Four years ago, on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sundar Pichai WG02 began chatting with a representative who was showing off a smart refrigerator. Pichai had been promoted to CEO of Google just a few months before, but among the throngs at CES, he still managed to circulate in anonymity. Even after looking at the name on his badge, the rep had no clue that this curious, friendly inquisitor was one of the most powerful people in technology. Of course, that was before Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped aside in December 2019 and added CEO of Alphabet, Google’s holding company, to Pichai’s title.
There’s no flying under the radar for the 47-year-old now. From authoring an op-ed on data privacy for the New York Times last year, to speaking about the boundless possibilities for artificial intelligence at the World Economic Forum in January, to penning a message to his employees — and the globe — about Google’s response and responsibility in the age of COVID-19, Pichai’s profile is high, and his influence is profound. Consider his company’s reach: Besides the search engine that’s both a brand and a verb, there are the Google products that touch nearly every aspect of our lives (Gmail, Docs, Android, Maps, etc.); YouTube (the world’s second most visited website, behind Google itself, of course); and companies under the Alphabet umbrella (Waze, Nest, and more). Nine of his projects boast one billion users, and five are nearly at two billion.
Ask those who know him to describe Pichai, and “humble” is a word you’ll invariably hear. That’s a reflection of both his personal journey — from a modest childhood in India to attending college in the U.S. and eventually earning a Wharton MBA — and his professional path. Pichai didn’t start in the C-suite; he worked on Google’s search bar when he joined the company in 2004 and then spearheaded the creation of its Chrome browser. Throughout his ascent, Pichai continued to push Google’s innovation and maximize its talent. As Page wrote in a 2014 memo, “Sundar has a tremendous ability to see what’s ahead and mobilize teams around the super important stuff.” Last year, when Google’s founders stepped back and officially handed the keys over to Pichai, they offered this endorsement: “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 School is also thrilled to announce Pichai will speak at the Wharton Global Forum in San Francisco on October 1–2.)
From his office at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Pichai shared thoughts on his career, the potential for AI and quantum computing, the responsibility of protecting data, the impact of Wharton alumni within Alphabet’s companies, and what the married father of two enjoys when he’s not running one of the world’s most important businesses.
Wharton Magazine: What was life like growing up in Chennai? I understand your family didn’t have a TV or telephone.
Sundar Pichai: I have fond memories of my childhood. It had its challenges — we didn’t have running water at times, for example — but there was happiness in the simplicity of it all. I grew up in a culture where people valued learning and community. My parents instilled in me the value of humility and working hard to do good for others.
I was fascinated by technology from a young age. Each new technology changed my family’s life in meaningful ways. The telephone saved us long trips to the hospital for test results. The refrigerator meant we could spend less time preparing meals, and a new television allowed us to see the world news and cricket matches. It’s what inspired me to want to be a part of building technology that helped improve people’s lives.
You joined Google in 2004 and led the development of Toolbar, Android, and Chrome. How did Chrome influence your growth and the growth of the company?
Today, Chrome is a very popular browser, but when we first launched the product, not everyone was on board. It wasn’t clear that the world needed another browser, so we had to be very clear that our goal wasn’t to build a browser. We wanted to build a better Web.
In the lead-up to the release in 2008, we sweated every detail and thought through our launch plans. Chrome launched to incredibly positive reviews, but initially, usage was very low — just one percent market share. I realized you can spend years building a great product, but that doesn’t mean people are going to use it. We learned hard lessons about how to scale up the product, and I learned that working through failures is a natural part of success.
Chrome has also played a significant role in Google’s growth. It paved the way for Chromebooks, Chrome OS, and Chrome Apps. By making the Web more modern, Chrome helped us deliver on our information mission and advance our core products and platforms, from YouTube to Gmail.
Your rise to become CEO of Alphabet is a testament to your talents in navigating the politics of a massive, fast-growing, pressure-packed company. What lessons have you learned along the way, and what advice would you give?
I’ve never thought of it that way, probably because I don’t see success as a zero-sum game. I’ve found that people tend to succeed together. We don’t build technology in isolation; it requires the collaboration of entire teams to get it right. So I’ve always thought about it with that lens and have seen my peers as partners. This is a quality that serves you well at Google; the culture really is about building on each other’s ideas, making them better, and cheering each other on.
