Employees leave tech companies every day. Among these, are entrepreneurs who want to return to the entrepreneurial life, a lot of times after already leading a startup to acquisition. However, it’s super rare to hear the real reasons behind a leading corporate figure’s departure. The story becomes even more fascinating when talking about Noam Bardin, who served for 12 years as Waze CEO, with 7 of them at Google - which acquired Waze from Barding for over $1 billion.
The autonomous promise
Bardin recently uploaded a post on Paygo that read “Why did I leave Google, or why did I stay so long?”. In the post, Bardin exposed the truth behind his Google exit after nearly a decade, and how it set him on a new journey.
Bardin admits that the decision to sell was partly guided by previous mistakes: “Due to a bunch of mistakes early on, we did not own substantial amounts of equity and had a pretty bad relationship with some of our board members. I remember the bottom line: “wouldn't you rather work for Larry Page than our current board”? We were committed to our mission and saw this as a change in the cap table rather than a change of mission.”
Bardin continues to explain that one of the key elements of the acquisition was the autonomy afforded to the Waze team, or as he puts it “build out Waze within Google”. Bardin did note that Google came through, and provided Waze with room to operate freely.
Bardin and Waze may have joined the Google ranks, but they were allowed to use their tools and methods, as well as keep their own brand and user terms. Bardin aimed for the best of both worlds, meaning that Waze continually develops and improves, while enjoying Google’s push and distribution network - all without the pressure of fundraising. He claims that back in 2013 this model was pretty rare, but became standard very quickly, especially after the acquisitions of WhatsApp, Instagram, Nest, and Waze. This also kept startup founders at their new mother companies for far longer than expected.
We underestimated “the Beast”
Bardin explains that he was “the naive startup” who failed to correctly estimate the power of “the beast”, meaning the corporate nature of Google. As an example, Bardin tells that the western CEOs expose their hubris, thinking they’ll be the western brand to conquer China. Although, in reality, they end up back home with their tails between their legs, while their intellectual property, money, and business are all kept by their Chinese partners.
Promotion over product
According to Bardin, startups have a connection and commitment from the product, company, and brand, as well as a synergy between the product and the employees, management, and investors. In corporate land, the only commitment is towards the corporation. He proves his point by noting that Google employees are faithful to Google and not to Gmail; Instagram employees are committed to Facebook and not some app. The product, according to Bardin, is a tool to advance a career. The passion is lost: “Being promoted has more impact on the individuals economic success than the product growth.” He says that this results in employees joining product teams based on their chances for professional advancement.
When talking compensation, Bardin said that the insanely high paychecks and stock options are heavily clouding people’s judgment: “Equity is basically free money,” said Bardin, and explains that “Regardless of your performance (individually) or your product performance, your equity grows significantly.” As a result, the “I” became more important than the “we”, the product, and the users, claims Bardin, who suggest a transition to performance based compensation.
No one gets fired
Bardin quotes a Netflix culture document, which says that your culture is “who you hire, fire or let go”, or in other words be cautious with the firing gavel. “The challenge was that, as Google employees, we were subject to all of the Corporate hiring practices. It is practically impossible to fire someone for the basic reason that you don't need this role any more or there is a better person out there or just plain old "you are not doing a great job",” writes Bardin in his post.
This results in managers trying to get rid of employees by transferring them to other Google departments: “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.”
Google Maps stole our features
Another of Bardin’s issues with Google was that Waze was not being promoted as much as he expected, and even noted that his company’s brand was hurt because of it: “Any idea we had was quickly co-opted by Google Maps.” Even Google Play, the Android app store owned by Google, had no love for Waze: “The Android app store treated us as a 3rd party, there was no pre-installation option and no additional distribution. We did have a lot more marketing dollars to spend but had to spend them like any other company, except we were constrained in what we could do and which 3rd parties we could work with due to corporate policies.”
He adds that Waze grew exponentially without any support from the “mothership”, as dubbed by Bardin: “ Looking back, we could have probably grown faster and much more efficiently had we stayed independent.”
Bardin also reveals the constant headbutting with Google’s culture: “I have always been a pretty passionate guy, especially at Waze,” he says, and goes on to explain that following the acquisition, he was invited to take part in different events and panels. This is when the complaints started to stack up at HR. Among other things, co-workers complained that he had a tendency to drop a few ‘F’ bombs all too often, and weren’t happy with his vulgar non-PC language. Which all, of course, led to Bardin getting a pass for the panels.
Bardin says that the whole Silicon Valley culture causes style to take priority over content: “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.”
Employees prefer yoga to product
Bardin remembers back to his early days in high-tech during the 90s, he couldn’t even conceive of a 'work-home balance' concept: “We loved what we did and wanted to succeed so we worked like crazy to achieve great things. As I had kids, I learned the importance of being at home for them and that's how I understood Work Life balance - its a balance, sometimes you need to work weekends and nights or travel, sometimes you can head out early or work from home - we balance the needs of the employee and the company.” However, Bardin claims that in today’s Silicon Valley, the work-home balance is prioritized towards home over work: “Young people want it all - they want to get promoted quickly, achieve economic independence, feel fulfilled at Work, be home early, not miss the Yoga class at 11:00am, etc,” Bardin complains, and adds: “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.”
Bardin summarizes his view of work hours: “I don't believe long hours are a badge of honor but I also believe that we have to do whatever it takes to win, even if it’s on a weekend.”
Despite everything: “only positive things to say about the Google Leadership.”
“I did not leave in a confrontational disagreement, which is what anyone who knows me thought would happen, as I have a short fuse,” closes Bardin, and adds: “was just worn down by the nature of the beast. I have only positive things to say about the Google leadership.”
Google have yet to respond to these hard accusations coming from Bardin, and it’s unclear if they intend to comment at all. This testimony from a former Google exec offers a peek into the corporate world hidden behind the glamour and money.