FILE – In this Monday, March 2, 2015 file photo, Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps, talks during a conference during the Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile phone trade show in Barcelona, Spain. Google is creating a new company, called Alphabet, to oversee its highly lucrative Internet business and a growing flock of other ventures, including some like building self-driving cars and researching ways to prolong human life that are known more for their ambition than for turning an immediate profit. Pichai will become CEO of Google’s core business, including its search engine, online advertising operation and YouTube video service. (Manu Fernandez/AP)
MOUNTAIN VIEW — The legends of Silicon Valley celebrate meteoric success, but Sundar Pichai’s course was more like a marathon. Motivation, a steady pace and a few powerful sprints lifted him to the top of the world’s best-known Internet brand.
Google’s new CEO began his career two decades ago as a semiconductor engineer, still adjusting to California life after leaving behind a modest upbringing in India. He joined the emerging Mountain View tech giant in 2004, toiling at first in obscurity but quickly impressing colleagues — and Google’s founders — with his intelligence and tact.
Sundar Pichai will become Google CEO as it creates a new publicly traded parent company called Alphabet Inc. He is shown in this file photo delivering the keynote address during the 2015 Google I/O conference on May 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
“He’s a fun guy to work with. Thoughtful, insightful, diplomatic,” said former Google product executive Shiva Shivakumar, who worked down the hall from Pichai for many years. “Whenever there was any controversy — we had lots of people with strong opinions — he found the in-between path, the path forward.”
That personality could come in handy as outgoing Google CEO Larry Page gives 43-year-old Pichai the keys to a slowing but highly profitable Internet business worth more than $400 billion. Co-founders Page and Sergey Brin and the third in Google’s ruling triumvirate, Chairman Eric Schmidt, are moving on to run a new holding company called Alphabet that will oversee Google, now a subsidiary, and a portfolio of more experimental businesses ranging from biotech to delivery drones.
“He’s just a very levelheaded, fair, good guy who’s also incredibly smart,” said Max Ventilla, another former Google colleague who now runs education startup AltSchool. “That sounds banal, but it’s tough to find someone with all those things. And he just keeps going year after year after year.”
Pichai first appeared in this newspaper in 2006, announcing the launch of a new Google Toolbar that made it easier to bookmark Web pages. Behind the scenes that year, he also handled a crisis that threatened Google’s search traffic — the bread and butter of the company’s advertising revenue, then and now. Microsoft had suddenly replaced Google with its own Bing search engine on the then-dominant Internet Explorer browser. Google needed to point Internet users back to its search engine, and did so by persuading computer distributors to bundle Google’s Web products onto their desktops.
“He was the Johnnie Appleseed, so to speak, of dealmaking,” wrote Jeff Nelson, another former Google colleague, answering a question on the website Quora about how Pichai made his mark. “(Pichai) helped to get Google’s products preinstalled on tens of millions of computers. Those deals were worth billions of dollars to Google, and recaptured another large slice of customers who were potentially being lost to Bing.”
Pichai returned to the spotlight in 2008 with even bigger news of what had become one of his most important projects: Chrome, a new browser that would soon outdo rival Microsoft’s Explorer and partner Mozilla’s Firefox.
“Toolbar and Chrome were just phenomenally successful,” and helped raise Pichai’s profile as a skilled product manager, Ventilla said. “Something that was pretty fringe ended up being enormously core. Internet Explorer used to be the browser. Now it’s just an afterthought.”
Each year, the trustworthy middle manager took on more responsibilities, eventually adding the Android smartphone operating system — which demanded a new round of dealmaking with phone makers — and all of Google’s apps, then taking the No. 2 position behind Page in October.
“He has really stepped up since October of last year, when he took on product and engineering responsibility for our internet businesses,” Page wrote in a blog post Monday. “Sergey and I have been super excited about his progress and dedication to the company. And it is clear to us and our board that it is time for Sundar to be CEO of Google.”
The CEOs of Apple, Microsoft and LinkedIn all took to Twitter to congratulate Pichai this week, as did Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. Pichai thanked all of them.
“Sundar’s humility always stood out,” wrote entrepreneur Dilawar Syed, who studied business with Pichai at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
When Pichai was growing up in Chennai, then known as Madras, a bustling metropolis in India’s southernmost Tamil Nadu state, his middle-class family didn’t have a car, telephone or TV, according to a profile in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine last year.
The son of an industrial engineering dad and a stenographer mom, he set his sights on the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, attending the far-off Kharagpur campus, studying metallurgy and materials. Then he followed many of Chennai’s ambitious middle-class engineers to California, with help from a Stanford scholarship and his parents’ bank account.
“My dad and my mom did what a lot of parents did at the time,” he told Bloomberg. “They sacrificed a lot of their life and used a lot of their disposable income to make sure the children were educated.”
Already a role model for immigrant tech workers, especially fellow alumni of the 19-campus IIT, Pichai now joins an elite group of America’s tech titans who hail from India.
Colleagues say he is unlikely to let it go to his head.
Contact Matt O’Brien at 408-920-5011. Follow him at Twitter.com/Mattoyeah.
Occupation: CEO of Google
Town of residence: Los Altos Hills
Family: Wife, Anjali, and their daughter and son
Hometown: Chennai, India
Education: Degree in metallurgy and materials science from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur; master’s in engineering at Stanford University; master’s in business at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania