Verily’s goal to beat the pandemic pushes some employees to the edge

  • In early March, Verily Life Sciences, one of Alphabet’s biotech arms, announced it would turn its attention to fighting the pandemic.
  • Internally, it was called “Code Red.”
  • Many employees were already unhappy with the way the company was being run. When Code Red kicked in, some employees say things only got worse.
  • These employees also say the culture is very different from Google’s.
  • “At Google, people are quite vocal and outspoken and speak their minds. That’s definitely different at Verily,” one employee said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In early March, as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was finally sinking in, a manifesto was being passed among some employees at Google’s sister company Verily Life Sciences.

“Leadership must be held accountable for pervasive toxicity at Verily,” the title of the document read. In it, the author, a Verily employee, said the company had fostered an unhealthy work culture.

The document, which was viewed by Business Insider, also referenced a Stat News article from 2016 that chronicled what former employees described as an “exodus” of top talent at the company, a “demanding, erratic, and unforgiving” work environment, and a “divisive CEO” in Andrew Conrad.

The anonymous employee who wrote the document suggested little had changed in the four years since the article was published. “Have we all just gotten better at appearing happy?” they wrote. “People are crying. They are leaving. Some admit to leaving because they are unhappy, others to leaving against their will.”

They added: “Simply put, Verily is a toxic place.”

Meanwhile, sources said Verily was in upheaval. Conrad knew that with his connections in the medical field and potential access to testing kits, Verily had an opportunity to help fight the pandemic, so he swerved the company toward the global crisis, they said.

Internally, it was referred to as “Code Red”: Verily would pivot from its work on Project Baseline — a longitudinal study launched in 2017 to build a “map” of human health — and other programs to start fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alphabet’s most famous life-sciences arm suddenly found itself on a time-critical mission that had the potential to be its defining moment.

But it also launched employees into grueling hours and stressful working conditions that exacerbated an already difficult work environment reminiscent of “Game of Thrones,” according to nine current and former Verily employees who spoke with Business Insider on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or retaliation from the company.

‘Every single issue is a major fire drill’

Code Red got off to a strange and noteworthy start. On March 13, President Donald Trump announced Google was building a virus-screening and test-scheduling tool — but that wasn’t entirely correct.

It was another Alphabet division, Verily, that was building the triaging service, which screens participants for COVID-19 symptoms, then lets them schedule an appointment at a nearby testing site — and later delivers their results.

Two days after Trump’s announcement, Verily launched its pilot service, which was far more limited in scale than the nationwide program the president had promised. Verily became the subject of national attention, which some employees said fueled an even greater sense of urgency to deliver.

The company has since set up a handful of its own testing sites around California in conjunction with the state Department of Public Health. It also partnered with Rite Aid for others across the US.

A company spokeswoman told Business Insider that Verily now has more than 300 sites across 15 states, and 31,000 people across 49 states have opted into COVID-19 research.

But according to some of Verily’s employees, all this has come at a high cost to their well-being. “The difference between pre- and post-COVID at Verily is night and day,” one said.

Verily campus

Verily’s South San Francisco campus.

Tada Images

Verily, which has about 850 employees, according to internal data seen by Business Insider, brought in 1,000 volunteers from within Alphabet during the onset of the COVID-19 programs.

When Code Red started, some employees said they were thrown into an extremely stressful period of feeling pressured to work around-the-clock to scale the company’s COVID-19 programs.

“The recalibration was reshuffling resources rather than adding new resources to the mix, which is why everyone was being overworked,” one employee said.

“When the shutdown happened, we were expected to work 24/7,” a former employee said. “My own team worked every day, sometimes until as late as 2 a.m. We were expected to be available as needed. Pushing back against that was frowned upon.”

Several employees told Business Insider they were working seven-day weeks until after midnight when Code Red kicked in, and many continue to do so. “If you’re not working on the weekend, you’re seen as slacking off,” one of them said. “There are people working seven-day weeks and trying to avoid burnout.”

Verily testing site

A coronavirus drive-thru testing clinic.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s not only the screening and testing service keeping employees busy. Verily has since launched more COVID-19-related initiatives, including an antibody study and a “Healthy at Work” program that combines COVID-19 screening, testing, and analysis to help businesses bring employees back to the office.

For some teams, work conditions have begun to improve as Code Red has slowed its momentum, sources said, but many are still working around-the-clock to scale Verily’s various COVID-19 programs — sometimes without additional compensation for the extra hours.

“There are still teams working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” one employee said. “Every single issue is a major fire drill. Your adrenaline is constantly pumping with every message or chat you receive because you know that could result in the next two to three hours of heads-down work rushing to get something out of the door.”

