Sundar Pichai to head Google's parent co, Alphabet Inc: The rise of a soft-spoken engineer from Chennai

Pichai became the CEO of Alphabet Inc., parent of Google, as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin steps aside.


It was 2012. Google Chrome had emerged as the largest-used browser and the company planned a media outreach. Its communications team reached out to Sundar Pichai, the man who developed the browser. In his characteristic gentle tone, Pichai said, “I can do it after 10 pm”, recalled a former colleague. “I put my kids to bed… I can do it after they are asleep.”

The soft-spoken engineer, who grew up in Chennai and studied at IIT Kharagpur, Stanford and Wharton, is a perfect blend of emotional and visionary qualities, say people who know him and have worked with him.

Perhaps that is why Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped aside to let 47-year-old Pichai take over as the CEO of Alphabet Inc, to helm a $893.33 billion empire.

Sundar Pichai to head Googles parent co, Alphabet Inc: The rise of a soft-spoken engineer from Chennai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Image: Reuters

It was four years ago that Pichai was named Google CEO to succeed Page. Alphabet didn’t even exist at that time.

Over the years, Page and Brin retreated and became less visible. Pichai, as the Google CEO, has been driving a culture of change at the Mountain View, California-based company.

In a recent email, which got leaked, to Google employees he said the company would get rid of the weekly all-hands meeting, a practice put in place by the founders in 1999 for an open and transparent culture.

(Also read: 'Sundar Pichai brings humility, passion for technology to our users': Google co-founders Larry Page And Sergey Brin on new Alphabet CEO)

“You can’t run one forum when half of your employee base is sleeping and are in different time zones, and Sundar understands that,” said a Google employee on the condition of anonymity. “A lot of discussion happens around things that are happening in Google in other countries like India and Japan.”

India has more than 2,000 employees out of a work force of more than 1,00,000. Pichai’s taking over will increase India’s importance in the global scheme of things. “He believes that if a product works in India, it will work globally,” said the person quoted above. And for good reason, India has the world’s second-largest internet user base.

(Also read: Google CEO Sundar Pichai will now head both Google and parent company Alphabet)

No one in Google perhaps understands India the way Pichai does. His upbringing was humble. He grew up in a house without a refrigerator or a television. “He remembers his childhood and how difficult accessing information is,” said the Google employee quoted above.

Google logo

Google logo

But to run a tech behemoth like Alphabet, Pichai will have to make people believe in his leadership.

Those who have worked with him say that Pichai is a unique leader. “He combines vision, team-building, execution and deep humility. That is a rare combination,” said Rajan Anandan, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India and the President of TiE Delhi-NCR. Anandan was also the country manager of Google India and worked closely with Pichai.

Google, he said, was not a top down organisation. “You need to build alignment,” he said. “You can’t expect everyone to go left, without everyone believing that is the right thing to do.”

Pichai is great at aligning people to one goal. “His ability to connect with people – from prime ministers to CEOs to 21-year olds – is just amazing,” said Anandan. “I have never seen Sundar (Pichai) get visibly upset. He is totally zen, never gets frazzled.”

Pichai will need all that as Google faces increased regulatory scrutiny across the world as privacy and security concerns mount. In India, too, demands are being made that Internet firms locally store their data.

Anandan remembered how once driving past the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Pichai saw children playing cricket in the lawns of India Gate. He stopped the car and joined them. He loves cricket and American football, and is a big Sachin Tendulkar fan.

Nilekani, too, said that after Pichai took over as the Google CEO, the company’s focus on India had increased. But, he is not just a people’s person. “He looks at things strategically. He is a great tech and product person, and can convert tech ideas into product reality,” Nilekani added.

 

That is important for Alphabet Inc, which has a large number of subsidiaries including Google. There is health venture Calico, DeepMind, which deals with artificial intelligence, private equity fund CapitalG, research and development unit X, Sidewalk Labs, which provides sensor-based technology to manage crowds and traffic, and advanced autonomous vehicle technology firm Waymo, among others.

Pichai, who has spent 15 years at Google, also defines the company’s AI-first approach. Artificial intelligence and India are a key to adding the next billion users.

Pichai is proud of where he comes from. “He is proud of his Indianess,” said Deep Kalra, Co-Founder and Group CEO of MakeMyTrip, who met Pichai soon after he took over as the Google CEO. “He is a charming, wonderful, down to earth leader.”

But it takes a steel fist in a velvet glove to lead a behemoth like Google. “He has a way of getting things done. As the CEO of such a large organisation, you have to take tough decisions. That is the magic of leadership,” Anandan said.

There were occasions when he and Pichai were not on the same page but as the two would meet, things would change. Anandan said he never left a meeting when both of them weren't in agreement. "With Sundar things are just seamless, and he never makes you feel bad," he added.

Pichai, like all good leaders, is courtesy and thoughtful as well. “I wrote a letter to him when I left Google,” said Paroma Roy Chowdhury, Senior Director, Public Affairs and Asia Communications of SoftBank Group International. Chowdhury was the former Google India Director and Country Head of Corporate Communications and Public Affair.

“It was not important for him to reply. He was already the CEO of Google, but he did,” Chowdhury said.

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