Newsmaker: Sundar Pichai

The new chief executive of Google, announced this week as part of the conglomerate’s restructuring, has enjoyed a meteoric rise from humble beginnings in south-east India.

Kagan Mcleod for The National
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For a man with origins in a south-east Indian family with no car, television or – until he was 12 – telephone, Sundar Pichai’s rise to the heights of global technology is striking.

Today, a simple internet search of his name returns more than four million results. Appropriately enough, the count appears at Google; the Californian-based giant, familiar to anyone who uses the web, has just made the unassuming high-flyer from Tamil Nadu its chief executive.

Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, announced the appointment as part of a major restructuring exercise in which the business becomes – in Page’s own words – a “slightly slimmed-down” part of a new umbrella group, ­Alphabet.

It’s a move that recognises Pichai’s outstanding talent and track record in 11 years at Google. It’s also, no doubt, aimed at keeping headhunters at bay. He may be known as a “nice guy”, but even nice guys have their price and, it’s widely believed, ­rivals would be happy to pay it.

Having climbed to the top of Google’s management tree, Pichai already enjoys handsome rewards. Even before his latest promotion, his annual salary had reputedly been bumped up to US$50 million (Dh183.7m) when, as senior vice president, he took over day-to-day running of the business in the autumn.

Tall, lean and fond of casual wear, Pichai has carried youthful, studious looks into his 40s. Friends from student days in India remember a shy and softly spoken undergraduate, while senior colleagues say he is friendly, approachable and an attentive listener.

These admirers feel he not only merits his generous remuneration but would probably fare better still if he succumbed to the attentions of reported suitors.

Among those congratulating him on his “well-deserved” elevation was Satya Nadella, another highly successful Indian who became chief executive of Microsoft last year. This was a post with which Pichai had been linked; the ascent to such prominence by two expatriates – Nadella, like Pichai, is now an American citizen, but was born in Hyderabad – has been loudly acclaimed in India, inspiring “how the West was won”-style media coverage.

It’s rare in high-profile business to find a leader who’s talked about with the warmth Pichai generates. “I would challenge you to find anyone at Google who doesn’t like Sundar,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s vice president of product management, who has worked with Pichai for several years, told Bloomberg.

A leading technology journalist, Kara Swisher, said his success was a “definitive case of nice guys come first”.

The ability to engage with others was evident at an event recorded at Google’s headquarters, Googleplex, in September, when Pichai shared a stage with the Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan. The star said he really wanted to be a software engineer, not an actor. “No, really,” he insisted. “I look stupid, but I’m not, I’m really intelligent. I did electronics and got a 98, which is the highest in India.”

“Anytime you want to switch careers, let me know,” replied a laughing Pichai.

But it’s in the professional sphere that he’s most convincing. The Verge website, an ­authoritative voice in technology, noted that “if you use any Google product, [the] chances are Pichai had some say in how it was ­created”.

Among his key successes is Chrome, the browser devised by his team and introduced for public use at the end of 2008. The growth of a product some critics considered unnecessary has been startling. Recent analysis listed Chrome as the preferred surfing tool on more than half the world’s desktop computers and the most popular smartphone browser. Even more ­conservative assessments put its share of the desktop and phone browser market at roughly one-third.

Pichai’s innovative genius has had an effect felt far beyond Chrome. According to The Verge and other industry analysts, his domain stretches to the development of Google Drive, Google Maps, Android and much more.

In a gushing blog post announcing Pichai’s new job, Page, who will now concentrate on heading the Alphabet holding company with his Google co-founder Sergey Brin as president, heaped praise on his work.

“He has really stepped up since October of last year, when he took on product and engineering responsibility for our internet businesses,” he wrote. “Sergey and I have been super excited about his progress and dedication to the company … I feel very fortunate to have someone as talented as he is to run the slightly slimmed-down Google and this frees up time for me to continue to scale our aspirations.”

Pichai fits his bosses’ vision of the technology sector like a glove. Page argues that unlike conventional business, which can settle for comfortable, gradual change, technology needs to be “a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant”.

Pichai was born Pichai Sundararajan in Chennai in 1972. Success didn’t come through privilege. Although his father, Regunatha Pichai, had a good job as an electrical engineer for the British group GEC, the family’s lifestyle was modest. He lived with his parents and younger brother in a two-room apartment. With no car, rare family outings involved everyone piling on to Regunatha’s Lambretta scooter.

The young Pichai loved cricket and captained his school team, but was fascinated by his father’s accounts of the work he did and challenges he faced.

When the family finally acquired a phone, Pichai found he could recall each number he dialled, an early sign of what others now hail as a “phenomenal” memory.

Where he went to school has been the subject of a bizarre battle on his Wikipedia page, with scores of changes being made by the site’s users. India’s The News Minute website said the desire for reflected glory had apparently prompted alumni of different Chennai schools to write and rewrite the history of his elementary and secondary education. Wikipedia eventually removed all references to his studies before the undisputed entry: the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.

After graduating in metallurgical engineering, he was offered a scholarship at Stanford University in California. By then, he had met the woman he would marry, Anjali, a chemical engineering student, and she followed him to the United States. They have a son, Kiran, and daughter, Kavya.

One much-repeated story tells of Pichai’s father withdrawing more than his annual salary from savings after being refused a loan to pay for his son to go to the US. Another records initial parental dismay when Pichai temporarily abandoned his studies to take his first job, in engineering and product management in San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley. Even so, he graduated with a master of science degree.

Pichai was also attracted to the business side of technology. He gained an MBA in 2002 and worked for the global consultants McKinsey & Company.

Joining Google in 2004, he played a pivotal role in developing its search toolbar, eventually proposing the company should launch the now-famous browser. There was some internal opposition, but this was overcome thanks to the enthusiastic response of the co-founders.

Pichai was clearly a rising star. He steadily won appreciation in the industry, becoming a recognisable face of Google and proving himself a natural leader. Last year’s promotion meant that heads of the major Google functions except YouTube, including advertising and infrastructure, reported to him.

Page sees in him a kindred spirit, pushing boundaries and “saying the things I would have said (and sometimes better) for quite some time”.

From Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, Pichai now heads a business employing more than 40,000 people with 70 offices in 40 countries.

He’s credited with strong diplomatic instincts, which may prove useful in confronting the controversies occasionally aroused by Google’s activities. The company has been criticised for tax avoidance schemes and dragged into legal battles over privacy, advertising and intellectual property.

Time will tell how he takes to the corporate dimension of his new role. But creative instinct seems likely to remain his motivating force. Page talks of Google’s history of devising projects “other people think are crazy” but attract a billion or more users, and says Pichai “will always be focused on innovation”.

Google’s new top man is said to find relaxation in chess. Now that he has acceded to the throne of Alphabet’s flagship enterprise, a technology-filled world impatient for relentless change awaits his next moves with interest.

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