Alphabet’s Layoffs Aren’t Very Googley

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In 2004, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin engaged in a comically passive-aggressive IPO road show. They eschewed business suits for casual garb, refused to answer many questions from finance bigwigs, and warned investors that instead of focusing on profits, the newly public company might apply its resources “to ameliorate a number of the world’s problems.” Both founders dreaded the restrictions of a public company and vowed that Google would never sing to Wall Street’s tune. To ensure they could do this, the founders structured the company so that they controlled the majority of voting shares. Instead of kicking back money to shareholders, Google would pamper the talent that drove its innovations, providing perks like in-house massages, free food, and lavish compensation. For instance, at the end of 2010, Page and Brin blew their workers’ minds by announcing an across-the-board 10 percent raise, a doubling of the generous annual bonus, and a $1,000 Christmas present, just for the hell of it. The beneficiaries already had top-of-market salaries augmented by lucrative equity shares. But the founders’ largesse made clear that they meant it when they said employees were the heart of the company.

Brin and Page haven’t been deeply involved for years, but in the company’s 25-year history, a lot of that convention-defying legacy has remained. At least until this month, when Google’s parent company Alphabet laid off 12,000 employees, about 6 percent of its workforce, including many senior leaders and some people who had worked there since its early days. For a company renowned for coddling its workers, the layoffs were a psychic shock. Especially since some of the victims were dispatched coldly, with their email access cut off before they could even say goodbye to long-term colleagues.

Alphabet isn’t the only company dismissing workers. Top executives at Meta, Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon, and others are doing the same thing—dealing with what they suddenly perceive as excessive headcount by lopping off heads. Current CEO Sundar Pichai’s memo was so similar to other corporate dispatches that it seems that all of them fed the same prompts into ChatGPT: Hey sorry I was too optimistic in hiring when we were raking in dough during the pandemic, so some of you will have to go. But this is just a blip in our trajectory. I’m really excited about the future that not all of you will be part of! 

Yet, the bloodletting at Alphabet is different. Aside from letting go a few hundred sales employees in 2009, the company had never experienced a major layoff. And along with it are signals that the age of limitless perks is gone. (Among those rolfed by the cuts were 27 of the company’s in-house massage therapists.) And it’s not like the company is in financial peril. Though growth has slowed and the stock is down—like at every other tech company lately—Alphabet is still pulling in plenty of money. In the most recent quarter it reported, the company managed to eke out $14 billion in profits. It also has $116 billion sitting around in its vaults. And in the past few years it has spent over $100 billion to buy back its own stock, something Wall Street loves but that does nothing for the business itself.

Pichai does have a case to make for the layoffs and a cutback in perks. With 187,000 employees, there were undeniably thousands whose jobs were not integral to the company—likely not only the massage therapists but also hundreds of middle managers performing nonessential projects. (Brin and Page always felt that middle managers slowed down innovation.) As you might expect, those working in the hotly competitive area of AI, including the Google Brain research group, were spared from the layoffs. In fact, Pichai argued that the cuts were performed so Google could spend more resources on AI.

But in some ways the layoffs represent what seems like a gradual shift in philosophy. For years, Alphabet has funded projects—and created entire divisions—devoted to producing novel forms of technology. One of those was an in-house incubator called Area 120 that was basically shut down by this month’s cutbacks. There were also some trimming in Alphabet’s X division that works on “moonshots.” Wall Street has griped for years about the unprofitability of the company’s aspirational “other bets,” and now the company seems more focused on its more concrete businesses.