Yesterday's news that Sundar Pichai is taking on the role of CEO of Google's parenting company Alphabet was not exactly a "knock you over with a feather" kind of announcement.
In a strictly technical, definitional sense, this is an era-changing moment because there's a new CEO for Alphabet. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of the company, are stepping back from running things and any time the founders change jobs, it means something . Arriving Randomly on a Tuesday afternoon, it felt surprising and big.
But it also felt a little like a non-event, just a formalization of how things have been working anyway. The consensus is that the public, or the non-public work, either. So somebody needs to steer alphabet, and Pichai is the obvious, steady choice.
Google tells me Page and Brin wants to stay on top of it. In their letter, they wrote:
We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and we want to remain actively involved as board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar on a regular basis.
Their characterization of how they will be "active involved as board members, shareholders and co-founders" is a vital part of the story. As Kara Swisher has repeatedly pointed out, they retain special, company-controlling shares of stock. It just gives you leverage over just Pichai but also the board itself. So the circle you have to have is the co-founders have near-absolute power to do whatever they want with the company ̵
Those are not strictly contradictory ideas, but weirdly orthogonal ones: Pichai is in charge, but he does not have ultimate power. Page and Brin are not in charge, but they control the company.
Alphabet was formed in 2015 as a weird holding company for Google, designed in part to distance page and Brin's various pet projects from Google's core business. That's when Pichai was put in charge of Google as the CEO. Since then, I think Pichai's tenure has been marked by a few major stories that are really the same story: he has spent a significant amount of his time cleaning up his hands.
Pichai's rise through Google's ranks was well deserved because he has calmly and consistently delivered good products. From the very first Google Toolbar to Chrome to Google's online apps to take its scattered hardware efforts, he steadily took on Google's user-facing products until, eventually, he took on the job of CEO.
All of the stuff Google made what is innovative and smart but so directionless and unpolished. Pichai's job was to take Google's products out of permanent beta. At the same time, he's had to make future technologies – especially those based on AI – turned into real products.
Pichai is not a corporate suit – Google is silent
These are the words that make the difference. The first is the early startup of the Stanford dorm room until Eric Schmidt's "adult supervision" led Google to IPO and to buy YouTube and DoubleClick – roughly 1996 to 2007. Next is Google's monumental growth across mobile, ads, the web, and Everything else you can think of – roughly 2007 to 2015.
Google's third era. But what it really was what a midlife crisis. Splitting off experimental divisions into separate companies inside the umbrella might have made sense in theory, but in practice everybody knew the truth: it was all Google and so-called "other bets" on the side.
It did not really start the new era, is what I'm saying. But now that Pichai is running alphabet officially alongside (above? Contiguous with?) Google, he can not do the same cleanup work for the alphabet companies.
That is, if Page and Brin will let him. Pichai has just now.
His most important job read in Google still, and it's not just cleaning up the effects of Google's culture on its products. Instead, it's stabilizing the culture itself. After that, it's navigating the new world of regulation, antitrust, the techlash, and well-publicized privacy concerns from its users (aka everybody who goes online).
Google's internal culture is rapidly changing, and the list of employees is beginning to lose faith is not short. There's the James Damore Mess, the Google Walkout, the scaled-back TGIF All Hands Meetings, and most recently the accusations of employee retaliation – just a few moments off the top of my head.
Only so many of those scandals can be found at the feet of Google's previous management. Pichai's now four-year-old tenure as CEO, it would be the inadequate and increasingly antagonistic way the company is interacting with its most politically active employees.
The US federal government wants to get its act together and enact more tech regulators – or even antitrust actions. The EU is already on both fronts with the GDPR and the new rules about Android.
If the first era of Google is developing the technology, and the second era is growing, the third era is contravening the effects of that scale.
That reckoning is not happening because of the founders formalized their already reduced roles by handing over the CEO title. It's happening because both internally and externally, we do not know how to deal with a company as big and powerful as Google. We just know that Page and Brin are not the ones to figure that out anymore.
The third era of Google has just begun – yesterday's CEO announcement just made it official.
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