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Goodbye, cruel Google--an ex-employee's lament

As James Whittaker pines for a passing golden age, we offer a few reasons why he ought to smell the coffee.

Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
James Martin/CNET

It's not quite a Google version of the now famous peanut butter manifesto, but it's still worth reading this angry tirade from a Googler leaving the Googleplex because he feels the corporate culture has changed for the worse.

In his very public adios, engineering director for Google+ APIs James Whittaker explains why he's moving on after three years after leaving Microsoft to join Google. He has since rejoined Microsoft. (My two cents included as part of today's twofer.)

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Yeah, big duh. In case you missed it during orientation, I'm sure that someone, somewhere along the line explained the business mission. If not, I doubt very much that Google would have achieved what it's achieved.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn't feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

Technically, you're right. Pardon the sarcasm, but where was this guy buried? The other stuff, like cars which drive themselves, is good for kicks but there's just one business at the Big G that pays for all the free lunches that you ate. Hint: the word starts with an "A."

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. The fact that all this was paid for by a cash machine stuffed full of advertising loot was lost on most of us. Maybe the engineers who actually worked on ads felt it, but the rest of us were convinced that Google was a technology company first and foremost; a company that hired smart people and placed a big bet on their ability to innovate.

Welcome to the real world and now face facts: After 10 years, companies will change, though I doubt that Larry Page is any less of a technologist than Eric Schmidt.

But that was then, as the saying goes, and this is now. It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook's? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

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.

Larry Page as the second coming of Vladimir Lenin? Say it ain't so, comrade. Seriously, if this guy was running the show, is he saying that Google would not do anything and everything short of breaking the law to leverage its existing strengths to battle Facebook? Google was late to the game and still has an uphill battle wiping the smirk off Zuckerberg's face. Only a village idiot would take a pass at making those ancillary parts of the company, once so "joyous in their independence," work more closely together in support of the bigger objective.

Suddenly, 20% meant half-assed. 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.

Oh, cry me a river. To be fair, nostalgia for the good old days is a very human trait. Folks since Aristotle have bemoaned the shortcomings of the new generation. Not that it makes for accuracy but it's good fodder for a bar conversation.

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.

Now he gets to the crux of the matter. Hey, advertising bores me silly, too. I'd much rather write about new technology but you knew what you were getting into when you signed on the dotted line. Sorta late in the day to claim innocence.

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

Don't kid yourself. TV's "golden age" was a Fig Newton of our collective imagination. Ditto for this lachrymose line about the "good content" that once predominated.

Perhaps Google is right. Perhaps the future lies in learning as much about people's personal lives as possible. Perhaps Google is a better judge of when I should call my mom and that my life would be better if I shopped that Nordstrom sale. Perhaps if they nag me enough about all that open time on my calendar I'll work out more often. Perhaps if they offer an ad for a divorce lawyer because I am writing an email about my 14 year old son breaking up with his girlfriend I'll appreciate that ad enough to end my own marriage. Or perhaps I'll figure all this stuff out on my own.

Welcome to 1984. But didn't we arrive there years ago?

P.S.: Whittaker's upcoming "How Google Tests Software" is about to be published. Talk about timing!