What does it take to make one of the world’s most powerful CEOs of one of the largest tech companies in the world break down? The answer isn’t a personal one, it’s one a lot of people may have felt in the last few months. As the Covid-19 pandemic has lasted over a year and a half and left over 40 lakh people dead worldwide, it’s affected every single individual on the planet – no matter how detached you were. For Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, the pandemic emotionally affected him too. In an in-depth interview with the BBC at the Google headquarters at Silicon Valley in California, the tech boss covered a wide range of topics, including the threat to free and open internet and also narrowed down two developments that he feels will further revolutionise the world over the next quarter of a century as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.
During the conversation, Amol Rajan, the interviewer asked Pichai, when was the time he last cried. Pichai’s answer was, “Seeing the morgue trucks parked around the world during COVID. And seeing what’s happened in India over the past month.” India in the month of mid-April to May witnessed a deadly second wave that left thousands dead and photos of dead bodies washing up in the Ganga river, and being burnt around the clock surfaced on the Internet.
“I’m an American citizen but India is deeply within me. So it’s a big part of who I am,” Pichai said when asked about his roots. Pichai, who was born in Tamil Nadu and grew up in Chennai, has said India is deeply rooted in him and a big part of who he is. In the course of the interview, Pichai reveals that he was into a middle-class family in Tamil Nadu, in south India and the various technologies had a transformative impact on him, from the old rotary phone that they were on a waiting list for, to the scooter they all piled on to for a monthly dinner.
“Growing up, technology provided a window to a world outside my own. It also brought us closer together as a family. Every evening we were drawn to the television by Doordarshan’s special rendition of ‘Sare Jahan Se Accha’. I tried to explain this to my colleagues the other day, but I eventually gave up and just showed it to them on YouTube,” he said last year during an interview in July.
“When I was young, every new piece of technology brought new opportunities to learn and grow. But I always had to wait for it to arrive from someplace else. Today, people in India no longer have to wait for technology to come to you. A whole new generation of technologies are happening in India first,” he added.
Pichai last year during a virtual conference had also recounted the challenges he faced when he left India for the US to pursue a course at Stanford University 27 years ago.
“My father spent the equivalent of a year’s salary on my plane ticket to the U.S. so I could attend Stanford. It was my first time ever on a plane,” Pichai said, adding that when he eventually landed in California, things were not as he had imagined.
“America was expensive. A phone call back home was more than $2 a minute, and a backpack cost the same as my dad”s monthly salary in India,” he recounted. He said that when he first touched down in the state of California, he could hardly see the changes that were coming.
“The only thing that got me from here to there — other than luck — was a deep passion for technology, and an open mind,” said the 48-year-old top executive.
Pichai, who grew up in Chennai and studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, holds a master’s degree from Stanford University and an MBA from the Wharton School. He joined Google in 2004 and helped lead the development of Google Toolbar and then Google Chrome, which grew to become the world’s most popular internet browser.