One piece of advice I might offer, and it took me some time to learn this myself, is that doing things well is more important than doing things fast. It can be hard to maintain that perspective in a fast-moving industry like tech, but when I look back, some of the most successful products were not first to market. So the best advice I can give is that when you’re working at scale, adopt a long-term view, listen to feedback, and make sure you get things right.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, you said that AI’s potential impact on health care “will be more profound to humanity than electricity and fire.” This was after your study showed Google AI could detect breast cancer with greater accuracy than humans interpreting mammograms. What are the obstacles that stand in the way of more breakthroughs, and what’s the potential?
AI has profound potential not just for health care, but for every industry and part of society. It allows us to understand and make sense of the world around us in a deeper way than ever before. Health care is only one example; we’re seeing how AI can help doctors screen for things like diabetic retinopathy, lung cancer, and breast cancer, and better predict heart attacks and strokes. We find that in these cases, this is freeing up doctors to spend more time with patients and focus on care. It’s also helping with crisis response and prevention, with more precise flood warnings and rainfall forecasting, and helping researchers do a better job predicting earthquake aftershocks. Waymo’s technology could help address more than a million deaths caused by car crashes every year and make the world’s roads much safer. These are just a few examples, and we’re still not even scratching the surface.
AI has the potential to improve billions of lives. The biggest risk of AI technology development may be failing to develop it at all. Of course, we need to remain clear-eyed about what could go wrong. There are real concerns about the potential negative consequences of AI, from deepfakes to nefarious uses of facial recognition, which is why I’ve called for sensible regulation. No one company or industry can solve these challenges alone. We will need international alignment and agreement on core values across companies and industries.
Quantum computing is a passion of yours and has been a 13-year investment for the company. In October, Google announced it had achieved “quantum supremacy” — a quantum computer performing a task that traditional computers couldn’t. You compared the feat to the Wright brothers’ flight. What’s next, and how do you hope to apply this technology someday?
We’ve always believed in long-term bets — we call them moonshots. And we’ve always known that quantum computing is one of those important moonshots. Quantum computing gives us a chance to achieve many practical-use cases and help make the world better in a way that we can’t with classical computers alone. It also helps us understand the universe in a deeper way, closer to the way it actually works, and that’s something that really excites us. We see potential for designing better batteries, which would benefit the environment by making electric cars more appealing and the energy grid more efficient. It could help waste far less energy when creating fertilizer, which is important when you think about how today, the chemical process of nitrogen fixation creates more than two percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Quantum computing could also help researchers figure out what molecules might make effective medicines, which has a lot of exciting implications. These applications are still years away, but we’re excited about what’s ahead.
When you hear the phrase “No one lies to his search engine” and consider Google’s entry into health care, what are your thoughts on the company’s growing responsibility to assure the public that its information won’t be abused?
People come to Google every day to get information to help them with every part of their lives, including sensitive topics like health. This requires trust, and we work hard to earn that trust and provide better experiences for users, whether they’re using Search, Gmail, Google Photos, Maps, or any of our other products. We are thoughtful about every part of the user experience.
Emerging technologies like AI have the potential to assist in diagnosing cancer, predicting patient outcomes, and preventing blindness, as well as to provide clinicians with tools to improve patient care. We’re working closely with our health customers and partners to ensure that as we develop new products and services, we maintain this trust as well as comply with the regulations and policies that are already in place that protect privacy in health-care settings such as hospitals.
You’ve said you think the world will move toward the EU’s approach regarding data privacy, with more measures like GDPR and “the right to be forgotten.” How do you see that developing in the U.S., and how can a company like Google balance those interests with innovation and the bottom line?
I do think GDPR can serve as a framework for how the rest of the world can think about privacy regulation, and I’m glad Europe took the lead on it. Privacy is at the heart of all we do, and I think it’s a misconception that protecting users’ privacy is somehow at odds with innovation. There’s a lot we can do for our users with less data. We’re leading the way in artificial intelligence advances that enable us to strengthen our products and privacy protections, all while using less personal data. For example, a technique called federated learning means that everyday tasks, from captioning phone conversations for the hard of hearing to learning new words on Gboard — our keyboard on iOS and Android devices — can be done without any raw data ever leaving your device. Over time, I think we can do more things on-device. We can use AI and innovation to actually preserve privacy as we improve user experiences.
