Why Sundar Pichai is respected in product circles as a visionary
The Consumer Electronics Show, universally known as CES, is a riot of technology. Held annually in the bleak Nevada desert town of Las Vegas, it is a great blinking din, jammed with screens, speakers, automobiles, whirling drones, blooping robots,
The Consumer Electronics Show, universally known as CES, is a riot of technology. Held annually in the bleak Nevada desert town of Las Vegas, it is a great blinking din, jammed with screens, speakers, automobiles, whirling drones, blooping robots, e-cigs and e-cigs and ever more e-cigs, plus some 170,000 people bumping around inside a disease-ridden convention center. Among those many attendees is Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.
Pichai is 43, tall and slender, and tends to dress casually, if nicely — think Banana Republic dad. Today he’s wearing a v-neck sweater over a collared shirt and jeans. He sports rectangular-framed glasses and a trim, graying beard. For the most part, he looks like any other conventiongoer. Which for him is clearly a thrill. As he pauses for a moment to gape at a motion simulator ride where 20 or so people are strapped into lurching theater chairs with VR headsets clamped across their faces, he leans in close to make sure he can be heard over the fury of carnival noises bouncing around the hall.
“The nice thing about CES,” he says impishly, grinning and eyes aglow, “is that there are so many people, you can be anonymous.”
It’s true. And he’s definitely enjoying the chance to cruise the show in incognito mode. Pichai has long been respected in product circles as a visionary. But he is now among an elite group of tech executives — along with the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; the new American industrialists whose global reach make U.S. Steel and Standard Oil look like Piggly Wiggly by comparison. And yet, unlike those boldface names, and despite a widely reported $200 million stock windfall, he remains largely unknown.
Were Cook or Zuck to stride across a CES show floor, they would be mobbed. Pichai is not at that point yet. So all morning, he’s been running around with his name badge flipped over backward, having fun, anonymously checking out gadgets. He bounces from smart locks, to smart lights, to a smart shower, to smart shoe insoles. It almost backfires when a Samsung representative demonstrating a smart refrigerator reaches out and flips his badge back over, asking, “What are you, press?” But his name doesn’t mean anything to her, and Pichai just casts an amused sideways glance and dives in with questions. “So, what can I ask the fridge?” he wants to know. Various versions of this same scene play out again and again.
Yet while he’s purposefully keeping a low profile today, that’s clearly not possible long-term. Pichai was promoted to Google’s top job in August, following a massive restructuring that created a new holding company, Alphabet. This let the company peel off its more fantastical ventures — things like Calico that’s “curing” death, or its Wing self-flying-drone delivery service — as Alphabet subsidiaries, while keeping all of its main internet businesses under Google. With $74.5 billion in annual revenue last year, Google is by far the largest (and only profitable) business under Alphabet. Indeed, Google has seven different products that more than a billion people use: Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android, Chrome, Maps, and its app and media vending machine, the Google Play Store.
But with that world-beating growth has come controversy. It was intimately linked to the Edward Snowden revelations about an NSA program called Prism, which caused people the world over to wonder how much Google was cooperating with the NSA. (The company has always maintained that the NSA was not given direct access to its systems.) Protesters in San Francisco made Google buses synonymous with income inequality, and regularly took to blocking them in the streets. Google tussled with European governments over citizens’ rights to remove unfavorable listings from search results (the so-called right to be forgotten), and over antitrust claims that it lists its own products ahead of its competitors. At one particularly low point, during its Google IO developers conference in 2014, a protester stood in the aisles during the keynote presentation shouting, “You work for a totalitarian company that makes machines that kill people.”
Things used to be so different! When Google was young it was A Very Different Kind of Tech Company, espousing idealistic principles in the earnest manner of the ’90s web. In the now-famous letter from its 2004 IPO, the company’s founders wrote that one of its principles was “Don’t be evil.” It was just there to help you get shit done. Search for your stuff and get out.
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information. And the company has been very good at this — it’s why its search is unparalleled, Gmail is the best tool for organizing and sorting your email, and Google Photos can take all your thousands of pictures, tell you who is in them, and where they were taken, and that this is a picture of a parrot, while that is a picture of a duck.
