The Perils of Working on a C.E.O.’s Pet Project

SEATTLE — For years, working on a project that didn’t make a lot of sense to outsiders but was championed by the boss was a badge of honor for employees at some of the tech industry’s biggest companies. Google tried to create augmented reality glasses. Amazon developed its own high-end smartphone. Facebook changed its name to Meta and jumped headlong into the virtual world of the metaverse.

When those projects have fizzled, workers have often slipped into another job at the company. The business usually bore the risk of a failed product or bad idea — not the employee.

But as tech companies have turned to mass layoffs in recent months, the big bets have increasingly looked like bad bets for holding on to a job. When companies have looked for cuts, they have turned to the groups that could be years from making something that will turn a profit.

At Amazon, the ax fell on teams working on the Alexa voice system, drones and automated stores, all projects championed by Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who no longer runs the company. At Google, it hit ventures like autonomous trucks and other so-called moonshots once championed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who also no longer run their company.

The shifting economy and executive transitions away from founders have ushered in a new era, and employees wonder: Is their leader marching them to make their mark on the future, or right off a cliff?

That concern has compounded in recent months as tech companies have undertaken their biggest payroll purge in at least 15 years. Boring and profitable has never looked better. And working on the fun idea that may never pay off has never looked so precarious.

“They have all shown they are willing to throw entire squadrons under the bus to cut costs,” said Kharis O’Connell, a veteran designer of futuristic products whom Amazon recruited from Google two years ago. He was laid off in November. “If you are not in a profit center, you’re kind of screwed.”

The scenario is flipped for employees at Meta, which has had significant layoffs this year. Mark Zuckerberg still runs the company he founded, but he wants to take it in a new direction, the metaverse. He had made it clear that employees had better get on board even though Facebook’s metaverse plans are probably years from making serious money. A big part of the company has become one of those risky projects.

Mr. Bezos often praised ambitious goals at Amazon, even if they flopped. “If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle,” he wrote to investors in 2019.

Working on a “Jeff project” meant facing regular scrutiny, with frequent meetings and updates, according to people who worked on the Fire phone and other priority projects.

But when the phone was killed after tepid consumer reaction, employees were largely redeployed to other projects. Many went on to build Alexa, Mr. Bezos told investors. At one point, more than 20,000 people were employed on the Alexa project. Employees worked hard for it to succeed, but “I don’t know anyone in the Alexa org who thinks it will be profitable,” said David Anderson, who spent more than a decade at Amazon, including on Alexa devices.

In July 2021, Mr. Bezos handed Amazon’s chief executive title to Andy Jassy, who had built and run the company’s highly profitable cloud computing division. Mr. Jassy took a hard look at the company’s operations and costs. And when the economy started to appear shaky, he had an opportunity to make cuts and reflect his priorities, said Brad Porter, a former Amazon vice president and the founder of Collaborative Robotics.

“What we’re trying to do is streamline our costs and a bunch of different areas while, at the same time, making sure that we keep betting on the things that we believe long term could change,” Mr. Jassy said at The New York Times’s DealBook conference in December.

When just under 2,000 people who worked on Alexa and other devices were laid off late last year, Mr. Anderson posted on LinkedIn that he was unnerved. In the past, if Mr. Bezos proposed a “goofy” idea — say, “Jeff wants to build robots to take dogs on walks” — talented engineers would still join, knowing leadership supported the work.

“We always said it was like a start-up,” Mr. Anderson wrote, “with zero risk if you failed.”

The layoffs, which totaled about 18,000 across Amazon, came with a hiring freeze, limiting options for movement internally. Numerous employees of the company wrote Mr. Anderson that his post had hit a nerve. They told him that they hoped to switch roles internally, he said, and were “never working on one of these crazy projects again.”

Still, employees remain excited to work on Amazon’s big bets, including satellite internet, health care and driverless taxis, said Brad Glasser, a company spokesman.

“The opportunity to work on projects that are transformative for customers at scale and to build and use cutting-edge technology is the reason many employees join the company and grow their careers here,” he said.

Google has long been the poster child for big, offbeat ideas. In 2009, Mr. Page convinced Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, that after the company had conquered the internet, its next feat would be to transform the real world.

Autonomous vehicles were one of several ideas that Google began working on at the secretive division that Mr. Thrun would start, Google X, nicknamed the company’s “moonshot factory.” Some efforts succeeded, such as Google Brain, an artificial intelligence lab that is now part of the company’s research division. Others failed, including Google Glass, augmented reality glasses that attracted ridicule, and Loon, a plan that intended to beam internet from giant balloons but never landed on a business model.

Many of these early projects were hatched by Google’s co-founders and their inner circle of advisers, Mr. Thrun said in an interview. “We found the thing to work on and the mountain to climb,” he said.

Over the four years Mr. Thrun ran the division, whose name was later shortened to X, he had only one conversation with the finance official assigned to his group, he said, and never spoke to Google’s chief financial officer.

When layoffs struck X in January, the unit cleaved all but one member of its strategy team — the same group that would often note if a project was unlikely to ever make money. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said it would lay off 12,000 employees in total, or 6 percent of its work force. Several moonshots fared worse, with Verily, a health company, slashing 15 percent of its workers and Intrinsic, a robotics arm, downsizing by 20 percent.

Waymo, the self-driving car business run by Alphabet, expected to have a significant business by 2015, Mr. Thrun said. But it still has ride-hailing operations in only Phoenix and San Francisco, and is heading to Los Angeles next.

This year, Alphabet cut workers involved with Waymo’s efforts to move freight, which some thought had a more obvious business model than its passenger business. Now Waymo has only a skeleton crew of trucking employees left, after shedding 72 workers in January. Last week, Waymo culled another 137 roles, according to an internal email reviewed by The Times, bringing Waymo’s staff cuts to 8 percent this year.

Waymo said it was confident that it had the right teams to succeed, while Google declined to comment.

Even Apple, the most profitable of the tech giants, isn’t immune. The company hasn’t made sweeping layoffs and generally is more selective in the projects it takes on. In recent years, it has pursued ambitious efforts to develop a mixed-reality headset, an autonomous car and custom mobile chips.

But since beginning its car project in 2015, Apple has revamped its approach several times, and laid off about 200 employees as part of a project overhaul in 2019.

At Meta, employees are trying to keep their jobs safe by following Mr. Zuckerberg to his metaverse. In November, he cut more than 11,000 jobs across the company, or roughly 13 percent, and extended a hiring freeze that was to last through the first quarter of 2023. Internal rumors that more cuts may come in the months ahead abound.

The division that felt the least impact? Reality Labs — the locus of Mr. Zuckerberg’s metaverse efforts.

About 15 months ago, Mr. Zuckerberg went all in on the metaverse and renamed the company Meta. Some insiders were excited. But others were caught off guard by what felt like a near-overnight transformation of the company’s roughly 80,000-person work force.

Meta declined to comment.

Many employees had to reapply for jobs responsible for building the metaverse, and working on Mr. Zuckerberg’s pet project was widely seen as the fastest way to advance.

But many still question the strategy and are concerned that it will take much longer than the company’s predicted 10-year horizon for the technology to improve enough for general use, and longer still for the mainstream to embrace it — if it does at all.

Workers have found the software that runs Meta’s VR platform too buggy. Or just pointless. Last fall, a manager sent a memo urging employees to use the products more regularly.

“Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds,” the manager said in the memo, according to a copy obtained by The Times. “You can’t do that without using it.”

Karen Weise reported from Seattle, and Nico Grant and Mike Isaac from San Francisco. Tripp Mickle contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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