Last weekend, one of the most glittering alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur did not show up to give a school prize as he had promised.
Sundar Pichai, then head of product at Google, begged off for reasons that became abundantly clear over the next few days: he had just been promoted to chief executive, and he had work to do.
The tech industry has seen its share of strange corporate maneuvers, but Google’s realignment this week has to be among the strangest. The company pulled off a sort of upside-down merger with itself, in effect creating a holding company called Alphabet that runs a mega-profitable company called Google on the one hand and a dozen other money-losers and long-odds bets that Google has called “moonshots” on the other.
“This new structure will allow us to keep tremendous focus on the extraordinary opportunities we have inside of Google,” Larry Page wrote in a blogpost that surprised the entire industry. “A key part of this is Sundar Pichai.”
Married with two children, Pichai projects the image of a passionate nerd, but without any of the sociopathic egotism that plagues Silicon Valley executives (and their underlings). It’s a skill set that has made him one of tech’s most eligible executives.
“He certainly has close friends but he is not political,” said Christopher Sacca, founder and chairman of Lowercase Capital and formerly Google’s head of special initiatives.
“That’s one of the keys to his success. Everyone knows where they stand with Sundar and they aren’t worried about watching behind their backs.”
Sacca describes Pichai as “lighthearted” and “almost always smiling”, but also fascinated by how to make big things work.
“He likes scale,” said Sacca. “Huge scale. I was in the room when Sundar convinced Eric Schmidt that it would be possible to unseat Internet Explorer as the world’s most popular browser.”
The appointment was a slick move on Google’s part, according to Colin Gillis, technology analyst at BGC Partners in New York. “He’s been a rising leader at Google for some time,” Gillis said. Twitter and a host of other tech companies are looking for top talent, he added. Pichai is “someone in high demand. In one fell swoop they have kept a key manager.”
Now, as head of a more slender and restructured Google, the executive and scientist is being celebrated by his alma mater. “I had seen this coming,” one of his professors at IIT, Sanat Roy, told the Times of India. “Three years ago when the boy became Google’s vice-president, didn’t I tell you: this is the beginning, he’ll make it straight to the top?”
The chess-loving 43-year-old hails from the port city of Chennai, capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is just across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka. Engineering is in his blood. His father, Regunatha Pichai, worked as an electrical engineer for Britain’s General Electric Company (not to be confused with the American GE) and during Sundar’s childhoold would talk freely about his work with his son.
“Even at a young age, he was curious about my work,” Reguntha Pichai told Bloomberg last year. “I think it really attracted to him to technology.” The family didn’t have a car, opting instead to take the bus or load up – all four of them – on to a blue Lambretta scooter. When Sundar graduated from college in 1993, he decamped to Stanford on a plane ticket that cost more than his father’s annual salary.
At Stanford, he earned a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. He is trained to deal with the building blocks of computers – density, molecular mechanics, semiconductors, and, crucially, materials that might make good semiconductors. It’s the kind of knowledge Google would go on to make groundbreaking use of. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page both have degrees in computer science, which tends toward software; Pichai understands hardware.
Pichai has said that he’s attracted to computing because of its ability to do cheaply things that are useful to everyone, irrespective of class or background. “The thing which attracted me to Google and to the internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer,” he said in a video interview last year. “I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same, as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, if you’re a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.”
That has led Pichai to push forward some of the unconventional, even silly, projects like one that falls under Alphabet’s Willy Wonka-like subdivision X Labs – which are no longer a part of Google – called Project Loon. It’s semi-philanthropic effort, announced in 2013 after two years in the works, to provide the internet to those rural users by way of weather balloons that stay aloft for six months at a time with LTE network receivers hanging from them. “When you think about it, it sounds a bit crazy,” Pichai admitted to the Verge in March.
Pichai has said that it’s important “not to just build technology for a certain segment”. Now that he’s in the driver’s seat at Google, he has the authority to put that ambition to the test.
There’s the business side of things to be considered, of course. After earning an MBA at Wharton (where, as at IIT and Stanford, he earned top academic honors), Pichai worked at McKinsey and Company and a firm called Applied Materials that provides supplies to semiconductor manufacturers. And when he moved to Google in 2004, Pichai distinguished himself as the architect of one of the most valuable products in Google’s vast repository: its ubiquitous, lightning-fast information sponge of a web browser, Chrome.
