Google searches for the meaning of things within

By: Rob Corbidge, 25 January 2024

Man at the summit of a mountain screams into the wind, corporate art style

Criticism from those that know you best can hurt the most. A Google engineer has taken the internal gloves off and started a series of conversations we can all take part in.

A certain queasiness develops when cataloguing in writing the actions of big tech over a long period. It can feel like the writer is akin to a scribe of antiquity, gazetting the tales of deities, deities of shifting character, capable of much good but much bad, with an internal logic that the author can only guess at. They do and we marvel.

Every now and again, but not often enough, the internal tensions of such corporate tech machines are revealed and the deity is revealed as the work of humans, with all their imperfections. And so it has been in past week with a well-written and concise criticism of the current work culture at Google, penned by Google engineer Diane Hirsh Theriault on LinkedIn.

It's a given that Google had a board-level seizure when it became apparent how far OpenAI had progressed with LLM systems. Many will recall the quote from an internal researcher at the time in mid-2023 was that Google "had no moat" and was widely seen as an admission the business had been outflanked in a new arena of tech.

This week we also learned that a few more scientists from the company's DeepMind division are off to found their own rival AI business, as well as that Google was laying off 1,000 people.

There are also rumours around the much-feared-by-publishers Search Generative Experience (SGE) being delayed to deployment, or not deployed at all, and serious doubts around the utility of Google's Sandbox cookie-replacement for advertising.

So it's likely a post like Theriault's was the product of such internal turmoil, especially given that working for Google is more than just a job for many, and that employee belief in a corporate mission and culture was what kept Google ahead of the game for so long.

As Theriault says herself, "I really had drunk the Kool-aid about organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful and I believed in its core."

One could say it must be hard starting out by thinking you're going to built the tech equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, only to discover you're working for the tech arm of an advertising business, but that would be uncharitable.

Notably Theriault's post consists entirely of "punching up". She lays the blame for a lack of leadership squarely at the doors of those who wield power at Google. She describes bosses as "waiting for their subordinates to propose concrete stuff in the direction they are waving their arms".

The direction she's talking about is AI and, in the broadest terms is looks like no one senior there has a clue other than "we must get into the new thing now".

There's no shame in this for most businesses of course. We all know the disruptive nature of new tech and so are now predisposed to explore it rather than get bitten on the profit posterior by it some time later. 

For Google of course, that isn't the case: to retain the perception of effortless tech superiority it is necessary to stay ahead and Google doesn't seem to know what it's staying ahead of anymore.

It still says "Staff Software Engineer at Google" on Theriault's LinkedIn profile at the time of writing. If it still says that in six months time, then maybe someone has listened to her. 

Whether that is good for the non-Google "us" remains to be seen.