Inside the career rise of Sundar Pichai, Google and Alphabet’s current CEO

Inside the career rise of Sundar Pichai, Google and Alphabet’s current CEO

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai gestures while giving a speech at the Google I/O conference.
Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, is one of Tech’s highest-paid execs.

  • Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is one of the world’s highest-paid execs, earning $226 million in 2022.
  • Pichai has been at Google since 2004, becoming its CEO in 2015 and Alphabet’s CEO in 2019.
  • In the role, Pichai has reorganized Google’s workforce, issued mass layoffs, and emphasized AI.

Sundar Pichai has had a meteoric rise since joining Google as a 31-year-old product manager in 2004.

In the 11 years that followed his first steps on the Googleplex, Pichai was promoted four times, eventually becoming the CEO of Google in 2015. 

In that role, he was responsible for the company’s core businesses and cash cow — and did a good enough job that, in December 2019, he was promoted one more time, replacing Google cofounder Larry Page as the CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Since then, he has led the almost-$2-trillion company through the pandemic, layoffs, and the AI renaissance that’s taken Silicon Valley by storm.

So, who is Pichai, and how did he scale the ranks to get one of the most important jobs at one of the most important companies in the world? Here’s his story.

Jillian D’Onfro, Avery Hartmans, and Mary Meisenzahl contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Pichai, whose full name is actually Pichai Sundararajan, grew up in Chennai, India.
Indian students wearing white uniforms and lined up down a street each grasp onto a 200-meter-long Indian national flag.
Pichai grew up in a two-room apartment in Chennai, India, and moved to the United States after winning a scholarship to Stanford University.

Pichai’s father was an electrical engineer, and his mother worked as a stenographer before having him and his younger brother. The family wasn’t wealthy, and the boys slept together in the living room of their two-room apartment.

Early on, Pichai’s family realized he had a talent for remembering numbers after noticing he could recall every phone number he had ever dialed on their rotary phone. He has been known to sometimes show off his memorization skills at meetings, Bloomberg said in 2014. 

After becoming interested in computers — the first software program he wrote was a chess game — Pichai studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. His success there won him a scholarship to Stanford University.

Pichai earned a master’s degree from Stanford and later attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for his MBA.

Pichai has said that moving to California was a huge leap.

“I always loved technology growing up,” Pichai said in a 2014 interview at Delhi University. “I used to read about what was happening in Silicon Valley, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

When Pichai got to America in 1993, he couldn’t believe how expensive everything was.
Sundar Pichai and wife Anjali Pichai
Sundar and Anjali Pichai married after moving to the US, and now have two children together.

He “was in an absolute state of shock” about the price of a backpack — $60 — he told Bloomberg.

He also missed his girlfriend, Anjali. The two eventually married and now have a son, Kiran, and daughter, Kavya.

Before Google, he had stints at semiconductor manufacturer Applied Materials and consulting firm McKinsey.

Pichai had his first interview at Google on April Fools’ Day in 2004 — the same day it launched Gmail.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai stands in front a series of screens showing the logo for Google's Chrome web browser.
Pichai helped convince Google execs to create Google Chrome — now the world’s most popular browser.

Pichai has said he initially thought the free email service Gmail was one of Google’s famous pranks.

Pichai got his start working as a VP of product management, focused on Google’s Toolbar, a web-search feature on Internet Explorer and Firefox.

One of his early achievements: convincing Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin that Google should build its own web browser.

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In 2006, Microsoft created a “doomsday” scenario for Google by making Bing the new default search engine on Internet Explorer. To mitigate the effect of this change, Pichai helped convince Google execs to create its own browser, Google Chrome.

Chrome is now the world’s most popular browser.

As a leader at Google, Pichai was known to be well-liked and focused on results, which resulted in more responsibility.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai stands in front of a black backdrop featuring the green Android logo.
Pichai is known for bringing a “substance over overt style” attitude to Google.

Pichai’s “substance over overt style” approach was, in part, what led to Pichai taking over the Android division in 2013.

