Sundar Pichai – The Unconventional CEO

I have vivid memory of a very refreshing morning in August this year. I was getting acquainted with the developments in the world through twitter while sipping my fresh orange juice. A certain headline was as refreshing as the orange juice itself. It proudly announced the appointment of Indian born Sundar Pichai as the CEO of Google. I had never heard about Sundar earlier, I read about him in detail on that day and felt an instant affinity. Then, my mind wandered to Satya Nadella. I hadn’t heard of Satya before he was announced CEO of Microsoft. However, I felt the same affinity there too. With Satya and maybe, with Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, whom I know from engineering school in Osmania, the affinity could be better explained because of “Hyderabad” which is the place where the early years of our lives mine, Shantanu and Satya was spent.

With Sundar, a Chennai boy, there was no such connect but the affinity was as powerful. However, I was not alone in the affinity or the heightened interest. Some leading media houses in India ran a poll to ask its readers if “India should take credit and be proud of Sundar’s success”. An alarming 70% responded in the affirmative. So, this affinity was felt by many. I think India is the most liberal democracy in the world (despite all the intolerance debate going around) and thus, we could also hear polarised views to the tune of “What has Sundar done for India” and “why should we be so proud”.

As they say, “You can take an Indian out of India but you cannot take India out of an Indian”. So, unanimously, we all cheered the appointment of Sundar, took pride in it. Our national pledge says “All Indians are our brothers and sisters”. So, if glory was raining on Sundar Pichai, every Indian was basking in it as well. Sundar was every Indian’s brother. I believe Sundar Pichai might have been trending on Twitter on that day with the world’s most renowned business leaders using the platform to congratulate him. It was refreshing to see even our honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi take to Twitter to congratulate Sundar. The general Tweeple also celebrate the announcement with equally great élan.

The world media was not to be left behind either as it is not every day that the world’s largest technology company would announce a new CEO. BBC wrote an article “Sundar Pichai and the world of Indian CEOs” which enlightened the readers on a study by the University of Southern New Hampshire about Indian managers. It said that Indian managers are more successful because of “a paradoxical blend of genuine personal humility and intense professional will”. While there is no doubt about the Indian roots of Sundar Pichai, using “the Indian CEO” to describe him may not be technically correct. Sundar has spent most of his professional life in the United States and is a US citizen. I am sure BBC would know this with all the fact checkers on their payroll. Yet, it made justice to cover the story with a title comprising the words “Indian CEOs”. Sundar, Satya and the likes still remain Indian to the world and BBC. Such articles and the “Indian” reference in the media with all things “Sundar” is a strong testimony to the affinity of millions of Indians including mine.

With time, the euphoria did sink and the rational brain took over. My mind kept throwing the word “unlikely CEO”. Why would this word come to me? Sundar, like me and many kids of my generation, had a typical middle class upbringing. His illustrious academic chronicle comprising India’s most prestigious technology school namely IIT is not beyond reach for any Indian with the will to persevere and the intellect to match. The onward journey to Stanford, an excellent professional life in America, all seems attainable. While CEO of Google seems unattainable, while the path taken by Sundar uptil CEO seems within grabs for every Indian. For kids in India today, the life of Sundar may not seem to be the most likely path to being the CEO of the world’s largest technology company. But, he has proved otherwise. He has proved that my mind was probably trying to think “unconventional”. Sundar, as portrayed in the millions of reams of newsprint, has quietly gone about achieving milestones and moving to the next. He has silently made the best use of resources and opportunities at his disposal and climbed to the zenith of a technology professional’s career.

Sundar means beautiful. He has given a beautiful dream, hope and vision to all young Indians to aspire to reach the apex. What was “unlikely” in our heads now seems probable, even possible.

I got an opportunity to hear him in Delhi at the Google for India launch.

Sundar is unpresumptuous. If one was expecting a larger than life persona and high wattage, he was far from it. If the audience was expecting a Steve Jobs taking centre stage and raising the energy levels with his enigma, it was not to be.

He seemed to someone who is more comfortable being a clear thinker before becoming the immaculate execution expert that he is known to be. The mind quickly went back to the congratulatory tweets, wherein Sundar is called a clear thinker and someone who can get things done. Sundar gave the confidence of being genuine. He came across as someone who knew his turf well and could be trusted to deliver what he commits. He also seemed to besomeone who would execute the job to perfection by getting his hands dirty and leading his colleagues and team towards their goal — earning great respect from them in the process. And, he did also come across as someone who is accountable and will stand up and be counted whenever the situation demands.

