Sundar Pichai is now indisputably one of the most powerful figures in Silicon Valley.
On Tuesday, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced that Pichai would take over as CEO of parent company Alphabet (GOOGL) in addition to his role as CEO of Google. “He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet (GOOGL)’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets,” the founders wrote in a letter.
The move cements Pichai’s ascent from a modest upbringing in India and through the ranks of one of the world’s most valuable and influential businesses.
Pichai grew up in Chennai, India, with little access to a phone – let alone a computer or the internet. But it was this upbringing that helped show him just how powerful technology could be.
The Pichai family waited five years before they could get a telephone. When they did, neighbors would come over to make calls.
“It became a communal thing. People would come to call their kids,” Pichai told CNN’s Poppy Harlow in an exclusive interview earlier this year for an episode of Boss Files. “And so for me, it showed the power of what’s possible with technology.”
Pichai wouldn’t own a dedicated computer until he moved to the United States and attended Stanford University on a scholarship. But then the rest was history.
He graduated from Stanford with a master’s in engineering and later went on to get an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pichai worked at Applied Materials and McKinsey before joining Google in 2004. There, he held a variety of roles, including overseeing Chrome, product chief of Google and head of the Android operating system. He became CEO in 2015.
When asked if he believes the American dream is still alive, Pichai said he still thinks America is a “land of opportunity.”
“I still think that’s true today,” he said. “But I think we need to work hard to make sure it is true.”
A big part of that is ensuring immigrants have a path to succeed. Pichai has called on Congress to protect Dreamers and has advocated for high-skilled immigration.
“If you look at the technology industry … at all the leading companies, many of them were founded by immigrants,” he said. “Our leadership in technology comes from our ability to attract the best computer scientists, AI researchers. I think it’s important that we continue to do that.”
Becoming CEO of Google was the “opportunity of a lifetime,” Pichai said. But it wasn’t something he asked for. He said he was surprised when Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin approached him about it.
“I was busy building products. And I quite didn’t anticipate where this would go,” he said.
In his role as Google CEO, Pichai has faced some serious challenges, including concerns about user privacy, gender and diversity issues at the company and employee walkouts. He has also testified on Capitol Hill about privacy and – as CEO of both Google and Alphabet – will face continued antitrust scrutiny.
“It’s the job of the CEO to be chief ethics officer, given the scale at which technology impacts society,” he said. “I view it as a fundamental part of my role. But I think ethics needs to come at all layers of the organizations.”
As people become more concerned about data privacy, Pichai said Google is looking at ways to make it easier for users to minimize their information and have more control over their data. For example, the company announced a way for users to auto-delete their location history and web browsing activity.
“I don’t think users have a good sense for how their data is being used,” he said. “We’ve put the burden on users to a large extent.”
Pichai is also tackling challenges within the company. Last year, Google employees around the world staged walkouts to protest what they say is a workplace culture that has turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and discrimination.
Pichai said he believes the walkouts made Google a better company.
“Our employees clearly spoke up at a moment when the company hadn’t gotten it right,” he said. “I think it’s a good part of our culture that we were able to acknowledge something publicly and then work hard to get things better.”
He said one of the most important decisions the company made as a result was ending the requirement for forced arbitration. However, some organizers of the walkout have said they felt retaliation from the company.
More recently, Google dismissed several outspoken workers for allegedly violating its data-security policies. Some employees accused the company of trying to suppress its critics, highlighting escalating tensions between Google staffers and management.
“When you run a company at scale, it’s extremely important to me that there is no retaliation at the company. I take it very seriously,” Pichai said in the interview with CNN earlier this year. “We have very rigorous processes with multiple levels of oversight on something like that, which is important.
Pichai said the most important lesson he’s learned at Google is to hear the perspectives of other people.
“What you think internally, alone, is not enough,” he said. “You have to hear perspectives from the outside and you have to be open to what’s going on around you, [to] understand the impact of your products, and learn and work hard to make that better.”