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Why Sundar Pichai's rise matters for India

It was nice to see Sundar Pichai being named as the CEO of Google, the core unit of the reformed Alphabet Inc powered by tons of cash from the search engine.

columns Updated: Aug 16, 2015 21:41 IST
N Madhavan
Chennai-born Sundar Pichai studied engineering at IIT-Kharagpur and then went to Stanford in the US. (AFP File Photo)
Chennai-born Sundar Pichai studied engineering at IIT-Kharagpur and then went to Stanford in the US. (AFP File Photo)

It was nice to see Sundar Pichai being named as the chief executive officer (CEO) of Google, the core unit of the reformed Alphabet Inc powered by tons of cash from the search engine. I was glad to see that my prediction about his importance for the giant company last October take strong shape. I had said then that his then title, Senior Vice President, did not go far enough in conveying his significance for the company.

As he spearheaded the Android revolution, and with product management experience par excellence, any keen watcher of Silicon Valley would have smelt the coffee like I did. And Twitter, the microblogging service looking for leadership after the exit of Dick Costolo, seemed to have smelt the filter coffee smell from Tamil Nadu, in a manner of speaking. Rumours have it that Google was forced to rename itself and promote the Chennai-born IITan so that he won’t fly the coop.

While Indians exulted in their native connection, some hands did go up in scepticism. Is Sundar Pichai really something that Indians should gush about as Indians? Fact is that Google is an American company and Sundar a US citizen. HT even ran an online poll asking if India should feel proud of him as his achievements were in the US.

Read:India-born Sundar Pichai appointed the new CEO of Google

So what gives?

I think Sundar’s rise was worth celebrating (alongside that of Manipal-educated Satya Nadella of Microsoft) especially in the anniversary week of India’s Independence. For a colonized nation first dismissed as a half-starved Third World country and then as a hub for cheap coding services, these two gentlemen symbolize the rise of true overall leadership in technology right in the hub of the world’s most frenetic technology hub. Both are “made in India” as engineers and hence a vindication of the higher education policy of Nehru.

Kanwal Rekhi, educated at IIT Mumbai, co-founded Excelan in 1982 in the US, took it public on Nasdaq in 1987 as its CEO and then merged it with Novell in 1989 when the networking revolution was being ushered in. Yet, the story goes, Novell never made him CEO and he left as chief technology officer because of the patronizing belief that Indians make great techies but not in marketing or overall leadership.

People including venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Nadella and Sundar Pichai have helped explode that myth that borders on the glass ceiling. Such achievements raise the confidence levels of Indians based in India so they can take entrepreneurship to new heights.

Read:Sundar Pichai is spicy rasam in Google's fuzzy Alphabet soup

'He's shy, bookish type': Schoolmates talk about Sundar Pichai