Google’s search for the JWCC among issues of great concern at the TGIF meeting

Thomas Kurian, CEO of Cloud Services at Google LLC, speaks at the Google Cloud Next ’19 event in San Francisco, California, USA, on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. The conference brings together industry experts to discuss the future of cloud computing.

Michael Short | Bloomberg | Getty pictures

At Google̵[ads1]7;s weekly all-hands meeting on Thursday afternoon, CEO Sundar Pichai and ski manager Thomas Kurian tried to address concerns about the company’s potential pursuit of a multi-billion dollar cloud deal with the Department of Defense.

A question about Google’s involvement in the government’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability program (JWCC) received so many votes from employees of an internal system called Dory that it was raised to leaders at the meeting.

Pichai read the question aloud, referring to a New York Times report earlier this month. That story said that Google is actively pursuing the JWCC, after the Pentagon canceled an earlier agreement, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, in July. The question received almost 1,000 employee votes.

CNBC obtained audio of the event, known as TGIF, and saw a screenshot of the question.

“NYT reports that Google is aggressively pursuing DoD’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability despite not bidding on its predecessor (JEDI) because it does not comply with AI principles (no work with weapons or technologies causing damage),” said Pichai. reads from the question of Dory. “What changed? What is the bid about and why is it ok?”

Kurian responded by trying to separate the contract from JEDI, a $ 10 billion deal that led to a legal battle between Amazon and Microsoft before the government canceled the contract altogether.

“Recently, there has been some discussion about Google’s interest in participating in the framework,” said Kurian, who joined Google in 2018 after a long career at Oracle.

“If selected as one of the compatible vendors, we are proud to partner with DoD to help modernize their operations,” said Kurian, appearing to read from a script. “There will be many areas where our product features and technical expertise can be applied without conflicting with Google’s AI principles.”

Google established its AI principles after refusing to renew a government contract called Project Maven, which helped the authorities analyze and interpret drone videos using artificial intelligence. Before the agreement was terminated, several thousand employees signed a signature campaign and dozens withdrew in opposition to Google’s involvement.

Google dropped the bidding on the JEDI contract in part because Kurian “could not be sure” that it would comply with the company’s AI principles, he said at the time.

On Thursday, Kurian described how DoD is the largest employer in the world with almost 3 million employees. He said that the JWCC is designed as a “procurement framework” for the 28 main agencies in DoD. He also highlighted other work Google is doing for the US government, such as helping agencies with weather forecasts, working with the military to detect cancer and assisting the air force with air maintenance.

Pichai and Kurian are navigating a sensitive issue for Google, as the company tries to strengthen its cloud computing division with high-profile agreements, while at the same time mediating an increasingly vocal and politically charged employee base. While Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are still major shareholders in parent company Alphabet, they resigned from their leadership positions in 2019, leading to a dramatic culture shift for a company once known for its idealism.

Kurian does not expect all his employees to come after him at the JWCC.

“We understand that not all Googlers will agree with this decision,” said Kurian. “But we believe that Google Cloud should seek to serve the authorities where it is able to do so and where the work meets Google’s principles and company values.”

“No single supplier”

Google went into more detail on the subject in a blog post that Kurian published Thursday night. In the post, Kurian described the JWCC as “essential to the success of the ministry and government in reducing costs, driving innovation, increasing productivity and improving cyber security.” He added that DoD should ask for help from a number of vendors, including Google Cloud.

Kurian emphasized this point at the meeting, and told employees that several suppliers will be involved in the agreement, which potentially gives each individual the opportunity to choose where they want to focus.

“This means that no single supplier has to do all the work that is planned under the framework,” he said.

Kurian said that Google has not submitted a bid yet and that he does not know all the details because the request for proposals has not been sent by the government. He did not address a specific detail from the Times story, which said that Google’s cloud unit has already made the work a priority by declaring it a “Code Yellow”, which allows the company to draw engineers into the military project.

A Google spokesman told CNBC in an email that a “multi-cloud strategy” is the best solution for the government, saying the company will evaluate “future bidding opportunities” with its public customers, including DoD.

Pichai appeared at Thursday’s meeting to tell employees that he hoped the discussion helped clarify the company’s position.

“I think we are strongly committed to working with the authorities in a way that is in line with our AI principles,” he said.

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