Searching For Google CEO Sundar Pichai, The Most Powerful Tech Giant You've Never Heard Of

Get the Full StoryThe Consumer Electronics Show, universally known as CES, is a riot of technology. Held annually in the bleak Nevada desert town of Las Vegas, it is a great blinking din, jammed with screens, speakers, automobiles, whirling drones, blooping robots, e-cigs and e-cigs and ever more e-cigs, plus some 170,000 people bumping around inside a disease-ridden convention center. Among those many attendees is Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.Pichai is 43, tall and slender, and tends to dress casually, if nicely — think Banana Republic dad. Today he’s wearing a v-neck sweater over a collared shirt and jeans. He sports rectangular-framed glasses and a trim, graying beard. For the most part, he looks like any other conventiongoer. Which for him is clearly a thrill. As he pauses for a moment to gape at a motion simulator ride where 20 or so people are strapped into lurching theater chairs with VR headsets clamped across their faces, he leans in close to make sure he can be heard over the fury of carnival noises bouncing around the hall.“The nice thing about CES,” he says impishly, grinning and eyes aglow, “is that there are so many people, you can be anonymous.”It’s true. And he’s definitely enjoying the chance to cruise the show in incognito mode. Pichai has long been respected in product circles as a visionary. But he is now among an elite group of tech executives — along with the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; the new American industrialists whose global reach make U.S. Steel and Standard Oil look like Piggly Wiggly by comparison. And yet, unlike those boldface names, and despite a widely reported 200 million stock windfall, he remains largely unknown.Were Cook or Zuck to stride across a CES show floor, they would be mobbed. Pichai is not at that point yet. So all morning, he’s been running around with his name badge flipped over backward, having fun, anonymously checking out gadgets. He bounces from smart locks, to smart lights, to a smart shower, to smart shoe insoles. It almost backfires when a Samsung representative demonstrating a smart refrigerator reaches out and flips his badge back over, asking, “What are you, press?” But his name doesn’t mean anything to her, and Pichai just casts an amused sideways glance and dives in with questions. “So, what can I ask the fridge?” he wants to know. Various versions of this same scene play out again and again.

Sundar Pichai at the 2016 CES conference in Las Vegas.

Mat Honan BuzzFeed News

Yet while he’s purposefully keeping a low profile today, that’s clearly not possible long-term. Pichai was promoted to Google’s top job in August, following a massive restructuring that created a new holding company, Alphabet. This let the company peel off its more fantastical ventures — things like Calico that’s “curing” death, or its Wing self-flying-drone delivery service — as Alphabet subsidiaries, while keeping all of its main internet businesses under Google. With 74.5 billion in annual revenue last year, Google is by far the largest and only profitable business under Alphabet. Indeed, Google has seven different products that more than a billion people use: Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android, Chrome, Maps, and its app and media vending machine, the Google Play Store.But with that world-beating growth has come controversy. It was intimately linked to the Edward Snowden revelations about an NSA program called Prism, which caused people the world over to wonder how much Google was cooperating with the NSA. The company has always maintained that the NSA was not given direct access to its systems. Protesters in San Francisco made Google buses synonymous with income inequality, and regularly took to blocking them in the streets. Google tussled with European governments over citizens’ rights to remove unfavorable listings from search results the so-called right to be forgotten , and over antitrust claims that it lists its own products ahead of its competitors. At one particularly low point, during its Google IO developers conference in 2014, a protester stood in the aisles during the keynote presentation shouting, “You work for a totalitarian company that makes machines that kill people.”Things used to be so different! When Google was young it was A Very Different Kind of Tech Company, espousing idealistic principles in the earnest manner of the ’90s web. In the now-famous letter from its 2004 IPO, the company's founders wrote that one of its principles was “Don’t be evil.” It was just there to help you get shit done. Search for your stuff and get out.Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information. And the company has been very good at this — it’s why its search is unparalleled, Gmail is the best tool for organizing and sorting your email, and Google Photos can take all your thousands of pictures, tell you who is in them, and where they were taken, and that this is a picture of a parrot, while that is a picture of a duck.But to do all that it has to suck up an enormous amount of information — and increasingly that information isn’t coming from Web pages, but from you. You are, at this very moment, bustling with data location, age, primary mode of transportation, gender, browsing history, heart rate, race, IP address, browser, operating system, cervical mucus, cholesterol level that can be used to better understand you. And Google is collecting ever more of it in an effort to give you better and better answers; to take your raw data and turn it into useful information. What’s more, as the company pushes ever more into machine learning, human beings are ceding control of what its products decide. Why did its AI, AlphaGo, choose the moves that beat the best human player in the world in a Go tournament earlier this month? The honest answer is no one really knows. Which is to say, Google may not be evil, but it’s undeniably a little creepy.