But to do all that it has to suck up an enormous amount of information — and increasingly that information isn’t coming from Web pages, but from you. You are, at this very moment, bustling with data (location, age, primary mode of transportation, gender, browsing history, heart rate, race, IP address, browser, operating system, cervical mucus, cholesterol level) that can be used to better understand you. And Google is collecting ever more of it in an effort to give you better and better answers; to take your raw data and turn it into useful information. What’s more, as the company pushes ever more into machine learning, human beings are ceding control of what its products decide. Why did its AI, AlphaGo, choose the moves that beat the best human player in the world in a Go tournament earlier this month? The honest answer is no one really knows. Which is to say, Google may not be evil, but it’s undeniably a little creepy.
Meanwhile, all of these things Google is doing for those of us in the industrialized world today, it wants to do for the whole world tomorrow. Google is sprinting to attract its “next billion” users. For the most part, these are people in the developing world; people who will go online, for the very first time, using one of Google’s Android-powered handsets. Which puts Google in the position of being seen as both a corporate NSA and modern East India Company.
It’s that vague, impending creepiness, plus increasing global ambition, that explains why Pichai seems like the ideal person to be running Google now. The company’s previous CEOs, Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, never seemed particularly empathetic or, you know, likely to have a measurable body temperature. (Schmidt once famously said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” while Page waxed rhapsodic about theoretical lawless “special zones” where the company could be “free to experiment.”) While the gossip on Schmidt tended to center around things like, as New York Magazine put it, his “lavish sex palace,” what you hear Googlers whispering about Pichai is how he promised to put his kids to bed himself every night in 2015.
Pichai clearly understands there are all sorts of things we don’t want anyone to know. “We need to design systems so that we give people a very easy way to say, ‘I need to be off the grid, I need this to be private,’” he says over a smashed avocado at the Wynn, moments after being buttonholed by Barry Diller in a nearby hallway. Can Sundar Pichai transform Google’s image? Can he make you actually like Google again?
As Clay Bavor, who runs Google’s virtual reality efforts, says of Pichai’s approach to technology, “You want a deeply thoughtful, caring human person, thinking about those issues and leading the company making those things happen. I’m really glad that he, of all people, is Google’s CEO. That’s what I tell my friends.”
So… Sundar Pichai: It could be worse?
In November, the winter monsoon blew into the coast of southeast India, just as it always has. But this time its effects were very different. A particularly bad storm system dumped more than 40 inches of rain on Chennai that month, with more than 10 coming in a single 24-hour period, flooding the city. Illegal building and the destruction of neighboring wetlands had left Chennai poorly prepared, and it remained inundated for weeks. More than 300 people lost their lives, and damages were estimated at $3 billion. Sundar Pichai’s family was among those affected.
“My grandmother took the brunt of it,” he says from the backseat of a van, snaking through the thick Delhi traffic on a warm December day. His grandmother had been staying with his aunt, and when the rains came they moved to the second floor of a building where they were stranded for four days with no water, power, or cell service. A cousin collected rainwater for them to drink. And for four days, the CEO of the company that has amassed more information on more people than any other on the planet had no idea what was happening to his family. Weeks after the floods, he is visiting India for the first time in more than a year.
“It’s always emotional to me to come back to India,” says Pichai, who is on his way to a stadium where he will address a few thousand cheering students. “It’s truly humbling to see the reception.”
The CEO of this American colossus grew up in a two-room house in Chennai, where he and his brother slept on the living room floor. “My parents sacrificed a lot and education was always a priority,” he says. “I felt fortunate about the opportunities I had, so I never felt it was modest because they were determined to give me access to education, whatever it took.”
(Pichai will later say that he worries his father is still disappointed that he didn’t go further in school. “I think if you talked to my dad, he’s probably still regretting that I didn’t complete my Ph.D. He had to leave college after his undergrad. He wanted to learn more, but because of financial reasons he couldn’t do it. I think he always wanted me to continue on.”)
By the standard of living in India, Pichai was fortunate. His father was an engineer, and he had access to education. The family had enough money for a scooter, which all four of them — himself, and his father, mother, and brother — would sometimes ride at once. Sure, you could catch him hanging off the sides of buses in Chennai as they rolled down the street, but it was to avoid the oppressive heat, not the fare.
Yet there were plenty of people — and he saw them all the time — far less fortunate. “Outside my home there was this guy we called the night watchman,” he explains. “He would sleep outside our home every night. I never thought of him as homeless, but he never had a home, and never had a family. He doesn’t know where he was born, or how he was born.”