Are these qualities enough for being the world’s largest technology companies CEO? If we take intelligence, passion, ability to see the bigger picture etc. as hygiene for a CEOs job, then the qualities mentioned above seemed enough to make a good CEO.

Sundar seems normal to the extent of looking unconventional. We would normally associate a CEO of a large company to be a megalomaniac.

If that is the case, then Sundar did come across as a breath of fresh air. “Normal” sits very cool on him. “My kids are normal, my life is normal, my job is normal, I am as well so you can be me”, was probably the most important message that Sundar gave us all.

Sundar then gave us a preview of his futuristic side and his plans. Sundar’s talk centered around “the new billion”. He recalled the India he grew up in and observed remarkable changes in the India of today. He emphasized the importance of connecting people and providing basic access to the internet. It was definitely not all talk as we all know that his team is busy building slimmed down version of the Andriod operating system so as to enable critical apps to perform well even in low bandwidth regions and also offline. The idea of trying to being internet access to remote regions via balloons is definitely innovative and if implemented successfully, would be a sure game changer.

He talked further about the importance of bringing access to the “bottom of the pyramid” markets, especially in regions where access to internet is deficient. Sundar announced Wifi access at 100 railway stations in India (in the presence of most of Google’s top leadership in India) as an initiative that would provide definite value for passengers.

These endeavours, as clearly defined by Sundar, were to make internet accessible to the next billion users, most of whom may not be English speaking. This would transform the lives of Indian in rural areas. The benefits of connecting over 3,00,000 Indian villages into the flat world will have tremendous bilateral benefits and by heralding such developments, Google will further augment its glorious stature.

Sundar said that there would be more android users in India that in the US. Hence, affordable access to all Indians, in their own language, seemed to be the next big agenda on Google’s roadmap for India. He announced that Andriod keyboard will support 11 Indian languages. He also conveyed that his team has worked on making “search” faster, youtube offline and google maps offline. Sundar said that nearly two million businesses are using google for work productivity tools. He said, the “next billion” will immensely benefit from all such initiatives.

He also touched upon “audaciously ambitious” projects such as project Loon. I searched how Google defines it and the website says “Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.” Isn’t that remarkable and audacious? So are projects such as driverless cars, which will reduce the cost of commute significantly all over the world. So, is Google Glass, the head mounted display which will enable users to communicate with the internet through natural language voice commands.

When Google announced Alphabet as its parent company, they did feature a list of initiatives from A-Z (covering each alphabet). And, each one seemed audacious and transformational to me. Each of these initiatives is set to create deep changes and we all look forward to a new world unfolding with such interesting initiatives.

“Google for India” was a fairly predictable event with no big surprises in terms of what they desire to achieve. In India, Sundar has to, now, lead the culture of creating products that are not predictable. Perhaps, it takes a predictable, normal, and unconventional personality like Sundar to do so.

Sundar ended by conveying that India has given him and Google a lot and both he and Google plan to give a lot back to this great nation.

I went back to an interesting tweet I read on that refreshing day in August. “#SatyamShivamSundaram”, a leaf taken right out of Bollywood’s book caught my eye. It said, “@satyanadella at @Microsoft, @sundarpichai at @google, need “Shiva” at Apple for #SatyamShivamSundaram”. On a lighter note, I thought if my favourite product company, Apple, would wake up to the trend and appoint a new Indian CEO, it may do far better. Otherwise, there may come a day when I (and many like me) may have to switch loyalties to Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai.

Sundar Pichai’s event was a great learning experience. My three key takeaways:

1. While I pondered around “unlikely” and “unconventional” to describe Sundar, the event gave me a feel that Sundar will bring “Servant Leadership” in vogue if he hasn’t already. If this type of leadership becomes more cool it will be good for the world. The personality focused, testosterone driven “Atilla the hun” type of CEO is no longer the ideal model and Sundar gives abundant proof of the same.

2. He is serious about India and so is Google. This is an excellent sign for Indian entrepreneurs and VCs alike.

3. A leader sets the DNA and the tone. All the other Google speakers at the event talked geek and offered no entertainment value on stage. Not even one joke or an ice breaker. They did cool product demos without much fanfare, no drum roll, no chest thumping, and no jibes at the competition. This will leave the paparazzi out and create a “wow” for the cool developer community. Again, unconventional yet effective, like Sundar.

Before I finish, I want to shout out to Craftsvilla. Sundar did a nice long plug for them. I believe that is amazing brand endorsement for the company.

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