When Google co-founders Larry Page and President Sergey Brin stepped down from their roles as CEO and president of Google holding company Alphabet earlier this month, it marked the end of an era. While it's unclear what prompted the two to leave their formal management positions, longtime employees, many of whom also left the company this year, described to CNBC a massive cultural shift that percolated throughout 2019.
They cited changes to Google's all-hands meetings, human resources processes and transparency from management.
Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai in October admitted the company's challenge in scaling the trust of its own workforce which numbers more than 100,000 people. More recently, Lazlo Bock, former director of human resources for Google, told Bloomberg that he thinks Alphabet is "a different company than it used to be" but that "not everyone's gotten the memo."
The change has been noticed by some on the outside, too. "What the hell is going on over there?" tweeted Andreessen Horowitz partner Martin Casado over the summer. "The brain drain at Google right now is astonishing."
Google declined to comment.
Workers told CNBC that 2018 was a pivotal point in the company's shift away from upfront communication. That was when news of Project Dragonfly, a secret Google plan to develop a censored search engine for possible rollout in China, first broke in The Intercept. Internally, the existence of the project had been kept on a need-to-know basis.
The company later canceled Project Dragonfly after employees expressed concern over the secrecy of the project. Some workers left the company altogether.
"There's no way a few years before, they would have had a secret project with these kinds of ethical concerns," said Raph Levien, a former level 6 engineer who left Google after 11 years. "It crossed the line and felt misleading. It definitely felt like this was Google changing."
Though he wasn't on the project, Levien said the company's effort to reenter China and its secrecy around the project inspired his decision to leave.
"It was like, what are we actually building here? Are we building a magical encyclopedia or are we building a surveillance network, which has immense potential to be misused?" Levien said.
Robert Lord, a software engineer, said the company has shifted away from a culture of free and open thinking he thought he signed onto. He departed the company after less than a year, before the project he was working on had ended.
"I didn't have ethical concerns with specific work, but it was more about supporting the company as a whole," Lord told CNBC. "As a programmer, you have a lot of choice and I don't blame people for staying, but I felt because I had a choice, I had a responsibility to choose to leave."
One turning point for Lord and others was when news broke that the company had paid former executives, including Android co-founder Andy Rubin, golden parachutes even after finding sexual misconduct allegations to be credible. Rubin denied any wrongdoing, but that didn't stop employees from staging a massive companywide walkout last fall.
"When the payouts happened, that definitely felt like a punch in the gut," Lord said. "I did feel like I was going to work at a big evil corporation."
Nine-year veteran Colin McMillen told CNBC that he left Google early this year without another job because he felt couldn't be a part of the organization anymore, citing Dragonfly, transparency and Google leadership's "poor handling" of crises over the last year.
Employees last month staged a rally amid the suspension of employees who were later fired. That rally's purpose was to "save Google's open culture," according to the event details. Protesters demanded transparency on policies that Google said led to their decision to fire four employees. In December, the National Labor Relations Board began investigating the company for the firings.
"Google is built on trust," said Zora Tung, an engineer at Google who spoke at the rally. "If the company wants to succeed, it needs to regain that trust through transparency and accountability."
Long-tenured Google employees also said the company culture changed as it scaled to more than 100,000 workers, many of whom are contractors instead of full-time employees.
Graham Neray is CEO of a New York start-up called Oso. He told CNBC that longtime Googlers who interviewed for roles at Oso said the company had become "too big" and bureaucratic to make a difference for workers. Major organizational changes and uncertainty in some divisions like the Google Cloud Platform were also mentioned by candidates, he said.
Bureaucracy was the reason for a former engineering director who left the company in August after seven years. This engineer, who asked to remain anonymous because he's not authorized to talk about his time there, said upper management began placing extra emphasis on head count in recent years. Because of that, the company has become reluctant to eliminate weaker team members, which affected his and others' organizations, he said.
Some employees said they were recruited on the notion they'd be able to change the world with a free and open-thinking channel to management and products. But over the last year, those ideals no longer seem tenable, workers said.
"Executives really engaged with the debate and the dialogue which I don't think you see now," said Claire Stapleton, a 12-year veteran who spearheaded employee-led policy change movements, including the walkout, then left the company last summer, claiming retaliation by company leaders.
For instance, less than two years ago, co-founder Brin stood beside the ranks at the bustling San Francisco International Airport to protest President Donald Trump's travel ban. It was a bold statement. It showed Google wasn't afraid to stand up for its ideals and its workers.
But the separation between workers and leaders over the last year has grown, and some workers said it's not what the founders had in mind.
When Page became CEO in 2011, he became "obsessed" with reading about why companies fail from being too big and sluggish, Stapleton said. "It's sort of sad that a lot of the things he was afraid would happen, actually happened."
Stapleton, who held a number of roles close to the founders, recalled Page walking around offices with a chunk of metal that he said was from his grandfather's auto plant in Michigan. It supposedly symbolized a point in time when auto workers felt like they needed to protect themselves against management. Page showed it as an example of something he hoped would never happen to Google.
"He always said how much Google needs to be upfront and progressive in how it handles people and processes and HR," Stapelton recalled. "He had such an optimistic view of technology and how Google could really transform how people live and free up humanity to pursue the arts."
In January, the company rolled out an overhaul to how its human resources department responds to complaints, according to McMillen, Stapleton and two other employees who quit this year, Liz Fong-Jones and Chelsey Glasson. For veterans, it signified yet another major change at the company that distanced workers from accessible power.
Instead of each person reporting to their own human resources contact in their organization and location, there's essentially a ticketing queue, workers said. That's become a problem for some who feel their needs are now outsourced to people who don't have prior knowledge or understanding of the situation.
"I still knew the HR Business Partners personally and reached out individually to them," said Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer who left the company in 2019 after 11 years, citing ethics concerns. "I worry a lot more about more junior Googlers and people newer to the company who wouldn't know how to bypass the system."
Stapleton said when she made a request to HR earlier this year, she was routed to a call center in Chicago, where she spoke to a young gentleman who had recently graduated college. Responding to a concern she had with a manager, he gave her bad advice to take her manager out to drinks, she said.
Glasson, a research lead at Google for more than five years, left this year and wrote in a memo that her manager made discriminatory remarks about pregnant women. When she reported it to human resources, the department said it would investigate.
However, she told CNBC, the company did not investigate until after she hired an attorney, and never interviewed her for the investigation.
"It's been interesting for me to watch Google make statements such as, 'We thoroughly investigate all instances of discrimination, harassment and retaliation,'" she told CNBC. "From my experience this is not at all true ... it was only after I hired an attorney that Google investigated a small portion of my situation."
Correction: Chelsey Glasson told CNBC that Google did not investigate her case until after she hired an attorney, and never interviewed her.