Sundar Pichai

Chief Executive Officer, Google

Mountain View, CA

Born and schooled in Chennai (Tamil Nadu), Sundar Pichai is undeniably one of the most powerful people in the world right now. His childhood was rather humble and as you’d imagine, a usual day in his life entailed attending school and playing cricket in one of Chennai’s gullies. He was in fact, captain of his school team. Pichai performed well throughout school and earned a place for himself at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur). He completed his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering and was already making a name for himself. Even at one of the most competitive institutions in the world, his tutors fondly remember his as the “brightest of his batch”. Upon graduation, he was offered a scholarship at Stanford, where he completed a master’s in material sciences and engineering. His pursuit of knowledge did not end there as he continued onto Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to get an MBA.

Pichai’s story and rise are truly special but not entirely surprising. He joined Google in 2004 following brief stints with Applied Materials and McKinsey. Pichai’s first assignment, as Product Manager, was to develop Google’s Search Toolbar – an extension that gave Internet Explorer users direct access to Google’s search platform. Even then, as the internet was just beginning to become accessible to the masses, Pichai realized that having a Google tab omnipresent on the browser will build an unparalleled relationship with users. It is no surprise ‘Google it!’ is perhaps one of the earliest phrases given by technology to modern vernacular. His next point of order was to build a Google browser. ‘Chrome’ was not entirely embraced by the leadership of Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin backed the idea, and rightly so, as today Chrome is the dominant browser worldwide, with a market share of estimated 45%. Not bad for what Google’s then CEO, Eric Schmidt objected to and called “an expensive distraction”. Pichai also facilitated the development of the Chrome operation system. The OS uses Google’s cloud to store data and is thus able to do away with a local hard drive. Google is able to make these laptops very reasonable and are a major success with students. To make sure the OS is well-integrated with all Google services, Pichai was also handed the responsibility of Gmail, Google Maps and Google Drive. Then, in 2013, Pichai took over Android.

Overseeing both the company’s major operating systems, within 9 short years, is a true testament to Pichai’s approach, skill set and conviction. But he knew this would be his toughest task yet. Android was Google’s wildcard. The management recognized the potential it carried, but it had been often described as an ‘internal rogue unit’. Google bought Android in 2005, interestingly. Its founder, Andy Rubin, continued to run the division, but it never really felt like a Google product. For a corporation that was on the path of integrating all its products and services, Android was truly an anomaly. Now, however, with Pichai as conductor of the orchestra, everything changed. He emphasized the importance of increased and deep collaboration within all departments and rid Android of its insular reputation. Pichai’s first move was meticulous and a stroke of genius, some might say. He was understandably enamored by the assortment of platforms Android operated (mobile, smartwatches, payments, TVs and even cars) but opted to expand in low-end, emerging markets. ‘Android One’, as it is known, was launched as a line of smartphones targeted towards customers in the developing world. In India, for instance, Android commands 64% of the market, compared to Apple’s irrelevant 2%. The romance between Pichai and Android lasted till fall of 2015. With the restructuring and consequential formation of ‘Alphabet’, Hiroshi Lockheimer was given charge of Android and Chrome, as Pichai moved onto become CEO.

Google, now, is galloping towards its new goals. A concrete indicator of this is the ‘Next Billion Users’ team, which is dedicated to embracing untapped markets. And even though Android enjoys a majority share in India (64%), at 1.3 billion strong, only 26% of the Indian population owns mobile phones. India can itself provide Google with its next 300-400 million internet users. But these users are native language speakers. They are educated and refined in language but are cut-off from conventional technology. To give you a sense of what a gold mine this market can be – the New York Times has a daily circulation of around 626,000. This is dwarfed by the most circulated Tamil (Pichai’s native tongue) daily. Against 1.7 million, the New York Times comes nowhere close. Even the second most popular Tamil Daily boasts a circulation of 1.2 million. Moreover, Tamil is just the 5th most spoken language in India. Its therefore no surprise that Google has already launched support for 11 Indian-native languages. Evidently, Google wants to invest in people through the internet. To that avail, even railway stations in India are now equipped with free, Google-powered Wi-Fi. The target is 100 stations by the end of 2016 (serving almost 10 million people), and expected to hit 400 stations eventually. Pichai also realizes that not all of India is blanketed with abundant data coverage. His answer? Deploy technology that can function on slow networks, caching information and delivering it even in the absence of data. A good example is Google Maps, which lets you save maps for use in offline mode. But perhaps the most echoing and committed objective of this team is to empower women. In India, women account for less than a third of internet users. Unfortunately, there seems to be this perception that the ‘internet is not for them’. To change this backward and baseless opinion, Google launched ‘Internet Saathi’. This program employs women educators to travel to villages and other remote areas and demonstrate to other women what a convenience modern technology can be.

With Pichai at the helm, with what can only be described as radiant and global ambition, he has unfastened Google’s checkbook and is ready to play ‘God’, in biblical sense. It’s said that a leader in Silicon Valley is born out of either ‘Engineering’, drivers of innovation and new expertise; or ‘Business’, players that redefine demand, supply and distribution; or ‘Product’, the geniuses, if you will. These inventors create unprecedented beauty in a product (Steve Jobs is the product guy). You won’t be wrong in suggesting that Pichai falls into the ‘product’ category. His time with Chrome/OS, Android, Google Phots and Google Now have indeed transformed Google’s role in today’s tech-world. But his early years combined with current strategic tasks (one of which is advertising, the bread and butter of Google) show that his role is a complex matrimony between engineering, business and product. So how does a metallurgical engineer with a master’s in material sciences and applied engineering and an MBA cope with this? Pichai’s peers attribute this to his demeanor. His calm, calculative mind. His comprehension of real-world intricacies. His sense of loyalty and unquestioned support. And perhaps most importantly, his simplicity. Pichai is the sort of chap that will sit across from you with an ever-present smile on his face. He will not only hear what you say, but listen attentively. He will react passively and nod politely. He’s the sort of chap that will say what you have just said, but better. Don’t take my word for it, take Larry Page’s.



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