Before he accepted the position of managing director (MD), Google India in 2007, Shailesh Rao had turned the opportunity down a couple of times. But then he has always been a careful decision maker. To convince his parents and prove to himself that he was not cut out for a career in medicine, he volunteered at a hospital for a year before he finally decided to pursue finance and management in graduate school.
In fact, Rao interviewed with Google 24 times over a period of nine months (now the maximum number of interviews at Google are down to 8-10 per candidate) before he accepted the offer four and a half years ago. “I always saw myself as a start-up guy. I was not sure what I could do at Google.”
Forward thinking: Rao says that at every public platform in India, company CEOs ask him for help on how to take advantage of the Internet for their businesses. Jayachandran / Mint
Rao, who is wired 24/7 and hardly ever sleeps (he’ll answer an email even at 3am), thought long and hard before taking up the India assignment. “Can I do it? Am I prepared to make the sacrifices and commitment necessary to do this job well? After all, I would be coming to India without a Rolodex and would need a complete understanding of the legal and regulatory frameworks of the country.” What clinched the decision for him was the huge turnout at a general strategy India review meeting at the Google headquarters, Googleplex, in California in early 2007. “Before I took this job I needed to know I had the ear of our CEO and founders, because if you want to do something dramatic, drastic or disruptive, it requires resources, support and energy. For that, full engagement from top executives is essential.” When that 20-minute review went on for over an hour, Rao knew India would have that commitment.
Rao and I meet at the coffee shop in Trident, Gurgaon, for lunch, but he decides to make do with a glass of iced tea and soup while I opt for aam panna and salad. Rao, 37, who has recently returned from New York City, is dressed casually in a dark, collared T-shirt and a pair of dark jeans,
I wonder how he has managed to stay on in India for 24-odd months when some of his friends have returned home to the US.
After Rao finally decided to take the India assignment, he says, he went to meet Eric Schmidt, the company’s chairman and CEO, for advice: “Don’t come back,” is what Schmidt said to him.
Oops! Suddenly the job sounded like a banishment rather than a plum assignment. Seeing the startled look on my face, Rao is quick to clarify: “What he was saying was that India will offer so much opportunity and has such a great growth potential, why would you want to come back?”
Born in Toronto, Canada, Rao was brought up in the US, where his family moved a few months after he was born. His father, a chemical and nuclear scientist, had been with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai and “was part of the centre’s second batch. He went to Canada for further studies”, says Rao proudly. Yet Rao chose not to major in science even though his parents wanted him to pursue a career in medicine. “Though all my cousins, uncles, aunts have studied some stream of science, I chose not to because it did not interest me. In your career you have to find an intersection between skills and interests. I have had lots of hits and misses along the way.”
Before shifting base from the US to New Delhi in June 2007, Rao used to visit India to meet his grandparents. He admits his view of the country was limited to what he saw in and around Bangalore. “I understood my particular slice of India. The biggest learning since I have taken up this job is the full frontal appreciation of the totality, diversity, enormity and complexity of India.”
People who know Rao describe him as a guy who lives out of a suitcase. In addition to being the MD of Google India, he was recently appointed MD, media and platforms, Google Asia-Pacific. I wonder how he copes with being on the move all the time. “The only reason I have been able to stomach an extensive travel schedule is because I believed that if in the first 12-18 months I threw myself into everything, the net result would be that I would eventually have a work-life balance. Plus, I had to show people I can value-add,” he says.
At Google, people managers are encouraged to allocate some part of their time to a roll-up-the-sleeves project to keep them grounded and engaged. With his team in place (something that Rao says he built and expanded during his tenure here), the Google operations in India are in a phase where, according to Rao, “the fun really begins. Now, we have to see how do we take this forward and really make our connect with the Indian consumers”.
Two projects Rao has chosen to be heavily involved with at Google India are “building our strategy on brand advertising and doing all the operational things to get that platform to launch” and to design Google’s mobile strategy for India. “Our current focus on mobiles is based on two factors: There are way more mobile subscribers in India than PC owners; and there are strong incentives in this country to drive investments in wireless Internet technology. My main goal is to figure out how we will deliver high-quality Google experience on the mobile platform, and to identify the right audience.” The litmus test for his success in India will be “when you say ‘Google’ to anyone, anywhere, they will be able to view it or recognize it as an essential utility”.
Though he is very accessible (his daily schedule, including details of his tennis sessions, are up for all to see), Rao has rules too: “You don’t need permission to come into my office, but make good use of my time. If you don’t, I will make a mental note of it and I’ll remember. I am nice, I joke about a little, can play table tennis in the hallway once in while, but I also operate on a high bar. If you do bad work, I will tell you your work stinks.”
Like the rest of us, Rao is also awaiting “Google Wave”, the Google application currently in the works. At present he has around seven active accounts—Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Twitter, Orkut, Facebook, plus a corporate account—and he uses a Web application (from Yodlee) to store information about all the services he subscribes to and their passwords. “There are multiple ways to communicate on the Internet and they are very fragmented. There will be a breaking point where you realize that you cannot keep communicating in this highly inefficient manner over five, six, seven applications. It is this recognition that has driven our global team to rethink communication over the Web.”
As for the Microsoft-Yahoo combine taking on Google, all Rao will say is that competition of any kind is healthy.