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The New Google: 'All the Assholes Have Left'

Nice guys don't always finish last.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

Bruno Bowden describes Google’s top ranks in a very Google-y way. With stats.

“In leadership at Google, you have to be three-plus standard deviations better than normal in technical ability,” said Bowden, an equity partner at Data Collective who spent eight years at the search giant. That is, Google’s top execs stand well above the average software engineer in skill. That trait, Bowden continued, does not often correlate with an above-average “emotional intelligence” — a capacity for empathy. The savants usually aren’t people persons, said Bowden.

Translation: They can be complete jerks.

“Sundar,” Bowden added, “is a rare example.”

That would be Sundar Pichai, Google’s new CEO, and a possible explanation for his ascent at the search giant.

The Indian-born executive is often described as possessing both hard and soft skills, equipping him to understand products and manage their maintanence. Pichai is also showing a preference for execs with similar traits. Earlier this month, he gave his first promotions as CEO, naming top lieutenants for the Android and ads businesses. His picks were company veterans, known inside and outside Google as talented — yet, more critically, reliable, low-key and congenial.

A former Google exec put it less charitably: “All the assholes have left.”

Maybe not all, given the endless reserves of them in Silicon Valley. But the new regime at Google stands in contrast to an earlier era at Google, when it was known for having more assertive and sometimes abrasive leaders, including former Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page, who now heads the Alphabet holding company above it all.

Page has largely removed himself from the fray, but was known as a tough manager inside the search giant, peppering his team with pointed questions and cutting (though usually accurate) observations. “He could come off as very harsh,” said one person who has had many encounters with Page over the years. “Until you realize it was more that he was completely lacking in EQ. I mean, zero.”

Google declined to comment for the story.

In some sense, the latest appointments are a sign that Google is coming to terms with its age. Long past are its days as a startup, and it does not need as many sharp-elbowed execs to build an operating system and an ads business from scratch.

Look no further than Hiroshi Lockheimer, Pichai’s pick to lead Android. For people that have worked with him, “asshole” is not a word they summon.

“He’s a terrific guy. He’s very likable,” said Rick Osterloh, president of Motorola, who has known Lockheimer since they worked together at Good Technology in 2001. “He’s the kind of guy who you can communicate directly with.”

Lockheimer joined Google in 2006 to work on the launch of Android 1.0. He rose quickly, thanks to the backing of then Android chief Andy Rubin, even though the two didn’t exactly share a style. Rubin is often described in Jobsian language, a product visionary who can be mercurial. A former colleague from the time described Lockheimer as more “level-headed” than Rubin and his tenacious deputies Hugo Barra, now at Xiaomi, and Steve Horowitz, now at Snapchat.

On top of Android, Pichai gave Lockheimer responsibility for the Chromecast streaming service and the Chrome OS, the platform that Pichai co-created. Although Lockheimer assumed control of Android last year, when Pichai was promoted, he was frequently involved in partner conversations for years before. People that have sat across from him describe him as open and diplomatic, an approach prized by Pichai.

When Motorola belonged to Google, most in the industry assumed the handset business had priority access to Google’s services before other Android phone makers, Osterloh said. Lockheimer wouldn’t allow it. “He was always very cautious to make sure he was playing fair,” insisted the Motorola honcho.

“This is going to be good for Google and good for Android in general,” said Michael Chan, CTO of Nextbit Systems, a new Android handset maker. “If there’s any one person to be leading this, Hiroshi, by far, is the best person to do this.”

People in the ads industry offer a similar portrait of Philipp Schindler, the SVP anointed to run Google’s massive sales and operations. Schindler is a protege of Nikesh Arora, Google’s business boss from 2009 to 2014. Schindler is described as sharing some of Arora’s business acumen, but with a quieter manner. Like Lockheimer, Schindler has worked out of the limelight for years with partners.

“He’s smart, personable — an easy guy to do business with,” said Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital.

One media buyer described Schindler as more “transactional” and willing to compromise in negotiations. That’s in contrast to earlier, when Google’s ad business was often seen as unbending in its demands. People who worked with Schindler at Google said he was adept at climbing the ladders internally, but without stepping on toes.

He also has a deep background in a place where Google really needs to be nice. Before coming to its Mountain View HQ, Schindler spent 13 years in Europe, at AOL then Google. There, of course, Google faces a buzzsaw of government scrutiny.

Partners may like this gentler Google. But many of the former leaders, almost all of whom are known for having solid egos and visionary drives, used that sometimes caustic energy to build Google into the digital behemoth it is today.

The worry then would be that that overly aggressive entrepreneurial zeal may have left with them. Pichai has proven capable of roping in leaders people like; his next trick might be to fend off concerns that Google is going too soft.

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