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Google’s Real Problem – GTD?

Google (s GOOG) has made it a habit of making news for the wrong reasons! Days after it reported a blockbuster quarter, the company’s chief executive made some childish remarks about privacy.

And, in past week or so, the company saw three well-known executives leave the company. First it was Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube, who decided it was time to hang up his CEO spurs. (Hurley is staying on as a special adviser.) Then came news that AdMob co-founder Omar Hamoui was leaving. Then, over the weekend, news spread that Lars Rasmussen, who was one of the co-creators of Google Maps and Google Wave, is leaving.

Rasmussen is trading Google for Facebook. He apparently likes the new gig so much he would give up Sydney and move to the San Francisco Bay Area. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Rasmussen said:

It feels to me that Facebook may be a sort of once-in-a-decade type of company. The energy there is just amazing, whereas it can be very challenging to be working in a company the size of Google. (SMH)

According to some estimates, one in five Facebook employees have ties back to Google, including COO Sheryl Sandberg and CTO Bret Taylor. Google has over 23,331 employees according to company’s recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Facebook has about 2,000 employees.

Rasmussen explained in his interview that getting things done (GTD) was a big problem at Google, and shutting down his project, Google Wave, a year after it was made available as a beta is a sign it was becoming difficult to get things done at the search giant.

We were not quite the success that Google was hoping for, and trying to persuade them not to pull the plug and ultimately failing was obviously a little stressful. It takes a while for something new and different to find its footing and I think Google was just not patient. (SMH)

He’s not alone. Many former members of AdMob have privately expressed frustration at their inability to get things done at Google. Others who have quit the search giant have expressed similar sentiments. Sometimes, money and perks aren’t enough to retain talent. If today it’s Facebook, then tomorrow it will be yet another hot startup that will keep fishing in Google’s talent pool and find eager biters.

I don’t think rivals (including upstarts) have the ability to stop Google’s financial steamroller. It will continue to be a dominant force in search and online advertising for years to come. But if it doesn’t reign in its talent problem, the company will have a long-term crisis on its hands. It was exodus of talent and inability to get things done that has brought giants of the past — Yahoo (s YHOO) for example — to their knees.

For the longest time, Google has been the beacon for the smartest and most talented people in the world, especially from an engineering perspective. If these super-smart people start getting frustrated by their inability to get anything done, they’re going to follow Rasmussen to somewhere they can find a more receptive and nurturing environment.

In the end, that’s the single biggest problem for Google.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d) about Google:

44 Responses to “Google’s Real Problem – GTD?”

  1. Google is taking a beating for being “human.” What, did you think the CEO and its change agents were halograms made of algorithms? Google Wave was more geared collaboration. Those idiots craving an invitation in the initial beta days of Google Wave, myself included, had no daily projects to complete to fully understand its worth. Google Wave would be KILLER in the enterprise space for project managers and those working in matrixed organizations who need to collaborate in real-time. In the field, this could’ve been Microsoft Communicator on steroids. At the end of it, prior to shutting Wave down, Google could of followed many suggestions and integrated it primarily to the Google Apps catalog as an app marketing it towards business with high internal communication needs. “Normal” people don’t need it, but it still would have served enterprises well. The messy armpit+scrotum grease combo of Microsoft Exchange/Sharepoint/etc. sux A**!!!

  2. Om,
    You might have jumped the gun here. That wave guy , wow, he is some crazy mind. He is leaving ? for what ? Facebook. Hokay. I hope the wave won’t appear in facebook causing enough confusion that Sheryl might kick this guy out. Couple of years back I remember a designer made fuss about lack of respect for the design at Google. I wonder where he is now ?

    Folks leave for various reasons. If GTD at Google is a problem for that Wave guy, I don’t blame Google. I blame the genius behind the project for failing to explain it to the higher ups. If you remember the demo of it , you will know its such a failed concept for general public. No wonder GTD at google is a pain for him.

    Of all these folks leaving only one guy, the one who did Google maps is probably more valuable. The rest, hmmm, well move on. Good luck to them at facebook. Which BTW has become a “Slowbook” lately.

    • Your comment is funny. The guy who did Google Maps is the same guy who did Google Wave.

      And if you remember the first demo of Google Wave, it got standing ovations. Everybody was really excited about its potential.

      I still think Google was too hasty in pulling the plug on Wave.

      • Yes my comment is funny. I probably did not read Om’s post totally and jumped the gun. I was referring to that Lars guy. He was one of the two who did Google maps. However the same duo got more press than needed for the Wave. Which was such a bomb. Before the Google Wave hit the news nobody in the tech journalism knew these duo (probably Om might have).
        If I were him, , well, um, I can’t convince the bosses, I either stay put or move on. But won’t come out accusing Google about GTD.

        Luckily for many Googlers facebook is a nice shelter. It satisfies their ego of the best and brightest plus the money is nice too.

  3. GTD becomes more of an issue as companies grow and become more process oriented and move away from being product oriented. To my knowledge, Netflix is the only company that tries to prevent this.

