When I first met Sundar Pichai three years ago, Google’swas prepping for his coming-out party as the search giant’s new leader at the company’s annual software developer conference.
While waiting for the interview, I caught a glimpse of a pink t-shirt sitting on the back of a chair outside his office, tucked away in Google’s sprawling Silicon Valley headquarters. There was an image of Pichai screen printed on the shirt, soulfully staring off into the distance. In bold, capital letters, it said WWSD, for “What Would Sundar Do?”
Now that question is more than rhetorical. On Tuesday, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin made a bombshell announcement: After more than 20 years, the iconic pair is stepping aside to let, Google’s parent company. He had already been heading Google, the part of the conglomerate that includes the juggernaut search engine, maps service and YouTube. Now he’ll also be in charge of self-driving cars, efforts to extend the human lifespan and the rest of Alphabet’s sprawling universe.
While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have become household names, Pichai is still relatively unknown outside the tech industry. Despite that low-profile, he’s quietly become one of the most powerful people on the planet. With Google’s projects, Pichai presides over the front lines of digital information, the world’s biggest receptacle of online videos and the future of artificial intelligence.
Pichai’s appointment comes as tech giants find themselves — sometimes to the companies’ chagrin — lead actors on a global economic and political stage. Politicians and regulators from around the world have zeroed in on the industry’s intense power, blaming the big tech platforms for the spread of disinformation, tribalism and extremism.
“I’m excited about Alphabet’s long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology,” Pichai tweeted after the announcement. “Thanks to Larry & Sergey, we have a timeless mission, enduring values and a culture of collaboration & exploration – a strong foundation we’ll continue to build on.”
The heir apparent
For years, Pichai has slowly climbed the ranks at Google. After joining the search giant in 2004, he rose to oversee the development of the Chrome browser, run the Android operating system, and, four years ago, took over all of Google. Now, the quiet-but-energetic executive will run the entirety of Alphabet’s sprawling operations.
“Sundar brings humility and a deep passion for technology to our users, partners and our employees every day,” Page and Brin, Stanford buddies who founded Google in a garage, wrote in a letter announcing Pichai’s promotion. “There is no one that we have relied on more since Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future.”
Pichai’s ascension to the top job is hardly surprising. Page and Brin have all but faded from the scene at their company, while Pichai has been its public face. When Google needed to make peace with Washington, Pichai went to meet with President Donald Trump. He’s also been the one in the hot seat as Google deals with multiple antitrust investigations. Pichai has been Page’s heir apparent for years.
“The most logical replacement would be Sundar,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “Sundar and the team who has been under these government probes probably have a better handle on dealing with the issues.”
Pichai will have his plate full as he takes the top job. Google and Alphabet are fighting fires everywhere. Federal and state officials have launched antitrust probes of the company, while Google struggles some of its greatest cultural challenges as an enterprise. A year ago, employees walked off the job to protest of management’s perceived weakness in handling allegations of sexual misconduct at the search giant. They’ve complained about Google’s contract with the Pentagon to develop artificial intelligence and its proposed work on a search engine for China, known as Project Dragonfly.
As if to highlight the growing conflict over Google’s open culture, four former employees said they planned to file charges of unfair labor practices against the company on the same day Brin and Page said they were stepping aside. The former employees, who were fired in November, accused Google of “engaging in protected labor organizing.” Google said the employees were fired for violating data security policies, not organizing.
Famously mild-mannered, Pichai was born in Chennai, India. He attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, before earning master’s degrees at both Stanford and Wharton. He worked at Applied Materials and McKinsey & Co. before joining Google in 2004. His interview was on April 1, the same day Google launched Gmail. Pichai thought the product was an April Fools’ Day joke.
Pichai’s first big task at Google was managing the browser search bar before initiating development of Chrome. His enthusiasm for Chrome and Chrome OS was evident, and he used his family to test Chrome OS. Once, he had his daughter do her homework on a Chromebook, while his wife worked on another.
His quiet success helped Pichai climb Google’s corporate hierarchy. In 2013, Pichai took charge of Android, the world’s most widely used mobile operating system, from its founder Andy Rubin. (Rubin later left Google amid allegations of sexual misconduct. At the time, he denied the claims.)
In 2014, Page signaled Pichai’s ascent by putting him in charge of Google’s most important areas: research, search, maps, ads and the now shuttered Google+ social network. When Page announced the creation of Alphabet a year later, Pichai took over all of Google.
Pichai doesn’t remember the exact moment when he knew he’d run Google, he told CNET in 2016. There wasn’t a conversation where Page handed him the proverbial keys to the kingdom, he joked. “It only happens like that in movies.”
Now he’s got an even bigger production on his hands.
CNET’s Queenie Wong contributed to this report.