I don’t know what to think about this story, according to ex-Google engineer James Whittaker, Google+ was the nail in the coffin for the climate for innovation and creativity at the technology giant. Their competition with Facebook to be the number one social networking platform became the driving priority at Google and that stifled creativity in a major way. The creative climate that yielded many mile-marking accomplishments like Chrome and Gmail was in jeopardy.
Of the culture when he joined the Google team in 2009 Whitaker writes:
“The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate.”
But today he feels differently:
“The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”
He makes the assertion that Google had a long tradition of empowering employees and had policies in place that encouraged innovation:
“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.”
So what changed the environment and the tone of the workplace? Whitaker explains:
“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.”
“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.”
His conclusion about these changes after spending months working to improve and distinguish Google+:
“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.”
“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 old Google was a great place to work. The new one?”
Hopefully this is a temporary phase for Google, but I fear it is not. Many of todays largest organizations started out as centers for innovation driven by collaboration and a spirit for innovation only to fall victim to the demands of stock holders and blind ambition to dominate a market.
Perhaps Whitaker just had a negative experience, but I suspect he is right, once you start down a path that discourages employee creativity, you stop attracting the best and brightest and end up with a bunch of bottom-feeders who would just as soon steal an idea than come up with one of their own. But this is just one individuals account of things at Google, I wouldn’t take it as fact.