  4. Savitha Rengabashyam

    All big companies have to go through the phase that Google is going through. Startups are much less bureaucratic than big companies but the challenge lies in keeping the focus on people and what adds most value to an organization. This is however easier said than done. Organizations which are more than half a century old still struggle to hit the balance and Google is only a few decades old and so is Facebook.

  5. Google like any business needs to manage their public image. If Google placated all these developers complaining about GTD, then Google would have 20 Google Wave products per year and the press would jump on Google for losing its edge.

    Entrepreneurs are successful only a small percentage of the time. Most toil and fail. Those that are able to find repeated success are the Golden Goose and need to be cultivated.

    Perhaps I’m being pessimistic here, but most of these of these successful entrepreneurs were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Externalities benefited them while competing product didn’t get the benefit. Reproducing that success is an art based upon humility rather than ego.

  6. I got a few minutes into an interview w/ a Google employee (I was briefly thinking of going there)… when I was told, “It’ll take you about 6 months to get a feel for the company, the groups, the projects… before you really get to ship anything.”

    The conversation ended soon after.

    • NoEpidemic

      It’s not an epidemic. It’s human nature. Why does no one realize that most people are in the middle who get some things done but not others, then you have your small percentage of slackers who bottom-feed, then you have a small percentage of corrupt “overachievers.” No matter the treasure of brain matter that clocks in at Google every day, most of the intelligence is hindered by nothing more than human nature, or the lack of innovation/intelligence to overcome it. Call it epidemic if you want, but its a permanent human condition that’s always existed.

  7. Om, I wrote this on your blog about Google in October 2006 after the GooTube deal:

    ” This is their Netscape Moment, when it becomes clear they are not really in the vanguard for the next wave.

    Heres why:

    (i) They clearly no longer “get it” – they have developed N new businesses in the past few years , few of which have really taken off, while all around them a new wave of creativity has started apace.

    (ii) I don’t know how much was spent on Google Video, but even with all their king’s horses and men, they couldn’t get it together and a bunch of guys came from nowhere and stole the show.

    (iii) They have already IPO’d and it is now (very) clear that the cool stuff (and increasingly the wealth) is being created elsewhere – how to retain the creative talent will be an increasing issue…

    (iv) …especially as the thundering herd of the rest of VC community now tries to back every Bubble 2.0 company going. A million flowers will bloom, many will wither but some will flourish…

    (v) …and Google can’t buy them all. Its share of mind and money must be diluted.

    Hm…..probably a bit harsh re “not getting it”…thats not quite true, it becomes harder to “implement it” – its more that its just harder as previous Googletoes have to be stepped on to make new things happen”

    Some things in life are very, very predictable. This was one of them.

  8. I dropped by this article because of the use of “GTD” in the title.

    For a lot of folks these days, “GTD” suggests a very specific methodology, pioneered by David Allen, for organizing input to your life, and then for deciding what to do based on that organization.

    If you do indeed mean that specific methodology, then I would suggest you follow up with a little more detail as to what specifically you feel (or the folks interviewed feel) is the problem.

    Otherwise, just be more aware of using the acronym “GTD” to literally just mean the phrase “getting things done”.

  9. I find articles like this just a little too opaque- at every company “the bureaucracy” gets in the way but it feels a little like tea partiers blaming “the government.”

    What is really the drag on productivity in Google? To many layers of management? Slow approvals? Or is it just the cautiousness and oversight that comes from not being able to walk away from a business your decisions set on fire like you can at an early stage startup?
    It makes a big difference if it is an unavoidable part of a big company or if it is fixable.

  10. Rasmussen’s criticism of Google may or may not be on the money.

    What’s clear to me is the man is hurt by the company not being able to make a success of Wave – and his judgement may be coloured by this.

    Personally, I though Google Wave was dead on arrival and was never likely to survive.

    • You’ve got a point there, maybe he’s just another sensitive artist whose best work is behind him (no offense meant if you’re out there, Lars, just posing the possibility). Those big-ticket employees don’t always work out, just look at Ozzie and Papermaster. Maybe Google follows the old programmer truism that people do their best coding before they turn 30.

    • Look back at the last decade – Lotus notes, the purest form of crap, was almost a defacto communications system for several corporations. It’s unfair to compare Wave with Lotus notes, but Wave did not get the fair chance it deserved. I mean, if we could put up with Lotus…
      That said, Lars lacked what the inventor of Lotus had in abundance (and vice versa) and I don’t mean Luck.
      Here’s wishing Lars better luck at Facebook, and my guess is he really needs it. Because Facebook and Wave are different religions. And religions don’t mix.

  11. Thanks for sharing and summarizing that Herald interview, Om. I suspected when I read the “no imagination” article that leaving Google for Facebook was more about being engaged than it was about money, and the interview seems to confirm it. I was really disappointed when Google killed Wave, and it’s comforting to hear that the developer still believes in his vision. I can’t wait to see what he does at Facebook!

