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Inside Google’s quest to become a cloud-computing giant

Google Cloud employees were baffled when they learned that their next boss would be Thomas Kurian, an executive who struggled to shepherd Silicon Valley mainstay Oracle Corp. into the promised land of internet computing.

It was November 2018 and the cloud division’s then-chief Diane Greene and Kurian held a question-and-answer session with staff who worried about his impending leadership. “A lot of people have concerns about the fact that you came from Oracle, which is a very different culture,” one person said to Kurian. “So how are you going to preserve the culture at Google Cloud?” At a previous meeting that month, an employee described the hire as alarming and sought reassurances from Greene that Kurian was up for the job.

More than two years later, no one is befuddled by Kurian’s appointment. Under his supervision, Google Cloud’s revenue has more than doubled and is growing at a quicker pace than that of its parent company, Alphabet Inc. During the Covid-19 pandemic that caused Google to pause most hiring, Kurian’s division snapped up new employees. While other company divisions have fought for internal resources or been shuttered, the cloud unit continues to receive a constant rush of investment. His workforce is now 37,000 people strong, from 25,000 when he took the reins, making Kurian one of the most important executives at Google

Alphabet will give investors an update on Kurian’s progress in expanding Google Cloud’s business when it reports earnings on July 27. Analysts estimate that the unit’s revenue grew about 45% to $4.35 billion in the second quarter.

Before Kurian’s arrival, Google had approached cloud computing with an engineering mindset and a belief in the power of technology—but it didn’t have much success. It offered some of the most respected technology in cloud computing, but clients mostly used it for specialized needs, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. The tech giant remained stuck in third place—well behind Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

“There’s no obvious Achilles heel to Amazon’s position or Microsoft’s position,” said Mark Mahaney, an analyst at Evercore ISI. “It’s a hard position to be in, but it’s a good business to be in.”

It took an outsider from India and a veteran of the nasty enterprise software wars of the 1990s to bring old-school salesmanship to the search giant; and in the process, Google’s playful, intellectual culture may have softened his style and dulled his hard edges.

Early on at Google, he was known to scream at some executives in one-on-one meetings, but did not have public tirades. When the pandemic took hold, the yelling eased. Kurian said his leadership style has changed at Google.

“You have to adapt to the style of the place that you’re working in and the people you’re working with,” Kurian said in an interview. “And so I worked quite differently here than I did before.”

After years of Google emphasizing the engineering, Kurian has turned the company’s focus to client service. Google has tried to step away from transactional deals and instead pursue strategic partnerships. In some of these deals, old-school clients like Ford Motor Co. get access to a team of Google engineers, who will help the carmaker develop new digital services.

To attract sales staff, Google is spending generously. It’s not uncommon for seasoned salespeople to make $600,000 to $700,000 with salary and commission. Enterprise sales executives make an average salary of $191,000 a year in the U.S., according to LinkedIn.

Kurian’s changes have given momentum to Google Cloud and prompted speculation that he could one day succeed chief executive Sundar Pichai as Google’s chief executive officer. But the future depends on whether the business unit can turn a profit and rise above third place. Kurian never realized an ambition to bring Oracle to the cloud big leagues and now has a chance to complete unfinished business by making his division a leader in the industry.

Kurian was born in Kerala, a state in southern India, to a chemical engineer and a teacher who had emigrated from Sri Lanka. His father was first in the family to attend college. Kurian’s twin, George, the CEO of tech company NetApp Inc., said their parents were pioneers. “If you think about somebody accomplishing the dream, they did,” he said.

When Kurian was young in 1985, one of his friends had a tear-out of an article written by someone recounting their experiences in America, and the paper contained the names and addresses of six U.S. universities. Princeton University was on the list and accepted the brothers’ applications. Kurian arrived in New Jersey bewildered by his new world, later recounting to colleagues the first time he went to an American sandwich shop, when he was stunned to learn he had more than one option for bread.

After college, Kurian spent four years at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and then settled in at Oracle, which had honed a reputation for formidable salesmanship and embracing conflict with competitors.

Kurian stayed at Oracle for 22 years, and toward the end he was seen as an heir to co-founder Larry Ellison’s throne. As the company’s president of product, he supervised groups building Oracle’s cloud-computing software. Adorned with a megawatt smile and dark suits on stage at conferences, he tried to convince customers, partners and developers that Oracle had progressed in its goal of modernizing its technology to keep up with rivals such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

In meetings and conference calls at Oracle, Kurian tore into his employees for perceived poor performance by screaming, cursing and calling them names.

