JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

Why I left Google

Why I left Google

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Ok, I relent. Everyone wants to know why I left and answering individually isn’t scaling so here it is, laid out in its long form. Read a little (I get to the punch line in the 3rd paragraph) or read it all. But a warning in advance: there is no drama here, no tell-all, no former colleagues bashed and nothing more than you couldn’t already surmise from what’s happening in the press these days surrounding Google and its attitudes toward user privacy and software developers. This is simply a more personal telling.

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Google. During my time there I became fairly passionate about the company. I keynoted four Google Developer Day events, two Google Test Automation Conferences and was a prolific contributor to the Google testing blog. Recruiters often asked me to help sell high priority candidates on the company. No one had to ask me twice to promote Google and no one was more surprised than me when I could no longer do so. In fact, my last three months working for Google was a whirlwind of desperation, trying in vain to get my passion back.

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

Under Eric Schmidt ads were always in the background. Google was run like an innovation factory, empowering employees to be entrepreneurial through founder’s awards, peer bonuses and 20% time. Our advertising revenue gave us the headroom to think, innovate and create. Forums like App Engine, Google Labs and open source served as staging grounds for our inventions. The fact that all this was paid for by a cash machine stuffed full of advertising loot was lost on most of us. Maybe the engineers who actually worked on ads felt it, but the rest of us were convinced that Google was a technology company first and foremost; a company that hired smart people and placed a big bet on their ability to innovate.

From this innovation machine came strategically important products like Gmail and Chrome, products that were the result of entrepreneurship at the lowest levels of the company. Of course, such runaway innovative spirit creates some duds, and Google has had their share of those, but Google has always known how to fail fast and learn from it.

In such an environment you don’t have to be part of some executive’s inner circle to succeed. You don’t have to get lucky and land on a sexy project to have a great career. Anyone with ideas or the skills to contribute could get involved. I had any number of opportunities to leave Google during this period, but it was hard to imagine a better place to work.

But that was then, as the saying goes, and this is now.

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

Suddenly, 20% meant half-assed. Google Labs was shut down. App Engine fees were raised. APIs that had been free for years were deprecated or provided for a fee. As the trappings of entrepreneurship were dismantled, derisive talk of the “old Google” and its feeble attempts at competing with Facebook surfaced to justify a “new Google” that promised “more wood behind fewer arrows.”

The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again.

Officially, Google declared that “sharing is broken on the web” and nothing but the full force of our collective minds around Google+ could fix it. You have to admire a company willing to sacrifice sacred cows and rally its talent behind a threat to its business. Had Google been right, the effort would have been heroic and clearly many of us wanted to be part of that outcome. I bought into it. I worked on Google+ as a development director and shipped a bunch of code. But the world never changed; sharing never changed. It’s arguable that we made Facebook better, but all I had to show for it was higher review scores.

As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.” Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn’t invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation. The fact that no one came to Google’s party became the elephant in the room.

Google+ and me, we were simply never meant to be. Truth is I’ve never been much on advertising. I don’t click on ads. When Gmail displays ads based on things I type into my email message it creeps me out. I don’t want my search results to contain the rants of Google+ posters (or Facebook’s or Twitter’s for that matter). When I search for “London pub walks” I want better than the sponsored suggestion to “Buy a London pub walk at Wal-Mart.”  

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

Perhaps Google is right. Perhaps the future lies in learning as much about people’s personal lives as possible. Perhaps Google is a better judge of when I should call my mom and that my life would be better if I shopped that Nordstrom sale. Perhaps if they nag me enough about all that open time on my calendar I’ll work out more often. Perhaps if they offer an ad for a divorce lawyer because I am writing an email about my 14 year old son breaking up with his girlfriend I’ll appreciate that ad enough to end my own marriage. Or perhaps I’ll figure all this stuff out on my own.

The old Google was a great place to work. The new one?

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  • Please add 4 and 1 and type the answer here:
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  • Well one things for sure, Goober plus sucks.

