Google Should Fire Sundar Pichai

Ed Zitron 7 min read

In a 2021 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai (who has received over a billion dollars in stock grants alone over the last few years) said that “there has to be a dialogue of respect on both sides” in the modern workplace. Just under a year-and-a-half later, they laid off Jeremy Joslin, who had worked at the company for 20 years, via email, along with 12,000 other employees.

Some Googlers who didn’t check their email before going to work found themselves standing in a line where many people found that both their keycards and their positions at the company had been deactivated. In 2022, Google hired 10,000 people in the second quarter alone. When announcing the layoffs, Pichai blamed the layoffs on “periods of dramatic growth…[that led Google to hire] for a different economic reality than the one [they] face today.”

When Microsoft laid off 10,000 people last week, CEO Satya Nadella ($55 million a year in compensation) claimed that Microsoft saw “customers accelerate their digital spend during the pandemic, we’re now seeing them optimize their digital spend to do more with less.” That same day, Amazon Head of Worldwide Retail Doug Herrington blamed the “cost to serve” of “labor shortages, supply chain difficulties, inflation, and productivity overhang” to justify laying off 18,000 people.

When Mark Zuckerberg ($26 million a year in compensation, net worth $50 billion) of Meta laid off 11,000 people in November, he blamed “the surge of e-commerce” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic for “outsized revenue growth” that “many people [including himself!] predicted would be a permanent acceleration…even after the pandemic ended…[and] unfortunately, this did not play out the way [Zuckerberg] expected.”

Every single layoff story seems to follow the same path - mass hiring in the post-lockdown society to scoop up massive consumer spending, followed by mass layoffs blamed on “uncertain economic times.”

Let’s be precise: every one of these companies chose to blame thousands of people for a problem that was specifically created by their executives. Google’s engineers didn’t choose to ramp up spending and hiring - the executive teams at Google (perhaps the same ones that were attempting to crush remote work) did. In fact, I’d argue that the same people that are writing these crocodile-tear-stained layoff letters are exactly the same ones responsible for the unrealistic projections, unrealistic spending and unrealistic hiring, yet they are completely and utterly divorced from any of the consequences.

Google chose to triple Sundar Pichai’s salary to $280 million in 2019. Satya Nadella promised pay increases in May 2022. And while it’s easy - and correct - to suggest that these executives should take a massive pay cut, I also believe there’s a much simpler solution: if you are an executive that binged on hiring and spending during 2021 and 2022, you should be the first person to get fired.

You may think I’m being a bit radical. You may think it’s aggressive to fire a person credited with saving a company. You may think CEOs “need a little time to get things right,” or that “difficult times happen to companies, and they need a leader who can get them through it. What I am saying is that their outsized compensation means that these people should always be the first to be punished, especially when they’re part of a large-scale economic trend of “the most responsible person at the company fucking up in a way that affects hundreds or thousands of people.”

One might say that this is alarmist, and that an executive hire is viewed through a different lens than other people within the company. My answer is that it shouldn’t be, and that if we had a culture where the Chief Executive feared for their job, they might take a different tact with the company. You may also argue that they would be scared to take risks as a result - and the answer is “good,” because the risks that they’re taking are clearly having a very real human cost, one that hurts people that have no ability to fix things.

That, and many of these companies didn’t actually need to lay anybody off.

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Economic “Panic”

The fact that these executives sustained their profligate hiring practices during the boom years, paying scant attention to the looming economic strife, is bad. But I don’t necessarily think that “inflation high, economy bad” is a sufficiently strong justification for the workforce bloodbath we’ve all borne witness to.

Let’s start with the obvious: the current economic conditions didn’t emerge overnight. 2022 was accompanied by a steady drumbeat of rising inflation, with the Fed hiking interest rates to compensate.

Bloomberg was already announcing “The End of the Free-Money Era” in May 2022. By September 2022,  the nation's central bank had already progressively hiked rates by 300 basis points to 3 percent — the highest level since 2008, though it’s worth remembering that without the pandemic, interest rates would have reached that point anyway.