Today, Pichai travels with a security detail in multiple vehicles, and an entourage of assistants and lieutenants. When one, an American, notes the cacophony of horns, weaving tuk-tuks, curbside food stands, and vendors who walk out into the roadway to sell enormous, man-sized balloons, Pichai scoffs. “Delhi’s nothing; Delhi’s so organized.”
“I remember when I was young trying to come home at night, and these dogs wouldn’t let me come home. So I wound up climbing on the top of the houses, and going from rooftop to rooftop, and they would follow me all the way, barking.”
As the caravan creeps through a swarm of slow-moving, smoke-spewing vehicles through Delhi’s crumbling history and rapidly modernizing future, it passes a large, unmissable billboard, advertising the Nexus 6P, Google’s flagship phone. You see these ads all over Delhi, and outside of it, too. They greet you at the airport. There are no similar signs for the iPhone. And indeed, there are very few iPhones in India at all, where Apple has less than a 2% market share.
There are, on the other hand, a lot of goddamn Android phones. Android commands a whopping 64% of the Indian market. And in 2016, for the first time, Google expects to sell more Android phones in India than in the United States. Smartphones have largely saturated the United States, where almost 70% of the adult population, and a full 86% of people in their twenties, has one. But India is still on the way up. Only 26% of India’s population owns a smartphone, and they make up nearly all of the country’s internet users. That number looks poised to change rapidly, fueled not by high-end devices like the fancy Nexus 6P that’s advertised everywhere, but by an explosion of inexpensive phones from no-name manufacturers and a blooming infrastructure that’s allowing people to connect those phones to the Internet. One of Pichai’s challenges will be to make sure Android keeps that market share as India blooms.
“Personal computers never really took off in India,” explains Pichai. “Two things changed: affordable smartphones powered by Android, and connectivity. It’s one of those ignition moments when the combination of the two is lighting up a country.”
Android was, very literally, made for this moment. Its entire point is to be customized, reconfigured, and personalized for a world full of people across a range of sizes, shapes, configurations, and price points. Sure, signs for the $550 Nexus abound, but you can also score a cheap Android phone in Delhi, like a Lava Atom X, for less than $40 — and that’s without a contract. It will, Pichai thinks, change the status quo not just in India, but the entire world.
“Hundreds of years ago very few people had access to information. And they were essentially in the corridors of power,” he says, sitting up in excitement, and leaning forward from the backseat of the van. “Even a simple thing like the printing press made books accessible to many more people. I’ve always been fascinated by this thing, that every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.”
Yet those inexpensive phones are nothing without affordable connections. India’s cities have slow, overloaded connections, and its rural areas often have no connection at all. But that’s changing, largely through the efforts of companies like Google and Facebook.
Facebook’s main push in India was via a program called Free Basics, which offered a set of services like the weather, Wikipedia, and, well, Facebook that people could access without counting against their data plans. But in January, India’s government banned so-called differential pricing plans, killing Free Basics and dealing it a huge setback.
Google is going a different direction. It’s trying to do two main things: reduce the amount of data its devices use, and break out its checkbook to help provide free bandwidth for people to use whatever services they want. “The model people want here is similar to what we have in the United States,” Pichai says. “We should do more to get more data and make it more affordable. That’s a better way to approach the problem.”
To that end, in January, Google rolled out a program that will provide free Wi-Fi at railway stations. It started in Mumbai, and will be in 100 stations by the end of the year, reaching 10 million people. Eventually, it will arrive at some 400 stations in all.
The other big piece is making it easy for people to use their phones on slow networks, or when there is no network at all. That means doing things like caching Maps so you can still navigate even without an internet connection. Or the emphasis in its forthcoming version of Android, N, on using less data to accomplish the same tasks.
Google is also pushing hard into Indic languages. Although Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, with more than 400 million native speakers, that’s a small slice of the nation’s 1.3 billion–strong population. Google says it expects the next 300–400 million Internet users in India to come online speaking native languages. And so Google has rolled out support for 11 of them.
“That’s this head-exploding concept, when you think about the vernacular languages,” Pichai says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the leading newspapers in Tamil, my native language, had more circulation than the New York Times or other leading newspapers in the world.” (In fact, the biggest Tamil-language daily has a print circulation of 1.7 million to the New York Times’ 626,000. The second largest Tamil daily has a circ of 1.2 million.) “There are so many people who are very good at their native languages, but are completely cut off from everything. So in India, to go from 300 million users to a billion users, the path leads through vernacular languages.”
It also means bringing women online. This is a deeply personal issue for Pichai.
