Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who have mostly stayed out of the spotlight since restructuring their company four years ago, are relinquishing control of parent company Alphabet to current Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the duo announced today in a joint letter published to Google’s public blog. The two men will remain employees of Alphabet and retain their seats on the board, but they will no longer oversee the company’s sprawling, almost trillion-dollar empire they created while at Stanford University more than 20 years ago.
“With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet,” Page and Brin wrote.
“He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about.”
In an email sent to employees and later published alongside Page and Brin’s letter, Pichai stressed that the change will have little to no impact on how Google operates on a day-to-day basis. “I want to be clear that this transition won’t affect the Alphabet structure or the work we do day to day. I will continue to be very focused on Google and the deep work we’re doing to push the boundaries of computing and build a more helpful Google for everyone,” Pichai wrote. “At the same time, I’m excited about Alphabet and its long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology.”
The news, while it sounds like a shocking development for the course of Google’s future, is not surprising to those who have followed Page and Brin’s careers since 2015. The duo have rarely made public appearances, spoken on investor calls, or shown their faces at product launches or the company’s annual I/O developer conference. Brin, who once hosted a live skydiving demo of the now-defunct Google Glass at I/O, was often a showy futurism-loving face of the company’s more experimental efforts, while Page — the acting CEO of Google until Pichai took over — was the overall executive face. Both effectively disappeared from public view, however, after the company was restructured.
The creation of Alphabet was controversial in 2015, marking an unprecedented new corporate structure for Silicon Valley at a time when the tech giants were amassing huge power and consolidating industries. Alphabet was designed to split Google into its main business, which includes its search engine and nearly a dozen other massive products, and the other disparate arms of the company, like its X lab (formerly the Moonshot factory Google X) and now its self-driving unit Waymo.
But the creation of Alphabet also gave Page and Brin carte blanche to fade from the limelight and let Pichai take the reins. Page has since become involved in electric aircraft companies like California-based Kitty Hawk, while Brin has mostly stayed out of the headlines save a rare public appearance at San Francisco International Airport in early 2017 to protest President Donald Trump’s early-term immigration-related executive order.
2. Larry and Sergey have essentially gone AWOL anyway as their myriad of other interests have diverged from running the business that allowed them to have a myriad of interests.
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) December 3, 2019
Pichai has gone on to grow Google into an even larger facet of daily online life, overseeing the launch of the Pixel brand and Google’s other hardware efforts in addition to the company’s immense investments in artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Since the creation of Alphabet, the company’s stock price has more than doubled, as has the company’s revenue. In its first quarterly earnings report since Alphabet’s formation, the company reported sales of $18.7 billion. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, Alphabet reported sales of more than $36.3 billion.
But Page and Brin also handed the CEO title to Pichai at a time of increasing scrutiny of Big Tech, and Google and its YouTube subsidiary have faced a severe series of controversies since the company’s co-founders stepped back. Similar to fellow Big Tech companies Amazon and Facebook, the last four years have been arguably the most contentious in Google’s history, as an activist coalition of employees have arisen within the company to fight for change and lawmakers, activists, and regulators have sought to check Google’s power from the outside.
As a result, Pichai has become the face of the company’s efforts to weather those storms, including high-profile incidents like the firing of diversity critic James Damore and, more recently, the company’s involvement in a Department of Defense drone project and its plans (now reportedly on ice) to launch a search product for the Chinese market.
Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki have also had to answer for the video platform’s own set of controversies, ranging from child exploitation and radicalization content running wild on the platform to moderation and speech issues over who gets to stay on YouTube and to what effect. In Europe and in the US, Google has also been the subject of antitrust investigations, some of which remain ongoing, and faced numerous multibillion-dollar fines for anticompetitive practices over the last few years.
Yet perhaps most pressing for Google leadership right now is the company’s past and current handling of sexual harassment and labor activism. After news broke that both Page and Brin oversaw the approval of a $90 million exit package for disgraced Android co-founder Andy Rubin, who was accused of alleged sexual misconduct by a former employee, employees organized what was at the time the largest internal protest the company had ever seen, called the Google Walkout and involving more than 20,000 employees worldwide.
Since then, Google leadership has been accused of retaliating against the organizers of that walkout, as well as other protest actions. Google now faces a lawsuit over the firing of several employees who helped organize those actions, as well as an internal investigation into its handling of sexual harassment and assault claims.
It’s unclear how involved Page or Brin will be outside the occasional conversation with Pichai, or whether the duo will have any influence at all on how the company handles its various lawsuits, regulatory concerns, and internal company strife and flagging morale. It’s also unclear what the two co-founders will do with their immense wealth. Both men have a combined net worth of more than $100 billion when factoring in Alphabet stock, and neither have hinted at any form of philanthropy or at the possible founding of nonprofits or other charitable giving.
Notable to me that in their farewell letter, Larry and Sergey say zero about what they’re going to do with their time/money beyond “talking with Sundar regularly.”
These are two of the wealthiest people in the country. They are very private people, but scrutiny will find them.
— Teddy Schleifer (@teddyschleifer) December 3, 2019
“We are deeply humbled to have seen a small research project develop into a source of knowledge and empowerment for billions — a bet we made as two Stanford students that led to a multitude of other technology bets,” the duo write in conclusion in their farewell letter announcing their departure. “We could not have imagined, back in 1998 when we moved our servers from a dorm room to a garage, the journey that would follow.”