Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Stanford graduate students who founded Google over two decades ago, are stepping down from executive roles at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, they announced on Tuesday.
The move is an end of an era for Google. Page and Brin have personified the company since its founding and have been two of the technology industry’s most influential figures, on a par with the founders of Apple and Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Their early work on the Google search engine helped corral an unruly cloud of information on the World Wide Web. And their ideas about how to run an internet company — like offering generous employee perks like free shuttle buses to the office and making rank-and-file employees feel as though they have a stake in the company - became a standard for Silicon Valley.
Page and Brin took lesser roles in day-to-day operations in 2015 when they turned Google into Alphabet, a holding company that includes the self-driving car company Waymo under its umbrella. Since then, they have spent more time overseeing a variety of so-called other bets, like life-extension technology, while Pichai ran Google and its enormous search and advertising business. The business has continued to grow and Alphabet is among the most valuable companies in the world, but the internet giant is entering one of the most turbulent periods in its history, with antitrust scrutiny, employee walkouts and growing public skepticism of its power.
Page and Brin, who are both 46, will remain directors on Alphabet's board and the company’s two largest individual shareholders. They retain a majority of the company’s voting shares, which will give them effective control over the board and ensure they maintain a say over the company’s future.
“Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost,” the founders wrote in a public letter on Tuesday. “While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents — offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!”
The move confirms the ascendancy of Pichai, who is 47, as one of tech’s most powerful people. While he has run the core Google business for four years, he has still reported to Page, Alphabet’s chief executive, and Brin, its president.
Now he is the sole executive in charge of a company that has giant businesses in search, advertising, maps, smartphone software and online video, as well as a variety of fledgling bets in far-off areas like drone deliveries and internet-beaming balloons.
In recent years, Mr. Page and Mr. Brin seemed to have lost interest in running the company they founded. The reorganization into a holding company was in part intended to address that. While Mr. Pichai took the reins of the often messy business of Google, Mr. Page and Mr. Brin would focus on what were effectively science projects.
Mr. Brin moved his desk for a time to X, the so-called moonshot lab where engineers worked on projects that were likely to fail - but had big potential if they didn't. Mr. Page was rarely a presence on Google's campus and was working on long-shot technology problems and personal side projects like his flying-car start-up, Kitty Hawk.
They have largely disappeared from public view, at least as company representatives. Mr. Page did not speak on Alphabet's quarterly earnings calls, appear for congressional testimony like other tech executives over the last year, or sit for interviews with journalists. One of Mr. Brin's few on-the-record comments to journalists in recent years came at San Francisco International Airport when he was protesting President Trump's immigration policy. He told reporters he was there as a private citizen. While Mr. Page and Mr. Brin had been a regular presence at weekly all-staff meetings in Google's early years, they had all but stopped appearing over the last year.
One of Mr. Page's last appearances at the company meeting was last year when he apologized to employees for his handling of the departure of Andy Rubin, a former senior executive who received a $90 million payout after the company deemed sexual harassment claims against him credible. In June, Mr. Page surprised investors and employees when he did not attend Alphabet's shareholder meeting.
In recent years, the freewheeling work culture promoted by Mr. Page and Mr. Brin has run into trouble. Employees have staged public protests over the company's handling of sexual harassment claims against executives, its treatment of contract workers and its work with the Defense Department, federal border agencies and the Chinese government.
The soft-spoken Mr. Pichai has been reluctant to confront the protests head-on, but he has quietly cracked down on employee unrest. Google has halted the weekly company meetings and placed restrictions on what employees can discuss on message boards.