“My mom dropped out of high school for economic reasons, but she always was the one I turned to when I had difficulty with any of my schoolwork,” he says. “I could see the power of what she could contribute, but in some ways she couldn’t fully realize it because she didn’t have access to education. When you look at the internet, women account for less than one-third of the usage, and that number is much lower in rural areas, I think it’s an imperative for us to do that.”
Google has a program called Internet Saathi, which employs women to ride bikes out to remote and rural villages with Android phones and tablets, where they then teach other women how to use the devices. Google is planning to hit 300,000 villages across India in this way by the end of 2018.
“Most women in rural India assume the Internet is not for them,” Pichai continues. “They assume it’s for their husbands or fathers or sons or brothers. But then you show it to them, and there’s this thing that clicks in their heads that it’s for them — for some people it’s the crop prices for vegetables which you can find on the phone. When we live in the Western world, technology is constantly changing and it’s a continuum. It’s happening to you all the time and you take it for granted. But if you step back, you realize, ‘Oh my god,’ it’s changing life in profound ways.”
Eventually, the van rolls down a narrow street, between walls of crumbling bricks where men stand idle by the roadside, looking to see who is coming that merited blocking the street. As it arrives outside the University of New Delhi stadium, the doors slide open, and Pichai steps out to a roar.
There is a stage set up in the center of the stadium. It’s encircled by students in folding chairs and, higher up, in bleacher seats along the walls. A band called Raaga Trippin plays, warming up the crowd. “WE’RE ABOUT TO SEE THE PERSON YOU’VE BEEN WAITING TO SEE,” a frontman who looks sort of like a South Asian version of Will.i.am (or at least his haircut) shouts to the audience. “ARE YOU HAPPY ENOUGH?” As Pichai preps backstage, it is one of the few times he looks nervous. He sighs repeatedly, and between bits of conversation, stares blankly at the floor, or the wall.
Pichai is just becoming a guy you might recognize in the United States, but in India he is already massively popular; a celebrity executive and point of national pride. “When he was named CEO of Google people were literally lighting off crackers in the streets,” says Pranav Dixit, a former technology editor at the Hindustan Times. “Especially in Chennai. It was that big.”
When Pichai enters the arena for an onstage interview from the famous Indian cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, the room of 2,000 students explodes in noise. He spends the next hour fielding questions about everything from his test scores in high school to career advice. The biggest applause line of the day comes after he’s asked why there haven’t been any versions of the Android operating system named for an Indian dessert. (Each version of Android is named, alphabetically, for a dessert. K was KitKat, L was Lollipop, M, the current version, is Marshmallow.)
He mulls the question and says, “Maybe we will do an online poll and if Indians all vote…” He trails off with the hint of suggestion. The next day, the line appears all over the Indian press.
After the stadium, Pichai hops back in the van, visibly fatigued, and rolls back to the Leela Palace hotel. There, he quickly changes out of his blue sweater and black pants into a suit and then headed off for a closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Modi, followed by a trip to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former palace of the Indian viceroy, and now the president’s residence.
Rashtrapati Bhavan is set far back from the road, across a groomed courtyard of red clay. It’s a massive, domed, colonial mansion, with 340 rooms that cover some 200,000 square feet, on grounds that spread out across 330 acres. For more than 100 years, it was the largest residence for a head of state in the world (Turkey beat it, in 2014).
On this night, there’s a reception for Pichai here, hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee, a fixture of India’s politics for decades, and a roundtable meeting with all sorts of tech and education emissaries to discuss how to improve education in the country via technology.
Before the formal discussion, everyone gathers in Ashoka Hall, a Persian-themed ballroom. Its gilded ceiling features a massive painting of a hunt, showing Fath-Ali Shah, surrounded by his sons, as he spears a tiger from on horseback — it was a gift from the shah himself to George IV of England. A portrait of the poet Nizami Ganjavi is on one wall, while a painting simply titled “Persian Lady” graces the opposite. Men in uniforms take turns shooting selfies with him, and everyone mills about, until suddenly the guards begin asking everyone to line up in orderly rows, with Pichai front and center.
The room hushes. The president glides in. He strides 50 paces across the floor. Pichai clasps his hands together in Añjali Mudrā. Everyone else follows suit. They bow. They shake hands. Pichai smiles. The president remains as an expressionless sphinx.
