Outgoing Waze CEO Noam Bardin stepped down last week from Google, which bought the Israeli GPS application. In a damning post, Bardin blasted Google’s organizational culture and called out its employees’ sense of entitlement and self-indulgence, sparking debate among tech workers.
He laid out his reasons for staying in the company, which he led for 12 years from an independent start-up to after it had been purchased by Google. Bardin was based in Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, while a large part of Waze’s staff – about 300 of 550 – work in the company’s Israeli offices.
Bardin’s surprisingly candid post consisted of the difficulties he had encountered in Google, both personally and professionally. He lashed out at the tech giant’s problematic organizational culture, which he said wore him down and eventually led him to quit. "I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success," he wrote. "The problem was me - believing I can keep the start-up magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing opposite."
Bardin complimented Google for keeping its promise to grant Waze complete autonomy. But he admitted, “I was naive enough to believe I could develop Waze’s full potential in Google and tame the beast, regardless of its nature.”
Yoga and PC
One issue Bardin flags is that in Google it’s almost impossible to fire someone for a simple reason, such as not doing his job properly: “Not being able to replace them with people that do have the right skills means that people are constantly trying to ‘offload' an employee on a different team rather than fire them... I learned the hard way that if another manager is recommending a great employee to hire, that they are probably trying to get rid of the employee since they cannot fire them.”
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He also lamented the work culture in Silicon Valley and the difficulties he had encountered when he used to be “an open guy, filled with enthusiasm.”
"I was invited to speak on many different Google panels and events and very quickly, I began racking up my HR complaints. I used a four letter word, my analogy was not PC, my language was not PG,” he writes.
“I actually stopped speaking at events where the majority appreciated what I was saying but the minority that was offended by something (words and not content) made it a pain. I began watching what I said, what I discussed and began wearing a corporate persona (I was still probably one of the less PC characters at Google but this was my cleaned up act…).”
Though he said it was important to allow people to voice their concerns, he notes that in Silicon Valley: “You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct or can say super important things but use one wrong word and it's off to HR for you.”
He also complained Google granted too much emphasis to employees’ personal life, in contrast to their professional life.
“Having trouble scheduling meetings because ‘it's the new Yoga instructor lesson I cannot miss’ or ‘I’m taking a personal day’ drove me crazy. The worst thing is that this was inline with the policies and norms - I was the weirdo who wanted to push things fast and expected some level of personal sacrifice when needed.”
He slammed high tech employees’ sense of “entitlement” and self indulgence at all the perks Google gives its workers. He also claimed the financial model of a large corporation like Google - as opposed to a small start-up - disincentivized workers, pushing them to try to climb the corporate ladder more than work for any specific project’s success.
Israeli hi-tech workers, including former Googlers, as employees of the search giant are called, responded to the post. Johann Molinari, wh0 identified as a former Google worker, said, “this all sounds very familiar. It is also not surprising as Bardin spoke openly and frequently about many of these issues with his teams. As a former Google workers as part of a start-up I can say this is one of the best takes [about the company] I have read.”
Others, like Eliav Alalauf, said that “these are not problems unique to Google, but rather larger organizations and American corporate culture. You just can’t say anything, can’t make any comment, or any joke, or even ask for something. Every move you do requires you to consult a lawyer beforehand to avoid pitfalls. Every interaction you have you need to make sure there are witnesses or some paper trail.
"I had coworkers who would never have one-on-one meetings - and would always have a third person present. ‘Who knows what you’ll be accused of,’ they used to say. It’s very frustrating if you are trying to actually achieve or create something significant.”
Others were less supportive, calling Bardin out for what they saw as a toxic start-up culture. One user wrote cynically about Bardin: "I did not succeed to preserve start-up culture - including demanding people work on weekends and at night when there is no need... and young people are entitled."
Another wrote: "He's on the wrong side of this debate. They value personal life over work life, God forbid. He can't curse during public corporate events, Lord save us! And worst of all - they prefer not to fire people. At this point, I actually broke down in tears," they added sarcastically. "Where is society heading!"
Too big to innovate?
Omri Zerachovitz, Haaretz’s start-up and tech analyst, explained that the debate about corporate as opposed to start-up culture missed the wider point. “Bardin presents a situation which seems to stifle innovation - too much legal red tape, what seems to be tenure for employees and uncommitted workers. So how is it that Google does not suffer from innovation problems. It’s simply that they are rich enough to pay a lot of money to create innovation, even if very efficiently.”
Zerachovitz explains that Google “is able to pay the best researchers in the world and to pay for a massive and growing number of workers.” Moreover, he says that Google is “just too strong” and that its growth into a massive cooperation seems to be at the root of most of the issues.
Nonetheless, using Waze as an example, he says “Bardin says Waze’s biggest competitor was Google Maps, but that’s not really the case. If they had had real competition they would have needed to innovate” regardless of whether they were independent or not. While Bardin seemed to suggest Google Maps stifled Waze, Zerachovitz suggests Waze was lucky to be part of Google and not an independent company trying to compete both with Google Maps and Waze together.
Zerachovitz also called out Bardin’s claim that Google’s focus on compliance and legal matters prevents its workers from striving to create value for users. “It’s true Google focuses on privacy but can one really claim that privacy is not of value to users? Maybe it's a matter of balance but if Bardin had perhaps chosen a different company that does not control so much information maybe things would have been different.”
He also warned against Bardin’s claims about hiring and firing practices, saying “making it hard to fire someone is not necessarily something bad. True it seems to be a relic of a time when big unions had a strong role, but CEOs need to be flexible and it is possible that Google’s select workers may actually find another role in the company and should not just be let go.”
In this regard it is worth noting that recently Google employees from across the globe began forming a union alliance, weeks after workers at the search engine giant and other units of parent company Alphabet formed a labor union for U.S. and Canadian offices. Called Alpha Global, Google's union alliance includes multiple countries such as the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the U.K.
Regarding the entitled culture, Zerachovitz notes high-paid managers of high-paid workers should be able to find ways to get their employees excited even without additional financial perks. “About Google’s senior management, by the way, it seems he does not have any criticism, or at least not one that he wants to make publicly.”