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Google is facing more challenges today than at any time in its 20-year history. Employees are outraged over sexual harassment. Executives are under scrutiny for an effort to secretly make a censored version of its search product for China. Google will shut down its social network next year after a data breach was discovered. Political and social debates, including one over building military-grade artificial intelligence, are roiling the work force.
Yet the man responsible for leading Google through this minefield is not one of the company’s founders — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — or even Eric Schmidt, the company’s former chief executive and chairman, who was ushered aside last year. Instead, the man in charge of arguably the most influential company in the world is Sundar Pichai, a soft-spoken engineer who grew up in Chennai, India.
Mr. Pichai was a voracious reader as a boy, and attended the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, then Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he received advanced degrees. After stints at Applied Materials and McKinsey, he joined Google in 2004.
Mr. Pichai helped develop the company’s browser, Chrome, and in 2014 he took over product, engineering and research efforts for the company’s products and platforms, including search, ads and Android. He was made chief executive in 2015, and joined the board of Alphabet, Google’s parent, last year.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York.
Tell me about growing up in Chennai.
There was a simplicity to my life, which was very nice compared with today’s world. We lived in a kind of modest house, shared with tenants. We would sleep on the living room floor. There was a drought when I was growing up, and we had anxiety. Even now, I can never sleep without a bottle of water beside my bed. Other houses had refrigerators, and then we finally got one. It was a big deal.
But I had a lot of time to read. I was processing a lot. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I read Dickens. Friends, playing street cricket, reading books — that was kind of the totality of life. But you never felt lacking for anything.
What was it like coming over to attend Stanford?
It was the first time I had ever been on a plane. I always wanted to be in the Valley. I kind of knew that’s where everything happened. I remember landing in California, and I stayed with a host family for about a week. I was in the car going from the airport, and was like, “Wow, it’s so brown here.” The family was like, “We like to call it golden.”
When I was back at I.I.T., I had access to the computer so rarely — maybe I’d been on it three or four times. To come and just have these labs in which you had access to computers and you could program, it was a big deal to me. I was so wrapped up in that, that to some extent I didn’t understand there was a much bigger shift happening with the internet.
You started at Google 14 years ago. Does it still feel like the same company you joined?
When I first joined Google I was struck by the fact that it was a very idealistic, optimistic place. I still see that idealism and optimism a lot in many things we do today. But the world is different. Maybe there’s more realism of how hard some things are. We’ve had more failures, too. But there’s always…
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