Sundar Pichai, CEO and public face of Google for almost five years, is about to take the helm of the search engine’s parent company, Alphabet. But who is the tech superstar, and what fresh approaches might he bring to the table?
Earlier this month, Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced that Google leader Sundar Pichai will replace Page as CEO of the search giant’s parent company, Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL). According to a letter released by the founders, this means that Pichai will not only be “responsible and accountable” for leading Google’s core brands but will also oversee “Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets.”
In an adjoining statement, Pichai emphasized a sense of continuity with his predecessors while acknowledging that there’s a lot of work ahead for what remains one of the world’s most valuable, yet mysterious, companies.
“I’m excited about Alphabet and its long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology… [W]e have a timeless mission, enduring values, and a culture of collaboration and exploration. It’s a strong foundation on which we will continue to build.”
Whenever a company with the size and influence of Google makes an executive leadership change, controversy is sure to follow, and this move is no different. Though lacking the celebrity of a founder-leader like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Pichai is a respected figure in the technology world, particularly for his work on Google’s Chrome segment. The Indian-born engineer joined Google back in 2004 and quickly made a name for himself by leading some of the company’s most celebrated projects, including Google Chrome and Google Drive.
By the end of the decade, Pichai was a central figure in the organization and, in 2013, replaced Andy Rubin as head of the company’s massively popular Android business. The shift, which came as a surprise to many, was best summarized by a Wired reporter who wrote: “the man who is synonymous with Android has been replaced by the guy who is synonymous with Chrome.” Soon after this appointment, in 2015, Pichai was finally promoted to Chief Executive. Under his leadership, the company has had its fair share of challenges, including mass employee walkouts and so much privacy and antitrust criticism from Washington that Pichai himself famously testified in Congress about privacy.
Pichai’s new role will grant him more autonomy within the organization (even though he’ll ultimately still be answerable to Page and Brin, who retain a controlling interest), allowing the new leader to deal more decisively with the difficult tasks that lie ahead. It will also fill his desk with the obstacles involved in Alphabet’s famous “Other Bets” — a portfolio of experimental side-businesses that are kept quite separate from the main cash-cow brands. While these projects are almost uniformly brilliant and innovative, none of them show any signs of taking off the ground.
Similarly, the company has spent the past few years fighting low-intensity antitrust wars on two sides of the Atlantic, against both the U.S. and the E.U. Brussels has ruled against the company several times, including a record $5 billion fine last year. With a massive presence in search, GPS, mobile technology (Android), streaming (YouTube) and browsing (Chrome) — as well as in emerging technologies such as general AI (DeepMind) and driverless cars (Waymo) — one of Alphabet’s biggest challenges will be remaining intact amid a new anti-conglomerate atmosphere in American, European, and world politics.
With all of these concerns now on his plate, Pichai is in a perhaps unenviable position. Indeed, a CNBC columnist went so far as to call his job “the worst in tech.” Pichai’s long-standing loyalty to Alphabet, as well his tendency to favor incremental progress over dangerous risks, means that he might just be the perfect man for that job.
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