Google’s Nikesh Arora: Man with a plan18 min read . Updated: 27 Nov 2013, 12:44 AM IST
The 45-year-old Ghaziabad-born chief business officer of Google, has achieved one goal after another in an unpredictable career trajectory
The 45-year-old Ghaziabad-born chief business officer of Google, has achieved one goal after another in an unpredictable career trajectory
New Delhi: Nikesh Arora, the fourth most important man at Google Inc., and the company’s highest paid employee last year, with a total compensation of $51,145,868 (around $51 million or around 310 crore) according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is late for a meeting.
He probably doesn’t know that he is late, however, because the senior vice-president and chief business officer of the search-engine company has a team of people to arrange his schedule, as might be expected of a man who travels 100 days a year and meets countless people on those trips.
Arora is also likely unaware that there have been unforeseen problems with the suite of rooms at the Oberoi hotel that has been booked for his press liaisons, that the hotel room service is not answering the phone to bring coffee, and that his staff has warned reporters in advance about his “British sense of humour", that can apparently be “brusque".
When he enters, then, it is into scene of perfect calm. The room overlooks the Delhi Golf course, a view Arora admires. He is a keen golfer, once scored a hole-in-one at the DLF course in Gurgaon (“purely a statistical event"), and has played with some very important people, including Lawrence (Larry) Summers, US President Barack Obama’s former economic advisor, on the same that day Summers withdrew from the running to become the new chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Arora thinks a person’s golf game is the best reflection of personal and professional behaviour.
“He was calm… he was relaxed," Arora said of Summers’ game that day, “You can tell if people are genuine or not (on the golf course). It’s very hard to fake your personality for five hours; golf is a very frustrating sport. People who are not calm on the golf course make more mistakes. The best golfers in the world are reasonably even-tempered, they don’t have tremendous displays of emotion."
Arora might be describing himself. He’s even-tempered to the point of seeming inscrutable. His voice is low, almost under-pitched and he rarely smiles or frowns. His natural impatience is masked by impeccable manners; he’s an acute observer of small details. All in all, Arora looks and sounds like the perfect executive face for Google: sleek, compelling, articulate, sharp, constantly on the lookout for the next thing, and confident enough to appear just a touch complacent.
If that is so, the 45-year-old Arora has earned the right to be pleased with himself. The Ghaziabad-born air-force kid, who left India 23 years ago with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology (Banaras Hindu University), a place on the MBA program at Northeastern University in Boston and $3,000 (his father’s life savings), has achieved one goal after another. He shone academically at graduate school, according to his teachers, and moved from a promising job at the financial services company Fidelity Investments, to the investment management firm Putnam Investment Management LLC, to Deutsche Telekom AG, T-Mobile USA Inc., and finally to Google, first as the president of Europe, Middle East, and Africa operations and then to his current role.
His career trajectory has not been predictable. It has involved several risky changes of orientation, but throughout, Arora seems to have had a single goal in mind: always to challenge himself even if that means taking the less obvious route to success. Along the way he’s received universally glowing reports from colleagues and friends. There doesn’t seem to be a chink in his well-oiled corporate armour.
When Arora walked into his interview for Google he had already made a name for himself, but, even so, Jonathan Rosenberg, former senior vice president of product management at Google, who conducted Arora’s interview, was impressed.
“It was clear that he has presence and gravitas when he comes into a room," Rosenberg said. “That was what struck me initially. I’m pretty good at controlling and managing interviews, throwing curve balls, doing the cranial scan of people, but with him it was different. What was surprising was how insightful he was at the nascent stages of this market, when he wasn’t really in the market. He was the analyst who studied my industry but knew it better than I did. I don’t think I succeeded in throwing him off his game, and I usually do."
It took Arora a while to acquire the kind of gravitas and presence that Rosenberg describes. Speaking at Northeastern’s commencement day in May, Arora told the story of how he arrived in the US, knowing nobody but carrying a metaphorical suitcase full of skills and aspirations. It’s a story he has clearly told several times, and a compelling one.
After studying at the Air Force School in Subroto Park, Delhi, and then graduating from IIT BHU (in Varanasi, and since renamed IIT, Varanasi), Arora did a brief stint touting Wipro Ltd’s computers around various government ministries in Delhi. He worked as part of a three-member team, travelled on a motorbike, and was paid on commission.
