It’s been nearly five years since Sundar Pichai took the reins as CEO of Google. How did this relatively unknown product manager in his early 40s rocket through the ranks to take control of one of the largest and most powerful tech companies of all time?
The short answer: By realizing that a decidedly unsexy yet strategically critical aspect of Google’s search business was vulnerable and turning it into the key driver behind some of the tech giant’s most influential products.
But before we dissect this pivotal moment in Google’s history and how Pichai used it to propel Google into completely new markets—and himself up the corporate ladder—let’s step back and review how he even got to that position.
Life before Google
After completing his undergraduate studies in metallurgy engineering in his native India, Pichai headed to Stanford University where he earned a Master’s degree in material sciences and engineering. He abandoned plans for a PhD and instead worked as an engineer and product manager at Applied Materials before getting his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with an MBA.
Next up was a management consulting role with McKinsey & Company. He then joined Google in 2004, and 11 years later found himself named CEO as part of the Alphabet reorganization of the firm.
Becoming a product leader at Google
Pichai started at Google leading product management for the Google toolbar, a critically strategic product that enabled default search queries on different web browsers to go through Google and allow them to track browsing behavior to power the AdWords targeting engine. At the time, Internet Explorer was the “installed by default” incumbent for many users, while Firefox was the alternative browser of choice.
Pichai identified a weakness in Google’s strategy, and Chrome began as a defensive play against the established browsers to protect and grow Google’s search business (which still generates much of the company’s revenue). There was no guarantee other browsers would continue making it easy for toolbars like Google’s to be installed by users, particularly Microsoft, who was still hoping they could establish their own inroads in the search market with Bing.
But Chrome wasn’t just another alternative web browser, it was a foothold on the desktop extending Google’s reach into the consumer web experience. Google was no longer just the homepage when you launched your browser or the results that came up when you entered a search query; it was now an end-to-end browsing experience.
Owning the browsing experience was increasingly important as more and more applications became web based, many of which were offered by Google. From Gmail to Google Docs, people were spending more of their time IN their browser, and since those apps were built by Google, they naturally worked best in their own Chrome browser.
Creating their own browser was a wise move for Google, as they have secured a dominant market share—64% vs. 4% for Firefox while Internet Explorer is no longer even officially supported.
Beyond just the browser, Chrome also evolved into Chrome OS for its Chromebooks and Chromecast to connect to TVs under Pichai’s direction. Meanwhile Google was leapfrogging the competition in the mobile OS market with Android, dominating market share and becoming the default OS for anyone trying to make a smartphone or tablet not headquartered in Cupertino.
As the leaders of Google Apps and Android eventually left Google for other opportunities, Pichai’s expanded his portfolio, adding these to his ever-growing empire. Managing both of its operating systems, Pichai was front-and-center in the company’s rivalry with Apple and Microsoft, and there were even rumors he would take over in Redmond when Steve Ballmer departed (the job instead went to Microsoft’s internal candidate Satya Nadella).
So when Larry Page decided to break up Google into a family of companies under the Alphabet umbrella, careful Google watchers weren’t surprised when Pichai was named CEO of the new Google. He’d already ascended from director of product management to vice president of product management to senior vice president to product chief, all while managing some of the highest profile and strategically important products in Google’s portfolio.
What his career in product management tells us about how and why he’s CEO
We all know that product managers sometimes think of themselves as “CEO of the Product,” but does that really prepare you to be CEO of a company? And not just any company, but one of the largest, highest-profile companies in the world?
Pichai’s bold claim in 2006 that Microsoft could change Internet Explorer and threaten Google’s toolbar business was clear evidence of his strategic thinking and ability to challenge the status quo. After only a couple years on the job, he was willing to put his career and reputation on the line and directly question management’s willingness to stand pat while market forces were changing.
He’d had his idea for the Chrome browser shot down before due to its cost, but he eventually compiled enough data to make a solid case to the stakeholders and eventually get it green lit. That bet obviously paid off and established his reputation as someone able to see beyond the product he was managing and worry about the business holistically.
At the same time, many say he was simply lucky to be in charge of a product so critical to Google’s revenue during a pivotal shift in the browser landscape and that others would have made the same recommendation. Regardless of how these alternative timelines might have played out, he seized the opportunity and was rewarded with continued growth and increased responsibilities.
Beyond the singular moment where Pichai’s legend was born, there’s plenty of other aspects of successful product management that were on display during his Google career, starting with not being afraid to hire good people and delegate efficiently.
“He recruited, mentored, and retained a great team,” said former Google product manager Chris Beckmann. “Sundar’s team of product managers had a reputation as being among the best of the best, similar to the reputation of the software engineers within Search Quality.”
Beckmann added that he didn’t make enemies and “navigated those politics to make his team successful while inflicting the least possible damage on any other team.”
Consensus building is a trait all successful product managers have, and this is another area where Pichair was no exception.
“He’s a very very strong opinionated person who has clear point of views about where product and initiative might go, but he’s very good at letting other people’s opinions emerge before he gives his own,” says former colleague Keval Desai.
When it comes to his elevation to CEO, it was clear that Google felt he was not only worthy of the job, but an asset they didn’t want to let go of. Pichai was becoming a hot commodity among tech titans and was likely to be poached eventually, as he had also been offered the top product job at Twitter. If Google hadn’t elevated him, he would certainly be gone by now.
This represents another essential skill product managers must embrace to move up the ladder; building up a reputation both inside your company and in your industry as a whole. Product managers are often told to “get out of the office,” and he was clearly doing that. It also doesn’t hurt when you’re giving presentations in front of tens of thousands of your peers at Google I/O.
Not to be ignored is that before Pichai ever set foot in the Googleplex, he already had an unusually brilliant resume for a product manager. Most product managers don’t have graduate degrees from Stanford AND Wharton, plus years at a top management consulting firm and the technical chops of a former engineer. Whether it was the reputation those institutions carry or the skills and experiences he racked up along the way, it’s a far more impressive starting point than most product managers can claim.
But there’s no question that Pichai’s experiences as a product manager created a great foundation for his career trajectory and have prepared him well for a role as CEO. He has had to worry about product strategy and execution, build teams, work with other internal groups and outside companies, fight for recognition, and deal with short-term issues and long-range goals. There are very few roles at a company where you get to do all of those things, and there aren’t many other jobs to better prepare someone for taking the wheel and leading an entire company.