In his blog post Monday announcing the surprise restructuring of Google into a conglomerate called Alphabet, Larry Page said this about Sundar Pichai, 43, the eleven-year Googler who will replace Page as Google’s CEO: “Sundar has been saying the things I would have said (and sometimes better!) for quite some time now, and I’ve been tremendously enjoying our work together. . . .Sergey [Brin] and I have been super excited about his progress and dedication to the company.”
Where did Pichai (pronounced peh-CHAI) come from and how did he make his way to head one of the highest-grossing businesses in the U.S.? Last year 89% of Google’s $66 billion in revenues came in through the division Pichai will lead.
When he first joined the company, he seemed like one of many smart, capable employees who came from a humble background. According to a June 2014 cover story about him in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Pichai grew up in Chennai, a southern Indian city of 4 million where his mother worked as a stenographer before she had children and his father, an electrical engineer, managed a components factory for a British conglomerate.
The family lived in a two-room apartment where Sundar and his younger brother slept in the living room. The Pichais didn’t own a car and they got their first telephone when Sundar was 12 years old. A top student, he studied engineering at the well-regarded Indian Institute of Technology and then went to Stanford on scholarship. His plan was to get a PhD in materials science and semiconductor physics and become an academic, but he dropped out of the program to work as an engineer and product manager at a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, Applied Materials. From there he went to Wharton, earning an MBA in 2002. Next he worked as a consultant at McKinsey before starting at Google in 2004.
In his first job at the company he joined a small team that worked on Google’s search toolbar, which gave users easy access to the company’s search screen. It was Pichai’s idea that Google build its own browser. Page and Brin were in favor of the project but then-CEO Eric Schmidt objected. According to BusinessWeek, Schmidt thought the browser project would be an expensive distraction. Of course Chrome has been a huge success, with a reported worldwide market share of 45%.
Pichai helped develop the Chrome operating system for laptops, which stores data in the cloud rather than locally on a device. Chrome OS runs on Google’s inexpensive Chromebook computers, which are popular in schools. He also supervised some of Google’s core efforts like Gmail, Google Drive and Google Maps. In 2013 he got another huge job: oversight of the Android operating system, which was going from mobile only to a platform for smartwatches, TVs, cars and payments. Though those efforts have yet to catch on, Pichai wants to expand low-end Android smartphones in emerging markets.