Scott Kennedy

When layoffs come for high performers: Google 2024 edition

January 14, 2024

It’s January 2024 and a thousand Googlers woke up to an email saying their job is gone. This in itself is not surprising. A larger cut happened one year ago, and many people at Google would admit it’s still generously staffed.

What is surprising are the names that appeared in this round of layoffs. Many of the names I see are long time Googlers I’d consider high performers.

What’s going on?

First, you have to understand why teams get overstaffed. That’s easy. Managers want to have big organizations so they can push to be promoted from Manager to Director to VP. I don’t blame them, VPs at Google make a lot of money. Incentives work.

This isn’t news, so can’t it be prevented? Well… it’s hard. VPs need things to happen. Their biggest lever is money in the form of machines and headcount. They also have multiple layers of management between them and ground truth of the actual work. The person asking for the headcount has more information about how seemingly hard the work is, and geez all these projects seem both important and hard. With all the layers of management and turnover in the ranks, you can escape actual delivery of results for a long time.

A manager optimizing for personal incentives will get very good at persuading VPs that they need headcount1. Good managers do this too, but it’s not the skill they optimize for most2. The actual job of engineering leadership tends to keep the good ones occupied most of the day.

There are good organizations that fight back against this. How do they do it?

First, they need a great executive in charge. Somebody who is skilled at asking good, hard questions despite constant context switching. They cut through bullshit, don’t tolerate fools, and stay disciplined on growth. Political middle managers in those orgs get moved out, or at worst fail to progress.

You also need good middle managers. People who prioritize building things other than the uint32 next to their name in the org chart. And that brings me to Bob3.

Bob was always the example I gave that proved you could advance at Google without playing the headcount game. Bob had street credit, he built a famous open source project. He wrote a book on engineering leadership that Google used to teach classes on the topic. He probably doesn’t even remember the time he helped me with building my own team, because he seemed to be doing that every day for somebody new.

When Bob got promoted to Director, he had a team far smaller than typical for that level. How did he do it? He took on a hard problem in an area important to the business. He hired a small team by focusing on specific skills and talents. He built bridges with neighbouring teams to help. And then he got results. Afterwards, he went around teaching others how to copy his methods. He was always doing extra credit leadership work.

Basically, he acted like a Google leader did in it’s earlier days. Makes sense, Bob was an OG Googler.

So when other managers griped to me about needing to switch to a team with more headcount to advance their careers, I’d counter: “let me tell you about a guy named Bob”.4

And that brings me to the point. Bob was laid off. I’m sure the layoff algorithm5 flagged him for having too small an org to justify his level6.

Conversely, none of the political managers I know were laid off. Turns out they’re really good at sniffing out the layoff algorithm and preparing. Incentives work.

The OGs are playing the wrong game. You can imagine how this will play out over time.

I’m not too worried about Bob. He’ll have lots of options. But I’m worried about Google. They’re supposed to be better than this. Big G, are you okay?

  1. The other thing that political managers optimize for is the level of their reports. If you’re a Director with seven Directors reporting to you, surely it’s time you be made a VP, right? As far as I can tell, this behaviour is unique to political managers (vs good managers). Avoid any leader who obsesses over levels.
  2. Great ones actually push to reverse the trend. A manager I admired once said “am I the only one trying to give away teams?”. They kept giving her more, though. She was a great manager, after all.
  3. Not his real name, because I felt weird using it even if I mean to say nice things.
  4. To be fair, I would also tell them that playing the headcount game is more reliable. But I always told the story of Bob.
  5. I don’t literally mean fired by a computer. But you can bet some script pulled up the list of suggestions to be reviewed and approved.
  6. Targeted layoffs seemed to skew towards long tenured Googlers. It was probably a good way to maximize cost savings with minimal layoffs. But it doesn’t seem like a good way to maximize productivity, which is supposed to be the point.