In response to the negative work-condition characterizations, Verily spokeswoman Carolyn Wang provided Business Insider this statement:

First off, I want to confirm that it is a stressful working environment at Verily. I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near as stressful as being a frontline healthcare worker, but we are throwing everything we have at the current pandemic. In fact – I don’t know a single person that is working on COVID-19 at any organization (developing a treatment, diagnostic or service related to one of the most unique global pandemics we’ve ever confronted) that isn’t working 24/7. We have many employees who are working long hours, with little time off, and who are at it because they feel they can have an impact on public health during this critical time.

Verily employees are mission driven, and at the beginning of the pandemic many reached out to leadership with their own ideas on how we could support public health efforts. The team has risen to every challenge presented and I’m really proud to be a part of it. It’s rare that a company of our size and scope could put so many relevant tools and resources towards a crisis like this, where we’re operating physical COVID-19 testing centers, running or supporting multiple research programs in COVID-19 (HERO program, Baseline COVID-19 Research Project), launching a free and open-source tool for hospitals and health systems to use for community support, and endeavoring to get employees and students back to work and school with a new Healthy at Work program.

I don’t know if it says more about the entitled Silicon Valley culture or the state of journalism today that a few disgruntled employees could drive this type of narrative on a company (and its many hard working employees) that is committed to supporting the broader community around it.

But insiders said the pandemic exacerbated what was already a “toxic” work culture where employees are overworked, publicly humiliated, and discouraged from speaking their minds. And according to current and former employees, leadership “cares more about the work than the workers.”

“It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in there,” one former employee of Verily’s leadership said. “There are people who are under pressure because they’re afraid of Andy, and they turn around and put immense pressure on the people below them.”

They added: “It trickles down to the rest of the company. You hope in big companies there will be some sort of leadership style, and there is zero at Verily. They are just there to make money and get stuff done.”

Insiders said it was not uncommon for Verily employees to be openly berated, belittled, and “called out” during conference calls and on emails.

“It’s a culture of arrogance,” one insider said. “If you’re really vocal that you want to introduce change, whether it’s from leaders or somewhere else, the people there are so political that they will blacklist you and then eventually not involved in conversations that are important to you. And then possibly fire you.”

The culture at Verily has led to a high turnover rate where “quiet exits” are a common occurrence, insiders said.

“You don’t realize that people have gone until the email bounces back,” one employee said. According to sources inside the company and LinkedIn data viewed by Business Insider, there has been a steady stream of departures in the first half of this year.

Multiple sources told Business Insider that Verily laid off a wave of employees in late March and early April. “We have done performance eliminations this year as we do on a regular basis,” the company’s spokeswoman said when asked whether these layoffs were because of performance or pandemic-related reasons.

But the pandemic has caused an uptick in voluntary departures. The immense pressure on Verily’s legal team, which had already lost several members this year before the pandemic hit, led to several resignations during Code Red.

“Even yesterday, I got an email that one more legal person was leaving,” an employee who spoke with Business Insider last week said. “It’s pretty obvious that the legal team is shedding.”

Another employee said the legal team, which oversees Verily’s numerous partnerships and collaborations, “felt they were being disregarded,” which has led to the high number of exits in recent months.

“Andy and other leaders are going to do whatever they want and legal just has to catch up and make sure the agreements are favorable and well-written,” they said.

One senior member of the legal team, who left in late June, sent around an email peppered with song lyrics that apparently alluded to the tough working culture at Verily.

“Although things are looking a little like a Ghost Town right now and it may simultaneously feel like A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall and that the Beds are Burning, I know that you Will Survive like the Dragonslayers that you are!” they wrote in the email, which was seen by Business Insider. “Although you Didn’t Start The Fire, keep showing up, being Brave, and Dreaming the Impossible Dream.”

At the bottom of the email was a picture of the “Game of Thrones” character Tyrion Lannister.

‘It was a slap in the face’

Sources said tensions between employees and management came to a head that same week when leadership announced it was canceling spot bonuses, a type of bonus that recognizes employees for exemplary performance and achievements. The money, employees were told, would instead be redirected into internal and external diversity programs.

“It was a slap in the face,” one current employee said. “When we were sacrificing our weekends and time away from our family, we felt it was ultimately worthwhile. But we kind of assumed there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Some employees said they were not only annoyed that they wouldn’t be rewarded for the extra work but also felt that the diversion of the money to causes such as Healthy@Work for HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) was a knee-jerk response to the Black Lives Matters movement. They thought it was strange that the Alphabet-backed company couldn’t source this money from elsewhere.

A group of employees wrote a petition to management, undersigned by one of Verily’s product managers, asking it to explain their reasoning and reverse the decision. 

“Verily taking away employee spot bonuses after what many consider to be the most grueling and difficult time of our careers shows a lack of recognition and gratitude,” read the letter, which was seen by Business Insider and questioned why the social-justice programs Verily funded weren’t “worthy of their own investment.”

