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Schmidt to step down as executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet

The longtime Google executive will move into a role as “technical advisor,” the company said.

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Eric Schmidt

James Martin/CNET

Eric Schmidt, a long-serving Google executive, will step down as executive chairman of parent company Alphabet in January, the company said Thursday.

Schmidt will take on a new role as "technical advisor," though the company didn't describe what his responsibilities will be. He will remain on Alphabet's board of directors, and the company said it anticipates finding a new non-executive chairman for the board.

Schmidt made the decision with Google's founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

"Larry, Sergey, Sundar and I all believe that the time is right in Alphabet's evolution for this transition," Schmidt said in a statement, adding that the company's main businesses and experimental projects are all doing well. "In recent years, I've been spending a lot of my time on science and technology issues, and philanthropy, and I plan to expand that work."

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The change in Schmidt's role marks another stage in the evolution of Google, which Page and Brin started as Stanford grad students in 1998. When Schmidt, the former CEO of software maker Novell, joined the company in 2001, Google's freewheeling culture reflected its origins on a college campus.

During Schmidt's tenure, the company expanded beyond its roots as a search engine to tackle other technologies, including mobile phones, internet transmission and online video. It also adopted a corporate structure that reflected its growing financial success, and listed itself on the stock market. 

In February 2011, Eric Schmidt (far left) was among the technology executives at a dinner with President Obama to discuss the state of education and the economy in the US. Others included Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Cisco Systems' John Chambers, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Yahoo's Carol Bartz.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Schmidt hasn't been a big factor in Google's day-to-day operations for years, but he played an important role as the company's liaison to Washington, DC. He was often the face of Google and Alphabet with policymakers, and had good relationships with officials in the Obama administration. But that dynamic has changed since President Donald Trump took over earlier this year.

Throughout the years, Schmidt sometimes courted controversy. In 2005, Google blacklisted CNET reporters after the website published a story about Google's massive trove of user data. The story included some personal information about then-CEO Schmidt, including his net worth and details about being a Burning Man attendee and amateur pilot.

He's been criticized for his views on user data and privacy since then, too. In 2009, when asked if people should be sharing information with Google like a "trusted friend," he responded, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." 

Schmidt remained Google's CEO until 2011, when he moved into his role as executive chairman and Page took over the top job. When the company unveiled a bombshell restructuring in 2015  creating Alphabet as a parent company for Google, Schmidt became executive chairmen of the new entity as well.

Page acknowledged Schmidt's contributions as the company unveiled the changes. 

"Since 2001, Eric has provided us with business and engineering expertise and a clear vision about the future of technology," Page said in a statement. "Continuing his 17 years of service to the company, he'll now be helping us as a technical advisor on science and technology issues. I'm incredibly excited about the progress our companies are making, and about the strong leaders who are driving that innovation."

Alphabet declined to make Schmidt available for comment.

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