“I was the new kid so I got the harder jobs," he said. Despite making one significant sale ($100,000 of equipment for Geographical Information System Services) nine months into the job, Arora decided to head to the US for an MBA. Money was a problem, however. “My first criteria was to find universities that didn’t have an application fee," he said. “I applied to 10. The first set were what we called ‘zero dollar’ universities." Northeastern was one of these, and, in 1990, Arora set off for Boston, with his father’s money and a strong sense of obligation.
In his commencement day speech, Arora acknowledged, to their evident delight, the debt he owed to two former professors, a married couple named Harlan and Marjorie Platt, who, he said, had taken him under their collective wing and invited him for Thanksgiving dinner in their home.
Harlan Platt remembers a different Arora from the confident man who walked into Rosenberg’s office for a job interview: a keen but rather gauche student, who came to assist him and his wife with their research on the causes of bankruptcy and corporate failure.
“He became integral to our team," said Platt, “we found him enchanting, and then Thanksgiving came along and he just seemed—he’s not little, he’s a big guy—but he seemed like a little lost boy. He was in a strange country, he was not surrounded by a cadre of friends, he was really immersed in gaining knowledge and capability and skill. I remember saying to him, ‘What are you doing for Thanksgiving?’ and he said, ‘What’s Thanksgiving?’ He said it was the very first time he had ever tasted a turkey. I remember him being wide-eyed."
Arora also describes his first experience in the US as overwhelming. “I didn’t know anybody in Boston," he said. “There was one guy who said I could stay for a night, he worked in an Indian restaurant in Cambridge and I waited there until he shut the place down and went to his house. He lived by the ocean and I remember spending half the night staring out the window with my jet lag, and first thing in the morning we went out and he bought me a copy of The Boston Globe, which had a big room-mate section."
Arora ended up moving in with four Indian students, who were looking for a fifth guy to live in the smallest room of their house. The only condition was that he must know how to cook, he said. He didn’t view the room before agreeing to rent it, which might have been a mistake, he admits. “Who makes a house with five rooms and one bathroom? It’s just perverse."
As well as successfully recreating a few home recipes for his new room mates (including an aloo gobi that was more “mush" than gobi) Arora began to shine in school. The suitcase skill-set that he talked about at the commencement ceremony was immediately apparent to Platt.
“His intensity and focus is extreme, and as a result he was perhaps the best student I’ve ever had," said Platt. “What I found most interesting about him was his intensity. He could easily wind up saying something that others could misinterpret. It was never malicious, he’s not a bragger, but he is the sort of person that thinks that what he is talking about is the most important thing in the world and that can be abrasive to others who don’t see the world through his eyes."
“I once said to him after class, ‘Nikesh, when I ask a question in class, it’s like you want to answer every single one of them’ and he looked at me and twisted his neck a little and said, ‘Oh. I understand.’ From then on he would only raise his hand if the others didn’t know. I don’t think he knew just how exceptional he was, and consequently he was always struggling to demonstrate it to himself."
After graduation, Arora says he struggled to find a job, writing more than 400 application letters to various member of the alumni network who were well placed. Money was also a constraint. Arora had got married in the summer holidays of his first year at Northeastern and he needed a job quickly to support his family. Although he had been voted by his classmates as the most likely to end up on Wall Street, when he applied to the usual firms, he said, “the typical answer I got was thank you but no thank you, you don’t seem to know about finance".
After many rejections, Arora said, Fidelity Investments replied to one of his letters. Arora clinched the job and went to work. He also applied for a master’s programme in finance on the side at Boston College. “In the process of those 400 letters I had been told a number of times that I didn’t have enough finance on my CV," he said. “So I went to school at night. I beat everyone and was first in my class, and then, in parallel, I started taking the CFA (chartered financial analyst) course." By 1995, Arora had completed both.
Arora wasn’t in Boston for long. After moving from Fidelity to Putnam, he began to get itchy feet by 1999.
