Big tech

Before layoffs hit Google-owned Looker, workers unknowingly trained their replacements

Sources told Emerging Tech Brew the details of the cuts, which the "Department of Customer Love" faced due to outsourcing.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

Before they were laid off, one member of Looker’s customer-support team thought they were getting promoted.

They had worked on their performance review for over a week, digging up data to showcase their success at Looker, a data-analytics division housed under Google Cloud. On the evening of Tuesday, March 1, the employee received a next-day calendar invite for an “important” meeting with a hidden attendee list. They assumed it’d be good news. Then they signed on to the meeting and saw their manager in tears.

That employee was one of at least dozens of members of Looker’s US-based support team who lost their jobs in early March. The decision had been planned "a few months in advance," one Google Cloud exec said in an internal town hall after the layoffs, a recording of which was shared with Emerging Tech Brew. But until the day before, some Looker managers had no idea—even Looker’s head of engineering did not find out until after the fact.

Looker’s support team, known as the Department of Customer Love (DCL), plans to rely primarily on outsourced labor through contractors from Infosys, an IT staffing firm headquartered in India. For three months before the layoffs, Google Cloud executives tasked DCL employees with designing training programs for the new contractors, not knowing that their own roles were on the chopping block.

“We always asked, ‘What’s the goal of this? Why are we bringing on these [contractor] teams? Are our jobs at stake?’” The employee, who requested anonymity, recalled. “They would always be like, ‘No, no, no, of course not, we just want to bring on the [contractors] so that you guys can get more time off [customer] chat to work on other projects that we have.’...The timeline felt really aggressive.”

Google acquired the startup almost exactly two years earlier, for $2.6 billion—the first major acquisition under Google Cloud’s current CEO, Thomas Kurian. Since its 2012 debut, Looker had been steadily expanding in staff and scope and had landed clients like Kickstarter, Asana, TaskRabbit, and Moderna. One of Looker’s goals is to help provide “scalable machine learning,” like allowing users to pair ML models with organized data sets. In theory, its software platform makes Google Cloud even more attractive to clients looking to parse their reams of data.

“As Google Cloud grows, we frequently evaluate the right approach to providing the best service and support structure to serve our customers,” Ted Ladd, Google Cloud’s director of go-to-market communications, told us in an emailed statement. “The changes will ensure we have the right people, partners, and systems in place to meet our customers now and into the future.”

Non-US DCL employees—like the full-time EMEA and APAC teams—were kept on. But the cuts didn’t stop with Looker: US-based support roles have been slashed across multiple Google Cloud products. Google declined to confirm the total number of affected workers, but the Alphabet Workers Union says it has confirmed at least 100 so far.

Just weeks before the layoffs, Google Cloud announced total losses of $3.1 billion for 2021, even as revenue grew nearly 50% year over year to $19.2 billion. In 2020, the division lost $5.6 billion. Google Cloud, which had 37,000 employees as of last July, is spending heavily to compete with the likes of AWS and Azure, and in its bid for profitability, moving support operations to contractors could help cut costs.

Pulling back the curtain

One of Looker’s major selling points is its highly trained customer-support team. That’s something Atul Nanda, VP of Google Cloud Support, stressed in an internal town hall one week after the layoffs.

“Looker has a Department of Customer Love, which is more than just a department name and sets the culture—it’s the secret sauce, it’s the DNA,” Nanda said. “With every acquisition, there’s an evolution process we go through, and sometimes these innovation processes can be difficult. In this case, for Looker, we needed to bring Looker into alignment for the rest of GCP [Google Cloud Platform]. And I am hoping that we can do our very best to preserve that culture of DCL, which is just admirable, to say the least.”

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Google Cloud first introduced Infosys contractors to help with Looker’s DCL caseloads in April 2021, team members recalled. They were primarily tasked with straightforward requests, like setting up visualizations and downloading data, according to two sources on the team.

“We were told then, ‘Your positions are not going to get eliminated…they might change over time, they might get more specialized, but they will never get eliminated,’” another member of Looker’s US support team who was affected by the layoffs told us. “Google does not believe in layoffs.”

Managers asked for volunteers to help train and mentor the Infosys contractors, according to DCL team members who participated in the training. More than half the team obliged, they said, taking part in buddy programs, mentor meetings, and office hours totaling anywhere from 10 to 30 hours per week.

In the fall of 2021, Google Cloud added another team of Infosys contractors to Looker’s support operations. And in December, a small group of DCL team members were asked to set aside all of their other duties in order to design contractor training programs. They built out training for the more technical support categories, such as embedding Looker content, API requests, performance issues, and troubleshooting scheduling.

The group was not able to finish designing or implementing the training programs before the layoffs were announced.

“I was in the dark building out the training and the capability for all of these [contractors] to, in a way, do my job—but I wasn’t able to finish it,” the second employee said.

That puts both the contractors and the remaining full-time employees in a tough spot, the employee added, since Looker’s vendorization—or the integration and training of contractors—wasn’t complete: “The processes, mentorship, and training was cut off very unexpectedly….so I do have concerns about the contractors and remaining full-time employees being able to successfully provide quality support.”

That’s been reflected in at least some users’ experiences, according to several posts made on Looker’s community board in the days after the layoffs.

On March 3, the day after the layoffs, one client wrote, “I’m deeply concerned. Our company has been a longtime Looker user….One of the reasons we have stuck with Looker is their extremely passionate DCL.” He added that his company had about 15 unresolved Looker bugs, and he had spent more than four hours trying to get an answer on chat.

Looking ahead…

Moving forward, Google Cloud will restructure its support teams into new categories: Google Cloud Platform, and Workspace, Looker, and M&A, according to a staff email from Nanda, which was shared with Emerging Tech Brew.

If affected workers do not find a new role at Google within 60 days, they will be terminated and—pending a signed release agreement—given 12 weeks of base pay plus one additional week per year worked, along with a lump sum that will vary. The company is also providing “mobility specialists” to help navigate available roles.

Google Cloud support teams are currently circulating a petition with more than 1,500 signatures, asking for Google to extend its internal transfer window to 180 days, as well as to provide concrete, structured processes for transfer.

Google declined to comment on the support-team restructuring, possible changes in quality of service, severance packages for affected workers, and whether the changes were aimed to cut costs.

“Many Googlers have visas tied to their employment,” the petition reads. “Successful transfers take more time due to added mobility delays from governments’ and Google’s immigration processes. Googlers may be forced out of the country they live in.”

The layoffs happened on Looker employees’ two-year anniversary of joining Google’s workforce. On the same day they learned their positions would be eliminated, US DCL employees who had been with the team since the acquisition received a congratulatory email.

“On your anniversary, besides recognizing you for another year of service, People Ops and GSOC would also like you to know that the most important thing about Google is Googlers.”

Editor’s note: Morning Brew’s analytics team is a Looker client.

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