Looking back at the rise of Google’s new CEO, Sundar Pichai

To the top.
To the top.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Sundar Pichai, the rising star within Google’s ranks, has finally reached the top.

Since October, he had been overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations, and on Aug. 10, he got a title to match his responsibilities. Pichai will be the new CEO of Google when it restructures later this year as a subsidiary of a new parent company called Alphabet, led by Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

As Quartz reporter Max Nisen notes, the promotion was a major vote of confidence and a way for Google to keep Pichai, whose name is often floated around when there are CEO openings at other tech firms.

Pichai joined Google in 2004 from McKinsey. He started his career at the search giant as a product manager overseeing its browser search toolbar—not an incredibly exciting product but important at the time since it gave users the option to make Google their default search engine on Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Building on his success growing Google’s market share, Pichai pushed the company to create Chrome and enter the browser wars, as Fortune reported in a 2010 story:

In a series of sometimes tense conversations with top brass around the time of a major update to IE in October 2006, Pichai argued that Microsoft could threaten a sizable chunk of Google’s business, according to two executives who were there. “It was a doomsday-like scenario,” one of the executives says. Shortly after, Google execs gave Chrome the green light.

The move paid off. Chrome is the dominant browser on the web today, and it has spawned other products including the Chrome operating system, Chromebook laptop, and media player Chromecast.

Pichai’s purview continued to grow over the years, including Google apps, such as Gmail and Google Maps, as well as Android, the business Andy Rubin had founded in 2003 and sold to Google in 2005. Pichai took the reins of Android in 2013 under somewhat contentious circumstances. Bloomberg reported in 2014 that Google’s management had “forc[ed] Rubin’s hand” after he disagreed with executives about integrating the division into the broader company. Rubin ended up stepping down from Android to head Google’s robotics project.

While Rubin was famously hard to work with, Pichai was generally described as a nice guy. He diplomatically navigated the company’s politics and avoided making enemies, telling Bloomberg, “We [Rubin and I] had a good sense of friendship, though we weren’t particularly close, but we never had any major disagreements.”

Google is known for hiring ambitious and smart employees, but the value of Pichai’s people skills can’t be overstated. Many employees have praised Pichai for his management style, painting him as a compassionate leader who recruited, mentored, and invested in the people who worked for him—a major contrast to long-time Google executive Marissa Mayer, current CEO of Yahoo. Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson notes in his biography of Mayer that as her own career stalled, Pichai’s raced ahead. Once a direct report to Mayer, he was eventually promoted above her.

Pichai’s ascendance also came as a number of high-profile executives—some of whom were mired in company politics—exited the scene. Feeling squeezed out of Google, Mayer took the top job at Yahoo in 2012. After resigning from Android, Rubin left Google altogether in 2014. Hugo Barra, then vice president of Android, decided to join Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi in 2013—the timing of which coincided with the revelation that his girlfriend, a Google Glass marketing manager, was dating married Google cofounder Brin. Following Google’s failed efforts to create a social media platform that would take off, Vic Gundotra, the exec who helped create Google Plus, departed last year.

Pichai, meanwhile continued to flex his leadership and product savvy. While his new title might seem like a formality, investors as well as current and former Googlers are lauding the promotion—one that leaves the company’s core business in the hands of Pichai while freeing up Page and Brin to play with their alphabet blocks.