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Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai

Opinion | Google’s Sundar Pichai could end up in an Alphabet soup

His new job as group CEO is daunting but Microsoft’s Satya Nadella could serve as inspiration

Within hours of the announcement of Sundar Pichai’s elevation from Google’s chief executive officer (CEO) to CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, cnbc.com ran an opinion piece with a headline that he had just “got the worst job in Silicon Valley". And it’s not as if Pichai didn’t already have his hands full with Google.

Alphabet owns a clutch of companies that pursue futuristic passion projects of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who have stepped down as Alphabet’s CEO and president, respectively. These include self-driving cars, smart cities, providing worldwide internet via high-altitude balloons, and combating ageing. Pichai will now be responsible for them, in addition to his Google duties.

Since 2017, Google has been fined $9.3 billion by the European Union for violation of antitrust laws (the company is appealing all three verdicts), with a new investigation announced last week. The US government and almost every American state are scrutinizing its market dominance. Breaking up Google is an idea that has bipartisan political support; Democratic party presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has vowed to do so if she becomes US president. And Donald Trump believes Google has skewed its search algorithms to undermine him.

The company has also been facing unprecedented employee unrest. Staff pressure forced it to withdraw from bidding for, among others, a $10-billion Pentagon cloud computing project. In November last year, more than 20,000 employees staged a walkout, protesting the company’s record on sexual harassment, discrimination and pay inequity. Last month, Google fired four employees who organized recent protests (officially, for reasons unrelated to the protests). And, of course, there’s the matter of being surveilled 24/7 by various Google apps, which may then use your private details to influence your behaviour.

In short, the company that was once changing the world is now seen by many as the “Evil Empire".

Most of Alphabet’s investments are extreme long shots. Currently, the company’s revenues come almost entirely from digital advertising on Google, and both its advertising growth and innovation engine are slowing. At some point, Pichai may have to take some hard calls on these high-concept ventures, but Page and Brin hold 52% of Alphabet’s shares, and will remain “active" board members. So, while Pichai becomes Alphabet’s face, “the boys" loom in the shadows behind him.

Another India-born techie, Satya Nadella, walked into a dire situation when he became CEO of Microsoft in 2014. Microsoft was reputedly the original tech “Evil Empire", considered a monopolistic beast that held users captive, with governments constantly after it for antitrust violations. Nadella took over a company that had missed out on the mobile revolution, woken up late to broadband internet, and waged a pointless war on open-source programming. It was an empire that nobody bothered about anymore.

Nadella reinvented Microsoft. He turned a collection of silos that saw one another as rivals into a collaborative hive that encouraged bottom-up innovation. He embraced open-source computing, and reversed Microsoft’s traditional policy of treating every other tech firm as an enemy, by partnering with them in areas where they were not competitors. And he moved fast into cloud computing, making Microsoft one of the biggest players in the field. In November 2018, Microsoft became the most valuable company on earth, a position it had last held in 2002. Since then, it has stayed in the top three.

Of course, Pichai’s problems are very different from what Nadella faced (Microsoft’s antitrust cases were over when Nadella took over as CEO). While Nadella inherited a company low on employee freedom and innovation, Google owes much of its success to giving its people enormous freedom, including voicing opinions fearlessly. But today, that very independence is an issue. Its much-touted motto, “Don’t be evil", fired an idealism and unrealistic expectations among employees. A direct financial fallout has been the company forgoing big-ticket defence contracts. Sometime in 2018, Google quietly buried the motto deep inside its official code of conduct. Now, it has replaced its weekly freewheeling town hall meetings with monthly ones and has put restrictions on topics that can be raised. It has clamped down on free discourse between staffers and has hired a firm that is alleged to help companies bust employee unions.

After Pichai took over as Google CEO from him, Page went dark, not even speaking on investors’ calls, not attending the last annual shareholders’ meeting, and refusing to appear for a Senate hearing. Now, by quitting their executive positions when Google is going through its roughest phase ever, Page and Brin will retain their aura among Google employees, while Pichai will be answerable for everything. However, while rendering themselves unaccountable, the two founders have not let go of their overriding decision-making power as majority shareholders. To say that Pichai faces a huge challenge is an understatement. Yet, what Nadella has achieved can serve as an inspiration.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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