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Sundar pichai
Sundar Pichai: A tech wizard and a diplomat
August 13, 2014

Business Week’s Brad Stone interviewed Sundar Pichai (SVO 01-04) in late June, in advance of Google’s annual conference. He offered a glimpse into Sundar's tech journey and began by describing one of his current challenges as the chief executive of Google’s Android division.

According to Stone, Samsung’s recent release of the Magazine UX software at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January frustrated executives at Google because the software hid Google services such as its Play apps store and required Android users and application developers to learn an entirely new set of behaviors for Samsung devices. Stone reported that defusing the situation fell to Sundar.

Sundar says that the two companies had “frank conversations” about their intertwined fates and that a middle ground was reached. Samsung agreed to scale back Magazine UX, and, as a public symbol of their cooperation, the two companies announced a broad patent cross-licensing arrangement. Sundar reported that Samsung and Google now work together more closely on user experience than they ever have before. 

In telling the story of Sundar's journey toward becoming the tech peace broker that he is today, Business Week reported that ten years ago Sundar was a product manager at Google and that his domain consisted of the search bar in the upper right corner of Web browsers.

According to the article, Sundar then persuaded his bosses to wade into the browser wars with Chrome, which in time became the most popular browser on the Internet and led to the Chrome operating system. Sundar took over Gmail and Google Docs in 2011. In 2013, CEO Larry Page put him in charge of Android. Page says Sundar “has deep technical expertise, a great product eye, and tremendous entrepreneurial flair . . . a rare combination, which is what makes him a great leader.”

With Android running on 1.2 billion devices around the world, Sundar may very well be one of the most powerful technology executives in the world. Every phonemaker that joins the Android world has to balance its own interests with Google's. It may also be what makes Sundar as much of a business diplomat as he is a tech guru. Business Week discussed with him the matter of developers complaining about the complexity of making applications for the varied world of Android phones and tablets, all with different size screens and processors, particularly compared with the relative ease of developing for Apple's more orderly universe of iPhones and iPads.

“I have to think about building a platform and bringing as many people along on this journey and getting it right. I believe that ultimately it's a more powerful approach, but it's a lot more stressful as well,” he said.

Sundar was born in Chennai, a city of 4 million in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. His mother worked as a stenographer before she had children; his father was an electrical engineer for the British conglomerate GEC, and managed a factory that made electrical components. Sundar's father attributes his son’s interest in technology to the updates he shared with him after coming home from his job as an engineer, managing a factory that made electrical components:

“I used to come home and talk to him a lot about my work day and the challenges I faced," recalls Regunatha Pichai. "Even at a young age, he was curious about my work. I think it really attracted to him to technology.”

The article goes on to describe Pichai’s admission to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, where he studied engineering. After graduating, he won another scholarship to Stanford University to study materials science and semiconductor physics. According to the article, Sundar's father tried to take out a loan to cover the cost of the plane ticket and other expenses. When it didn't come through in time, he withdrew $1,000 – more than his annual salary – from the family’s savings. “My dad and mom did what a lot of parents did at the time,” Sundar says. “They sacrificed a lot of their life and used a lot of their disposable income to make sure their children were educated.”

Sundar began working at McKinsey in 2001 – during which time he earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business – and arrived at the Googleplex in 2004.

The article describes another of Sundar's experiences and ability to bring groups with a broad set of interests to the table in reporting the story of the introduction of Chrome OS in 2011. Sundar assembled a large group inside Google that was serious about building hardware and forging strong relationships with retailers such as Best Buy and PC manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo and Samsung. A cloud-based system may have seemed odd at the time, but according to the NPD Group, 21 percent of commercial laptops sold in the U.S. in 2013 were Chrome books. The skills required to pull that off would come in handy for Sundar running Android.

Other areas of Google’s growing portfolio haven’t seen as much success. Google TV struggled in 2010, and more recently the online video-streaming device Chromecast faced its own challenges. Seeking to avoid the mistakes and inconsistent approaches of the past, Sundar has brought everyone working on TV software into one group within Android.

Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Sony all sell set-top boxes for the living room that make movies and TV shows available over the Internet. Samsung and other TV makers want to maintain control of their own smart televisions and are likely to be reluctant to cede any more control to Google. Sundar's job – once it again, it appears – will be to persuade them to bet on Android all over again.

For the full Business Week story, click here.

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