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Google’s Urs Hölzle Tweets ‘PSA’ Mocking Amazon’s Attempt To Enforce Marketer’s Non-Compete

Brian Hall recently left AWS to take a similar role leading marketing for Google Cloud. A legal declaration from Amazon’s AI leader, Matt Wood, argues allowing Hall to help prepare presentations for Google’s upcoming cloud conference will cause ‘irreparable harm’ to AWS as those events go far in shaping customer perception and press coverage in an AI market that is seeing “fierce” competition.

Google senior vice president of engineering Urs Hölzle tweeted Tuesday that Amazon’s attempts to block its former marketing manager from working on presentations for Google’s upcoming cloud conference suggests AWS's lead over GCP in the cloud market “is hanging on a very thin thread.”

The tweet links to a GeekWire story reporting on a declaration from Amazon Web Services’ top AI executive, Matt Wood, who said former Amazon and current Google marketing director Brian Hall’s work preparing speeches for the upcoming Google Next conference would cause Amazon “immediate and irreparable harm.”

Hölzle mocked that suggestion by prefacing his tweet as a “PSA” and then characterizing Amazon’s concern being that Hall “was allowed to edit slides.”

[Related: Google Cloud’s Retail Customer Drive Takes Aim At AWS]

Wood filed his declaration last week in King County Superior Court in support of Amazon’s lawsuit trying to block its former marketing director from taking essentially the same job for its cloud rival by enforcing a non-compete clause in his employment agreement.

Wood, AWS vice president of artificial intelligence, told the court he worked closely with Hall during the marketer’s year-and-a-half stint at AWS that ended in February, and Hall has intimate information of Amazon’s AI strategy, product roadmap and customer base.

That declaration provides insights into what Woods characterizes as the “fierce” competition between the two cloud providers in the artificial intelligence arena as both try to one-up each other in releasing innovative products powered by machine learning technologies.

Hall’s participation in preparing Google execs for the upcoming Google conference, where Google will make a show of its upcoming products and try to differentiate them from its cloud competitors, is uniquely problematic, Wood argued.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, Google has transformed the annual partner and customer conference into a nine-week digital event series focusing on cloud technology and innovation. Google Cloud Next ’20: OnAir will run from July 14 through Sept. 8.

Wood, himself a popular presenter at AWS events, knows a thing or two about the impact of a large conference—especially the CEO keynote—in shifting perception and press coverage—as general manager of product strategy from 2012 to 2017, he wrote scripts for AWS CEO Andy Jassy.

“My team watches Google Cloud Next incredibly carefully as this conference has the potential to upstage our anticipated launches and interrupt our positive press for the next year,” Wood said.

AWS is the undisputed market leader in public cloud, with 32 percent market share, according to a recent Synergy Research analysis. Google trails in a distant third with 8 percent share.

But artificial intelligence, one of the industry’s most-important emerging technologies, is a unique Google strength that Google believes can close the market share gap. In an earnings call more than four years ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company’s machine learning products, representing many years of investment, are finally at a tipping point and are "going to be a huge source of differentiation for us."

Wood noted in his declaration that “AWS and Google provide ML cloud services that compete head-to-head in a market that is growing by billions of dollars per year.”

The two offer pre-trained applications to enable cutting-edge services like computer vision or speech recognition—and those products can make or break a large deal.

“Studies show that customers often choose their cloud provider primarily based on that provider’s ML capabilities,” Wood said.

Hall played a “crucial part” in shaping Amazon’s AI strategy, with his team often pushing Wood’s to develop technologies “beyond what was available commercially. The two worked together to form marketing strategies from AWS ML products that haven’t yet launched, Wood said.

“Mr. Hall was a crucial part of AWS’s discussions regarding what and where to push AWS’s capabilities forward, why and for how long to defer where AWS had opportunities for improvement, and how to develop AWS’s thought leadership in ML, especially vis-à-vis Google,” Wood said.

Hall’s position at AWS formally ended at the end of March, though he left a month earlier. He soon took essentially the same job across Seattle at Google Cloud’s new offices in that city.

Much of Wood’s declaration, and all the exhibits attached to support it, were blacked out to prevent public exposure of Amazon’s AI product roadmap and competitive strategy.

AWS is asking the court to enforce a non-compete clause Hall signed as part of his non-disclosure agreement when he joined Amazon. AWS has petitioned the Washington State court to block Hall from doing any product marketing work for Google for 18 months following his official departure, as well as attempts to solicit business from customers he got to know in his short Amazon tenure.

“His job was to determine what, when, why, how, where, and to whom Amazon will launch its future cloud products,” the AWS suit reads.

But Hall countered that an AWS senior executive led him to believe the company would not attempt to enforce the non-compete. Hall viewed the clause as overly broad boilerplate language in a non-disclosure agreement he wouldn’t have signed had he thought it might be acted on.

Hall’s manager, AWS Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Ariel Kelman, indicated to Hall that AWS would not enforce the non-compete clause, as Kelman had never seen Amazon attempt such an action against an outgoing marketing employee. Hall figured as much, as he saw the clause as drafted more broadly than necessary to protect Amazon business interests.

In Hall’s mind, that assurance was borne out when Kelman took a job as chief marketing officer at Oracle, also an AWS challenger, and no legal action ensued.

One significant difference is Kelman’s job is based in California, a state that largely rejects the validity of non-competes, whereas Hall’s new position landed him at Google’s Seattle offices in Washington State.

Hall resigned in January after he learned he would not be promoted to replace Kelman.

Soon after, upon deciding to accept a job offer from the third-largest public cloud provider, he sent an Amazon HR leader a message, and was congratulated on his new position at Google. He also wrote AWS Vice President for Sales and Marketing Matt Garman and AWS CEO Andy Jassy.

Garman wrote back, “I am sorry we couldn’t find a great fit for you at Amazon.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy also eventually responded with an email saying he wished Hall had a longer run with AWS, but “understand your perspective.” Jassy wished Hall “nothing but the best.”

Hall’s legal response argues those emails gave him further reason to believe AWS would not look to enforce the non-compete.

But a day after Jassy’s email, Amazon “plotted a different course” and eventually sued, Hall argued to the court.

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