While the whole country was consumed with news about Cecil the lion and Donald Trump, Google jolted us with the news that it had named Sundar Pichai as the new CEO. Mainstream media the world over reported (and regurgitated) on his humble beginnings and meteoric rise within the ranks of Google. The facts of his education at Vana Vani High School (in Chennai), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur (B.Tech Metallurgy), Stanford (MS), Wharton (MBA) have been repeated far too often.
There were some contrarian opinions too. Paraphrasing what one of them said, “The new Google CEO deserves kudos, but his elevation has been a tad over hyped by the media. His real achievement lies not in gaining the corner office, but in helming the team, which created the Chrome browser. Much before Pichai there was Vinod Dham who oversaw the birth of Pentium. Rather than going into paroxysms of joy over a corporate promotion, we should celebrate the creative side of these techno gurus.”
The reason I am highlighting this (perhaps singular) opinion is that it helps provide focus on everything that is commendable about Sundar Pichai’s accomplishments.
With due respect to Vinod Dham, he did his creations under the watch of a Hungarian-born immigrant. Google’s first CEO, Eric Schmidt, was appointed by the Board to provide “adult supervision” to Sergei Brin and Larry Page. When the kids “grew up,” it was natural for one of them to assume the reins as CEO. Going through the ranks of the World’s most admired company and being named its CEO deserves to be “over hyped”—because it is a big deal.
In the book, High Noon–The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and the rise of Sun Microsystems,” Karen Southwick writes on Vinod Khosla’s firing as the CEO of Sun Microsystems in 1984, “His bluntness and outspoken criticisms weren’t appreciated as the company grew.” Khosla was among the first (of Indian origin) to be at the helm of a technology company in Silicon Valley. In contrast, 30+ years later, it is the people skills of Sundar (who was barely 12 years old at the time of Khosla’s firing) that is attributed to his rise. “Sundar is a compassionate leader who recruited, mentored, and invested in the people that worked for him,” is the refrain that is heard both within and outside the walls of Google.
This is a trait that probably links Satya Nadella, Shantanu Narayen, Sanjay Jha and Rajiv Suri (all CEOs of influential technology companies). Their innate humility, strong technical education, respect for others and strong aspirations are qualities that led them to the top of the corporate ladder.
To help explore that tenet of Sundar Pichai, I spoke to professors Sanat Kumar Roy and Indranil Manna. Roy, who to this day continues to teach in the Metallurgy Department at IIT Kharagpur, remembers Sundar as a student in 1989. “He was a calm and quiet boy. He was introverted and did not have a large number of friends.”
A major component of the Teacher’s Assessment of the student is the Viva-voce on the Theory and Laboratory work. This helps the professor judge whether the student has “memorized” the material or has an “innate understanding.” Roy remembers Sundar Pichai being analytical in his approach.
IIT Kharagpur was one of the first colleges to introduce non-metallic materials in the curriculum. Sundar Pichai blazed the trail in his final year thesis. While most of the students in his class worked on metals for their project, Pichai did not hesitate on the opportunity to work with silicon wafer. He completed this work under the guidance of Professor Manna (who is currently the director of IIT Kanpur). Manna remembered that Pichai’s closest friend was Swaminathan Jayaraman. While Pichai went to Stanford for his MS, Swaminathan went to Johns Hopkins to pursue a Ph.D. Unfortunately, Swaminathan died in a car accident in 1998 along with two other IIT friends.
In the recently concluded (July 24-25, 2015), Pan-IIT Global Leadership Conference, Shyamal Roy released a coffee table book titled IMPACT of the IIT Alumni in USA—an artistic endeavor showcasing 72 exemplary alumni (from among the 50,000+ graduates of IIT who have sought to pursue their careers in the United States) who have made a difference in fields ranging from innovation to entrepreneurship to corporate leadership to education to philanthropy. Each one has made a lasting contribution. Ironically, Sundar Pichai’s name is not included in this list. Sridhar Ramaswamy is the only Google VP to be included. With his promotion to CEO, Sundar Pichai will not only make the list, he would catapult to be among the top achievers.
Nikesh Arora summed it up when he retweeted Prime Minister Modi’s tweet that congratulated @sundarpichai, “Now, I feel cheated. Lol. Congrats (sic)” In a sense, many of these over-achievers could serve as the CEO of a Fortune 100 Company given the right opportunity. Such is the rich background and training of Indian engineers.
Sundar Pichai’s journey as the CEO has just begun. He has a lot more to accomplish. He certainly is an inspiration for of every Indian engineer in the Valley. Collectively, I am sure every one joins me in wishing him more success as he steers Google forward.
Prakash Narayan is a software engineer living in Fremont, California. His twitter handle is @kpn320