It started out as the Google Toolbar, the now-standard little box that let Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox users use the company’s search engine, and then, under Pichai, the concept broadened into a full-blown web browser. Above the surface, Chrome loads up web pages quickly, it manages multiple logins and passwords (and Google products) across several different computers, and it’s so easy to use that it now has a more than 25% market share. It’s also the basis of the Chromebook, a computer that simply stores all the user’s information in the cloud rather than on a bulky internal hard drive. The computers run cheap and fast, and now comprise about 2.1% of the PC market.
Google’s display advertising business – which includes ads served directly into Gmail accounts, as well as its AdSense networks – is worth about $5bn annually, according to estimates by Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser. Chrome helps generate some of the data that allows the company to serve those ads effectively; its speed is a function of its memory. If you visit a web page regularly, Google will grab the parts that don’t change and put them where it can find them quickly the next time you go there.
That, in turn, is useful information for the company’s ads; it can tell what you like to look at on the internet and suggest other things for you to buy. It follows you around the internet, but it gives you speed in exchange for targeting, and speed is the most important thing in a browser. With Pichai’s aid, Google has insinuated itself into the computer browsing experience very quickly indeed. In 2013, the company put him in charge of the mobile business, too.
“Sundar has a talent for creating products that are technically excellent yet easy to use – and he loves a big bet,” Page wrote when he promoted Pichai and moved Andy Rubin, the company’s former head of Android, into the robot-and-drone-filled netherworld that now comprises Alphabet’s non-Google divisions.
It wasn’t the smoothest transition. Rubin’s management style had caused tension throughout Google (the running joke was that it was easier to work with Apple than the company’s own operating system) and Pichai’s task was in part to merge the difficult division with the rest of the company – something Rubin had reportedly refused to do. Johanna Wright, the product manager who runs Google Now, told Bloomberg that Pichai “helped me formalize a relationship”, a difficult task the incoming executive had made easier.
The year after he was appointed, the company shipped over a billion phones – many to China (where Android has an 80% market share) and, of course, India (where its market share is falling but still a majority).
The tech industry’s current obsession with the Indian subcontinent and China is one Pichai shares, and to great effect. Pichai has made sure the company’s Project Svelte, a slimmed-down version of Android for cheaper phones, has plenty of resources, making adoption even easier.
In India, Pichai said, most people had never had landlines. “It took us probably a seven-year wait to get a landline and then cell phones came. I think only 10 million people in India have ever seen a landline.”
“With something like [Indian taxi app] Ola,” he wondered, “can you bypass car ownership?”
But he also has a sense for the counterintuitive. In an interview in June, Pichai mused on how effective a shopping app called Wish, which connects shoppers in the US or Europe direct to Chinese suppliers, apparently was. “They ship the slowest way possible to make it as cheap as possible,” he said. “People can buy it at 1/10 the price direct from China to here just mediated by the phone.”
Pichai, with his knack for spotting inefficiencies in economies not just in the US but globally, has shown a talent for carefully marshalling the company’s vast resources into limited bets that pay serious dividends. Those talents paid off this week with Google’s founders giving him the ultimate compliment: control of their profit generator so they can get on with their moonshots.
Born 12 July 1972
Career The son of an engineer born in India’s Tamil Nadu state, Pichai graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1993, left Stanford a few years later with a master’s degree – he’d planned to get a PhD but dropped out to work for semiconductor firm Applied Materials – and graduated from the Wharton School of Business in 2002. He arrived at Google on April Fools’ Day 2004 and set to work on what would turn into Google’s web browser, Chrome. In 2013 he was given control of the company’s mobile operating system, Android, over Andy Rubin, the system’s founder, who was shuffled aside.
High point A year after being put in charge of Android – a situation that could have been disastrous both for the division and for Pichai – Google shipped 1bn devices.
Low point Negotiating the intricacies of Android was delicate – Rubin’s management style was a source of conflict and Pichai was promoted into a political minefield.
What he says “At a high level, I think of what we’re doing in terms of two core things. I really want to work on big problems that solve big problems in users’ lives. The second is our core mission statement, which is to organize our users’ information.”
What they say “I would challenge you to find anyone at Google who doesn’t like Sundar or who thinks Sundar is a jerk,” Caesar Sangupta, a longtime colleague, told Bloomberg.
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