If you know Sundar Pichai at all, it’s probably because you’ve suffered through one of the three-hour long Google I/O keynotes he has anchored in recent years. Softly spoken and thickly accented with a gangly, slightly stooped posture, it’s fair to say Pichai is not the world’s most charismatic stage presence.
But that presence belies a meteoric rise behind the scenes, from managing the search bar in browsers all the way up to Google’s multi-billion dollar Android business in a decade. Pichai is meticulous, low drama, a detail-oriented diplomat.
While the restructuring of Google into Alphabet on Monday came as a complete shock to the tech world, the other part of the announcement — that Pichai would run the restructured Google, the revenue engine that drives all the other Alphabet business — came as little surprise, especially not to Googlers.
Born in 1972 in Tamil Nadu, the region at the tip of India that faces Sri Lanka, Pichai grew up the son of an electrical engineer. He was fascinated by his father’s career and by gadgets in general, though the Pichais didn’t have many in their two-room apartment.
The family of the future Android boss got its first rotary phone in 1984, and that’s when Pichai discovered an incredible aptitude for memorizing. He need only dial a number once, and it was locked in his brain. (According to a 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek profile, this skill still comes in handy; Pichai can reel off statistics to his managers like crazy.)
Memorizing numbers wasn’t Pichai’s only skill. He captained his high school cricket team to victory in the Tamil Nadu finals — no mean feat considering the region contains 70 million people. His grades won him a spot at the Indian Institute of Technology, where he earned his Bachelor of Engineering, and where teachers described him as “well-mannered” and “obedient.” They also knew him by his birth name, Pichai Sundararajan, which caused no end of confusion years later when U.S. reporters called to ask about their prodigy.
In short order, Pichai won the school’s silver medal and a Stanford scholarship, though the plane ticket to San Francisco cost his father more than his annual salary.
Like the Google founders, Pichai dropped out of Stanford’s PhD program and pursued a business career. He worked as an engineer at chipmaker Applied Materials down in Santa Clara, then skipped over to the east coast to get his MBA at Donald Trump’s alma mater, the Wharton school. Making his date with destiny at Google in 2004, he arrived for his interview on April 1, the day the company launched Gmail. Like many of us in the Googleplex on that day, he immediately assumed it was an April Fools’ joke. After all, the company had a history of those.
Still, he got the job, and that’s when when the meteoric rise really began. Hired as a product manager, Pichai was stuck in the relative backwater of the search bar on Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers. But what, he wondered, if Google had its own browser? This was still the company where employees got 20% of their time to work on their own projects. Those projects were legion, and Larry Page had not yet reined in the company’s ADD nature. So the Chrome browser went into alpha over the objections of then-CEO Eric Schmidt, who thought it a pointless distraction.
Of course, Chrome turned out to be a hit — it now runs the Internet on more than a third of all PCs, and is the most used browser in every country in the world except Germany, Japan, most of Africa, and, funnily enough, India.
Pichai was marked as a rising star, and for an encore he managed the rise of Chrome OS and the Chromebook. Silicon Valley had been talking about the concept of dumb, cheap “netbooks” — laptops that stored everything in the cloud — for years. But Pichai got it done. Today, Chromebooks make up nearly a quarter of all PC sales.
At the same time as he was preparing the launch of Chrome OS, Pichai was given an ever wider range of responsibilities, including the introduction of Google Drive and the management of Google Maps. Oh yes, and the little service that launched the day he walked in the building, Gmail. Somewhere in there he found the time to be a director of a business communication company, Jive Software, and to father two children with his wife and childhood sweetheart from Tamil Nadu, Anjali.
In 2010 Pichai was tempted by Twitter, which wanted him to become its VP of product, according to multiple reports. The best guess is that Google gave Pichai a bonus of between $10 million and $50 million to stay. Quite a payout for anyone, let alone the kid who didn’t even have a phone in his house until he was 12, and couldn’t afford a $60 backpack when he arrived at Stanford.
Three years later, the brash and difficult head of Android, Andy Rubin, butted heads with Larry Page and resigned. Pichai was the natural choice to replace him. Dealing with Rubin had been a master class in patience and diplomacy. To get the Chrome browser on Android phones, in place of the Android browser Rubin had been developing, Pichai had to sign a term sheet with Rubin. Yes, a term sheet, the thing VCs usually sign with their startups.
It was a good thing Pichai had that experience. Managing Android over the last two years has been a nonstop rollercoaster of dealing with egos, both in house and in Google’s highly ambitious Android partners. When Samsung tried to introduce its own layer over Android, called Magazine UX, Pichai spent months talking the Korean company out of it. He admitted the job was “stressful,” and it’s no secret that he was in the running for CEO of Microsoft when Steve Ballmer stepped down.
The Silicon Valley rumor mill has it that Pichai was in the running for another big job, and that the restructuring of Google — and his place atop it — may have been in part yet another attempt to prevent him from fleeing the ‘Plex. All we know for sure is that Google’s $60 billion business is in one of the most admired, most envied and safest pair of hands in the technology world.
But he still needs to work on his keynote game.