Why Google Cloud’s new boss will fail like the old boss

The Google culture doesn’t care about enterprise, and replacing one seasoned enterprise exec with another won’t change that fact

Why Google Cloud’s new boss will fail like the old boss

For years, Google Cloud Platform has built more geewizardy-type services than anyone else, leading the other cloud providers in things like AI. It has also done the best job of building impressive open source communities like Kubernetes and TensorFlow. And yet Google Cloud Platform remains a distant third in the public cloud computing contest, with the usual reason cited being: Google doesn’t “get” enterprise.

This, despite hiring a bevy of enterprise folks throughout its sales and marketing. And despite hiring VMware cofounder Diane Greene to shepherd the company into a more glorious enterprise future that has yet to come. Now Greene is out and an even stodgier enterprise person, Oracle’s Thomas Kurian, is on tap to save Google’s cloudy soul. Will it work?

Googlers don’t care about the enterprise

If what Google was lacking was enterprise DNA at the top, it’s hard to see how swapping Greene for Kurian helps. Yes, it’s now fashionable to deride Greene as “rather old-school,” someone who “struggled to understand how employees at [Google] operate.” This, however, was exactly why she was hired: not to become more like Google, but rather in the hope that Google would become more like her.

In many ways, Google has. Greene has hired more people for the Google Cloud group in the last two years than any other division in Google’s parent Alphabet. Many of those hires come from the staid world of enterprise computing. Indeed, browse through Google Cloud employees on LinkedIn and you’ll see enterprise plastered all over their pedigrees: Red Hat, Cisco, IBM, SAP, VMware, you name it. If the company is big, boring, and profitable, current Google Cloud employees have likely worked there.

But by other measures, efforts to make Google more enterprise-friendly have failed, largely because the bulk of its employee base simply doesn’t care about the enterprise. Google remains very engineer-driven, more likely to tell customers why they’re wrong to prefer a particular approach to a business problem than to listen to the customers and try to solve it for them. For example, when Greene wanted to sell to the US military, Googlers protested. When Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said tech companies can’t “turn their backs on the US Department of Defense … [or] this country is going to be in trouble,” his employees got in line.

While this isn’t about enterprise, per se, the pragmatism Bezos demands remains foreign to Google. And that was something Greene simply couldn’t change.

The new chief is even more old-school enterprise

Given that a transfusion of Green’s executive enterprise blood hasn’t materially moved Google’s cloud fortunes, it’s unclear why doubling down on this strategy will work under Kurian. As engineer Ana Ulin has highlighted, “Somehow [Kurian’s] 22 years at Oracle [doesn’t] strike me as a great background to understand modern cloud providers.”

This is doubly damning because Oracle has proved so inept in competing with its much-hyped but little-used cloud. According to the latest Gartner data, Oracle’s market share has been in steady decline over the last few years. Google, despite its struggles, at least can muster 3.3 percent of the cloud infrastructure market, according to Gartner, and now regularly gets mentioned as one of the “big three” cloud providers.

Oracle, for its part, can’t even get into rounding-error territory.

Kurian, in short, might understand enterprise, but he has yet to demonstrate that he knows cloud and, in particular, how to lead mainstream enterprises to modern cloud infrastructure. Or, more pertinently, how to transform company culture, which is really what’s required of whoever runs Google’s cloud unit.

Google, in short, needs a Satya Nadella.

Why Google Cloud needs a Nadella

While Nadella can’t take (and doesn’t try to take) all the credit for Microsoft’s cultural transition, he has made it safe for Microsofties to get serious about public cloud computing. Part of this has involved destroying the taboos (like support for Linux) that kept Microsoft from being a serious platform player. Part of it has simply been about setting an example for his 100,000-plus employees as to what is expected.

Kurian joins Google without the authority or mandate to do this. Just as Google chief Sundar Pichai reportedly clashed with Greene over how to handle the Project Maven (military contract) backlash, it’s unclear that Kurian will get much more air cover from his boss on enterprise pragmatism than Greene did.

Worse, unlike Greene, who had a sterling reputation from building VMware and launching the virtualization industry, Kurian has spent 22 years at Oracle riding its database business while completely missing the cloud wave. One of his former employees, Anshu Sharma, optimistically believes that Kurian “is one of the most astute strategists in enterprise today,” one who will smartly spend $50 billion to $100 billion over the next 18 months to turn Google Cloud into a serious contender for AWS’ cloud throne.

In a research note, Deutsche Bank largely concurred, suggesting that it sees “potential for Kurian to speed up go-to-market improvements, lean into M&A, and pursue partnerships for an on-premise offering that could help GCP close its gap with AWS and Azure.” (Not that he did any of these things at Oracle.) Of course, Deutsche Bank admits it said roughly the same things when Greene took over, only to have her efforts stymied by the “core DNA of Google,” something that “will be difficult for anyone to fix.”

Regardless, even the self-described Kurian optimist Sharma notes that “the key risk [Kurian] can identify is culture fit and evolving the culture.” If we believe management guru Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Kurian may be in for the same indigestion that Greene has had, leaving Google Cloud the birthplace of amazing innovations that too few enterprises will ever use.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.