Sundar Pichai, who has been promoted from leading Google to alphabet, the larger parent company, will face a new set of challenges, according to Fortune. So what makes Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin so confident that they are willing to step down? How will Pichai respond to the company’s growing plight, from competition in the market to internal cultural conflicts to a growing global regulatory environment?
To that end, Fortune interviewed a number of former Google employees. Some of them say Mr Pichai is the best person to be Alphabet’s chief executive, and his track record at Google speaks for itself. At Google, Pichai has led and created a number of key innovations, including Chrome and Android.
At the same time, others worry that Mr Pichai will move companies further away from the “no evil” start-up and toward a more financial and output-oriented business environment. Under Mr. Pichai’s leadership, Google has been widely criticized for mishandling sexual harassment allegations and for signing project contracts with agencies such as The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Alan Masarek, chief executive of Vonage, a cloud communications provider, worked under Mr Pichai for two-and-a-half years at Google. “To be a great leader with a capable ability – there’s no denying that Pichai is a great leader – you need to be technical and executive, but you also have to be approachable,” he said. He achieved this balance well. “
Mr. Pichai’s takeover of Alphabet comes as federal and state regulators are investigating whether Google violated antitrust laws. At the same time, tensions within the company are rising. Last month, the company fired four employees who organized the protests. The tension was also seen in a surprise strike last year, when thousands of Google employees expressed their disagreement over the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.
Earlier this week, Page and Brin announced the change in Alphabet’s leadership in an open letter. Alphabet and Google no longer need two independent chief executives, and Mr Pichai, who has worked at Google for 15 years, will lead the companies, the founders said. In the open letter, they praised Pichai’s humility and “love of technology.”
“Since Alphabet’s inception, no one has relied more on him than he is, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future,” Page and Brin wrote. “
“He went straight to the subject.”
Born in India, Pichai earned graduate degrees from Stanford University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before mr Pichai joined Google in April 2004, he worked for applied Materials, a semiconductor company, and McKinsey, a consulting firm. At Google, he first became vice president of product management, but was later promoted to executive position in charge of Google Chrome, Android and other products. Mr Pichai, who was appointed Google’s chief executive in October 2015, is now Alphabet’s top leader.
While Mr Pichai has gained more power and is likely to receive a big pay rise (he will be paid $470m in 2018), he has also taken over some of Alphabet’s more thorny issues – and he will be held responsible for any mistakes in the future.
Interviewed by two former Google executives, they have confidence in Mr Pichai, which comes from their previous contacts with him. They believe that Pichai’s skill, mind and humility are what Pichai needs to take on a new and more important role.
“He wouldn’t walk into the conference room with conceit, and he could have done that, ” says Vinay Goel, a former Google product director who has worked for google for 11 years. His humility can make people let go of their guard… The meeting becomes a simple conversation where you can focus on how to solve the problem together. “
Mr Goel is now chief digital officer at Jones Lang LaSalle, an international real estate consultancy. One of The Advantages of Pichai, he says, is that he always has a broad understanding of the project and is ready to move it to the next stage. He said Pichai had done this on many of Google’s existing products and had redoubled his efforts to improve their user experience and underlying technology.
During Mr Pichai’s tenure, Google increased its investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and other products such as Assistant Assistant. It has also improved the functionality of its search engine with a “natural language processing” called BERT. Last year, Mr. Pichai hired Thomas Kurian to lead Google’s cloud computing business, bringing new growth to the business. Earlier this year, Google claimed that the computers it developed achieved “quantum supremacy”.
Pichai has a degree in engineering from the Harragpur Institute of Technology in India. Mr. Goel points out that Mr. Pichai’s deep expertise has helped his success at Google.
“Pichai likes to go straight to the theme and try to solve some problems,” Says Goel. He has that kind of leadership. He will be personally involved in solving a problem. “
Another former Google executive, Alan Masarek, sold his company, QuickOffice, to Google in 2012 and later worked under Mr Pichai. Mr. Masharik, who left Google and founded a company, says he often sees Google and its leadership as “North Star” that will guide his company.
“Our company now employs some very smart people and creates an environment that allows us to thrive, ” says Mr Masharik. Some of this comes from what I learned while working for Pichai at Google. “
Despite Mr Pichai’s success, he has been criticised by many, many of whom have worked at Google.
Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist, resigned last year over complaints about some of the company’s practices. Although he has never met alone with Mr. Pichai, Mr. Paulson said Mr. Pichai often uses his personal charm to keep companies accountable for bigger social problems.
“I have to think he’s a pretty cynical guy,” Mr Paulson said. If he were someone else, it would harm the company’s economic interests. “
Irene Knapp, a senior software engineer at Google for five years, is an outspoken cybersecurity and diversity activist who acknowledges that Mr Pichai is a moderate. Mr. Knapp was also pleased with Mr. Pichai’s “balanced view” after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the problem is that Nap thinks Pichai is working in a “leadership vacuum”. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Page, Mr. Pichai is reluctant to engage with corporate activists, who appear to be growing in number.
“That’s not to say google had no ethical issues during Page’s leadership,” Knapp said. But at that time, there was discussion of these issues within the company, and I usually felt that they had been fully resolved. “
But it’s not just a matter of rights, Says Nap, which is too hard for most employees to see Pichai. This makes it difficult for employees to have enough respect for his abilities and to really understand his leadership style. And most of the e-mails he sends to all employees seem legitimate in nature, but they feel more open-to-do for employees.
“Google used to be a bottom-up company, ” says Mr Knapp. Now, all of a sudden, it’s a top-down company. “
While it’s unclear how Mr. Pichai will resolve Alphabet’s cultural and ideological disputes, if he does, he could shut down some of the holding company’s other operations, as he did when he took over Google. According to Goel, this could mean cutting back on projects such as the Moon Landing.
“Given the real need for change in Alphabet, Pichai and (Alphabet chief financial officer) Ruth Porat will be a strong combination,” Mr Goel said. I think this is the best time for Alphabet to clean up internally. “