The procession files into a dining room and sits in high-backed wooden chairs at a table that seats 50. Everyone, or so it seems, takes a turn talking about the ways tech and education can work better together in India. And for two hours, the speakers grind on, and on, and on some more. Through it all Mukherjee is stone-faced and unmoving. Until, at last, he says something.
“I came here not to speak, but to learn,” he says. “This much I know: A new India is emerging.” He cites the more than 700 universities across the country. “Who will create a new India, out of this oldest civilization?” The answer sits directly across from him, all night long. The answer is Sundar Pichai. Ambitious. Attentive. And throughout the long, boring, evening: smiling.
Later, Pichai will echo this line about a new India, as he lopes out toward the dining room. He’s grinning, and motions to the wave of Indians walking in to dine with him and the president. Most are under 50; there are a handful of women. Despite sitting through a long interminable discussion that was mostly people listening to themselves talk, he seems energized.
“It’s a big shift,” he says. “This is new for India. Normally, only captains of industry would be at something like this. But to have startups at the palace!” He grins widely, spreads his palms out and up as he looks around, and goes bounding off to eat his dinner.
A few minutes later, an Uber driver in a tiny, white, smoking diesel pulls up outside the palace gates on Dalehouse Road and fetches an American shivering in the night air. Despite an impassible language barrier, the driver knows exactly where to arrive, and where to go, thanks to the cheap Android smartphone on his dashboard, and a little blue dot winds its way across a Google Maps screen and the digitized roads of India’s ancient city.
“This morning I’ve been feeling so much excitement about the announcement around the gravitational waves being discovered,” says Pichai, who is positively bouncing up and down, nodding his head, when he opens the door to his house, on a crisp February morning. A long-held theory of Einstein’s has just been proved. And Pichai is giddy.
“A thousand people who worked on it! It’s a remarkable, mind-blowing thing, because Einstein wrote about this more than a hundred years ago — and it was all in his mind. One man, solo, doing that! I’ve been geeking out all morning on this trying to understand it. ”
Pichai’s neighborhood, in the sensually curving Los Altos Hills, just northwest of San Jose, is the kind of place where people have vineyards and solar panel arrays in their front lawns. It is always sunny here, and always beautiful. To get to his house, you have to pull off of I-280 (which bills itself as “The World’s Most Beautiful Freeway”), pass by two different stables, and Tesla’s headquarters. There are lots of horses, and lots of Teslas. Cyclists on $10,000 bikes swarm the roads.
His home is shockingly modest for one of the highest-paid CEOs in the United States. It’s a five-bedroom house at the end of a cul de sac that, tennis court aside, wouldn’t look out of place in suburban anywhere. The interior looks more West Elm than Eames. But what’s most striking is the entrance hall, the floor of which is covered in tape.
Just inside the front door, there’s a rectangular grid on the floor, about 5 feet long and 3 wide, made from colored tape. It’s a miniature indoor soccer pitch, created by his 9-year-old son, where the two of them can get down on the floor together and play. (He has a daughter as well, who is 13, and a wife, Anjali, whom he met as an undergraduate studying engineering at IIT in India.) “The rules are always changing,” Pichai explains, “so that he always wins.”
This appears to be Pichai’s strategy at work as well. His even temperament and desire to see others succeed help explain Pichai’s steady, if sharp, rise at Google. His first job was running Google Toolbar — a browser extension that let you search Google from within Internet Explorer. From there, he embarked on what at the time seemed like a puzzling mission to help build a new web browser — Google Chrome — when it was completely unclear why the company would need one.
Today, Chrome is the dominant browser, and it has helped the company stave off threats from Microsoft’s Bing. It set Google up for Chrome OS, pushing it into markets where it had never been before. It was a non-obvious, brilliant tactical move that saw far into the future.
While still running Chrome, in 2013 Pichai took over Android as well, moving to oversee both of the company’s major operating system elements. It was the transition to running Android along with Chrome that multiple executives point to as a key example of the way Pichai operates.
Android was something Google saw as vital to its future, yet it was also something of a rogue unit internally. Google had purchased Android early in its history, and Android founder Andy Rubin continued to run it after the acquisition. Under Rubin, Android had run almost as an entirely separate business within Google. Pichai brought it back into the fold and made sure that Android — the thing that for perhaps 1 billion people will be their first interaction with the Internet — was deeply, and profoundly, a part of Google.
“When Sundar took over leadership of Android, previously the team had a reputation for being a bit insular,” says Jen Fitzpatrick, who runs Maps and Local for Google. “Under Sundar there was a notable shift in terms of how those interactions would go and a much deeper level of collaboration.”
