#Newsmaker: Sundar Pichai and the Alphabet soup
He’s known to be a quiet charmer with a steely resolve. Will that be enough to turn the tide on Google, full of PR pitfalls, and its parent company Alphabet, which loses billions a year?Updated: Dec 13, 2019 17:48 IST
Now that the euphoria about Sundar Pichai, a man of Indian origin, taking over as CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has somewhat abated, things must be stated as is. The calm demeanour he wears masks what a terrible year 2019 has been for Pichai. As CEO at Google, he had a very tough job on hand.
Critics in the US accused Google under Pichai of abusing its dominant position to stifle competitors. Regulatory authorities in the EU fined Google $5 billion for abusing its dominance over Android, the operating system that powers Google’s hardware.
The Intercept, a news portal funded by philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, leaked documents that showed how Google, under Pichai, was at work to create a “censored Google” for China. Code-named Project Dragonfly, it would block information from users that the Chinese government didn’t want its people to see. For instance, anything to do with the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
In the outcry that followed, Pichai’s defence — he wanted a toehold in China — sounded feeble. He backed out.
- Pichai Sundararajan grew up in Chennai, the elder of two sons born to an electrical engineer and a stenographer.
- He studied metallurgical engineering at IIT-Kharagpur. He is married to Anjali, a chemical engineer who also studied at IIT-K. They have two children.
- Before he was appointed CEO of Google in 2015, Pichai headed the Android division; before that, he is credited with being the man behind the Google browser, Chrome.
- For a sense of how long Pichai has been with Google, he joined in 2004, the same year as the launch of Gmail.
Batchmates from his days at IIT-Kharagpur say he knows when to back out, and the calm demeanor hides a steely resolve. Nothing else explains how the 47-year-old is able to deal with the pressure he’s under.
He watched as the company changed its motto from ‘Don’t be evil’ to `Do the right thing’, sometime in 2018. Then The New York Times pointed to all that is wrong, when it reported that sexual misconduct was rampant among its senior executives. Investigations revealed Google offered Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package, despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him. Rubin is known in tech circles as the father of the Android operating system; 1,500 women threatened to walk out. Already, since 2017, Google had faced action over allegations that its women employees are paid less than its men.
It is still unclear how Pichai handled the Rubin episode. What is known is that he sacked 48 men accused of sexual misdemeanours and promised to make the place more woman-friendly.
That was before Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped down from their top roles at Alphabet. They lost interest in Google’s core business of search a long time ago. Much of their time was spent on “moonshots” as they call them — things like space elevators, delivery drones, internet-beaming balloons. There have been some failures, no successes. Now, Pichai is fronting this financial train wreck too.
In October, when the Taiwan-based technology analyst Ben Thompson examined Alphabet’s numbers, he found it had lost close to $1 billion in one quarter, only on moonshots. The only reason Alphabet could afford to lose this much, Thompson argued, was because Pichai delivers billions in revenues each year. Now, Page and Brin want him to work his magic across the albatross they’ve created.
It’s unclear how Pichai would do that. Page and Brin are still majority shareholders. Their new CEO may have to drive a hard bargain and kill many moonshots. If he kills too many, they could eject him. If he kills too few, he could risk it all.
While some are punting on a clash between Pichai and Page-Brin, others are convinced he will not head-butt. They have it that his rise to the top at Google was not because he’s the smartest, but because he’s among the quietest. That trait has held him in good stead. When the entity you lead is under fire all the time, quiet is a good way to be.
Then there are those who remember him as incredibly charming. Optimists are hoping his charm can compel the boys to give up on some of their toys.
Early reports have it that old-timers don’t like how Pichai is going about it all. They feel Google doesn’t feel like Google any more. But Pichai’s got to do what Pichai’s got to do. He knows Blackberry was once the toast of town too. Until it became toast.