“I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do," he said. “Sitting behind a desk and analysing a lot of numbers and trying to decide which company was better than the other and trying to invest in them, seemed somewhat solitary and I felt that I wasn’t doing things, I was analysing things." So in November 1999 he decided to move to the German company Deutsche Telekom. “But I didn’t really want to live in Germany, so I moved with two suitcases from Boston to Bonn, I had an apartment there but I spent six months commuting to Boston every second weekend."
Platt views Arora’s restlessness as an example of his hunger for opportunity. “He’s an opportunist, willing to walk down the road and look for opportunity, whatever he found was not enough," Platt said. “Nothing was ever good enough for him, each opportunity led him, and I think he has a lot of respect for what his father accomplished, and an extraordinary feeling of responsibility to take those savings and do something very meaningful with them. That, I think, is what has driven him."
After the six months between London and Germany, Arora decided to start a mobile data business, for Deutsche Telekom. “It was the time when 3G was just starting and I figured you would need services for 3G. They didn’t think it was central or core just yet so they were fine for me to give it a shot." Arora moved to London for this venture, T-Motion PLC, which was incorporated in June 2000, and merged back into the parent company as part of T-Mobile after two years. Arora had begun to make a name for himself by that time, according to Sunil Mittal, founder, chairman and group CEO of Bharti Enterprises. Arora now sits on the Bharti Airtel board.
Mittal met Arora while he was still at T-Mobile working as the marketing chief and living in London. “Being in marketing makes you visible in the company," Mittal said. “He was known. He would have been one of the contenders to head T-Mobile. If you watch his trajectory, he always makes an impression about himself." On the Bharti Airtel board, Mittal says, Arora’s is a voice for innovation, opening up the company to new ideas. “He carries the vibe of Google," Mittal said. “He’s direct, he doesn’t go around things, and sometimes people see that as too direct in an Indian context. When you meet him, you are struck with his energy. He is curious and always full of ideas."
Many of Arora’s colleagues agree with Mittal’s description. Philipp Schindler, vice-president of global sales and operations at Google, who also knew Arora from his T-Mobile days, describes a boss who is a combination of highly demanding and very empathetic: “The guy thinks at an incredible speed and he digests things at an incredible speed. You have a lot of people who have a high cognitive ability but they usually lack empathy or emotion, he can clearly do both. He would move heaven and earth to help a friend. I’ve seen examples of that."
Arora’s people skills may have been learned early on, says Amit Singh, global head of enterprise sales at Google, who has known Arora since their school days in Subroto Park. Both boys grew up moving from base to base and they shared similar experiences as air force kids.
“You move every two years and so you get to learn how to make friends and be flexible and reinvent yourself," said Singh. “At some level, because you have to, you can always start fresh. Those are common traits that all army kids have, they are pretty global, they move around, they are comfortable in any environment."
By 2004, Arora was already onto the next project. His idea was to start a mobile virtual network out of London, and he was in the middle of drawing up the business plan for this idea when another alternative suddenly presented itself.
“I was having lunch with a friend, who said, ‘Hey there’s this company from California looking for somebody to manage their European business, it’s too small for me but you might be interested in talking to them.’ That was September 2004." The company was Google.
Nine years later, around 14,000 Google employees from around the world met for a conference in California, where they watched as a troupe of Elvis impersonators performed.
As the act came to an end, another figure dressed as The King appeared through the ranks and swung his jacket into the crowd to deliver the opening speech. It was Nikesh Arora.
Lorraine Twohill, who described the spectacle, was part of the team of people who worked on the speech. Twohill is the head of global marketing, and a long-time colleague of Arora’s at Google. “It was a very big moment for him, he was very nervous, he stood on the stage in front of his entire team and talked about his childhood in India. It was really great because the team needed to see that he was accessible and that he has a sense of humour," she said.
Schindler agreed. “There’s something when he speaks, he spends an incredible amount of time thinking about how to customize his speeches, he has everything prepared, but then he goes freestyle," he said. “Musicians who are great at improvising know their basics better than everyone else, that’s exactly how I would describe him. He knows his basics so well, that he can do that." Arora’s office declined to confirm the details of the event but two other people who were present did so.
After Arora joined Google in London in 2004, he made waves quickly, said Omid Kordestani, who was Arora’s boss for the first few years in London, and whose job Arora would later inherit. Kordestani said that Arora was a natural hire for Google, when he was looking for someone who could lead the company’s expansion into Europe.