“Google was the search company,” says Hiroshi Lockheimer, describing Android’s early years. Lockheimer was the first employee Rubin hired to work on Android, and he came to Google as a part of the acquisition. (Today, he runs Android and Chrome.) “When Andy left Android, and Sundar became the boss, he brought with him the rest of Google — or he brought Android to the rest of Google.”
Not everyone, however, is a fan of Pichai’s style. One former Google manager who worked with Pichai described him as a political operative who could work a room and navigate shifting alliances in the company. “He gave the best meetings,” says the former Googler. “He never aligned with Susan, or Marissa, or Omid, or even Eric,” he says, referring to a series of powerful Google executives (and its former CEO and current chair). “He always shot right down the middle. How could you ever really know what someone like that is really thinking?”
But the negatives and positives may largely add up to be the same thing: He is a kind of boring best-for-the-company man, not the mercurial type so often lionized in the Valley. (In fact, Google has actively shed a few of that type in recent years, including Marissa Mayer and Andy Rubin.) And at a company that optimizes for smart, Pichai is often described as a genius — much of that due to his effectiveness as a leader capable of wrangling other very smart, very opinionated people.
“Over the long run, Google rejects assholes,” says Caesar Sengupta as we sit in the belly of the Pullman Hotel during a Google India conference in December. Sengupta runs Google’s “Next Billion Users” team and has worked under Pichai since 2007. “Sundar became CEO among his peers, and yet his peers are still with him.”
“I could see that Sundar was attracting very loyal people and they all really liked him and really liked each other. And they built this culture where you didn’t have to worry about politics. Sundar abstracted all the large company stuff away from you, and you could just focus on doing good work.”
And indeed, the team he surrounds himself with is fiercely loyal. Bavor, for example, keeps a running document of things he’s learned from Pichai. (It’s three pages long. Sample entry: “Always choose quality. If you have to delay things to ship a quality product, delay.”)
This faithfulness persists despite doing things that might seem, frankly, kind of unreasonable. For example, by 2014 Pichai had been tapped to run all of Google’s products, and meanwhile Bavor had begun working on what would become Google Cardboard, a low-fi gizmo that turns a phone screen into a VR headset with some cardboard, Velcro, and a magnet. Pichai heard about it and summoned Bavor to his office for a demo. Pichai was so impressed that he told Bavor he wanted to launch it at the company’s big developer conference, Google IO, in eight and a half weeks. In terms of development cycles, that’s a flat-out sprint.
“He said, ‘OK, Clay, run,’ and he didn’t see me, or Google Cardboard, for the next eight and a half weeks” says Bavor. The plan was, they would hand out foldable cardboard viewers in giveaway bags, along with items like T-shirts, that every attendee is given at the registration desk. But at 11 p.m. the night before, Pichai had a different idea. He was worried that people wouldn’t understand what this piece of cardboard was in the gift bags, and might even throw it away. “He said, ‘I really want to announce it onstage. I just think it would be really cool; can we do that?’”
Bavor and the operations team spent the night pulling 10,000 Cardboard viewers out of gift bags over the next 11 hours so they could be handed out to attendees as they left the keynote.
“He stood up onstage and announced this product” — as Bavor tells the story he grins and bounces in his chair a bit — “and he had not even seen the final version of it, or the final version of the software. Here, again, was this deep implicit trust.” (Sure. But it was also a capricious move that kept people up all night pulling cardboard out of tote bags.)
In the summer of 2015, Google completely reorganized itself. It created a new parent company, Alphabet, to oversee its moonshots and other various ventures, separate from its main Internet business. Google’s then-CEO, Larry Page, became CEO of Alphabet, essentially a holding company. Pichai got the nod to serve as CEO of Google. He now oversees a wide-ranging but ultimately deeply connected suite of products and services including Google Search, Gmail, Android, Chrome, Maps, VR, YouTube, and, of course, its advertising business.
When you think about the great leaders of Silicon Valley, they tend to fall broadly into one of three buckets: engineering, business, or product. The engineers drive innovation and invention. They make things work. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the archetypical engineer, who built a company out of the hacker ethos. The business leaders are often the so-called disrupters. They reimagine supply and distribution, make deals in often cutthroat fashion, and corner markets. This is Apple’s Tim Cook, who pioneered supply chains in China and built the company into a financial juggernaut. The product types are those who can focus in on what makes something not just useful, but great and beautiful. They translate human engineering into humanity. Steve Jobs is the ultimate product guy. But running a massive company, like Facebook or Apple or Google, requires more than one of these skill sets.