Kurian and Ellison clashed over the company’s cloud strategy, with Kurian arguing the database maker should collaborate more with rivals to boost its presence while Ellison preferred to go it alone. Kurian resigned from Oracle in September 2018, and when asked about the circumstances of that departure, he said it was time to do something new.

Under Diane Greene, Google’s cloud-computing division had an unofficial rule: It wanted to be enterprise, but didn’t want to be Oracle.

Like Kurian, Greene was a polarizing leader, attracting either adoration or antipathy, but they diverged in a key way. Greene showed favoritism for the product and engineering teams, and thought salespeople should sell the technology and get out of the way. Kurian has poured resources into the sales organization.

“Diane Greene came in with a similarly strong reputation,” said James Cordwell, an analyst at Atlantic Equities LLP. “It just feels like Kurian has done a better job in trying to build out a more capable salesforce and built more support within Google.”

When Kurian arrived on Google’s campus, he sought to recast himself from his previous role of a loyal deputy at a competitor that had waged legal and regulatory war against Google for a decade. He secured goodwill from rank-and-file staffers when discussing his personal life, telling anecdotes about how he and his twin George used to impersonate one another.

But Kurian kept his guard up with the executives who worked most closely with him. In early meetings, Kurian wasn’t the type to ask deputies about their families or know if they had children, though later, he grew closer to the senior staffers he appointed.

In his early months at Google, Kurian worked to replace leaders who had left. He hired Rob Enslin, the president of the cloud business group at his former corporate nemesis, SAP SE, and the two recruited big-titled executives from other enterprise technology stalwarts, including Red Hat, GE Digital, and, of course, Oracle. And they went on a hiring binge for seasoned salespeople.

He doubled the $300,000 salaries salespeople make at enterprise companies like SAP to come to Google. The move proved so effective that Hasso Plattner, the co-founder of SAP, yelled at executives in a meeting about employee defections.

Kurian has also brought a mainstream enterprise tactic to Google—the art of the software package. Rather than just selling productivity apps and tools to analyze data and adopt machine learning, he’s also selling Google’s other products, including Android and Maps, and including them as a way to boost cloud deals. Among salespeople, Kurian has a reputation as a deal-closer. He stays on message, telling customers how Google will help them accelerate their businesses.

“The big transition that I’ve seen is about sort of getting in and partnering with the business side, asking what your business problems are, and that’s what Thomas has brought into Google Cloud,” Etsy Chief Technology Officer Mike Fisher, a Google client, said. Previously, communications with the cloud provider were typically held at the engineer-to-engineer level. Kurian, though, follows up with significant customers periodically.

Kurian made it a priority to strengthen the cloud unit’s standing in the database and analytics market, which Oracle has traditionally led. He also personally managed the creation of new procedures that allow banks to store data in Google’s facilities while complying with regulators, a thorny process the business had long needed to resolve.

Google Cloud has grown briskly during Kurian’s tenure. In the first quarter of this year, sales jumped 46% to $4 billion.

Despite Google Cloud’s rapid growth, the unit was $5.6 billion in the hole in 2020. In the first quarter, Google lost $974 million. AWS, meanwhile, made $4.16 billion in the same period.

Kurian said he’s unbothered, arguing that Google is investing now to realize profits in the future. Google CEO Pichai and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat agree, pledging their support for the division on earnings calls.

Google has steadily gained market share in infrastructure cloud services, now with 9% according to Synergy Research, compared to 7% when Kurian took the helm. But Microsoft has also been growing, to 20%, while Amazon stays steady with about a third of the market. Technical limitations prevented the company from bidding on a large deal that could have accelerated its ability to catch up, the Pentagon’s canceled $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. Staffers also had ethical concerns with the contract, though Google has other partnerships with branches of the military and said this month that it looks “forward to engaging with the Department of Defense as they assess their future IT needs.”

Short of taking the No. 2 market position, profitability would be a major indication that Kurian’s strategy has paid off. But it’s unclear whether he’ll stick around long enough to get the division in the black. Despite his long tenure at Oracle, or perhaps because of it, Kurian won’t say how long he aims to stay at Google. “I always say, ‘Never say never,’” he said. “You don’t know what the future looks like.”

A higher office may hinge on Kurian’s results. He didn’t finish the job of making Oracle a powerful force in cloud computing. His position at Google offers him a second chance.

“There’s a great redemption opportunity here,” Mark Mahaney, the Evercore analyst, said. “It is a two-horse, one-pony race, and if he could turn it into a three-horse race, even if they’re the third horse, that would be widely received as an impressive accomplishment.” Live Mint

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