His is a story straight out of a dream, and has reached a shimmering chrome. Pichai Sundararajan, better known as Sundar Pichai, shot to fame when he became the CEO of tech giant Google in August. Earlier, while heading Google’s products division, his vision of a separate browser (Chrome) impressed the then CEO Eric Schmidt. Pichai joined Google in 2004 and rose to the top. He was also a potential candidate for the top jobs at Microsoft and Twitter as well.
Hailing from a middle-class Chennai family, Pichai earned a Mettalurgical Engineering degree from IIT Kharagpur, an MS from Stanford University and an MBA from Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Google, he worked with Applied Materials and McKinsey & Company. But his love for math, science and software took him to the Silicon Valley. By his own admission, as a child, Pichai was an average student and didn’t score high grades that would have fetched him a seat at one of Delhi’s top colleges. His engineer father earned Rs 3,000 a month in the 70s; Pichai’s annual package from Google is $50 million.
Sundar Pichai had a hall full of students from Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce eating out of his hands. From software to India’s education system, T20 cricket to Lionel Messi, India’s biggest success story in Silicon Valley took a range of questions from students, teachers and social media users during his maiden visit to India since becoming Google’s CEO.
Referring to India’s educational system as “strong”, Sunder Pichai pointed out that “to move forward, creativity is an important attribute.” He added that students in the US have a more practical approach, compared to India where things are rather methodical. “In the US, education is experiential, very hands on. People learn to do things, project-based experiential learning. Teach students to take risks. System shouldn’t penalise students for taking risks.”
Pichai said it was a global phenomenon but significantly pronounced in India. “It is global problem. Less than one third in usage in rural areas. Most women in rural areas don’t think the internet applies to them. The most important thing we can do is to bring them online.”
Google’s public Wi-Fi project in India will be the largest rollout of public internet anywhere on the globe, he said. “We are very excited about the public Wi-Fi project. (It is the) largest such project in the world, covering 400 railway stations. Reason why we are doing it is, in India when you bring access to the Internet, it changes people’s lives.” The Google CEO recalled how he used to travel by train from Chennai to IIT Kharagpur and would be more concerned of getting food on his train rather than internet!
On a question why Android updates are named only after western desserts (a question he must have faced many times before) Pichai said he is open to the idea and may even do an online poll on it and it may become a reality. He was responding to a question from the audience. Pichai isn’t big on sweets though, and recalled how in his childhood he would add “sambhar” to his “payasam”!
On the difference between the startup space in India and the Silicon Valley in the US, Pichai said he pleasantly surprised to find a similar wave of growth in India. He said the quality of ideas by Indian startup founders is the same as that of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and that India is well positioned to become the Silicon Valley of the East. “India has an unique opportunity. All the relevant things are already here. Very well positioned in that sense.I don’t see any difference between entrepreneurs here and the Silicon Valley”, he said.
It turns out that the Google CEO is a huge football fan and loves FC Barcelona! Pichai revealed that he was big Barcelona and Lionel Messi fan. He also said that he loved former Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar and was there at the second tied test in Chennai back in 1986.
Project Loon will very soon be a reality in India, Pichai said, adding that “Google was in talks with telecom operators and regulatory authorities in the country to bring it to India, especially for rural areas which lagged in connectivity.” Pichai said India has been the starting point for Google on many projects. “We do thing first in India like YouTube Offline which started in India and is now in 77 countries. It is a goal to build things here. We do things we can build here at scale which will apply to the world.”