Pichai is clearly in the product camp. Under him Android has bloomed, going from a customizable but clunky interface to something beautiful and fluid. Chrome redefined how fast and invisible a browser could be. Google Photos transformed the way photography can be organized and displayed in the smartphone era. Yet now he needs to not only focus on product, but manage Google’s massive advertising business as well.
“The thing within product that really appeals to me is when you can distill something complex to a reductionist, simple thing,” he says.” Google Search was that way for me. There’s so much complexity within Google Search but for most people it’s just a simple search box. Simplicity is hard to articulate, but anytime you can make anything simpler users respond to it.”
Pichai says he now thinks about Google the company as a product unto itself. “I think a lot about simplicity in the context of Google, too. Large things inherently tend to get more complex; it’s how things work. How do you simplify? It’s hard.”
The new job also comes with massively more responsibility. Not only is he in charge of Alphabet’s profit center, in Google, he’s also in charge of its internet business, the thing that organizes all that information — the heart of the company; the thing that makes it most useful and most potentially dangerous.
“It’s almost like I changed when I had kids. You know, before kids, crossing streets in India, I wouldn’t think twice about it. When you have kids there’s a part of you which you feel it’s not just your journey anymore, right? There’s an element of that. I feel that in the job, that sense of responsibility in making sure we use our opportunity wisely in the world.” And as his profile — and portfolio — increases, more people will be looking to Pichai directly for answers to impossible questions, whether he’s comfortable with this or not.
When Google reported its most recent quarterly results, the company revealed that he was getting a compensation package that included approximately $200 million worth of stock. It was right out of a Bernie Sanders stump speech. Asked why he’s worth that amount, Pichai refers to an as-yet undefined legacy.
“I’m very fortunate,” he says, perhaps too obviously, in the living room of his Los Altos home. “I take that as an opportunity to figure out thoughtfully how I give back to the world.”
“I’ll reach a point one day where I feel like this is not what I want to do, and I plan to then take the next step in my life figuring out how I can give back,” Pichai says. “That’s how I’ve always envisioned it.”
It all sounds vaguely good, even if it’s not very specific. And in the end, this to me is Pichai. He is earnest and thoughtful and optimistic. Over the course of three months, I would spend time with him in India and Las Vegas and California. We spoke in convention centers, stadiums, conference rooms, cars, hotels, a palace, and his home. He never refused to answer a single question (although he did at a few points only answer off the record, or dodge). At one point he even let me see his daughter’s Christmas list (it was shockingly modest). He is a man fascinated by the future, whose conversations often come back to topics of theoretical science, the books he’s reading (Being Mortal, The Wright Brothers), and, generally speaking, big ideas. Yet he also delights in details, like the sound a camera shutter makes, or how long it takes a laptop to light up after opening. He seems to care more about the people who own Google’s products than the people who own its stock. (I never heard him mention shareholders, even in revenue discussions.) He is considerate. Nice. Kind, even. He loves cricket. And gadgets. And, very obviously, his children, whom he talks about constantly. He is a vegetarian. I know all these things about him. This is information. But is it giving us answers?
“What you’re missing is a level of authenticity,” says that former Googler of Pichai. “Who could really speak to who Sundar is?”
In February, when the FBI demanded that Apple help it crack open the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, it set off a nationwide debate on privacy and encryption. Google offered its rival support in the form of an amicus brief, and Pichai himself weighed in on Twitter: “We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent. Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue.” Yet his words were so cautious, and so few (even after BuzzFeed News asked for elaboration), that despite expressing support it was hard to know where he really stood.
Someone is going to run Google. Someone will oversee its many products and services. Someone will manage its rollout into the developing world. Someone is going to be in charge of all that information it collects.
Ultimately, I side with Bavor. I am glad that Pichai, of all people, is the CEO of Google. And yet I still have deep ambivalence about the kind of information I hand over to Google. And Facebook. And Apple. And Amazon. And Samsung. And Microsoft. And all the very many other companies out there, large and small, seeking to rule the world through information.
Sundar Pichai: It could be worse.
