Google mobile, Android teams face a rash of departures this spring

Two senior members of the Google’s Android team departed this week. And from what it sounds like, this may just be the beginning.

Erick Tseng, the senior product manager who essentially ran the Android team day to day and shepherded Google’s Nexus One phone project, left to become Facebook’s head of mobile products. Cedric Beust, a senior software engineer on the team, said he was leaving just a day later for LinkedIn. This comes on top of a few other departures earlier this spring with Bob Lee going to Square and Gummi Hafsteinsson landing at Apple by way of the Siri acquisition. At least two other mobile team members have gone to Tapjoy. There are also plenty more Android and mobile team members who are about to make the leap, we hear.

Some of it is natural. Mobile is an extraordinarily competitive space for talent right now, and there are plenty of opportunities at startups up and down Silicon Valley. Google also staffed up heavily in the year before the financial crisis and now, about two years later, it’s just a normal jumping off point for people looking to change.

But part of it has to do with Google’s internal bureaucracy, which is becoming ever more insurmountable by the year. The company has a non-intuitive setup. There are two primary teams; one is Android, which is run by Andy Rubin and focuses on the building the OS. The other is mobile, which builds apps like Google Voice, and is run by Vic Gundotra. Both Gundotra and Rubin are roughly equal in stature and seem to get along fine, but it’s often not clear which team should be responsible for what. Projects like contact syncing get pushed back and forth between different teams. It’s possible that the Android team may get merged into Gundotra’s team in the near future though as it matures as a business.

On top of that, there’s Google’s Operating Committee or the “OC,” a 16-member committee mostly made up of the company’s old guard, including Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and Susan Wojcicki. They have the power to come in and veto any project, no matter how far along it is. There are plenty of stillborn products that never got final approval from the committee.

What’s peculiar about the timing of Tseng’s departure is that Android team members were recently the recipients of the Founders Award, a prestigious achievement inside the company that comes with Google stock grants that may be worth around a half-million dollars. (The amount varies from person to person, depending on their contribution.) Google is working extremely hard to retain talent, and the awards presumably vest over a longer period of time, so Android employees who go are leaving money on the table.

It may be that the internal politics have amounted to too much for many Android team members. Tseng had just spearheaded the design and production of Google’s first flagship phone, the Nexus One. Its sales have been lackluster, thanks to a poor distribution strategy, which the company only acknowledged today had failed. The Nexus One was sold entirely online in a bet that consumer purchasing behavior would move away from brick-and-mortar stores as the digital camera market did. But it was too early for that to be successful. Verizon’s Droid, which is similar to the Nexus One, had the mobile carrier’s marketing weight and thousands of retail stores behind it. Now that Google sparked the ire of its mobile carrier partners by selling the Nexus One without them, it may be too late to give the phone a big traditional marketing push.

All this isn’t to say that Google’s Android team is falling apart. The company has hired new engineering talent aggressively in the last year, and the devices based on the OS finally started to outsell the iPhone recently. Insofar as Google has ensured a two-horse race with Android and the iPhone OS going head-to-head, the project will be considered a success. The problem is that a leadership vacuum may now be forming. Here’s hoping they can fix it quickly.

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