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Who Is Google’s New Chief, Sundar Pichai?
In his blog post Monday announcing the surprise restructuring of Google into a conglomerate called Alphabet, Larry Page said this about Sundar Pichai, 43, the eleven-year Googler who will replace Page as Google’s CEO: “Sundar has been saying the things I would have said (and sometimes better!) for quite some time now, and I’ve been tremendously enjoying our work together. . . .Sergey [Brin] and I have been super excited about his progress and dedication to the company.”
Where did Pichai (pronounced peh-CHAI) come from and how did he make his way to head one of the highest-grossing businesses in the U.S.? Last year 89% of Google’s $66 billion in revenues came in through the division Pichai will lead.
When he first joined the company, he seemed like one of many smart, capable employees who came from a humble background. According to a June 2014 cover story about him in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Pichai grew up in Chennai, a southern Indian city of 4 million where his mother worked as a stenographer before she had children and his father, an electrical engineer, managed a components factory for a British conglomerate.
The family lived in a two-room apartment where Sundar and his younger brother slept in the living room. The Pichais didn’t own a car and they got their first telephone when Sundar was 12 years old. A top student, he studied engineering at the well-regarded Indian Institute of Technology and then went to Stanford on scholarship. His plan was to get a PhD in materials science and semiconductor physics and become an academic, but he dropped out of the program to work as an engineer and product manager at a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, Applied Materials. From there he went to Wharton, earning an MBA in 2002. Next he worked as a consultant at McKinsey before starting at Google in 2004.
In his first job at the company he joined a small team that worked on Google’s search toolbar, which gave users easy access to the company’s search screen. It was Pichai’s idea that Google build its own browser. Page and Brin were in favor of the project but then-CEO Eric Schmidt objected. According to BusinessWeek, Schmidt thought the browser project would be an expensive distraction. Of course Chrome has been a huge success, with a reported worldwide market share of 45%.
Pichai helped develop the Chrome operating system for laptops, which stores data in the cloud rather than locally on a device. Chrome OS runs on Google’s inexpensive Chromebook computers, which are popular in schools. He also supervised some of Google’s core efforts like Gmail, Google Drive and Google Maps. In 2013 he got another huge job: oversight of the Android operating system, which was going from mobile only to a platform for smartwatches, TVs, cars and payments. Though those efforts have yet to catch on, Pichai wants to expand low-end Android smartphones in emerging markets.
His promotion to head of products in 2014 elevated him to Page’s second in command. He oversees day-to-day operations of all of Google’s big products, including maps, search and advertising, in addition to new endeavors like Google Photos and Google Now, a smart personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri. “He has this amazing, almost 12-year track record of being this guy that always launched things that people wanted,” said Wesley Chan, who had previously worked on the toolbar project, in an article about Pichai in the Wall Street Journal. Pichai has also served as Google’s public face, acting as master of ceremonies for Google’s annual developer conference for the past two years.
Pichai’s success at Google reportedly attracted the attention of other technology powerhouses, including Twitter. According to a 2011 article in AllThingsD that cites anonymous sources, Twitter tried to hire Pichai as vice president of products. Last month Techcrunch included him on a list of 13 people it said could be Twitter’s new CEO. His name was also floated as a candidate to fill the CEO role at Microsoft after Steve Ballmer stepped down. FBR Capital analyst William Bird suggested to Marketwatch that Page and Brin promoted Pichai as a tactic to keep him on staff. “The new structure offers an important way to promote and retain Sundar Pichai,” he said.
What is Pichai’s leadership style? According to reports, he is self-deprecating, empathetic, supportive and graceful at navigating political minefields. He avoids confrontation, instead emphasizing cooperation. He waits out conflicts rather than confronting opponents. “He has great relationships. He’s just not a polarizing figure,” Minnie Ingersoll, a former Google product manager who worked with Pichai early in his career, told The Wall Street Journal.
He’s also a strong communicator who makes sure everyone on his team understands the mission. One reason Page may value him so much is that Pichai has served as Page’s interpreter and facilitator. A piece last year in BusinessInsider on Pichai’s rapid ascent at Google, described a meeting with vice presidents and directors who were arguing about several secret projects. Page walked in and started describing unrelated concepts and ideas, then exited the meeting without taking questions. Pichai entered the room and explained to the group what Page was talking about. “He’s like the Aaron to Larry’s Moses,” a Google source told BusinessInsider, pointing to Pichai’s talent as a spokesman for Page’s ideas.
Pichai faces plenty of challenges. Smartphone users spend much of their time using apps, instead of searching, giving a boost to Amazon, which lets users buy things with fewer steps. Facebook is an increasingly formidable competitor because it has so much data on its users and can hone in on them more effectively than Google can. At least Pichai seems to have won over his colleagues inside Google. In his BusinessWeek cover story, writer Brad Stone quotes Caesar Sengupta, a vice president who worked with Pichai for eight years: “I would challenge you to find anyone at Google who doesn’t like Sundar or who thinks Sundar is a jerk.” Last year in a Fortune piece about Pichai’s promotion to product chief, my colleague Miguel Helft quoted a tweet by Forbes.com-writer-turned-venture capitalist Om Malik: “Proof nice guys can win.”