At times, the world seems like a dark place. Like something to fear and be afraid of. There are people out there who seek to capitalize on this. They want to divide us. To build walls, imaginary and literal, around the borders. They play off the fear of the other and make false promises that by turning inward, we can be safe, and secure, and prosperous in ways we never in fact have been.
At the Leela Palace hotel in Delhi, one of the nicest hotels in all of India, automated barriers rise up from the street to stop cars from crashing through a security checkpoint and won’t go back down again until armed guards open the trunk, pop the hood, and root around inside. There is a metal detector at the front door, and an x-ray machine to check baggage. It feels deceptively distant from the chaos just outside, where there are touts with tuk-tuks, and street vendors, and honking horns and people, people everywhere, the great swarming mass of India pulsing through the streets, squatting by curbside cooking fires, crowding up against each other at every turn.
But inside the Leela, there is sushi and cognac and, in the deep December, even children carolers singing, of all things, Feliz Navidad, standing in front of a life-size gingerbread house. You can drink cappuccinos in the lobby, or take them outside to the lawn — walled from the apparent dangers and diseases and evil men that lie in wait in greater Delhi.
It’s pleasant on the lawn. But it’s the air that will fucking kill you. The air of Delhi, which on the morning that Pichai strolled through its lobby and into a van waiting outside had an air quality index score of 421. (On the same day, Los Angeles was not even at 40). Anything over 150 is considered unhealthy. Anything over 300 is ”hazardous.”
You can smell the acrid air even in the rooms of the Palace (and in the president’s fortified mansion, too). Step outside to enjoy the fountain, and the air burns your eyes. Exhale forcefully at the end of the day, and small puffs of smoke wisp out and up from your open mouth. It makes a lie of the safety inside the Palace. It is an argument to take a walk outside, and see India as it is. To breathe it in.
Because despite the air in Delhi, a city where 10 million people lack clean water, despite the ever-present risk of terrorism and war, despite the poverty and overflowing population, India appears distinctly optimistic. It seems like a manifestation of the hope and excitement of the next billion not only coming online, but coming into power. It feels like a nation on the make.
There is a story Pichai tells, at least twice, while he is in Delhi. “A few years ago I was in Bombay and arriving at the hotel,” he says. “The valet who opened the door said to me, ‘I’ve seen you — I saw your speech at Google IO and I thought it was really good.’” Google IO is the company’s annual developer conference. Even by tech event standards, it can be tedious. That this valet would see it would indicate a tremendous interest in technology, and presumably aspirations for something that seemed in sight, if currently out of reach. “What are the odds that this would happen in any other place?”
But, of course, that was years ago. Before he was everywhere. Before he was front-page news. And the Pichai who hung from the sides of buses, who rode the trains, or on the front of his father’s scooter with his father, mother, and brother through the streets of Chennai, that Sundar Pichai is gone. A ghost across the rooftops.
Now, instead of on a scooter with his family, he rides in a van with his own security detail. On the day it rolls out to address the throng of thousands of students, his face is on the cover of every newspaper in the lobby of the Leela. There is no more normal life for him, and he no longer can really be in India. Instead, at least to many Indians, he is India now. He is its potential, embodied.
As the line of cars mopes through the ancient city, it takes a right off of one of Delhi’s main thoroughfares and passes through a gate. Then one by one the cars pull over. There is a cricket ground here, and everyone piles out.
Someone from Google had arranged to drop in on a pickup game — but hadn’t told the other players who was coming, just that it was a businessman who loved the game. Nor had they told the CEO himself, who goes jubilant with surprise. When Pichai was a kid, and a young man, he didn’t dream of computers or engineering. He didn’t dream of running the world’s largest company, or flying in a private plane, or of the great green hills of California. He dreamed of becoming a professional cricketer.
“Do you mind if I just bat for a moment?” he asks of the handful of men milling at the bat. “Go ahead, go!” they shout back.
Sundar Pichai takes the bat, swings, connects, connects again, and after just a few deliveries, it’s over. “I went for the equivalent of a home run but he got me out,” he explains. The bowler approaches to shake his hand, grins a bit for the cameras, and suddenly his face fills with recognition and amazement and genuine glee. He points and beams, and laughs, and says, in English, “Oh my god! It is you!”
(The you who is on every newspaper in India today. The you who runs the largest company in the world. The you who is never going to be unknown, again. The you who has to make Google cool again.)
And then, the moment is over, and everyone walks back to the van. “That was nice. I could have played for hours,” he says. The van door slides shut. Sundar is smiling as he looks out the window.