  • Google is inovation ,,, did you come up with any of googles recent or past inovations ,,,, mabey your pissed becaues others thought of the good ideas first ,,,

  • I really enjoyed this article. Your writing style is good, and you have a book in you, get it printed! Next, i am exhausted by google suggesting how my life should be. I miss watching good youtube videos. How the hell did they screw up that. I have to duckduckgo for now.. but later.

  • I've noticed over the last few years the innovations have slowed and even getting simple features added to products seems impossible. I mean they don't even bother to answer requests at all, even after years of people asking for the same simple thing, for example a progress bar on Google Drive, or many other things. I mean they don't even say no, they just don't give a damn anymore. I hope that someone will come along and start to replace them with something better. And I used to be the biggest Google fan.

  • Nice I like it.

  • Thank you for this article. I found it while googling :-) for some way to get out of google (move my email etc). It's like they're creating barriers to being able to use the web easily and in the different ways each of us want to do it. I feel so angry and so powerless, especially since I'm not a computer whiz.

    Hope you find a good place to work again.

  • Almost 2 years after you wrote this blog I read this article. It's funny how many facts are true 2 years down the track. You either be brilliant or the world is getting more stupid..

  • The fact that google has been riding a wave of imaginary income and perceived value, for some time, is now more of a mythical story of sorts.  The markets are changing because people value their privacy and want to spend money for quality products.  Google has a lot of things which they can sell for good money.  The problem is, that they have no idea how to engage consumers with money.

    They seem to think that there is something imaginary about building money making products in the age of the internet.  They are trying to "sell" hardware things, sort of, but are suffering from that becoming a negative aspect of their relationship with all the other Android device vendors who want to fork Android so that they don't have to license Google Play and/or other products that Google forces into the Android device space through that licensing.

    In the end, Google is on a waning curve of importance, just as MS is.  Both companies have internal management problems and real issues with understanding exactly what technologies would be most valuable to current and potential new customers.

  • Both companies are letting technologist drive their products.  Microsoft let's engineers compete with each other for the coolest thing to release, instead of having a plan, end-to-end, for how each product and UI element enhances the user experience as witnessed in Windows-8 release.  Google lets research results become products too early and with too little market study.  Google glass is an example of something that became hated by the public because it compromises their privacy.

    There are countless other examples where these two companies just barely succeed now without actually "finishing" their products.  They don't finish them, because they are not viable enough for the future, because there was not enough planning in place to have made these things actually work out as real products.

    There are parts of Windows that have been ripped out, which were some of the most desirable administrative features.  There are parts of google docs, such as the missing TOC feature that have never been provided.  If google docs had a TOC feature, people would be running to it, willing to pay to use it, like mad men.

    If Windows 8 still had the same desktop interface as Windows-7, Microsoft would have sold a lot of replacement computers when XP was retired.  All of the people providing tech support for their parents, aunts, uncles and siblings told them to go buy refurbished windows-7 machines on line rather than deal with the disastrously broken Windows-8 desktop environment.

    If Microsoft would actually make Virus and Malware impossible on their platform, or at least not able to destroy data and force system reloads/rebuilds, an awful lot of people running to the Apple store in a full on sprint, might actually stop by the Microsoft Store as they passed by, to see if there might be something "useful" for them there.

    But, right now, all those "tech support" people who are tired of clearing viruses and malware off of peoples computers for the 10th time are just saying, please go buy a Mac, you will enjoy it, and no longer have to worry about viruses and malware.

  • YOU DO NOT HAVE THE GOOGLEYNESS!!!!!!

  • I understood it I had been straight back to regular looking at and my concerns were actually yet again rising.There one thing addicting about epicbeaver.com/buy-instagram-followers So as with many addictions I need to be stop And once I receive bored stiff or don't seem like taking care of what I am taking care of I cant by using a swift just click of your mouse hop to see, that lasted for the simple while and.

  • sharing worked : it was called google reader. just had to double down on it

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