Meanwhile, all of these things Google is doing for those of us in the industrialized world today, it wants to do for the whole world tomorrow. Google is sprinting to attract its “next billion” users. For the most part, these are people in the developing world; people who will go online, for the very first time, using one of Google’s Android-powered handsets. Which puts Google in the position of being seen as both a corporate NSA and modern East India Company.It’s that vague, impending creepiness, plus increasing global ambition, that explains why Pichai seems like the ideal person to be running Google now. The company’s previous CEOs, Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, never seemed particularly empathetic or, you know, likely to have a measurable body temperature. Schmidt once famously said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” while Page waxed rhapsodic about theoretical lawless “special zones” where the company could be “free to experiment.” While the gossip on Schmidt tended to center around things like, as New York Magazine put it, his “lavish sex palace,” what you hear Googlers whispering about Pichai is how he promised to put his kids to bed himself every night in 2015.Pichai clearly understands there are all sorts of things we don't want anyone to know. "We need to design systems so that we give people a very easy way to say, ‘I need to be off the grid, I need this to be private,’” he says over a smashed avocado at the Wynn, moments after being buttonholed by Barry Diller in a nearby hallway. Can Sundar Pichai transform Google's image? Can he make you actually like Google again?As Clay Bavor, who runs Google’s virtual reality efforts, says of Pichai’s approach to technology, “You want a deeply thoughtful, caring human person, thinking about those issues and leading the company making those things happen. I’m really glad that he, of all people, is Google’s CEO. That’s what I tell my friends.”So… Sundar Pichai: It could be worse?

Vivek Singh for BuzzFeed News

In November, the winter monsoon blew into the coast of southeast India, just as it always has. But this time its effects were very different. A particularly bad storm system dumped more than 40 inches of rain on Chennai that month, with more than 10 coming in a single 24-hour period, flooding the city. Illegal building and the destruction of neighboring wetlands had left Chennai poorly prepared, and it remained inundated for weeks. More than 300 people lost their lives, and damages were estimated at 3 billion. Sundar Pichai’s family was among those affected.“My grandmother took the brunt of it,” he says from the backseat of a van, snaking through the thick Delhi traffic on a warm December day. His grandmother had been staying with his aunt, and when the rains came they moved to the second floor of a building where they were stranded for four days with no water, power, or cell service. A cousin collected rainwater for them to drink. And for four days, the CEO of the company that has amassed more information on more people than any other on the planet had no idea what was happening to his family. Weeks after the floods, he is visiting India for the first time in more than a year.“It’s always emotional to me to come back to India,” says Pichai, who is on his way to a stadium where he will address a few thousand cheering students. “It’s truly humbling to see the reception.”The CEO of this American colossus grew up in a two-room house in Chennai, where he and his brother slept on the living room floor. “My parents sacrificed a lot and education was always a priority,” he says. “I felt fortunate about the opportunities I had, so I never felt it was modest because they were determined to give me access to education, whatever it took.” Pichai will later say that he worries his father is still disappointed that he didn’t go further in school. “I think if you talked to my dad, he’s probably still regretting that I didn't complete my Ph.D. He had to leave college after his undergrad. He wanted to learn more, but because of financial reasons he couldn't do it. I think he always wanted me to continue on.” By the standard of living in India, Pichai was fortunate. His father was an engineer, and he had access to education. The family had enough money for a scooter, which all four of them — himself, and his father, mother, and brother — would sometimes ride at once. Sure, you could catch him hanging off the sides of buses in Chennai as they rolled down the street, but it was to avoid the oppressive heat, not the fare.Yet there were plenty of people — and he saw them all the time — far less fortunate. “Outside my home there was this guy we called the night watchman,” he explains. “He would sleep outside our home every night. I never thought of him as homeless, but he never had a home, and never had a family. He doesn’t know where he was born, or how he was born.”Today, Pichai travels with a security detail in multiple vehicles, and an entourage of assistants and lieutenants. When one, an American, notes the cacophony of horns, weaving tuk-tuks, curbside food stands, and vendors who walk out into the roadway to sell enormous, man-sized balloons, Pichai scoffs. “Delhi’s nothing; Delhi’s so organized.”

