Page and Brin even skipped the last four annual shareholder meetings.
Whatever role they’ve played outside the company, Page and Brin have long taken an active role inside it. For years, Google held staff-wide meetings every week where employees got a chance to query top executives about the company’s policies, products, and plans.
But this year, Page and Brin started missing those meetings on a regular basis. They reportedly didn’t attend a single meeting this year until the end of May.
Tensions are roiling inside Google
Many companies would likely suffer in the absence of clear leadership. But the vacuum at Alphabet has likely been felt particularly acutely.
Brin and Page were not only the leaders of Alphabet but a clear link to its past as an innovative, idealistic startup. They helped to establish the company’s culture as a place where employees felt empowered to not just do their jobs, but to question and help steer its direction.
All the signs indicate that that culture is fraying amid growing distrust by employees toward Alphabet’s management. Googlers were surprised and furious to learn that the company was quietly developing artificial intelligence technologies for the US military. Many were similarly shocked and outraged to find out that it was secretly developing a censored version of its search engine as part of an effort to re-enter China. And thousands walked out of their jobs last year after finding out that the company had paid millions of dollars to top executives who had been accused of sexual misconduct.
Things appear to have only gotten worse since then. Many of the leaders of the walkout movement have left the company, charging that Google retaliated against them. Googlers in Switzerland recently met to talk about forming a union — despite the company’s reported efforts to quash the meeting. And the company recently fired four workers who had protested against its policies.
Alphabet facing growing scrutiny from regulators
And that’s just what’s going on inside Alphabet. Outside the company faces a gathering storm. It’s the subject of antitrust investigations by federal, state, and European regulators. YouTube just got slapped with a record $170 million fine for allegedly violating the Child Online Privacy Protection Act.
Meanwhile, a tough new privacy law takes effect in California next month, and there’s also a growing movement to put in place a similar one nationally. Both of them could crimp Google’s business, which is largely derived from selling ads that it targets by collecting data on consumers.
In other words, this is a time when the company needs a clear leader to both be its public representative and to help it navigate through these challenges. Instead of taking on those roles, Page was AWOL.
It’s unclear whether Pichai is up to the task, particularly that of soothing Google’s roiling employee base. He recently scaled back on the frequency of the company’s all-hands meetings. He initially defended the company’s work on Project Dragonfly, the censored Chinese search engine, before cancelling it. After bowing to employee pressure and cancelling Project Maven, Google’s AI work for the military, he secretly met with military officials to try to smooth over relations.
But to date, Pichai has been something like a caretaker at Alphabet and Google. He’s been the guy holding down the fort while the commanders were away — but he wasn’t really in charge. Now that he is the guy on top, he may take a different view of his responsibilities and how he approaches the company’s various stakeholders.
Even if he doesn’t, he’s now in a position to offer Alphabet some needed direction and leadership. Those are things Page and Brin stopped giving it a long time ago.
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