Sundar Pichai at the pinnacle
India-born Sundar Pichai has become one of the most powerful tech titans on the planet as Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are ending an extraordinary run and stepping aside as leaders of the Internet behemoth they founded 21 years ago.
Their trusted lieutenant and IIT Kharagpur alumnus Pichai, now the Google chief executive, will become the chief of both Google and its parent Alphabet.
The move marks the end of an era for Google. Page and Brin have personified the company since its founding and have been two of the technology industry’s most influential figures, on a par with the founders of Apple and Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Their early work on the Google search engine helped corral an unruly cloud of information on the World Wide Web. And their ideas about how to run an Internet company — like offering generous employee perks like free shuttle buses to the office and making rank-and-file employees feel as though they have a stake in the company — became a standard for Silicon Valley.
The new responsibilities confirm the ascendancy of Pichai, aged 47. While he has run the core Google business for four years, he has still reported to Page, Alphabet’s chief executive, and Brin, its president.
Now Pichai is the sole executive in charge of a company that has giant businesses in search, advertising, maps, smartphone software and online video, as well as a variety of fledgling bets in far-off areas like drone deliveries and Internet-beaming balloons.
In recent years, Page and Brin seemed to have lost interest in running the company they founded. The reorganisation into a holding company was in part intended to address that. While Pichai took the reins of the often messy business of Google, Page and Brin would focus on what were effectively science projects.
Brin moved his desk for a time to X, the so-called moonshot lab where engineers worked on projects that were likely to fail — but had big potential if they didn’t. Page was rarely a presence on Google’s campus and was working on long-shot technology problems and personal side projects like his flying-car start-up, Kitty Hawk.
In recent years, the freewheeling work culture promoted by Page and Brin has run into trouble. Employees have staged public protests over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims against executives, its treatment of contract workers and its work with the US defence department, federal border agencies and the Chinese government.
The soft-spoken Pichai has been reluctant to confront the protests head-on, but he has quietly cracked down on employee unrest.
Google has halted the weekly company meetings and placed restrictions on what employees can discuss on message boards.
“Some had seriously hoped Sergey and Larry would step in and fix Google,” Google Walkout for Real Change, the organiser behind last year’s employee walkout, wrote on Twitter. “Instead of righting the sinking ship, they jumped ship.”
Though working at Google is becoming more like working at other giant companies, Page and Brin’s interests and styles — like focusing on passion projects and math jokes — have become part of Silicon Valley iconography.
While other tech titans like Jobs and Gates were known for their sometimes brash and mercurial leadership styles, Page and Brin were low-key and cerebral. But not always. Brin sky-dived for a company event that introduced one of the company’s most disappointing products, the Google Glass wearable device. He often was spotted riding an elliptical bike to work.
That idiosyncratic style, that “Googliness”, became something company managers were told to look for in applicants.
Page is the son of academics from Michigan, while Brin’s family emigrated to Maryland from the Soviet Union when he was a child and he considers himself a refugee. They met at Stanford, where in 1996 they came up with the invention that spawned Google.
Page was the visionary while Brin, a maths prodigy, led the engineering.
Whatever they decide to do, they will have no trouble funding it. Page is worth about $58.9 billion and Brin is worth about $56.8 billion, the sixth and seventh-richest people in the world, according to Forbes.
Page and Brin will retain broad control over the company through their roughly 51 per cent share of voting power. That stems from a stock structure in which one class of stock comes with far more voting power than the others. They hold about 84 per cent of those higher-vote shares. With such voting power, Page and Brin can still effectively eject Pichai, who owns none of those shares.
“If you really boil it down, it’s not that different from: Dad puts you in charge, but Dad still owns the company,” said Jones, the former Google executive.
Page and Brin are among the few tech company founders who have walked away from daily roles at the company they created and that made them billionaires. Gates did something similar when he handed the chief executive role at Microsoft to Steve Ballmer in 2000, during his company’s long anti-trust fight with the US justice department.
Pichai is still unsure what he faces from lawmakers. The scrutiny includes Google’s dominant market share in Internet search and how it competes with smaller rivals in the digital-ad business.