“I remember when I was young trying to come home at night, and these dogs wouldn’t let me come home. So I wound up climbing on the top of the houses, and going from rooftop to rooftop, and they would follow me all the way, barking.”As the caravan creeps through a swarm of slow-moving, smoke-spewing vehicles through Delhi’s crumbling history and rapidly modernizing future, it passes a large, unmissable billboard, advertising the Nexus 6P, Google’s flagship phone. You see these ads all over Delhi, and outside of it, too. They greet you at the airport. There are no similar signs for the iPhone. And indeed, there are very few iPhones in India at all, where Apple has less than a 2 market share.There are, on the other hand, a lot of goddamn Android phones. Android commands a whopping 64 of the Indian market. And in 2016, for the first time, Google expects to sell more Android phones in India than in the United States. Smartphones have largely saturated the United States, where almost 70 of the adult population, and a full 86 of people in their twenties, has one. But India is still on the way up. Only 26 of India’s population owns a smartphone, and they make up nearly all of the country’s internet users. That number looks poised to change rapidly, fueled not by high-end devices like the fancy Nexus 6P that’s advertised everywhere, but by an explosion of inexpensive phones from no-name manufacturers and a blooming infrastructure that’s allowing people to connect those phones to the Internet. One of Pichai’s challenges will be to make sure Android keeps that market share as India blooms.“Personal computers never really took off in India,” explains Pichai. “Two things changed: affordable smartphones powered by Android, and connectivity. It’s one of those ignition moments when the combination of the two is lighting up a country.”Android was, very literally, made for this moment. Its entire point is to be customized, reconfigured, and personalized for a world full of people across a range of sizes, shapes, configurations, and price points. Sure, signs for the 550 Nexus abound, but you can also score a cheap Android phone in Delhi, like a Lava Atom X, for less than 40 — and that’s without a contract. It will, Pichai thinks, change the status quo not just in India, but the entire world.“Hundreds of years ago very few people had access to information. And they were essentially in the corridors of power,” he says, sitting up in excitement, and leaning forward from the backseat of the van. “Even a simple thing like the printing press made books accessible to many more people. I’ve always been fascinated by this thing, that every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field."Yet those inexpensive phones are nothing without affordable connections. India’s cities have slow, overloaded connections, and its rural areas often have no connection at all. But that’s changing, largely through the efforts of companies like Google and Facebook.Facebook’s main push in India was via a program called Free Basics, which offered a set of services like the weather, Wikipedia, and, well, Facebook that people could access without counting against their data plans. But in January, India’s government banned so-called differential pricing plans, killing Free Basics and dealing it a huge setback.Google is going a different direction. It’s trying to do two main things: reduce the amount of data its devices use, and break out its checkbook to help provide free bandwidth for people to use whatever services they want. “The model people want here is similar to what we have in the United States,” Pichai says. “We should do more to get more data and make it more affordable. That’s a better way to approach the problem.”To that end, in January, Google rolled out a program that will provide free Wi-Fi at railway stations. It started in Mumbai, and will be in 100 stations by the end of the year, reaching 10 million people. Eventually, it will arrive at some 400 stations in all.The other big piece is making it easy for people to use their phones on slow networks, or when there is no network at all. That means doing things like caching Maps so you can still navigate even without an internet connection. Or the emphasis in its forthcoming version of Android, N, on using less data to accomplish the same tasks.Google is also pushing hard into Indic languages. Although Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, with more than 400 million native speakers, that’s a small slice of the nation’s 1.3 billion–strong population. Google says it expects the next 300–400 million Internet users in India to come online speaking native languages. And so Google has rolled out support for 11 of them.