Becoming the head of any company is noteworthy, but becoming the CEO of one of the most high-profile businesses in the world gets you into the history books. That's exactly what Sundar Pichai did when he took the helm of Google in 2015 after just 11 years at the company. From humble beginnings as a middle-class student in India to one of the lead product developers on Google Chrome, Pichai's road to the top of Google has been full of twists and turns.

By most metrics, Pichai's tenure as CEO has been an overwhelming success for the company. Alphabet's revenue is up more than 80% and the company's stock price has risen by almost 90% since his appointment. Given the consistent performance, it's worth asking: who is Sundar Pichai, and how did he advance to the top of Google in just 11 years?

Key Takeaways

  • Sundar Pichai started from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential executives in the world.
  • Pichai took over as Google's CEO on Oct. 2, 2015.
  • Shares of Alphabet, the parent of Google, have almost doubled since Pichai took over.
  • Pichai has been forced to answer questions from critics, including members of Congress, about Google's business practices related to data collection and search engine results.

Sundar Pichai’s Humble Beginnings

Pichai was born in the city of Chennai, India, in 1972. His father was no stranger to the corporate world, working as an electrical engineer for the British General Electric Company (not to be confused with the American conglomerate GE). His mother was a stenographer. Sundar grew up without a television or family car. He slept on the living room floor, along with his younger brother, as the modest two-room apartment had no additional bedrooms.

Growing up in a typical middle-class Indian family, Pichai was both a leader and standout student from a young age. He was captain of his cricket team and excelled academically as a bright student of metallurgical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.

Sundar came to America shortly after graduating and upon receiving a scholarship to Stanford. The plane ticket from Chennai cost more than his father’s annual salary.

Sundar then earned a master’s degree in material sciences and engineering at Stanford and then received an MBA from one of the top business schools in America: the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He began his career in the United States working as a product manager at Applied Materials and then as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co.

The Rise of Sundar Pichai

With impressive degrees and work experience, Sundar was hired and joined Google in 2004 as a product manager leading innovation efforts on software products including Google Chrome, Chrome OS, and Google Drive.

25%

Chrome's market share in the browser market, where it competes with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Apple’s Safari, and Mozilla’s Firefox.

He continued to advance his career at Google, moving to oversee the massively popular Gmail and Google Maps product development. He made a very public debut of Chrome OS and the Chromebook in 2011. In 2013, Pichai became the leader of the Android operating system, which powers smartphones worldwide.

In each position, Sundar showed the ability to grow the product, reach new users, and maintain a focus on both quality and revenue to help drive Google’s largest growth engine. It is rumored that Pichai was in serious contention for CEO of Microsoft when Steve Balmer stepped down. The position was eventually filled by another India-born executive named Satya Nadella.

In Aug. 2015, Pichai was announced as the next CEO of Google, now a business operating under the umbrella of a new company called Alphabet. He officially assumed the role on Oct. 2, 2015.

Defining a New Role as Google CEO

Until Aug. 2015, Google was run by co-founders Larry Page and Sergay Brin, with support from former CEO and current executive chair Eric Schmidt. This team has been largely responsible for growing Google from a university project to one of the most successful companies in the world.

In past positions, Pichai was a trusted member of the Google leadership team, becoming an advisor to Page and Brin. While co-workers describe his style as low-key, his technical skills and vision put him at the head of the line for promotions at Google. While his move into the CEO position represented a major leap, Pichai had been running many aspects of Google since Oct. 2014. The announcement formally cemented Pichai as the CEO, still reporting to Page and Brin in their new roles as the leaders of Alphabet.

Future Challenges

Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress in late 2018 to answer questions related to a number of controversies at the time. Employees had been in open revolt over the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations, lawmakers had threatened Google with regulations, and company leadership was undecided about bringing censored search engines to China.

Prior to that, the first three years of Pichai's leadership had been remarkably apolitical, especially when compared to the level of scrutiny experienced by tech giants Facebook and Twitter. However, that was changing as Google critics grew louder.

Pichai had previously declined to testify alongside Twitter's Jack Dorsey and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg during a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting in Sept. 2018, but then Google's chief executive was launched into the public spotlight on Dec. 11, 2018 when he endured three hours of grilling from the House Judiciary Committee on issues related to data privacy, the company's efforts to expand in China, and the algorithms Google uses its search engine. At the end of the day, Pichai fielded a slew of questions and the session concluded. However, the controversies surrounding some of Google's business practices are probably far from over.

The Bottom Line

Founders Brin and Page set Sundar Pichai up for great success as the leader of the new Google, but only time will tell how successful Pichai will be in this role over the long term. If past performance is any indicator, Google is in good hands and will perform well in the coming months and years.

Brin and Page made a bold bet transforming Google from a traditional tech company into a diverse holding company with lofty goals. However, as the new company grows, they know they will always have Google as a steady source of profits with Pichai at the helm.