What it Takes to Become Googles No 2 Exec

We’ll give Sundar Pichai a few weeks before we ask him that question, after all, Google CEO Larry Page only handed him keys to the company’s product empire late Friday afternoon. This according to Liz Gannes and Kara Swisher of Re/code.

Pichai, whom many of us don’t yet know much about, was already in charge of Android, Chrome and Google Apps. With the promotion Search, Maps, Google Plus, Commerce, Ad Products and Infrastructure fall under his purview as well.

It’s a big job, much of which Google CEO Larry Page was handling until now. But because Page now needs to focus on the company’s “bigger picture,” he’s counting on the ten year Google vet to run the operations of the business.

While Pichai’s resume certainly lists notable academic creds -- he went to the Indian Institute of Technology (which is harder to get into than Harvard, MIT and Stanford as an undergrad), Stanford and Wharton -- so do the CVs of many, many others in Silicon Valley. He certainly doesn’t seem to be that big of a networker (217 connections on LinkedIn, 478 Tweets in 6.5 years) or have the media creds of an Aaron Levie type, who seems to find a way to show up in front of large audiences at least a few times a month.

So what did Pichai do to become second in command of one of the largest tech companies in the world?

1. He understood, early on, that products must be designed with the end user in mind.

Shortly after Google launched Chrome in 2009, Bill O’Reilly, at his company’s Web 2.0 Conference, asked Pichai why on earth he thought the world needed another browser. Pichai explained that Chrome was more of an operating system for the web than a browser and that it was built to handle modern applications which need more resources than those of, say, the late 1980s and 1990s. Not only that, but he also insisted that Chrome would provide a better user experience. “Speed. Simple. Safe and get out of your way” was how he put it. And it’s exactly that that we take for granted today.

2. Instead of blowing his own horn and asking for a bigger job, Pichai earned his power by doing what’s best for the customer and for the business.

When, in 2012, Walt Mossberg (then of All Things Digital) asked him if taking charge of Android wasn’t a bit weighty a job, given that he was already in charge of Chrome (Chrome operating system, browser, Google Drive and apps), Pichai explained that having one person in charge of both would benefit the end user and provide “a good opportunity for us.” He also, humbly, mentioned that he was getting the additional responsibilities because Android founder, Andy Rubin, was stepping back versus anything that he (Pichai) had done.

3. He took on and delivered on difficult projects that were core to the business. 

Chris Beckmann, who was a product manager at Google up until a few years ago, cites Pichai’s work on Toolbar and Chrome as examples. Answering a question on Quora earlier this year, he wrote: “Toolbar wasn't an obviously sexy product but it helped him (Pichai) defend the presence of Google search on users' computers during a critical period following the revelation of Google's incredible profitability." “Chrome extended that mission to improve the user experience of the entire web: keep users on the web and you'll keep them searching on Google.”

4. Pichai embodies Google’s values. 

So says Ankur Pasai who worked with the Toolbar team from 2006 to 2007. If you want to be a leader in the company where you now work, embracing values is a must. If you don’t agree with your employer’s values, work somewhere else.

5. He takes care of his team. 

A manager is no better than the team that he leads. In fact, leading a team is what a manager does. Pichai gets this. When he reported to Marissa Mayer, who left Google to become Yahoo’s CEO, Pichai "used to wait for hours outside her office to make sure that she gave his team solid work-performance scores." Source: Amir Efrati of The Information.

6. He’s a good partner and peace maker. 

Last year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Samsung introduced Magazine UX, new software for its tablets. It reportedly looked like the table of contents for a magazine where you could simply tap on an article or video to watch it.

Nice, right? The bosses at Google certainly didn’t think so, and they had good reason: it bypassed Google’s app store and would have required developers to design apps specifically for Samsung. This made Google execs furious. They commandeered Pichai to get them to change direction. It couldn’t have been easy.

But sources say that Pichai is a good peacemaker who knows how to talk win/win and about mutually beneficial relationships. He was obviously able to persuade Samsung that the “Google way” was the best way for all involved.

Do You Have What it Takes?

Sure, not all of us can -- or even aspire to be -- big execs. But with that said, there’s much we can learn from Pichai’s stellar climb up Google’s ladder.

Title image by Luc Viatour (Flickr) via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license