He spearheaded Android One, Google’s push to “make high-quality smartphones accessible to as many people as possible,” and was also instrumental in ensuring Android was better integrated with Google.

Pichai was also behind Chrome OS, the operating system that powers Google’s inexpensive Chromebook laptops, and was reportedly instrumental in helping put together Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest in 2014. 

His success garnered attention, and he was reportedly approached for a leadership role at Twitter.

When Pichai turned down Twitter, he was rewarded for his allegiance, getting $50 million and a promotion.

As he rose through the ranks, Pichai became the right-hand man of Google cofounder and former CEO Larry Page.

“He’s like the Aaron to Larry’s Moses,” a source told Business Insider in 2014, referring to the biblical prophet’s brother.

That relationship and his success led to Pichai’s next important promotion in late 2014 when Page put him in charge of the company’s core products.

After proving himself with Chrome and Android, Pichai added Google+, Maps, Search, commerce and ads, and infrastructure to his portfolio. The move cemented Pichai’s move as Page’s second-in-command.

“Sundar has a tremendous ability to see what’s ahead and mobilize teams around the super important stuff,” Page wrote in a memo announcing Pichai’s promotion. “We very much see eye-to-eye when it comes to product, which makes him the perfect fit for this role.”

Less than a year later, he was named CEO of Google.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai gives a speech while standing in front of a white wall with a white Google logo, next to a screen.
Pichai, who became CEO of Google in 2015, is well-liked among the company’s employees.

When Alphabet was established as Google’s parent company in 2015, Pichai was made CEO at Google, which encompassed search, YouTube, and Android.

As his power grew, Pichai remained well-liked.

“He is literally worshipped inside Google. Engineers love him. Product Managers love him. Business people love him,” one Googler wrote on Quora around that time.

In July 2017, Pichai was named to Alphabet’s board of directors.

“Sundar has been doing a great job as Google’s CEO, driving strong growth, partnerships, and tremendous product innovation. I really enjoy working with him, and I’m excited that he is joining the Alphabet board,” Page said at the time.

Two years later came his final promotion at the company. Alphabet’s CEO, Page, and president, Sergey Brin, announced that they were stepping down, and Pichai would become Alphabet’s CEO.

Page and Brin cofounded Google in 1998. They announced the change in a letter saying that Alphabet and Google “no longer need two CEOs and a President.”

Pichai is well-compensated for his work.

Google reported in April 2023 that Pichai earned a total of $226 million in 2022, mostly in stock awards, making him one of America’s best-paid CEOs.

 

But the top job at Alphabet also comes with increased public and internal scrutiny.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai sits at a table while testifying to Congress, while an audience sits behind him to watch.
Pichai has testified in front of the US government multiple times.

In 2018, the House Judiciary Committee grilled the CEO about Google’s data privacy practices and plans with China.

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Two years later, Pichai testified in front of Congress again over antitrust concerns. Two other major Google lawsuits were later filed by the US government over its alleged monopoly tactics.

Google has also dealt with internal turmoil after letting go of one of its top AI ethicists.

In December 2020, Google fired Timnit Gebru. Her exit came weeks after she was asked to retract a paper on the dangers of large language models and spoke out against the company’s treatment of minority employees. 

Google employees were “seriously pissed” over how the firing was handled, one told BI at the time, and Gebru said that Pichai and other managers helped create “hostile work environments.”

Pichai eventually apologized for how the company dealt with it.

“I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust,” he wrote.

Also in 2020, Pichai was at the forefront of Google’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership, Google launched initiatives to help search users find accurate, useful information about the coronavirus. 

And like many large tech companies, Alphabet recruited rapidly at the start of the pandemic. Alphabet hired nearly 37,000 new workers in the 12 months leading up to October 2022.

But from late 2022, Pichai had to oversee an era of cost-cutting at the company.

That culminated in job losses in January 2023, when Google layoffs affected 12,000 employees or 6% of its global workforce. Pichai said he took “full responsibility for the decisions that led us here.”

Over 1,400 Google employees wrote an open letter to Pichai about how the layoffs were handled. 

Don’t be evil,” it read, a reference to the company’s original motto.

