Becoming the CEO of any company is noteworthy, but becoming the CEO of one of the most high-profile, profitable businesses in the world gets you in the history books. That's exactly what Sundar Pichai did when he took the helm of Google in August 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 81% and the company's stock price has risen by 76% since his appointment. That is, until 2018 threw Pichai a curveball. Employees are in open revolt over the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations; lawmakers have threatened Google with regulations; and company leadership is mixed over a project to bring censored search engines to China.
On December 11, 2018, that tension is expected to reach a climax as Sundar Pichai testifies before the U.S. Congress in a wide-range hearing about data breaches, misinformation campaigns, and concerns about working with China. The hearing is almost certainly a result of Pichai's absence in Congress earlier this year when the Google CEO declined to testify alongside Twitter's Jack Dorsey and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg during a Senate Intelligence committee meeting.
The first three years of Pichai's leadership have been remarkably apolitical, especially when compared to the level of scrutiny experienced by tech giants Facebook and Twitter — but that's expected to change on Tuesday. As Google's chief executive prepares to launch into the public spotlight, it's worth asking: who is Sundar Pichai, and how did he advance to the top of Google in just 11 years?
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). 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 Kharagput.
Sundar came to America shortly after graduating after receiving a scholarship to Stanford. The plane ticket from Chennai cost more than his father’s annual salary.
American Academia and Starting at Google
Sundar 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. He was hired by Google in 2004.
The Rise of Sundar Pichai
With impressive degrees and work experience, Sundar joined Google as a product manager leading innovation efforts on software products including Google Chrome, Chrome OS and Google Drive. Chrome is one of the more recent major browsers to be released, growing to reach more than 25% market share while competing with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Apple’s Safari, and Mozilla’s Firefox.
He continued 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 nearly half of smartphones in the United States and more than 80% of 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.
In August 2015, Pichai was announced as the next CEO of Google, now a business operating under the umbrella of a new company called Alphabet.
Defining a New Role as Google CEO
Until August 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 a trusted advisor to Page and Brin. While coworkers describe his style as low-key, his technical skills and vision put him at the head of the line for promotions at Google.
His past successes in Chrome, Android, Gmail and Google Maps speak to his abilities as a product manager, but can he lead an entire company? Brin and Page think so, as he is now running all of Google’s internet products including YouTube, Google Play and the entire ad business, in addition to prior responsibilities.
His move into the CEO position may seem like a big leap, but Pichai has been effectively running Google since October 2014. The announcement formally cemented Pichai as the CEO, still reporting to Page and Brin in their new roles as the leaders of Alphabet.
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 his new role. 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, with Pichai at the helm, behind them as a steady source of profits.