During a video call with the Baseline team a few days later, Conrad dismissed the petition, according to an employee who was present. Verily denied Conrad was dismissive. “He expressed concern that people didn’t feel they could come directly to him with their questions and disagreement,” Verily’s spokeswoman said.

One employee wanted to sign the letter but didn’t, saying they feared retaliation. They said they felt vindicated for not signing after seeing Conrad’s response to the letter. The company has not changed its policy.

‘We all know Andy is desperate for an IPO’

Conrad joined Google’s life-sciences arm in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2015 that it became its own company under Alphabet and was named Verily.

Conrad is one of the better-known figures in Alphabet’s portfolio of characters — and one of its more controversial. The 2016 Stat News article on the company described the CEO as “impulsive,” one who “rashly diverts resources from prior commitments to the next hot idea that might bring in revenue.”

Several employees who spoke with Business Insider and had interacted with Conrad described him as “erratic.” One called him “an aggressive entrepreneur.” Another employee used the word “mercurial.”

“If he sees you’re on your laptop, but you’re on Facebook while he’s walking by, he’ll call you out and make a fuss and let your manager know,” one said.

“He’s not an emotional leader at all,” another former employee said. “If anything, the thing he focuses on is moving the company forward, and he pushes that down to the leadership team below him.”

That former employee said Verily has a “command and control” process from the top down.

“Andy Conrad says if you can’t work the hours, you shouldn’t come there,” they said. “He also says that for every person that we hire, we should let another person go. That was a phrase I heard many times when I was there — the idea that if we have to hire another person, someone wasn’t working hard enough.”

At all-hands meetings — which are now done over videoconference — Conrad is often present with Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical officer. Casimir Starsiak, the head of Baseline and a Verily veteran who insiders said climbed the ranks as Conrad’s “strategy guy,” has also been a more prominent internal figure as the company has scaled its COVID-19 efforts.

Verily has also undergone some leadership changes this year. Scott Burke, Verily’s head of software, joined the company in January and replaced Thomas Stanis, who left to launch a new project.

That same month, Deepak Ahuja, the Tesla chief financial officer who helped take Elon Musk’s company public, was named Verily’s new chief financial officer. Duncan Welstead, the company’s prior chief financial officer, is still at Verily and oversees financial operations.

But every current and former employee who spoke with Business Insider underlined the same thing: Everything starts and ends with Conrad.

“Everyone is afraid of Andy,” one employee said. “If they were not under that fear, I don’t think they would behave in the same way.”

“You have to keep in mind that he’s well-respected in the industry,” another said. “He’s known as the father of rapid viral testing. He has made a lot of impact. But he’s definitely an eccentric character.”

As the pandemic has aggravated resentment for some employees, much of it has been directed at Conrad. A few days before the company nixed spot bonuses, Variety reported that Conrad and his wife had bought Malibu’s Sundance Ranch for $10.5 million. Conrad also owns a property on the Hawaiian island of Lanai and, according to Variety, a house in the Malibu Colony community.

“Meanwhile, the company was talking about shared sacrifice,” one current employee said. “There was definitely some eye-rolling because of that.”

But the pandemic could be Conrad’s defining moment at Verily, and as the company continues to grow, so do its chances of eventually finding independence from the bank of Alphabet.

The company has already landed outside investment, and insiders said Verily was hoping to go public in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

“We all know Andy is desperate for an IPO,” one former employee familiar with the company leadership’s thinking said.

“There are not, and have been no plans to take Verily public at this time,” Verily’s spokeswoman said.

Two employees told Business Insider an initial public offering had been mentioned on multiple occasions in 2019, with a goal to go public as soon as this year. The possibility of going public this year was also brought up during interviews for prospective new hires, according to multiple sources.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Jessica Mega Verily speaking at podium

Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical officer.

Getty Images

Verily is still tethered to Google, but insiders who have worked at each company described two very different cultures. “Verily try to treat themselves as a wholly different company, just with the Google benefits and perks,” one former employee said. “You’re working much harder than you would if you were at Google or another Alphabet company. It’s a sexy part of Alphabet, but it’s a smaller company.”

Since Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin relinquished control of Alphabet last year, insiders said the two have had little to do with Verily, but they said Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Conrad communicate frequently. “Verily is very much the darling of Alphabet’s bets right now,” one employee said.

About 30% of Verily’s hires are from Google or other Alphabet companies each year, according to insiders familiar with the company’s hiring practices.

One employee said that they and their colleagues sometimes talk about keeping an eye on Google Health jobs so they can transfer out of Verily and into the Google mothership.

“At Google, people are quite vocal and outspoken and speak their minds. That’s definitely different at Verily,” they said. “Even at Verily all-hands sessions, questions are very tame.”

They added: “Feedback, dissent, and criticism are less encouraged or less fostered than it is at Google.”

Are you a Verily insider with insight to share? You can contact this reporter securely using encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 628-228-1836) or encrypted email ([email protected]).

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