MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — What do you do when you and your company are the subject of unflattering media coverage? If you’re Andrew Conrad — biologist, CEO of Google startup Verily Life Sciences, and consummate scientific salesman — you mount a charm offensive.
Last week, STAT reported that some former employees described Conrad as so divisive, uncompromising, and impulsive that he has driven scientists and engineers to tears, and triggered an exodus of top talent. The story revealed that he had strained Verily’s relationships with regulators in Washington and rashly shifted around resources.
The article prompted enough concern inside Alphabet, the holding company for Google, Verily, and other subsidiaries, that it was addressed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin at a town hall-style meeting last week. The meeting was webcast internally; such events are normally attended or viewed later by tens of thousands of employees worldwide.
Brin discussed news coverage depicting a “bleak picture of management and products” at some Alphabet subsidiaries, including Verily and Nest — which makes Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats and other home devices — according to a portion of the meeting transcript that an employee read aloud to STAT. The articles were placed on the agenda at the request of Alphabet employees using the “ask me anything” feature of an internal social media system, which allows them to pose questions to Brin or cofounder Larry Page.
Brin, according to the transcript, said he was “sad that former and soon-to-be former employees talked to the press” to air their concerns. The loss of some top talent from Verily doesn’t worry him, Brin said, given that overall attrition rates remain relatively low.
Nest CEO Tony Fadell defended his actions at the meeting. Conrad didn’t speak. Asked in an email why not, his spokeswoman said, “Andy was there and available to answer questions directed to him.”
On Monday, Conrad set out to counter the prevailing narrative about his company as an unhappy place. After months of refusing to be interviewed by STAT, he reversed course — going so far as to greet a reporter at a Google building with a warm handshake and exuberant welcome, and act as personal escort to Verily’s adjacent headquarters. The standard, low-rise tech building sits on one of Alphabet’s outlying campuses, a couple of miles from the “Googleplex” headquarters.
Conrad’s corner office was small and uncluttered. One of its few adornments was a sign on his desk reading, “do epic shit.”
Dressed casually in a blue T-shirt, the CEO called his decision not to answer questions for STAT’s initial article “a catastrophic error in judgment” — because he had a good story to tell: Verily is hiring like mad from thousands of applicants who represent the “cream of the crop.”
In general, Conrad said, he enjoys good relationships with employees, regulators, and corporate partners.
“Business is pretty dang good for us,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not some people mad. But overall, the morale here is high …”
The two-hour visit at Verily included interviews with some of Conrad’s managers and a tour of Verily’s labs.
Dr. Jessica Mega, chief medical officer, called Verily “a really dynamic place” that can challenge people who are not ready for rapid change. Often, she said, those individuals can find other jobs within Google.
Verily’s and Conrad’s openness went only so far. Set up as a limited liability company, Verily has no legal obligation to disclose the names of board members. Asked to name the board members, Conrad acknowledged that he was one, then said, “Let the lawyers do that. We’ll get you an official statement.”
The statement later provided to STAT said no additional names would be disclosed.