  12. It does seem like FAcebook now is just dangling money in front of Google staff, less to help Facebook and more to slow down/hurt Google. Note: A (satirical) post on my site addresses the Lars exit.

    Really, I think that’s all this is. Money. Not “environment”.

  13. Anonymous

    Om, this is bad journalism:
    * Using a couple of isolated incidents to generalize and write an attention grabbing headline. Have you looked at what the real attrition rate at google is, how it compares to other tech companies (including facebook) and especially to companies at a similar stage in their evolution.
    * Using a tautology as your conclusion — hiring and retaining top talent is the biggest problem for any top company (google is no exception).
    * In a company of google’s size, there will always be some unhappy employees. Google is a business and it has to take hard decisions and some folks will be unhappy with these decisions.

    I think your article would be much more interesting if it said something more meaningful and provided more solid evidence.

  14. Tony Healy

    Google is facing the problem that all technology-based successes face. When they grow, they need to hire management layers that have little affinity with the original culture of innovation. For a period of between 12 months and four years, there will be uncertain adjustments as the new managers start to challenge the original culture. Google is now moving into the third stage, where the new managers have gained cultural authority and are exercising it.

    Microsoft went through this in late 90s and early 2000s.

    Sometimes this settles down into a new equilibrium, as in Microsoft’s case. Sometimes it doesn’t.

  15. David Locke

    Google is a big company now, a late market behemoth. It needs to start practicing Christensen’s separation. That cuts through this whole getting things done problem. It also decouples the new stuff from the cost structure and policy structure of the parent Google. And, it would let each new thing pass through the technology adoption lifecycle on its own terms. Otherwise, expect continued failures.

    Google has too much money to develop good software. It competes with every company that ever wrote code, and doesn’t do it better than they did. Google Chess? Oh, come off it. Portal. Same. Sad. Evil.

  16. Om,
    Today it’s X, tomorrow it’s Y. IMO there is no single reason why PEOPLE leave COMPANY. It’s different for everyone. There are thousands of ways to piss people off and only one way to keep them. It’s easy to point at A or B as reasons for a few people, but hard to ever point it to a single issue.

    You’re correct that people with similar qualities (intelligence it this case) move in similar manners (to Facebook). What Facebook had was the startup. As soon as they lose it (as all companies do) they will go down next. Now going down doesn’t mean losing everything, but it means to stop gaining. When that point happens (IPO, Job Loss, Dividends) there will be something fresher that no one except kid genius had thought of and executed on.

    So what do you propose a company of Google’s size do? They already have projects in place to bring in talent, train to the minimum, set them free to startup ideas, and reacquire. What else does a conglomerate need to do?

    My answer would be to look at a company like SAS. Currently they’re holding employee’s even with some of the dullest work on the planet.

    • Hey Thanks for the comment. Can you elaborate on the SAS comment. I think you might have something here.

      On what should Google do, well, I am thinking about ti and perhaps write up a follow up post later this week.

      • Hi Om
        you can also put it this way.
        Today google is going through such phase and tomorrow it could be Facebook.It is a natural process.People take pride in working for companies which are attracting more attention.When google was at its PR peak you would have observed lots of pople shifting from gaints like SUN,ORCLE,APPLE.One thing we should observe is google is not doing any less innovation than facebook.Its just the shift in PR attention which is driving people to facebook.

  17. I respect peoples desire to accomplish,
    and not spin their wheels while an elite few at the top
    lurch forward (mostly in singularity).

    But more importantly,
    I’d like to see these professionals decide where they’re going
    I’m looking at you Facebook & Google
    (and friendfeed – oh wait)

  18. There are entpreneurs who love to innovate in an environment that’s fast-paced and close-knit, and people who are thrilled signing up to work at a multi-thousand person company and dealing with inherent challenges therein. An entrepreneur who came in via a purchase (and thus has “FU’ money) is *very* likely to leave not long after they are fully vested, unless they discover some new challenge that they find as exciting as the lure of the next startup. All three of the people mentioned in the article came to GOOG as part of an acquisition. Startup people often cite “beaurocracy” as the reason for leaving; of course a big company feels beaurocratic compared to something you started yourself!

    My question: is Google losing the folks with previous big company experience because of the “GTD” problem, or are they sticking around?

    • Steve

      I think you miss my point. Sure today it is Facebook. But tomorrow it is something else and Google’s big problem is making sure that things get done and people feel some of their projects are getting somewhere> it is ability to attract and retain talent that is a Google’s big challenge and now there is a lot of competition for talent, Facebook being one of those competitors.

      • Rick Thomchick

        I’d take it a step further and say there is great significance in this massive shift of brain power. There’s always competition for talent but this is easily on par with the brain drain at Microsoft when Google starting stealing their talent a few years ago. GTD is also a problem at other juggernauts like VMware, even more pronounced–they are hiring almost as fast as Facebook, but they’ve also lost some talent to the “cool kids” around the corner. Perhaps it is a side-effect of rapid growth, who knows? Maybe we’ll be having the same conversation about Facebook 5 years from now.