I have to applaud you for that Google ad during the Super Bowl — it was tough to keep the tears out of my nacho dip. How important is it for Google to be likable, and what’s your strategy beyond heartstring-tugging TV spots?
So glad you liked it. We were honored to tell the story of Loretta in our Super Bowl ad and were thrilled, though not surprised, that it resonated so deeply with people. This spot really gets to the heart of what we’re trying to do with our products, which is to be helpful to people in moments big and small. Over the past couple of years, we’ve evolved from a company that helps people find answers to a company that helps you save time, get things done, and connect with the people and moments that matter. Simply put, we are now focused on building a more helpful Google for everyone, which to us means providing the tools to increase the world’s knowledge, success, health, and happiness. That’s the lens through which we view all of our products, and the story of Loretta is meaningful to us.
Culture is a big part of Google’s identity, and you’ve already tweaked some aspects, like the famously freewheeling TGIF meetings. Given the company’s scale and age — it turns 22 this September — is it inevitable that the culture will change? How do you ensure that Google is a great place to work?
We’re proud to be recognized as a great place to work, one where people of different views, backgrounds, and experiences can do their best work and where their contributions have a positive impact on the world.
Our culture is built on openness, transparency, and collaboration, and there are a lot of traditions we cherish as a company. Our all-company TGIF meetings are one of them. They used to be socials that we could hold in one room. Now, they’re global, with a potential for more than 100,000 attendees. We are keeping our all-company meeting with a few tweaks and also adding more forums at the group or division level. You’ll find that most employees joining Google today are blown away by the amount of transparency within a company of our scale.
Wharton alumni are a part of Google’s DNA. How has the Wharton network helped shape the company?
I can say with confidence that Google has benefited a great deal from the imprint of the Wharton community and network. Several of our leaders are Quakers — including our CFO, Ruth Porat WG87; Eileen Naughton C79 WG87, our head of People Operations; and Caesar Sengupta WG06, who oversees our efforts in payments as well as in emerging markets. More broadly, Penn is an important university for Google in terms of both recruiting and research, especially within the computer science department. Fernando Pereira, who chaired the computer and information science department in the Engineering school, is now at Google, leading our research and development in natural language understanding and machine learning. It’s a natural pairing. Google attracts those who are curious, analytical, and qualitative — the same attributes that Penn and Wharton help instill in students.
What do you think is ahead in this decade for Alphabet and for tech in general? What’s the next big leap forward?
The wider adoption and application of artificial intelligence is an important trend that’s still in its earliest stages, and we’re going to continue to see improvements in our products and our ability to benefit society as a result. Ambient computing is another trend that I’m excited about, because it will mean computing is working in a way that’s much more intuitive to the way people live, and not the other way around. One example I see is using augmented reality in Google Maps in a much more integrated way, so that when you’re walking around in a neighborhood, there’s a layer of AR showing you things like the vegetarian options at nearby restaurants. Or as a sports fan, you can get a lot more information about the matches as you’re watching them. I’m excited about the possibilities there.
On a personal note, what do you enjoy in the rare moments when you’re not working on or thinking about all things Alphabet?
I try to carve out time where I’m not thinking about work — I spend most time outside the office with my family, friends, and my dog, Jeffree. I also read a lot — a passion I picked up from my mother. I am also known, correctly, as a huge cricket fan — last summer, I was able to attend the India- U.K. cricket match, and it was a dream come true for me. I also am a devoted fan of football, especially FC Barca, and I enjoy a good TV show. I recently finished season three of The Crown — so good!
Google’s founders installed a dinosaur statue on the campus as a reminder that nothing lasts forever. How do you avoid complacency within the company and keep the business relevant and vital?
Yes, his name is Stan, and he’s a model of a T. rex. Stan is a good reminder that success is never guaranteed. When you look at companies that don’t make it, they usually fail because they’re focused on the wrong things. They take success for granted and stop listening to their customers and users. I don’t want us to fall into this way of thinking. Ultimately, we succeed only when others — partners, developers, customers, users, and communities — succeed. That’s why we build open platforms like Google Play, Android, and TensorFlow — so that others can innovate on top of them. We empower businesses of all sizes with the tools to grow and thrive. And it’s why we invest in communities where we operate, such as our $1 billion commitment to affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. We must constantly be thinking about how we can continue to focus on our users and our biggest opportunities to improve their lives.
Published as “Sundar Pichai WG02 Wants to Change Your Life” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.