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Google’s ‘moonshots’ are crashing back down to earth

Published Mar 29th, 2016 12:28PM EDT
Google Moonshots

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co-founder Larry Page has always had a thing for crazy and ambitious ideas that, at first blush, might strike many as completely impossible, if not downright insane. Page, who calls such ideas ‘moonshots’, firmly believes that Google needs to always aim far beyond what anyone else thinks is possible.

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Even Google’s Careers page makes a point of touting the company’s interest in pursuing risky and out-there ideas.

“Whether it’s creating self-driving cars or translating the web into 64 languages, we love big bets,” Google tells prospective employees. “Our company culture encourages experimentation and the free flow of ideas. This perspective is not limited to our engineering teams and technical roles, but extends to all Googlers who share a desire to challenge what’s possible.”

With Google decidedly focused on issues and technologies beyond search – an area where it continues to generate the vast majority of its revenue – the company this past August completely restructured itself while giving itself a new name: Alphabet. As part of the transformation from Google to Alphabet, the entire company was restructured such that different divisions became wholly owned subsidiaries under the Alphabet umbrella.

As detailed in an SEC filing, Alphabet is currently composed of eight distinct subsidiaries

  1. Calico – research on fighting aging
  2. Fiber
  3. Google – search, YouTube, ads, Android
  4. Google Ventures
  5. Google Capital
  6. Google X (moonshots)
  7. Life Sciences (aka Verily)
  8. Nest

Only problem is, a number of Google’s prized moonshot initiatives appear to be crashing back down to earth.

Most recently, STAT published an in-depth and not all that flattering look at Alphabet’s Life Sciences subsidiary. According to the report, the division successfully managed to attract top-tier engineering and science talent, but is now seeing some its more prized employees leave.

The reason? It’s reportedly challenging to work with Verily CEO Andrew Conrad.

But people who know Conrad or have worked with him said in interviews that Google has entrusted its life sciences initiative to a divisive and impulsive leader whose practices are driving off top talent and leaving openings for competitors. They said many employees in key jobs were dispirited, and described a lack of focus and clear priorities that is unusual even in the chaotic culture of startups.

STAT identified a dozen top Verily managers, scientists, and engineers who have departed in the last year. Some gave up coveted Verily spots to return to the Google mother ship, including Diane Tang — a revered “Google fellow,” the company’s highest technical rank, achieved by only about a dozen employees in the company’s history. Others joined competitors.

Meanwhile, other employees relay reports of an extremely demanding work environment, even by Silicon Valley standards. One employee said that he would often find himself still at work at 11 pm, crying.

While exposes detailing life behind the scenes at hyper-competitive tech companies is nothing new, many of Google’s moonshot projects have been in the news lately for less than ideal reasons.

Two weeks ago, a report surfaced indicating that Alphabet was looking to sell off Boston Dynamics, the high-tech robotics firm it acquired back in 2013.

The reason?

Well, according to a report from Bloomberg, Alphabet “concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years…”

Even more recently than that, The Information published a scathing review of what life is like over at Nest, another of Alphabet’s subsidiaries. In short, the story claims that revenue at Nest is disappointing and that the company’s suite of hardware products is much smaller than anticipated.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.

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