“Avoid the delusion of exceptionalism!” – Futurist Jim Carroll
An ex-Google engineer by the name of Praveen Seshadri caught a lot of attention yesterday for his post a few days ago, “The maze is in the mouse,” featuring the sub-heading, “What ails Google? And how it can turn things around” More on the reasoning in his post in a moment, but it did feature this bit of commentary which immediately caught my attention:
The way I see it, Google has four core cultural problems. They are all the natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called “Ads” that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins.
(1) no mission, (2) no urgency, (3) delusions of exceptionalism, (4) mismanagement.
Unfortunately, this is not my first experience watching the gradual decay of a dominant empire.
The phrase ‘delusions of exceptionalism‘ captures so much of what I’ve been trying to say here for a time that I knew I had to find a way to use it. The result was the creation of today’s image for today’s quote.
Google seems to be, for the first time in its long history, in trouble. As A.I. instantly becomes the technology de jour, and Microsoft’s significant investment in chatGPT, it appears that Google might actually find itself a significant laggard for the very first time.
On Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled a new version of its Bing search engine, infused with natural-language capability from OpenAI. The implications were market-shaking, mostly for Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL), which could see its dominance in internet search challenged for the first time in decades.
Analysts and investors spent the rest of the week debating a once impossible idea: that a newly energized Bing, which rolled out in 2009, could shift the balance of power in the internet search market.
Google currently controls 93% of the search market, versus just 3% for Bing, according to Statcounter.
The Ai Craze Hits Google,
13 February 2023, Barron’s
The problem that hit Google was that when it did a demonstration of its A.I. alternative to Microsoft, it did not go well – particularly, making very noticeable errors with respect to one particular part of the demonstration when it made an egregious and very noticeable mistake. The result was dramatic.
The stock fell 12% in the days following Microsoft’s announcement, shedding about $160 billion in market value. Alphabet trades at roughly four times next year’s expected sales, so the market’s math suggests $40 billion of high-margin revenue flipping to Bing from Google.
In short, Wall Street watched the Bing demonstration, listened to the Google event, and concluded that Google finally has a real rival in search.
The Ai Craze Hits Google,
13 February 2023, Barron’s
Days later, Praveen Seshadri released his memo, noting that he had just departed Google after a mandatory three-year contractual relationship. (Google had bought his company some years back.) What was he referencing with the idea of “delusions of exceptionalism?” That Google had become too complacent, too big and bloated, too caught up in ‘process,’ and too reliant on one key source of revenue – advertising around search.
That has certainly become evident to anyone who uses Google these days – it seems you can barely do a search for something without finding your first screen actually chock-full of advertising. Everyone has been noticing, and it has been going on for some time – the Washington Post wrote about it two years ago, “How does Google’s monopoly hurt you? Try these searches. Right under our noses, the Internet’s most-used website has been getting worse” [ link ]
The image that came with the article is instructive – the results of a particular search (in red) keep going down the page, as the page becomes more and more cluttered with advertising.
This is what happens when you become too reliant on one thing – and that one thing is finally challenged.
What’s wrong at Google? As Praveen wrote, referring to a famous business parable Who Moved My Cheese, the mice are just running aorund.
Google has 175,000+ capable and well-compensated employees who get very little done quarter over quarter, year over year. Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, exec reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-hands summits, and inevitable reorgs. The mice are regularly fed their “cheese” (promotions, bonuses, fancy food, fancier perks) and despite many wanting to experience personal satisfaction and impact from their work, the system trains them to quell these inappropriate desires and learn what it actually means to be “Googley” — just don’t rock the boat. As Deepak Malhotra put it in his excellent business fable, at some point the problem is no longer that the mouse is in a maze. The problem is that “the maze is in the mouse”.
The result? There is no mission; there is no passion; there is no purpose.
Does anyone at Google come into work actually thinking about “organizing the world’s information”? They have lost track of who they serve and why. Having worked every day at a startup for eight years, the answer was crystal clear for me — — I serve our users. But very few Googlers come into work thinking they serve a customer or user. They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for reviewing privacy design”) or some technology (“I keep the CI/CD system working”). They serve their manager or their VP. They serve other employees. They will even serve some general Google technical or religious beliefs (“I am a code readability expert”, “I maintain the SWE ladder description document”). This is a closed world where almost everyone is working only for other Googlers, and the feedback loop is based on what your colleagues and managers think of your work. Working extra hard or extra smart doesn’t create any fundamental new value in such a world. In fact, in a bizarre way, it is the opposite.
And over time, this destroys a company. People and the people within it become complacent, believing their ‘exceptionalism:’
Within Google, there is a collective delusion that the company is exceptional. And as is the case in all such delusions, the deluded ones are just mortals standing on the shoulders of the truly exceptional people who went before them and created an environment of wild success. Eventually, the exceptional environment starts to fade, but the lingering delusion has abolished humility among the mere mortals who remain. You don’t wake up everyday thinking about how you should be doing better and how your customers deserve better and how you could be working better. Instead, you believe that things you are doing already are so perfect that they are the only way to do it. Propaganda becomes important internally and externally. When new people join your company, you indoctrinate them. You insist on doing things because “that’s the way we do it at Google”. Never mind if most people quietly complain about the overall inefficiency and incompetence.
The article is one heck of a read and is required reading for anyone trying to understand a part of the upheaval that is going on in the technology world today.
And yet, it applies to so much more than the technology industry. The automotive industry, faced with the rapid rush to electric vehicles, came to believe its exceptionalism in an industry dominated by gasoline and diesel technology. The retail industry believed that its reliance on brick-and-mortar stores would serve it well into the future until Amazon (and a pandemic) came along and demolished the folly in that thinking. Legacy airlines become complacent believing their sky-high areas combined with lackluster service would always serve them well until quality low-cost discount carriers demolished the business models.
Complacency says that its ok to be mediocre; that it is sufficient to stay rooted in the present; that ‘good enough’ will always be all that is ever required; that the status quo is all that needs to be achieved; that risk is to be avoided and that bold thinking is to be banished; that hard work can be avoided. Exceptionalism ingrains these beliefs and makes the leadership team and the people within it unaware of what is happening – often until it is too late.
For a long time, people have admired Google for its ability to bring new ideas to market – its Google Labs initiative has seen the launch of dozens and hundreds of new ideas. Yet, vast the site is known as the Google Graveyard and you’ll find an alarming overview of all its failures, stacked up next to each other, one by one. Few ideas succeed – only reliance on advertising survives.
And when that ‘good enough’ is not ‘good enough,’ the future has an odd way of punishing you for your complacency.
Delusions of exceptionalism.
Dangerous – and destructive!