“The challenge and complexity of Europe was finding the leadership. He (Arora) was introduced to us by a recruiting firm and there were other employees at Google who knew him from his Deutsche Telekom days," he said. Arora’s ambitions for Google in Europe far exceeded those of other candidates, according to Kordestani.
Arora remembers his interview process well. “Google at that time was probably 2,000 people and had just gone public in August 2004. I got the job in October 2004, I was the first vice-president to be hired from outside (the US), ever. There were probably 450 people in Europe that time," he said.
He made an impression early on in the interview, which was held in a rented Regus office space, he said.
“I said to him (his interviewer) ‘From everything you are telling me about the ambitions that you have, this is quite a sparse office. For a public US company to have a rented office space it doesn’t seem like a serious commitment,’."
The next meeting, at which Arora would be introduced to Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was held elsewhere. “Purely serendipitously, I think, the following weekend Larry and Sergey were in Europe and so we met at the British Museum, I had never been there," Arora said.
Arora decided to go early and familiarize himself with the museum. “I was wandering around the bookshop and I walked past a whole bunch of Rosetta stones," he said. “Fast forward two hours later, me and Sergey walked into actual Rosetta stone and he said, ‘Oh! What’s that?’ and I said, ‘Funny you ask, it’s the Rosetta stone,’ and then the conversation over the next 15 minutes was about Google Translate."
Kordestani and Arora had plenty of time to get to know one another in London and, later, they stayed in contact in California. They ate out a lot (Arora apparently carries his own bottle of hot sauce to add to his food in restaurants) and they still play golf together. “I really saw him as a successor to me, and I told them (the leadership team) that, I think," he said.
The move to Mountain View and his promotion to chief business officer would involve another shakeup for Arora’s family, something, Rosenberg said, that concerned Arora immensely. “I remember having a lot of discussions with him about which cities had strong public schools, where would be easier and more accepting for a kid who had grown up on another continent."
The move was not too disruptive, however. Arora says that his daughter, now 16, has adapted completely to American culture, and draws an analogy between the concept of being a digital “migrant" or “native" and a geographical one. Her generation, Arora says, has grown up with touchscreen devices and is comfortable with certain digital technologies in a way that his will never be.
For all his immersion into US culture, and despite his long stint abroad, Arora admits he misses India these days. His colleagues say that Indian culture still plays a very important part of his life. He eats Indian food at home, his family speaks Hindi with each other and he stays up late into the night watching cricket matches on the other side of the world.
“He’s very deeply Indian," says Twohill, who worked with Arora in London as well as California and is originally from Ireland. “I think that his sense of self, his identity, comes from that. He has this quiet pride about where he has come from that contains him and grounds him, that has stayed with him throughout his career."
Increasingly, Arora says, he wants to simplify his life, cutting down the days he is away from his daughter in Mountain View from 100 to 50. He travels to India around four times a year, for Google and for his work with Bharti, and, according to Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google India, he has quite a following here.
“He’s a cult-like figure among the Indian Googlers," says Anandan, who remembers his own interview with Arora, during which Arora apparently checked Anandan’s references via email on the spot, while conducting the 30-minute conversation. “He’s very very quick," said Anandan. “He’ll look at something in 30 seconds and ask you three questions. With him, it’s a good meeting if it’s a short meeting, I like that. It’s a very Google trait."
Twohill and Schindler agreed that loyalty matters a great deal to Arora and both said that his contained exterior masked a light-heartedness. “He can be very giddy when he wants to be," said Twohill. “He had a great meeting with Larry the other day where he’d approved a project Nikesh has been working on and he came into my office excited like a five-year-old child. If we are going through a hellish week at work, that’s when he turns into a funny guy, he takes the tension out of the room."
Asked about his career trajectory and the unusual nature of his choices, Arora is both sanguine and concise.
“I feel privileged and lucky," he said. “Life is a combination of capability and luck and hard work, if you get all three you’re able to break through various ceilings. I could have decided to live in Boston, had a wonderful life, I chose not to. I could have done a start-up. I could have been extremely successful there, but then again, I’m extremely successful with what I do now." He pauses briefly.
“The sum total seems to have worked out fine."