Sundar Pichai arrived in America on a plane ticket that cost his father one year of savings.
The year was 1993. Pichai was starting his Masters at Stanford. When he went to buy a backpack, he was shocked to discover it cost $60. The same as his father’s monthly salary.
He had studied at IIT and been top of his class, but what propelled Sundar Pichai to the top of the mountain at Google wasn’t his technical skill set. It was the people skills and resourcefulness that whiteboard interviews can’t capture.
Sundar Pichai is well versed in both hardware and software. He is empathetic yet assertive. He grew up in a house without a fridge, but he’s never been afraid to think big.
Sundar Pichai joined Google as a Product Manager in 2004. Soon after, he wanted Google to create their own web browser.
Eric Schmidt, CEO, disagreed because he saw no point in replicating a product that was doing well in the market. Internet Explorer held almost all market share at the time.
Pichai saw it differently. He argued that Microsoft might someday replace Google as the default search engine on Internet Explorer with one of their own. Not backing down, Pichai even built a web browser demo and patiently kept chipping away.
He was rewarded, as in April 2006, Schmidt approved the Google Chrome project.
But just 6 months later, Google was hit with its worst nightmare.
On 18 October 2006, Microsoft changed the default search engine on Internet Explorer to Bing. This was a disaster for Google because 65% of their users came through Internet Explorer and the traffic was worth billions of dollars.
Pichai’s foresight helped Google act fast. His team made use of a feature in Internet Explorer that gave customers the option of setting their default search engine back to Google. Nearly 60% of the lost customers reverted back to using Google.
This was a big wakeup call for Google. They had managed to avert a crisis but the war with Microsoft was just beginning.
By anticipating the need for a browser, Pichai had positioned himself as a tremendous resource that wasn’t afraid to make his opinions heard.
Pichai’s next challenge came in the form of replacing Andy Rubin as the head of Android in 2013. This appointment was controversial because Rubin had installed Android on millions of smartphones all over the world and was the creator of the OS.
Pichai’s job was to align both Chrome and Android, which would help Google develop partnerships with hardware manufacturers and amplify access to Google’s core offerings.
Andy Rubin had previously seen Android as a standalone product itself, so Pichai’s appointment marked a shift in strategy.
The second part of the puzzle was boosting team morale. Android was being run as almost a separate company within Google and employees used to joke that it was easier to work with Apple than Android.
Pichai succeeded in improving relations with the Android team:
“When Sundar took over leadership of Android, previously the team had a reputation for being a bit insular,” said Jen Fitzpatrick, who runs Maps and Local for Google. “Under Sundar there was a notable shift in terms of how those interactions would go and a much deeper level of collaboration.”
What we see here is an affiliative style of leadership. One that epitomizes the “people come first” mantra. And one that adds substance to terms like “team-player”.
A year later, in 2014, Google was having trouble with Samsung. They felt that the South Korean company was giving less importance to its services like Google Play and instead were promoting their own User Interface like Magazine UX.
Pichai was tasked with meeting with Samsung’s CEO, J.K Shin, and sorting the mess out. Though Samsung had always been a key partner for Google, they had to let them know that what was going on was not okay.
One key element that helped make the meeting a success happened a few months earlier. Pichai had decided to take Larry Page on a trip to South Korea to visit a Samsung factory. This was done to convey respect for what Samsung has done to help make Android popular.
“I felt there was more distance than I would like in a partnership,” Pichai said. “I wanted a closer, more direct line of communication.”
The meeting led to Samsung scaling back on Magazine UX and went a long way in strengthening the partnership between both companies.
Once again, Pichai had quietly done his job.
Google used to only hire engineers. For example, Eric Schmidt (first Google CEO) wasn’t hired because of his impressive track record as CEO of Novell, but because of his degree in electrical engineering.
It’s somewhat ironic that though Pichai’s solid technical credentials probably got him the job, his rise is more down to his emotional intelligence.
When other leaders at Google weren’t able to agree with one another, he was there to mediate. When his team was under the pump, he would wait hours outside Marissa Mayer’s office to make sure that she gave his team solid work-performance scores.
Sundar Pichai’s appointment as CEO in August 2015 was a triumph of substance over style.
And one that came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the man from Chennai.
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