I watched Sundar Pichai’s recent interaction with the students at I.I.T. (Indian Institute of Technology) Kharagpur, India, where he graduated back in 1993. Besides our common country of birth, I had never heard of Sundar until his rapid rise at Google a few years back. I have never met him or listened to him at conferences. So this was the first time, I had a chance to listen to his remarks and his answers to many questions from the audience of 3500 students at his alma mater earlier this week.
Growing up not far from I.I.T. Kharagpur, I was very aware of this institution. It was the first I.I.T. in India established during the 1950s. Other I.I.T’s like at Kanpur, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai came later. These were the original 5 Indian Institute of Technologies. Lately many new ones have been added.
Sundar did his undergraduate studies in Metallurgy (study about metals). Then how did he switch from that into software? That was one of the questions from a student. He said that he loved Fortran language during his student days and that love for programming continued. The message he was giving was for everyone to pursue their own interest & passion. He mentioned that unlike in India, students at US universities sometimes do not decide their majors, way into their 3rd or 4th year of studies. Sundar’s passion was to build products that would impact a very large number of global users. During his interview at Google, he was asked what he thought of Gmail, which he had never seen nor used. Then the fourth interviewer actually showed it to him. Subsequently, he gave his opinion to the remaining 3 interviewers on what he thought was wrong with Gmail and how to improve it. He emphasized time and again the need to step out of the comfort zone and get an all rounded experience. Today’s students need not be afraid to take some risks and be willing to fail.
Besides technical leadership, Sundar possesses an amazing quality; egoless-ness, so rare to find in Silicon Valley executive community. He said that he truly believes in empowering his team and letting them execute with full trust. This is easier said that done, based on my experience at IBM and Oracle. Large organizations suffer from ego-driven leadership causing great amount of friction and anguish. Sunder’s rise at Google was due to his amazing ability to get teams to work very effectively. From Search, he went to manage Chrome, then he was given Android. His ability to work thru the complexities of products, fiefdoms, and internal rivalries was so evident that he was elevated to the CEO position so quickly. Humility is his hallmark combined with clarity of vision and efficient execution.
He made an interesting comment about the vision at Google. Larry Page said that the moonshot projects are worthwhile because the bar is so high (no competition). Even if you fail, you are still ahead with your knowledge and experience.
It was fun listening to Sundar’s simple and honest answers & remarks.