By the end of 2018, the Fed had already raised rates to 2.5 percent from the all-time lows reached during the Great Recession and would have likely continued to do so had Covid-19 and the Sino-US trade war not reared their heads. Inflation was high in 2022, but it was high in 2021 too. We broke the 5 percent barrier in May of 2021, and 7 percent in December of that year.

In short, the market conditions we’re facing now were either inevitable or nothing new. Either every major tech firm was taken by surprise by the economy for the first time in their existence, or they are simply lying.

Moreover, these companies remain fabulously profitable. Sure, net profits are down, but these tech giants are firmly in the green. Alphabet made a $13.9bn net profit in the last quarter. Amazon’s was more modest, reaching $2.8bn, but that’s more of a reflection of its ongoing investment into its cloud computing business and the relatively thin margins of its e-commerce side. Microsoft’s profit was in the region of $18bn. Shopify posted billions in gross profits in the last two years.

Admittedly, many of these companies are expected to report their next quarterly earnings in the coming weeks. While it’s possible — if not likely — that we’ll see another body blow to their balance sheets, it’s not going to be one that justifies tens of thousands of people being laid off “because the economy is bad.” They’ll probably remain profitable. Just slightly less so.

If we believe this market downturn is going to be short-lived, which is a possibility if Ukraine wins the war in the coming six months (possible) and the Fed no longer has to raise rates by significant amounts to control inflation, there’s an opportunity to make a moral argument that these employees could have been kept on the payroll with minimal cost to the company, and without the disruption and trauma that follows layoffs. And let’s be honest, this is very likely what is going on.

Most if not all of the people let go from these companies could be retained, but corporations - and in particular tech companies - have consciously colluded with each other to push a false narrative about how they are the victims of an economy that continues to enrich them. And that’s because their leadership isn’t judged by how well they treat their employees, but rather by how they protect the interests of their shareholders.

And really that’s what’s happening. Everybody is laying people off, and thus it’s an easy time for huge corporations to justify doing so based on vague economic forces. This is a coordinated public relations campaign to trade human capital for working capital. It’s either that or these executives are utterly ignorant of the economic forces affecting their companies.

This isn’t a bug, but rather a feature of modern market capitalism. Tech execs are playing from a rulebook that’s fundamentally devoid of empathy, compassion, and respect for human beings. By the standards of shareholders, they’re doing their job. But from any moral standpoint, they deserve to be kicked into the sun.

Fire The CEOs

And if there really is a grand economic force that’s coming to break the back of Google, perhaps we should start with a far more pragmatic idea: they should fire Sundar Pichai.

I’m serious. Fire him today and replace him with someone else. If you make $280 million a year and you have to let high performers go because you were so bad at business, you should be fired because you are bad at your job. Unless you are a company like Meta where the CEO cannot be fired, it is the responsibility of the board of directors to fire the person responsible for a massive failure, and the person in question here is the CEO. While some may claim that “everybody” believed that 2021 and 2022’s booming economies were here to stay permanently, that does not mean that they weren’t catastrophically fucking stupid for believing so.

I am specifically focusing on Pichai because I believe he is the worst of them - and somehow the most overpaid and the most demanding of them all. Sundar demanded a 20% increase in productivity in September 2022 after headlining a Wall Street Journal article about CEOs taking a “colder approach” to their people. Despite claiming that Googlers shouldn’t “equate fun with money,” Mr. Pichai appears to have plenty of money to have fun with - as all of these CEOs do, because they are being paid so much that they have entirely left the realm of human concerns.

Even if it’s something far more craven - that profits are fine, and they are just using this as an excuse to cut “excess” - layoffs do not work. They make the company less profitable and the remaining employees less effective.

Imagine if a single employee made this big of a screw-up. Would they be retained? Would they survive? No. They would be shitcanned in seconds and told that it was a “difficult decision.”

Here’s an easy decision: fire Sundar Pichai, fire Satya Nadella, fire Doug Herrington, and fire any executive that has to lay off hundreds or thousands of people because they got too excited about making their shareholders money.

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