Googlers also criticized Pichai’s big payday in the face of the job cuts, accusing him of “destroying morale and culture” at Google.

Google also laid off hundreds more workers in its central engineering division and hardware team in early 2024.

Pichai has also had to deal with European regulatory issues. French regulators hit Google with a roughly $270 million fine in March 2024, accusing the company of using news outlet articles to train its Gemini AI model.

Pichai has also pushed Google forward in the AI arms race that’s preoccupying Silicon Valley.
A smartphone displays the ChatGPT logo in front of a pink and purple backdrop featuring the OpenAI logo.
In 2016, Pichai said that Google will one day become an “AI-first” company.

Google issued a “code red” in December 2022 after the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT sparked concerns about the future of its search engine and whether chatbots might replace it. Pichai redirected resources to focus on building Google’s AI products.

It wasn’t the first time Pichai expressed interest in the technology, though. In 2016, Pichai announced that Google would be an “AI-first” company. Two years later, he said it’s “one of the most important things that humanity is working on” and “more profound” than “electricity or fire.”

Google’s AI efforts have resulted in its own chatbot.

In February 2023, Google demoed the AI chatbot Bard for the first time. But the demo, which included the bot making a factual error, wasn’t massively well-received internally and was called “rushed, botched, myopic” by one employee. Google made Bard available to the public over a month later.

In December 2023, Google’s Gemini launched. Gemini is a multimodal AI model that can process images, text, audio, video, and coding languages. And in February 2024, the company merged the two, saying:

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“Our mission with Bard has always been to give you direct access to our AI models, and Gemini represents our most capable family of models. To reflect this, Bard will now simply be known as Gemini.”

Pichai has also shifted Google’s focus to integrating AI into its other products.

At the 2023 Google I/O conference, the CEO announced that Google would add AI features across Google Workspace, including in Search, Gmail, Docs, and other products.

Still, Gemini has had issues. In 2024, Google had to suspend its image generator after people complained that the model produced historically inaccurate photos of US presidents.

Pichai later sent a memo to employees acknowledging the AI controversy

“I know that some of its responses have offended our users and shown bias — to be clear, that’s completely unacceptable, and we got it wrong.”

The problems led to a growing chorus of voices calling for Pichai to step down from his leadership role. 

When Pichai isn’t spending his time leading Google, the CEO meets with influential world leaders.
Two side-by-side portraits show Google CEO Sundar Pichai on the left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the right.
Pichai met with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2022 CEO Summit of the Americas.

In early June 2022, Pichai attended the CEO Summit of the Americas — hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Department of State — where business leaders from private sectors across countries in North, South, and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, come together in Los Angeles to discuss how they can work together to stimulate economic growth in their countries.

During the three-day summit, Pichai met with Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, to discuss Google’s investments in Canada and how the company can work with the government to spur innovation in the country.

The Alphabet CEO also announced his $1.2 billion commitment to Latin America. 

While Pichai is quite private, he is known to start his day with a cup of tea and an omelet — plus a copy of The Wall Street Journal.

“I read the physical paper every single morning,” he told Recode in 2016, adding that he reads The New York Times online.

The Pichai’s morning routine also includes scrolling through TechMeme, a niche tech news website that aggregates the latest stories in tech published by media outlets. 

Although he’s private, Pichai has spoken out about certain causes since he became a public figure.

In 2015, he responded to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion that Muslims be barred from immigrating to the US.

“Let’s not let fear defeat our values. We must support Muslim and other minority communities in the US and around the world,” he wrote.

In his home country, Pichai is seen as something of a hero.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai smiles as he sits on a stage with interviewer Harsha Bhogle, in front of an audience in India.
Pichai pledged $10 billion to India’s tech sector in 2020.

“You are what they would like to be, an Indian who studied here, went overseas, and did what everyone would dream of doing,” interviewer Harsha Bhogle said in a conversation with Pichai for students at Delhi University.

In 2020, Pichai announced that Google would invest $10 billion into India’s tech sector over the next five to seven years to make the internet “affordable and useful” to everyone living in the country.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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