Unknown Android. Chapter 2: Sundar Pichai

Indian programmers and their coding habits have long ago become a meme, bringing to mind shows like “The IT Crowd” and “The Big Bang Theory”. The authors of “Silicon Valley” played around this stereotype in their own fashion, introducing a Pakistani programmer called Dinesh Chugtai into the plot. Stereotypes aren’t always born out of nothing; in July 2013, the Computer World magazine calculated the number of developers in various countries, and India with its 2.75 million came second after the U.S., where the amount of coders was as high as 3.6 million, and predicted that

India will eventually catch up and leave the U.S. behind.
Sundar Pichai, a truly gifted Indian, became CEO of Android, and later – of Google. Pichai was born in the southern Indian city of Chennai, a city closely tied to the country’s industrial, technological and intellectual future. Chennai houses the headquarters of large car conglomerates and international banks and bustles with technological parks and IT centers.

Sundar’s father was an electrician at General Electric Company and managed an electronic component manufacturing plant; his mother worked as a stenographer before his birth. He also has a younger brother. By Indian standards, the Pichai family was middle-class with a two-room apartment, a monthly income of 3000 rupees and some savings on the family account. Even though his father worked in a British technological conglomerate, Sundar did not have heaps of cutting-edge electronics at home. Still, he was very enthusiastic about his father’s work.
In school Sundar wasn’t that good at history and geography, but was unrivaled in sciences. Cricket was also one of his strong sides, and under Sundar’s leadership the school team won several regional competitions.

When Sundar was twelve, there was a dial telephone in his family’s house which he used to train his photographic memory. His uncle recalls a notable episode when he asked his wife to write down a friend’s phone number while Sundar was nearby. The wife forgot all about it, but Sundar restored the number perfectly several months later. The boy didn’t regard this skill as something useful, and thought even less of things like playing outside and dating girls from his school. He preferred studying to entertainment, and even when riding the rickshaw to his school he was always seen with a book.

While the liberal arts wouldn’t let Sundar become a straight A-student at school, he fitted right in at the Indian Institute of Technology, earning a BS in metallurgy and a scholarship at the Stanford University. To make sure his son could afford a flight to the U.S., his father withdrew all the money from the family account, a sum twice exceeding his annual income. “My dad and mom did what a lot of parents did at the time, they sacrificed a lot of their life and used a lot of their disposable income to make sure their children were educated”, Pichai said in an interview with Bloomberg in 2014.

His educational career continued on the up, but the trip took a toll on his personal life. He had met his future wife Anjali back at the Indian Institute of Technology (and as Sundar’s university fellows say, learning the intricacies of dealing with the opposite sex was more difficult for him than becoming CEO of Google). Though his relationship with Anjali went well, the cost of living in the U.S. was a shock for Sundar as he realized he wouldn’t be able to support the two of them, so he and Anjali had to reunite a little later.

Much to his parents’ surprise, Pichai left Stanford and went to work as an engineer and product manager at Applied Materials, a capacitor manufacturing plant in the Silicon Valley. He didn’t stay there for long, though, and enrolled into the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He got his MBA in 2002 and joined the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

When on April 1, 2004 Google invited Sundar for a job interview, he thought it was a prank. However, his interview with Larry Page was a success and Sundar was appointed VP of product management. A small team led by Pichai started to develop the Google Toolbar browser plugin, and later Pichai saw in this tool an idea for Google’s own browser.

Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of the company, rejected the browser, thinking that it would be too expensive to implement. Page and Brin, on the contrary, were impressed by Pichai’s designs, and the Google Chrome browser was finally launched in 2008. This launch has inspired Pichai to develop new solutions like the Chrome OS, the Chromebook laptop and the Chromecast media player.

Meanwhile, as Pichai displayed feats of enthusiasm and won the trust of every person on the Google team, from his direct subordinates to the company’s founders, Rubin was already preparing to move into the Google’s “top secret” department and pass the torch to Pichai. Being appointed as the head of Android was a challenge because of the sheer scope of the projects involved – the Chrome browser and operating system, the entire range of Google Search products and services, Google Maps, Google+, Google Apps and so on. A lot was expected of Sundar and yet, he proved to be the right person for this job.

He finished the KitKat version that Rubin started, and Lollipop was developed entirely under his supervision. When Page and Brin founded the Alphabet holding, the prime candidate for Page’s successor was obvious, and in August 2015, Sundar was appointed CEO of Google.
Perhaps, this decision was forced by the numerous attempts of other companies to headhunt Pichai.

In 2011, Twitter took the first shot, offering him the position as head of their product. According to some undisclosed sources, Google countered this offer with a significant raise in their VP’s paycheck. In 2015, Twitter’s reps offered Pichai the CEO title, but it wasn’t a very enticing proposal due to Twitter’s desperate situation at the moment. Between these two incidents, Pichai’s name came up in the list of candidates for CEO of Microsoft to replace Steve Ballmer, who left in 2013.

It looks like Page decided to play safe and kept Pichai near by putting him into his own CEO seat, much to the untold pride of Pichai’s teachers and neighbors who saw him grow up 40 years ago in India.

Sundar Picha