Time for a Wartime CEO, Should Sundar Pichai Step Down?

One particularly popular post criticised Pichai's leadership, asserting that he and the company “deserve a Perf NI” for their shortsightedness in pursuing a narrow focus
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Over a decade ago, Google launched Google+ hoping to compete with Facebook and fell facedown. Now, in 2023, history is staring in Google’s face with Bard, an LLM model the tech giant released hurriedly to challenge ChatGPT, and Microsoft’s LLM-powered Bing. 

Ever since Bard’s launch fiasco, industry experts have been speculating if time is ripe for Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, to step down. The Bard launch fiasco is the recent hit, on the heels of a line of layoffs, plummeting stocks, and the shifting of Google AI researchers to OpenAI. 

Google Brain Drain

Reportedly, Google is facing a brain drain problem with popular AI researchers like Hyung Won Chung, Jason Wei, Shane Gu, and others joining OpenAI. These were well-respected researchers in the AI community. While Gu authored ‘LLM can self improve’, Chung, Wei and Dohan were all authors of the PaLM 540b parameter transformer model paper, which was a huge breakthrough in scaling and performance.

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Gu’s departure is likely to hit Google hard. As per his tweets, he is gearing up to improve several models’ decision-making capabilities in his new role, including ChatGPT and DALL-E. Gu’s expertise in learning from human feedback (LHF) algorithms will be a major asset for OpenAI, as he believes that this area of machine learning will become increasingly important as the available data continues to decline. 

Additionally, since the launch of Bard, Google has been seeing a lot of discontent among its employees on their internal meme messaging platform ‘memegen’. While normally, the platform sees posts more of jokes and regular memes, now in a series of posts, workers have voiced their discontent, with some calling for a return to a more long-term outlook. 

One particularly popular post criticised Pichai’s leadership, asserting that he and the company “deserve a Perf NI” for their shortsightedness in pursuing a narrow focus. ‘Perf NI’ refers to the lowest possible performance rating of ‘Needs Improvement’. Other employees raised concerns about the rushed launch of Bard, which they claimed validated the market’s fears about the company. 

One worker even went so far as to post an image of a dumpster fire with a Google logo superimposed on it, saying that it was emblematic of how the employees had been feeling since last year. Most troubling, however, were allegations that the company had become overly focused on the stock price at the expense of its employees. 

One post noted that firing 12,000 people had led to a mere 3% bump in the stock price, while a rushed AI presentation caused the stock to drop by 8%. The criticisms suggest a deep sense of frustration among Google employees, who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the company’s leadership and direction. It is to be noted that Google’s stocks have plummeted by around 30% in the last year. And while the company has taken steps to arrest the falling stocks, cost-cutting measures like layoffs and unexpected events like the Bard launch keeps coming back to stab Google. 

Additionally, 58% of Google’s revenue comes from search ads. (Of the $256.74 billion revenue in 2021, $148.9 billion was from search ads). And Satya Nadella calling out to Google to ‘come out and dance’ makes Microsoft’s Bing integration with the LLM model a direct threat

In a recent interview, Nadella said, “I hope with our innovation they (Google) will definitely want to come out and show that they can dance. I want people to know that we made them dance.”

Google, as many believe, is taking a rather defensive approach when it comes to LLM integration with search engines. The search engine had to launch ‘Code Red’ after the launch of ChatGPT–a clear indication that it felt a little threatened by OpenAI. 

And while Pichai may be a great CEO, achieving success in multi-cloud and Google workspace, he may be somewhat lacking in the war with Microsoft – a company that offered him the post of CEO long ago. 

Google, at this time, is facing a double edge sword. If the company doesn’t act and compete with Microsoft’s Bing, it might lose a chunk of its search ad revenue. But if the company decides to move ahead with Bard and hit aggressively, it might lose customers. Most of the well-performing websites, including ours, observe a huge chunk of traffic coming from search queries. Now if Google too starts showing the answers users are looking for as a chatbot, the websites offering those answers never see the users coming, resulting in profit loss. 

It’s time for Google to take a hard look at things in the long-term, as suggested by employees. Many experts believe that launching Bard with errors, which executives could catch beforehand, simply shows that the launch had been stitched together in haste. And it’s an ideal time for Google’s board of directors to think: Is Pichai the way forward?

Lokesh Choudhary
Tech-savvy storyteller with a knack for uncovering AI's hidden gems and dodging its potential pitfalls. 'Navigating the world of tech', one story at a time. You can reach me at: lokesh.choudhary@analyticsindiamag.com.

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