Google can no longer innovate, says former engineer

Commentary: Steve Yegge says office politics, a focus on rivals and an aversion to risk prevent Google from being what it once was.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Facing a lot of issues?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We change as we get older.

We learn more -- perhaps even far too much -- about the world. We slow down. 

We begin to realize we're not as pure and wonderful as we thought and that there's a little evil-doing in everyone.

Has that happened to Google? 

Longtime Google engineer Steve Yegge appears to think it has. 

He's just left the company, after 13 years, to join Singapore-based Uber competitor Grab. He did, however, offer a long goodbye to Google, in a Medium post

It wasn't flattering.

"The main reason I left Google is that they can no longer innovate," he said.

This is an accusation that's been leveled at, for instance, Apple (so many times), Facebook and Twitter, all companies that have been at the forefront of, well, excitement. (None of these firms responded to a request for comment.)

I'd rather fancied that Google, though, was always essentially an advertising company. 

Ninety percent of its revenue still comes from advertising. It used to be 99 percent. Google directs its innovative instincts to futuristic projects such as self-driving cars and peculiar blimps, efforts that now seem to be handled by its Alphabet parent company.

Yegge, however, appears to be a lapsed believer in the whole Google ethos. He pointed to four issues that made him quit.

He says the company has become conservative.

Not politically, you understand. Yegge says Google now fears "risk-taking and real innovation." Oh, all advertising companies are conservative. They need to make as much money as possible.

Yegge also seems to have grown tired of politics interfering with Google's mission.

Again, he's not referring to the right-versus-left sort of politics. He's talking about the office variety. Indeed, the infighting, factionalism and bureaucracy at any large company can be tiring, which Yegge concedes. He adds, though, that he'd had enough of how this slows everything down.

Then he accuses Google of arrogance. (Really? Google?)

"It has taken me years to understand that a company full of humble individuals can still be an arrogant company," writes Yegge. 

I fear others got there a little more quickly. Too often, Google has seemed like a company that's so darned clever, it would just prefer it if you got out of its way.

Yegge is scathing in his assessment. "The organization can become afflicted with a sense of invincibility and almost manifest destiny, which leads to tragic outcomes: complacency, not-invented-here syndrome, loss of touch with customers, poor strategic decision-making." 

Some might say he's being a touch generous. 

One of Google's biggest issues has surely been that it's extremely slow to understand real people. Far too often, it's created products to impress those who work at Google, rather than the vast majority of humans, who don't. 

Anyone remember Google+? Yegge does. He offers it as an example of Google's arrogance. In fact, he first offered it in 2011 in a post that was meant to be private but emerged into the public arena. He called Google+ a "pathetic afterthought." 

Yet he stayed at Google another seven years.

Finally he comes to what he sees as the company's biggest fault, one that's related to that last one. Google, he says, isn't paying attention to the people who use its products and services.

"Google has become 100 percent competitor-focused rather than customer-focused," he says.

He blames the incentive structure at the company, which apparently causes employees to become too focused on how to counter competitors. What results, he said, are me-too products, rather than genuinely innovative ones. 

But was Google ever at the pinnacle of innovation? Or did it merely arrive at the perfect time with perfect algorithms and a product that was astonishingly efficient and useful? A product that its founders suddenly realized could be leveraged to make untold lucre that would let them pursue more-exotic things on the side?

Google didn't respond to a request for comment.

Yegge's words make for quite an indictment of the company.

He concedes Google remains a good place to work, but says many of his fellow Googlies want to leave but can't think where to go. 

"It takes a lot to pry someone away from the best place to work on earth, since if nothing else, Google still has a pretty incredible work environment, especially for engineers," he says. 

I hear it also offers pretty incredible salary packages too.

Of course, if Google is the best place to work on Earth, what hope is there for finding something better? Perhaps Yegge is feeling wistful for a Google gone by.

The world has become far more complicated for most tech companies. They no longer seem bright eyed. Instead, they appear to embrace profits and power without always a concomitant sense of responsibility.

Now they're turning on each other. On Tuesday, for example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff insisted that Facebook should be regulated like cigarettes

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