Sundar Pichai – The life story of Google’s first Indian CEO

The sun sets over Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, as news about Google’s major restructuring spreads across the globe via social networking platforms.  Thousands of miles away, in the homeland of Google’s newly appointed CEO, a vibrant media community erupts in a frenzy of excitement. When it comes to celebrating the achievements of relatively unknown Indians, the world needs to take a leaf out of India’s book. From TV screens flashing brilliantly colored titles to roads being named after Sundar Pichai, India’s joy is evident. No one celebrates success as we do, and we should; Sundar Pichai’s story of rising from a relatively humble background to the Czar of one of the biggest companies in the world portrays the dreams that are just a gleam in the eyes of a billion aspiring Indians.
sundar pichai face
Sundar Pichai
Let us take a look at the meteoric rise of the man once dubbed as the Most Powerful man in Mobile, Sundar Pichai.

Where was Sundar Pichai born? 

Sundar Pichai (originally Pichai Sundararajan) was born in a modest Tamil Brahmin household, in the south Indian city of Chennai on 12th July 1972 (43 years). His father worked as a foreman at the British electrical appliances giant GEC, and his mother was a stenographer. They lived in a small two-room apartment where Sundar and his brother used to sleep in the living room. Sundar was allured to the field of electronics through the discussions he used to engage in with his father.

I used to come home and talk to him a lot about my workday and the challenges I faced. Even at a young age, he (Sundar) was curious about my work. I think it really attracted him to technology<span class="su-quote-cite">Regunatha Pichai (Sundar's father)</span>

When Sundar was 12, his father bought a rotary telephone. Sundar, being the numeric genius he was, would remember all the numbers that were dialed in a day. To this day, Google employees appreciate his amazing mathematical abilities.

sundar pichais parents
Sundar Pichai’s parents

Where did Sundar Pichai study? Where did Sundar Pichai complete his engineering from?

Pichai completed his Class X from Jawahar Vidyalaya School.  He studied class XII from Vana Vani School, located on the IIT campus, Chennai. Later, he went on to get a BTech in Metallurgy from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT KGP) in the summer of 1993. He topped his batch and also won the Institute Silver Medal for excellence in academics.  His professors at IIT-K feel proud today that the boy from Nehru Hall, Pichai’s Hostel in IIT Kharagpur, has come such a long way in his career.

Sundar took advantage of the university’s flexibility in choosing courses and took some courses in electronics to pursue his interest.

He was doing work in the field of electronics at a time when no separate course on electronics existed in our curriculum. His thesis dealt with implanting molecules of other elements in silicon wafers to alter its properties. It was very clear from the beginning that he was enthused about electronics and materials<span class="su-quote-cite">Prof Sanat Kumar Roy (Pichai’s teacher)</span>

Sundar’s professors at IIT recommended he pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford University. But he decided to pursue MS and MBA degrees instead.

When did Sundar meet his wife, Anjali Pichai?

Sundar Pichai, interestingly, also met his better half at IIT. Anjali Pichai was his classmate, and he proposed to her in his final year. The couple has two children and currently lives in Bay Area San Francisco.

sundar pichais wife anjali pichai
Sundar with his wife, Anjali

sundar pichai wife

Where did Sundar Pichai complete his Masters from?

After his graduation, Sundar got a scholarship at Stanford University, where he got his MS. He also has an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was named a Siebel Scholar and a Palmer Scholar.

Interestingly, to fund Sundar’s trip to the US, his father had to withdraw an amount more than his annual income from the family savings because he was not able to secure a loan.

sundar pichai in college dorm
Sundar at his dorm room – Stanford

How and when did Sundar Pichai join Google?

Pichai joined Google as the President of Product Management in 2004. He had previously worked for McKinsey and Applied Materials. He was entrusted with many of Google’s vital products like the Toolbar, Google Gears, Gadgets, Google Pack, and, eventually, Google Chrome, the project that changed how we interact with the internet. And also established the foot holdings of what would become a stellar career for Sundar Pichai.

The toolbar was critical because it helped Google make its search engine the default option on Microsoft’s IE and Mozilla’s Firefox. But Sundar knew that to compete with the giants and also protect the native users of Google search, they needed a browser where the toolbar was seamlessly integrated into its folds and made Google Search a part of the UX. Eric Shmidt, the then CEO of Google, was against the idea of a new browser. He believed that Google was too small a company to get in the middle of the browser wars between Firefox and IE. But Sundar, amidst some tense conversations with the top brass, argued that Microsoft could threaten a sizeable chunk of Google’s business (This was in 2006 when Microsoft was working on a major update for the IE) and got him to agree to the project.

The Watershed moment

The move paid off. Google saw a huge rise in terms of users and quickly grew to where it is today, running on more than 56% of the world’s computers. The success of Chrome also gave rise to a series of important projects like Chrome OS, Chromecast, Chromebooks.

Chrome was the turning point that powered Sundar Pichai through one of the fastest corporate ascents in the history of the technology industry.

sundar pichai launching chrome
Sundar Pichai at the launch of Chrome

After the launch of Chrome, Mr. Pichai was promoted to Vice President and later, in 2012, to Senior Vice President. He was given oversight for Google’s apps, including Gmail. Eventually, he became a member of the exclusive L-team, a small group of executives who reported directly to Larry Page. When Android creator Andy Rubin left in 2013 to begin a secret robotics project within Google, Page put Pichai in charge of Android as well.

Pichai is generally described as a good man. He diplomatically navigated the company’s politics and avoided making enemies. He is also known for harnessing the talents of his team. Moreover, he is a compassionate leader who recruits, mentors, and invests in people who work for him. A significant contrast to long-time Google executive Marissa Mayer, current CEO of Yahoo. Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson notes in his biography of Mayer that as her own career stalled, Pichai’s raced ahead. Once a direct report to Mayer, he was eventually promoted above her.

What’s next for Sundar Pichai?

Every year Google holds a developers conference where they showcase their ideas for the future. It is one of the glitziest events in Silicon Valley and draws a lot of attention in the tech world. Partly because Google is one of the only corporations that work at the cutting edge of technology. And the tech giant always seems to be working on something that may influence the lives of people around the globe.

In an interview with The Verge, Mr. Pichai elegantly put forth his personal inspiration for joining Google.

The thing that attracted me to Google and to [the] internet, in general, is that it’s a great equalizer. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, [whether] you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard. I want Google to strive to do that — not just build technology for certain segments. For me, it matters that we drive technology as an equalizing force, as an enabler for everyone around the world<span class="su-quote-cite">Sundar Pichai</span>

Google’s future and Sundar’s new stint

I think that pretty much sums up where Google is headed. Machine learning allows them to streamline the way we consume our information through our mobiles. Whereas Android One, Chromebooks, and some of their ambitious projects like Project Loon are to enable people who don’t have access to information to get in league with those that do.

Since October 2014, Mr. Pichai had been overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations, and on August 10, he got a title to match his responsibilities. Google will restructure and become a subsidiary of a new parent company called Alphabet. And Mr. Pichai will be the new CEO.

sundar pichai office
Sundar Pichai in his office (Image by Verge)

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