Google’s new CEO Sundar Pichai, profile of a leader

11 Aug 2015

Along with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Google's new CEO Sundar Pichai is one of the highest ranking executives in the global tech community.

As part of its strategic reorganisation, Google Inc as we knew it is dead. Now it is a slimmer organisation led by CEO Sundar Pichai that is a subsidiary of a new giant called Alphabet Inc. So long live the new Google!

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year I got to witness first-hand the kind of tech visionary Sundar Pichai actually is. He talked about everything from Android to Google’s near future as an MVNO mobile service provider and the launch of constellations of balloons that will transmit broadband to the developing world.

Soft-spoken but not shy, and speaking with conviction, much of what he said sounded fantastic, futuristic. But the calm, earnest and logical way he discussed these future developments made it all seem possible. I got the sense of an inspiring but grounded leader who solved problems and enjoyed — no, relished — a challenge. Especially an engineering challenge. He came across more like a teacher than a dynamic executive in the driving seat at one of the world’s fastest-moving companies. In fact, many Googlers come across this way.

Pichai deserves recognition for leading Android to become the biggest mobile operating system on the planet, installed on more than 80pc of mobile devices worldwide.

The creation of Alphabet – which allows Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to make “alpha” “bets” on future technologies like driverless cars – also solved a problem of how to reward the company’s fastest-rising star.

In fact, the promotion of Pichai to CEO of Google is also a recognition of the stellar engineering and leadership talent from India prominent in Silicon Valley today. Along with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Pichai is one of the highest-ranking executives in the global tech community.

Sundar Pichai’s humble beginnings in Chennai

43-year-old Pichai’s origins are humble. He grew up in a two-room apartment in Chennai in India where he and his younger brother slept on the living room floor and the family owned neither a TV nor a car.

His dad worked at General Electric Company in India and this fostered a love of technology in Pichai’s mind.

At school, Pichai captained his school’s cricket team and went on to study metallurgical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, where he was noted for being the brightest of the bright and he was subsequently offered a scholarship to Stanford University in the US.

Recommended by his professors to pursue a PhD at Stanford, Pichai opted instead to pursue an master’s in materials sciences at Stanford and went on to pursue an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where he was named a Siebel Scholar and a Palmer Scholer.

He worked his way around the Silicon Valley scene, first at Applied Materials, where he was a product manager, and then at management consulting giant McKinsey & Company.

In 2004, Pichai joined Google, where he worked in project management, including on a secret browser project that would become known as Chrome.

His star rose from the get-go as he oversaw the development of vital apps like Gmail and Google Maps as well as the VP8 video codec and the new video format WebM.

Things picked up a gear when Pichai was selected to oversee Android in 2013 after Andy Rubin left to join Xiaomi. As well as working at Google he was also a director of Jive Software.

In fact, Pichai’s reputation as a rising star was noted and he is believed to have been one of the contenders for the CEO role at Microsoft, which was subsequently filled by fellow India native Satya Nadella.

Last year, Pichai was promoted to the role of chief product officer at Google.

The ABC of Alphabet

“As Sergey and I wrote in the original founders letter 11 years ago, ‘Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one’,” Google co-founder Larry Page said last night announcing the changes to the company.

Alphabet will be a massive conglomerate under which Google and other divisions like Calico, Google Ventures, Google Capital, Google X, Fiber and Nest will exist as subsidiaries.

Larry Page will be CEO of Alphabet while Google co-founder Sergey Brin will be its president.

The reorganisation will ultimately allow the leaders of Alphabet to take a longer-term view, while allowing slimmed-down divisions like Google to focus on the job at hand.

The new Google will have under its remit areas such as Search, Maps, Apps and Ads, as well as Android and YouTube — although YouTube will retain its own CEO Susan Wojcicki, who will report to Pichai.

The everywhere future of Google

If you use Gmail, Chrome, Android, Search, ATAP or Google Drive, Pichai’s fingerprints are all over them and, therefore, there is no senior leader at Google with a better, more intrinsic understanding of the Google machine.

For at its heart, Google is an engineering company. It was founded on maxed-out credit cards as two students raced around the Stanford campus in 1998 to buy server space to test their algorithm.

For most people, it is hard to reconcile this culture where brains and engineering are prized above all else with the ruthless, hungry online advertising giant that Google has become. In fact, despite creating a search engine, it was only around 2000 that Google pivoted in the direction of trying to make money through advertising. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pichai’s task now will be to stay true to his love of engineering and technology, along with Google’s stated ambitions to improve the world through managing its information better,while balancing the growth aims of the world’s biggest internet company.

As we enter a new world driven by the internet of things, the rise of programmatic advertising and driverless cars, a leader with a real-world understanding of how people will use technology is needed. And Google has found that leader in Sundar Pichai.

Sundar Pichai image by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr/Creative Commons

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years