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Alphabet’s reserved boss is causing a stir

June 22, 2021, 3:08 PM UTC

Sundar Pichai leads one of the world’s largest tech companies as the CEO of Google-parent Alphabet. But his leadership has some current and former executives questioning whether he’s the right person for the job.

They have complained about Pichai’s risk aversion, his slow pace in making decisions and responding to big issues, and the growing and public outcries from Google’s outspoken workforce, according to The New York Times, which interviewed 15 executives. “The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become,” David Baker, Google’s former director of engineering who quit after the controversial exit of Ethical A.I. lead Timnit Gebru, told the Times. 

Pichai’s role has never been more important. Alphabet is under the microscope of global regulators and lawmakers—some of whom want to break up the company—for antitrust and privacy concerns. Meanwhile, its grassroots workforce activism has organized into a minority union to defend workers’ rights and fight for tech that serves the public good. And of course, this is all happening as Alphabet tries to turn up the dial on innovation, hoping to someday do things like make search as easy as a having a conversation with a human. 

But the critiques of Pichai aren’t new. As the Times points out, three years ago several Google vice presidents wrote an email to Pichai detailing delays in feedback and pressing for more decisive leadership. And in December 2019, I spoke with several former employees about Pichai’s leadership as he ascended to the top spot at Alphabet. Some felt Pichai’s methodical approach made him the best fit for what the massive company needed. Others said they were worried Google would become even more corporate and stray further from the company’s entrepreneurial and “don’t be evil” roots.

These concerns don’t seem to bother Wall Street. Since December 2019 when Pichai took over from his predecessor, Google co-founder Larry Page, Alphabet’s valuation has jumped to $1.67 trillion, up from $899.7 billion. And Alphabet’s annual revenue, which totaled $182.5 billion in 2020, is up nearly 13% over the previous year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Pichai also managed to dodge much of the heat during congressional hearings with calculated and relatively noncontroversial answers. And he stays under the radar in terms of media and attention. (Though he did speak to Fortune shortly after assuming the top job. His answers to our questions were—surprise!—not controversial.)

Mark Shmulik, an analyst at brokerage firm AB Bernstein, says from an investment standpoint, Pichai has done a “phenomenal job.” He said that Pichai has focused Google’s initiatives and made the company’s investments more “disciplined.” Though Pichai may be different than what Googlers are used to under previous CEOs, his leadership strikes the right balance at this stage of the company, Shmulik said.

“When you’re moving a big ship, every single decision you make is a slow process,” he said. “He is very deliberate about his decision making, but that’s what you want. You don’t want them to move fast and break things.”

Pichai may not be the most popular CEO among employees and executives. But as long as he keeps making investors big bucks, chances are he has a long runway. 

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

You are the weakest link. Goodbye. Amazon is no stranger to using automated systems in order to track and fire its warehouse workers based on their productivity. But it turns out, the systematic approach to employees isn’t restricted to the company’s warehouses. Amazon also uses software aimed at eliminating 6% of its lowest performing office staff every year, according to The Seattle Times. Amazon reportedly calls the turnover “unregretted attrition” (ouch), and the revelations suggest the tech giant may regularly evaluate employees by comparing them to the performance of others. Amazon refutes the characterization of the performance review process and claims it merely gives employees more information to help them “grow in their careers,” the Times reports.

More self-driving trucks. Speaking of Amazon, the company has ordered 1,000 autonomous driving systems from Plus, a Cupertino-based startup that specializes in self-driving truck technology. In addition, Amazon also scooped up the option to buy a stake of up to 20% in the company. Plus has raised nearly $700 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital China and was most recently valued at $3.3 billion in May, according to PitchBook. Amazon has yet to elaborate on its plans for Plus. 

Google Chat, Talk, Meet, Soliloquize. Google has had its fair share of messaging service debuts, including a number of rebrands (by the way, Google Soliloquize is not actually a product, in case you missed the subtle sarcasm). On the heels of Google opening the availability of its latest service—Google ChatThe Verge rehashed all the company’s services that came before. From the rollout to Gmail in 2004 to Google’s first iteration of Hangouts in 2012, the line of product development paints a picture of an evolving—and somewhat muddled—strategy. It also revives a bunch of services you probably forgot about—ahem, Google Allo, Google Buzz, and Google Wave.

Big Tech’s big diversity promises. Following the racial justice movement spurred by the murder of George Floyd last year, many tech companies promised big financial commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. A year later, an analysis from Fast Company shows that those donations generally were relatively small compared to the massive amounts of money these companies generate annually. For example, Apple would be able to make back the $100 million the company committed to DEI efforts in less than day. Microsoft, Google-parent Alphabet, and Facebook, which collectively donated more than $1.5 billion, still would only need between three and six days to regenerate. The report also cataloged the companies’ DEI policy changes. The main takeaway: Change is happening, at least marginally. But is it enough?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

When startups reach a certain size, tech investors expect their returns to come from one of two big events: an initial public offering or an acquisition. But Morshed Mannan, a research affiliate at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy at The New School in New York, and Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor who leads the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, say there should be a third option: one they call the “exit to community.” The idea? Give the company's user base a stake in the company, which ultimately could increase loyalty and accountability as well as spread the wealth.

“As Congress now considers the future of American infrastructure, it should notice the impulse for user-ownership coming from both small startups and tech giants. These early steps could be the start of a new paradigm for innovation—this time led not by large investors, but by the people who make technology valuable by using it,” the authors wrote for Wired.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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In long-distance race with Tesla, Porsche looks to new battery tech for an edge By Christiaan Hetzner

This NASCAR driver is the first to get paid in crypto By Jessica Mathews

Bitcoin plunges, losing last week’s ‘Musk bump’––and then someBy Shawn Tully

MicroStrategy plunges after Bitcoin buys By Chris Morris

Jim Cramer says he sold off most of his Bitcoin holdings By Chris Morris

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BEFORE YOU GO

Netflix is bringing in some big guns as the streaming wars continue to heat up. The company on Monday announced that it has signed a multiyear deal with Amblin Partners, the production studio led by Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

As you know, Spielberg is known for his big box office hits including Jaws, E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, and Jurassic Park. Netflix's latest get adds to a growing list of big names creating content for Netflix including Adam Sandler, Ryan Murphy, and Shonda Rhimes, who shattered viewership records for her series Bridgerton. (82 million households watched season one, according to data from January.)

It must be a tough time trying to come up with the next big series or movie made for the streaming services. But it’s a great time to be a customer. Popcorn anyone?

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