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Sundar Pichai at IIT-Kharagpur: When a shy Indian engineer returned to his alma mater as Google’s CEO

Quartz india
Quartz india

Kharagpur, India

On the morning of Jan. 05, some three dozens students stood outside the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kharagpur’s Nehru Hall of Residence waiting for the homecoming of one of the institute’s most famous sons.

After much shuffling and rearrangement of the welcome party, a cavalcade pulled up a little past 11.25am. Only a small, maroon bus came through the gate. A small group slowly disembarked, till a tall bespectacled man, modestly dressed in a blue shirt and black jeans, got off. Applause and hoots followed instantaneously.

Finally, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive officer of Google, was back where it all began—for the first time since graduation in 1993. Hostel and security staff crowded around. “Woh daadhi wala hai (It’s the bearded one),” someone whispered, confirming Pichai’s identity.

Wide-eyed current residents stood huddled by the corridors as 44-year-old Pichai walked up to B-308, an underwhelmingly ordinary room. It has two chairs, two tables, a bed without a pillow, and a guitar tucked away under the window. Behind the green door, there’s a curious collection of cosmetics, edibles, and electronics piled up on concrete shelves. It could’ve been any hostel room in any Indian college.

For Pichai, presumably, it remains something special. So, too, for the young men who now live in Nehru Hall. “It’s a badge of honour for every Nehru-ite,” said Shashank K, 23, a final-year computer science student, “that this was once Sundar’s hostel.”

In the ultra-competitive world of inter-hall rivalries at IIT-Kharagpur, the first of India’s elite engineering schools, founded in 1950, bragging rights are serious currency. And few of these halls have alumni that include the likes of Pichai, arguably one of the most powerful technology executives in the world today.

“He’s an inspiration,” added Shashank, explaining how Pichai’s journey from the metallurgy department at Kharagpur to Stanford, Wharton, McKinsey, and eventually to the top of Google in 2015, remains exceptional, even by the high standards set by IIT alumni.

Kumar Abhishek, another fifth-year student, and current Nehru-ite, had seen Pichai before. Last summer, he interned at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. But this was different. “He’s someone who started his journey here,” said Abhishek, “It’s humbling, it’s a matter of pride.”

The same sense of pride percolated through the crowd of some 3,500 students and staff that gathered at the Tagore open-air theatre later in the day. Queues had been winding around the venue from as early as 10am, and comedians Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kanan Gill had to stretch their performance with Pichai running late. But there was no lack of enthusiasm when he finally arrived past noon. There were hoots, applause and whoops as the alumnus strode across the faux grass on the stage and took a seat for a chat with Hitesh Oberoi. The latter is the CEO of Info Edge which owns the likes of naukri.com and 99acres.com, and attended IIT-Delhi around the same time that Pichai was at Kharagpur.

Much of the conversation centred around Pichai’s time at Kharagpur. The Google CEO did bunk classes because, as he explained, “it is the rite of passage of going through college.” The Chennai boy once called out to a member of the mess staff using “abey saale (roughly, ‘Hey stupid’),” thinking it was a polite Hindi greeting. He was ragged and was even hit by “CG Change,” where his room was turned upside down despite being locked from outside. CG stands for centre of gravity. He also had to contend with the frequent public announcement of “Anjali, Sundar is here for you,” at Sarojini Naidu Hall, the hostel that housed the classmate who would go on to become his wife.

Expectedly, the session also included a smattering of the work underway at Google under Pichai’s watch, particularly artificial intelligence and machine learning, which he reckons will drive the next wave of computing. He also discussed India’s evolving technology ecosystem. “I’m pretty convinced that in the next 5-10 year timeframe,” Pichai predicted, “there would be big global software companies coming out of India.”

More than once, the talk turned to education and the ideal career trajectory, to which Pichai had broadly two responses: Follow your passions, and setbacks don’t matter because it’s a long journey. His audience, mostly comprising India’s academic royalty, hung on to every word.

Yet, for all his rockstar status, Pichai seemed somewhat reticent—even shy. He was careful in what he revealed—no GPA numbers, nothing on his college shenanigans, or even what posters hung in his room back in the day. His body language, too, showed little outward exhilaration, though he smiled steadily through the day.

His former professor, Sanat Kumar Roy, was hardly surprised.

“Today I could also very well notice that even though he has been living in the (United) States for two-and-a-half decades, that Indian shyness, that inherent character, is still persisting,” said 72-year-old Roy, now retired. “It’s still there.”

Although Pichai was whip-smart as a student, Roy didn’t quite expect him to find his way into the corner office. For one, he wasn’t quite “charismatic” as an undergraduate, unlike, say, the likes of former Vodafone Group chairman Arun Sarin, who was also taught by Roy. Secondly, Pichai was an academic ace.

“Normally, toppers are expected to join academics because IIT toppers are academic-minded,” Roy, himself an IIT-Kharagpur graduate, explained. “But Sundar chose a different path and he excelled to the pinnacle of success.”

It’s a path that has perhaps made him the first among equals on the hallowed list of IIT-Kharagpur and Nehru Hall alumni, which feature the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of New Delhi.

“I don’t know if Arvind comes here, he’ll get the same welcome,” said Shashank, as Pichai’s bus drove out of the gates of Nehru Hall.

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