Google employees say the company culture that made it famous has almost entirely vanished, as it continues to be less transparent and more 'corporate' (GOOG, GOOGL)


sergey brin larry page

  • Google's company culture, which became something of a Silicon Valley paradigm, has steadily become much more corporate, according to several current and former employees who say they long for the Google of days gone by.
  • "Things that worked for Google when it was a smaller company have stopped working." Employees describe blow-out TGIF sessions where leadership would talk about secret projects and encourage open discussion.
  • But Google's TGIF sessions are now much less regular and focus on essential business. "Sundar is much more careful with his words than Larry, Sergey or Eric were," said one insider.
  • Do you work at Google? Contact this reporter using encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 628-228-1836) or email (hslangley@protonmail.com).
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Google's weekly TGIF meetings were once a safe haven where employees would come together to hash out ideas, boast about their week's achievements, and air concerns about the company without fear of retaliation.

But those weekly town halls were also emblematic of a company that no longer exists, according to several current and former employees speaking to Business Insider who bemoan what has become a more "corporate" and closed company.

In November last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the weekly TGIF meetings would be pushed back to once a month. "TGIF has traditionally provided a place to come together, share progress, and ask questions, but it's not working in its current form," he wrote in an email to employees.

The decision followed many months of growing tensions inside the company, with employees voicing grievances with leadership over issues ranging from the company's controversial military AI contract to its handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

Google's transparent workplace and endless supply of free meals were once held up as the gold standard of Silicon Valley's enviable corporate culture. Now, employees say that transparency has vanished along with TGIF, and many long for a time where Google operated much differently.

"There was this sense we were all on the same team," said one veteran employee. "I'm not saying we don't feel that way now, but it's really hard to do with more than 100,000 people."

There are 123,048 employees on the Alphabet payroll as per the company's most recent numbers. 10 years ago, it had just over 24,000.

"We know that things that worked for Google when it was a smaller company have stopped working," said another employee who has been at the company for many years, including several working under cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. "Even when the company had like 30,000 or 40,000 people it was super impressive how much trust it had in every single employee. As that grew there were instances where the trust was unwarranted"

Since going monthly, Google's TGIF meetings have also become much more formal and focused on essential business. In its most recent TGIF, held on May 7, Google CFO Ruth Porat made a rare appearance to discuss the company's Q1 earnings, but insiders say most of the focus was on updates to Google Shopping. Many employees don't tune into the sessions anymore, or choose to watch a recording at a later date.

"I think they used to work a long time ago, but I think the culture of openness and people feeling empowered to talk on what they want to, I think that hasn't been able to work as well as a large company," said one employee.

Insiders now describe a more "corporate" culture that has taken over the company that was once held up as a paradigm of creativity and transparency in Silicon Valley.

"We'd have a fairly open and transparent conversation. People would write memes, blow off a little steam, and then everyone would find a way to come together," said another insider.

"Larry and Sergey could share very confidential things. But now, people are concerned that if something is visible very widely across the company it's going to get out."

'We were waking up each morning expecting someone to have written about it'

When Sundar Pichai announced the end of weekly TGIFs, he als0 mentioned a "coordinated effort" to leak the contents of the meetings, which was happening more frequently. The most significant leak came in 2018 where an employee sent the conservative news site Breitbart a video of an all-hands meeting held shortly after the 2016 election.

Breitbart used the leaked footage of the meeting, which featured Brin, Page, Porat, and Pichai, to try to demonstrate political bias among Google's top brass. Plans for Google to supply the military with AI technology (Project Maven) and re-enter the Chinese search market (Project Dragonfly), both of which were abandoned, were also leaked, and in 2018 the cracks in Google's culture were showing.

Google walkout

The situation reflects the deeply politicized society that now Google operates in, and the increasingly central role its technology occupies in some of the most divisive issues.

Even as details about the internal military and China search projects were leaking, Google employees continued to keep less politically-charged but equally sensational projects under wraps. 

In the months before Google revealed its showstopping Duplex AI project at I/O in May 2018 for example, insiders say that employees throughout the company were using the program's voice-based restaurant reservation abilities. The Googlers were "dogfooding" the Duplex technology – a common practice where employees test a feature before it's made public.

"We were waking up each morning expecting someone to have written about it, and they hadn't," said one employee who was testing the software. "It was exposed to every employee, and yet it didn't get out."

Google has slowly drifted away from its previous cultural touchstones, such as its "Don't Be Evil" motto and the once ubiquitous 20% time for employee pet projects, which insiders say still exists but in a different form where employees will usually help out on other existing projects rather than starting something from scratch.

But sources say 2018 was the tipping point when Google's culture changed irrevocably. 

Google grappled with several major controversies and a company-wide employee walkout that year. In 2019 Sergey and Larry stopped attending TGIF sessions altogether, which employees say was an obvious sign that 2018 had shifted the company's culture.

"Sundar is much more careful with his words"

Under Pichai, there's less room for the candid and freewheeling internal culture of old, a change that some insiders acknowledge was not unreasonable for a company of Google's size.

"Sundar is much more careful with his words than Larry, Sergey or Eric were," said another Google employee. "I saw my fair share of events where Larry, Sergey or Eric would say say something that would give Kent [Walker, Google's chief legal officer] heartburn."

Sundar Pichai Google

The TGIF meetings are just one of the ways Google communicates with employees. Right now, a lot of the internal messaging comes through emails or posts on Google's internal network, Moma.

One tool inside Moma is Memegen, a meme generator where employees anonymously create funny pictures often skewering the company and leadership. When everything else inside the company can feel in flux, Memegen is the one constant that employees still turn to in order to blow off steam.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin are now essentially checked out of Google, although they are still directors on the Alphabet board. As for Google's TGIF sessions, employees now post questions ahead of time and others can vote on the ones they want to prioritize. 

But employees say the breakdown in regular face-to-face meetings has created a distance between leadership and employees that some are unhappy about. "I think the TGIF change was bad for the company," said one insider. "It really silences calls for accountability at the top. Leaders need to take the hard questions."

Weekly meetings are still held for certain regions and parts of the organization, but employees who have been at the company for many years say they miss the weekly rough-and-tumble sessions that gave Google its identity.

"Sergey and Larry were the beating heart of TGIF for a long time," said one long-time employee. "In hindsight, it's obvious to see that once they stopped attending, TGIF would slowly wither away."

Do you work at Google? Contact this reporter using encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 628-228-1836) or email (hslangley@protonmail.com).

SEE ALSO: The pandemic has given Silicon Valley a chance to repair its reputation, but that means little to antitrust regulators set on holding big tech accountable

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