It is easy to underestimate Sundar Pichai. Unassuming to the point of diffidence, the Indian-born tech executive is a notable exception to the alpha personalities who populate Silicon Valley’s executive suites. One person who has worked with him at Google calls him “very cautious”, almost the opposite of the “buccaneering spirit” upon which the company was founded.
Yet this week, Mr Pichai, who has headed Google’s core internet business for four years, took full management control of its parent company, one of the world’s most powerful tech empires. As chief executive officer of Alphabet, he gains control of the group’s “moonshot” projects to develop driverless cars, delivery drones, and drugs to halt the effects of ageing. His elevation comes as Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, step away from direct involvement after 21 years.
With Tim Cook at Apple and Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Mr Pichai now leads a successor generation of tech chief executives, charged with steering companies that helped define the digital age into an uncertain future. For Google is under intense scrutiny by politicians and regulators and has been riven by internal upheaval caused by a sexual harassment scandal and worker activism. Its ability to keep innovating is in question, as it reaches a size that has hampered earlier generations of big companies. To cap it all, Google’s founders will continue to hold a majority voting position in the company and sit on its board.
The 47-year-old does not come from the typical Google mould. After growing up in Chennai and meeting his wife while both were in college, Mr Pichai won a scholarship to Stanford University in 1993. But he studied materials science, rather than computer science. An MBA from Wharton business school and a job at consultancy McKinsey set him apart from the computer specialists who dominate Google’s leaders.
But once he joined the search company in 2004, he found rapid success as a product manager. Leading Toolbar, which gave the search engine a foothold in web browsers, then Google’s Chrome browser, followed by Chromebooks — the company’s first foray into hardware — marked him out as a rising star.
Mr Pichai excelled at things that lay outside the company’s comfort zone and had a rare ability to see further ahead than most, says Bret Taylor, the co-creator of Google Maps and a contemporary. “He gained a lot of credibility as a strategic thinker, not just a product manager,” Mr Taylor says. “Google still retains an academic, computer science culture. He was able to combine that with longer term vision.”
In 2011, Twitter tried to lure him away to become its head of product. It took a personal intervention by Mr Brin, who paid a visit to Mr Pichai’s home one weekend, to persuade him to stay. His vision for Google’s technology aligned closely with that of Mr Page, Google’s previous CEO, making him the natural choice to take over the internet business in 2015, when the holding company was formed and the founders moved up to running Alphabet.
In a highly competitive atmosphere, Mr Pichai stood out because he did not feel he had to prove he was “the smartest person in the room”, Mr Taylor says. Instead, he was able to build support for his ideas through a more collaborative style, making him a popular choice to run the search company.
Whether he can deal with Google’s fractious employees is another matter. The company, which historically encouraged its staff to “bring your whole self to work”, has seen its headcount nearly double to 114,000 in four years. It has also been hit with a worker backlash over controversial projects including artificial intelligence for military use and studying whether to return to China with a censored search engine.
The new Alphabet chief is not without an idealistic streak. A committed globalist, he is deeply interested in technology’s potential to transform countries such as his native India. But taming the worker upheaval is a priority. Employees may have believed they had “signed up for a movement”, but the company is becoming a far more conventional place to work, one former Googler said.
Mr Pichai, meanwhile has made mis-steps in dealing with external critics: he refused to appear before a Congressional hearing, leading senators to spotlight an empty chair. Since then he has sought to repair the damage, testifying at a hearing last December and spending more time in Washington.
Internally, Mr Pichai is a known quantity and is not expected to make significant changes. That could make him different from Mr Nadella, who pushed Microsoft in a new direction.
Alphabet’s stock edged up after the leadership announcement, suggesting many investors have confidence in Mr Pichai’s steady style and are pleased that Google is tidying up its management. But those who see the moonshot projects as wasteful are frustrated.
“They need a Satya, they need to find a new north star,” said Walter Price, who runs Allianz’s global tech fund.
As a professional manager, Mr Pichai will inevitably strike a more cautious stance than Google’s founders, says Melissa Schilling, a Stern business school professor. “We’re likely to see more risk aversion, and a move to make the company more ordinary,” she says. But it is hard to see Mr Page and Mr Brin — whose shareholdings and board seats leave them still in the driving seat — settling for something quite so prosaic.
The writer is the Financial Times’ west coast editor