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Can Sundar Pichai Bring Order to Alphabet? Former Google Employees Have Doubts and Hope

December 6, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

As he ascends from leading Google to heading up the larger parent company, Alphabet, Sundar Pichai faces a host of new challenges. So who is the man who Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have so much confidence in that they were willing to step aside? And how will he handle the company’s growing struggles that include everything from market competition to internal culture clashes, and an intensifying global regulatory environment?

Some former Googlers say Pichai is the best man for the job, and his track record of leading and building some of Google’s key innovations—including Chrome and Android—speaks for itself.

Others, meanwhile, worry that Pichai will push the company further from its “don’t-be-evil,” creative roots towards an even more corporate environment focused on financials and output. Under Pichai’s leadership, Google has come under fire for things like working on a secret, censored web search for China, mishandling sexual harassment allegations, and signing government contracts with agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has been separating immigrant families at the border.

“To be a capable and great leader—and he is a great leader—you need to be technical and deliver, but you also have to be approachable and a people person,” says Alan Masarek, CEO of Vonage who previously worked for Pichai at Google for two and half years. “He has struck that balance very well.”

Pichai takes over Alphabet as federal and state regulators investigate whether Google has violated antitrust laws. Meanwhile, tensions are rising inside the company, after it fired four employees who organized protests against the company last month. The unrest was also visible during last year’s walkout, in which thousands of Googlers demonstrated their dissent for how the company handled sexual harassment allegations.

Page and Brin announced the change to Alphabet’s leadership earlier this week in a public letter. The founders said that Alphabet and Google no longer need two separate CEOs and that Pichai, who has worked for Google for 15 years, would lead both companies in the days ahead. They lauded Pichai for his humility and “deep passion for technology.”

“There is no one that we have relied on more since Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future,” the letter from Page and Brin reads.

‘He goes straight to the white board’

A native of India with graduate degrees from Stanford and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Pichai joined Google in April 2004, after working for semiconductor company Applied Materials and consulting company McKinsey & Co. He started as vice president of product management, but later advanced to leadership roles for Chrome, Android, and products across the board. Pichai was named CEO of Google in October 2015, and now the buck stops with him at the top of Alphabet.

While Pichai attained new authority and a likely large pay bump (he made $470 million in 2018) with the appointment, he has also inherited some of the Google’s larger problems—and he’ll be the held accountable for any missteps ahead.

Two former Google leaders have full confidence in Pichai, given their previous experience with him. They describe him as technically savvy, thoughtful, and humble—skills that will be needed for Pichai’s new, larger role.

“He doesn’t come into the room with an ego, and he very well could,” says Vinay Goel, a former Google product director who worked at the company for 11 years. “His humility can be disarming… it becomes an easy conversation, and you can focus on how to collaboratively solve an issue.”

Goel, now chief digital officer at Jones Lang LaSalle, says one of Pichai’s strengths is that he’s always well-read and prepared to take a project to the next level. Pichai has done just that with a lot of Google’s current products, doubling down on them to improve the user experience and underlying technology, Goel says.

During Pichai’s tenure, Google has ramped up its efforts in artificial intelligence investing in products like the Google Assistant. It also has improved its search capabilities with a type of natural language processing it calls BERT. Pichai also helped spearhead new growth for Google Cloud when he hired Thomas Kurian last year to lead the unit. And that’s all before Google claimed to reach “quantum supremacy” earlier this year.

Goel says it also helps that Pichai, who got his engineering degree at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, has such deep technical expertise, which he often brings to every discussion.

“He goes straight to the white board and tries to solve some problems,” Goel says. “He’s got that leadership. He’s going to go in and tackle the problem.”

Masarek, who sold his company Quickoffice to Pichai in 2012 before working for him, says he often looks to Google and its leadership as a “North Star” for his company.

“We hire wicked smart people and create an environment where we can flourish,” Masarek says. “Some of that I learned at Google working for Sundar.”

Critical insight

Despite his success, Pichai has plenty of critics, many of whom list Google on their resume.

Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist, resigned last year protesting the company’s work on a censored web engine. Though he never had met one-on-one with Pichai, Poulson says Pichai often uses his charm to avoid being held accountable for larger social issues.

“I can’t help but view him as a fairly cynical person,” Poulson says. “It would be against the financial interests of the company if he were anything else.”

Irene Knapp, who worked at Google as a senior software engineer for five years and was an outspoken activist on safety and diversity, acknowledges Pichai’s warm character. Knapp also was comforted by the “balanced perspective” he provided after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the problem is that Pichai works in what Knapp calls a “leadership vacuum.” And unlike his predecessor Page, Pichai doesn’t make himself available to employee activists, which appear to be growing in number by the day.

“It isn’t as if ethical concerns didn’t come up during Larry’s leadership,” Knapp says. “But back then, there were discussions about them within the company, and I usually felt that stuff got adequately addressed.”

But it’s not just an activism problem, Knapp says, Pichai really isn’t visible much at all to most of the employees. That makes it hard for workers to gain respect for his chops or get a real feel for his leadership style. And most companywide e-mails from him seemed very legal in nature, with a much more corporate feel to them.

“It used to be a bottom-up company,” Knapp says. “Now, very suddenly, it’s becoming a top-down one.”

While it’s unclear how Pichai will resolve Alphabet’s cultural and ideological controversies—if he’s able to at all—he’s likely to button up some of the holding company’s other businesses, much like he did when he took over Google. And, according to Goel, that could mean cutting out extra fat—perhaps moonshot projects that extend beyond the moon.

“Sundar and [CFO] Ruth [Porat] are going to be a powerful combination as you think about what really needs to happen,” Goel said. “I think the time is right for Alphabet to clean up a bit.”

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