Becoming the head of any company is noteworthy. Becoming the CEO of Alphabet, one of the most high-profile businesses in the world, gets you into the history books. In December 2019, Sundar Pichai became the CEO of both Google and Alphabet, taking over from co-founder Larry Page. Pichai has been the chief executive of the search engine business since 2015, when Google restructured into Alphabet. He has been with the company since 2004.

Pichai has come a long way from humble beginnings in India. By most metrics, his tenure as CEO has been overwhelmingly successful. Alphabet took in $161.8 billion in revenue in 2019nearly double the $74.9 billion it recorded in 2015, the year Pichai became CEO. The company's shares (GOOGL, GOOG) have put in a performance to match.

Given the consistent track record, it's worth asking: who is Sundar Pichai, and how did he advance to the top of Google in so short a time?

Key Takeaways

  • Sundar Pichai started from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential executives in the world.
  • Google hired Pichai in 2004. He became CEO 11 years later.
  • Revenue has 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.

Humble Beginnings

Sundar Pichai was born in Chennai, India, in 1972. His father worked as an electrical engineer for the UK-based General Electric Company (not to be confused with the American conglomerate GE). His mother was a stenographer. Pichai grew up without a television or family car. He slept on the living room floor, along with his younger brother. His family lived in a modest two-room apartment.

Pichai was both a leader and standout student from a young age. He captained his cricket team and excelled academically as a student of metallurgical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. After graduating, Pichai won a scholarship to study at Stanford University. The plane ticket from Chennai cost more than his father’s annual salary.

Pichai then earned a master’s in material sciences and engineering at Stanford. From there he earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He began his career as a product manager at Applied Materials (AMAT) and later became a management consultant at McKinsey & Co.

The Rise of Sundar Pichai

Google hired Pichai in 2004 to lead development of Google Toolbar and then Google Chrome. At the company's I/O developer conference in 2011, he launched the Chrome OS and Chromebook to much fanfare. In 2013, Pichai became the leader of the Android operating system, which powers smartphones worldwide. In 2014, he was appointed to lead product and engineering for all of Google's platforms, which included search as well as applications such as maps, Android and Gmail.

59.3%

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

In each position, Pichai was able to grow the product, reach new users and maintain a focus on quality and revenue. In 2014, industry gossip placed Pichai in serious contention for CEO of Microsoft, a position that eventually went to Satya Nadella, who is also from India.

Pichai was announced as the CEO of Google in 2015, when the company was reorganized into Alphabet. He became the CEO of Alphabet in December 2019.

Defining a New Role as Google CEO

Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin ran Google until August 2015, with former CEO Eric Schmidt serving as executive chairman. This team was largely responsible for growing Google from a university project to one of the most successful companies in the world.

Prior to his ascension as CEO, Pichai had been a trusted member of the leadership team. Colleagues described him as low-key. His technical skills and vision put him at the head of the line for promotions. Though his move into the CEO spot represented a major leap, Pichai had been running many aspects of Google since 2014. The restructuring in 2015 formally cemented Pichai as the CEO, paving the way for him to assume the remaining duties from Page and Brin in 2019.

Future Challenges

The first three years of Pichai's leadership had been remarkably apolitical, especially when compared to the scrutiny given to rivals Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) regarding allegations of foreign interference in U.S. elections. Pichai declined to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in September 2018, alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

In December 2018, Pichai appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S House of Representatives and endured three hours of grilling. He answered questions regarding data collection, security, algorithm bias and bringing a censored search engine to China. The controversies are far from resolved, and it is likely Google's business practices will come under scrutiny again in the future.

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.