The Perils of Working on a C.E.O.’s Pet Project

“We always said it was like a start-up,” Mr. Anderson wrote, “with zero risk if you failed.”

The layoffs, which totaled about 18,000 across Amazon, came with a hiring freeze, limiting options for movement internally. Numerous employees of the company wrote Mr. Anderson that his post had hit a nerve. They told him that they hoped to switch roles internally, he said, and were “never working on one of these crazy projects again.”

Still, employees remain excited to work on Amazon’s big bets, including satellite internet, health care and driverless taxis, said Brad Glasser, a company spokesman.

“The opportunity to work on projects that are transformative for customers at scale and to build and use cutting-edge technology is the reason many employees join the company and grow their careers here,” he said.

Google has long been the poster child for big, offbeat ideas. In 2009, Mr. Page convinced Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, that after the company had conquered the internet, its next feat would be to transform the real world.

Autonomous vehicles were one of several ideas that Google began working on at the secretive division that Mr. Thrun would start, Google X, nicknamed the company’s “moonshot factory.” Some efforts succeeded, such as Google Brain, an artificial intelligence lab that is now part of the company’s research division. Others failed, including Google Glass, augmented reality glasses that attracted ridicule, and Loon, a plan that intended to beam internet from giant balloons but never landed on a business model.


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