Jan 05, 2017

Sundar Pichai in India: ‘What happens in the dorm stays there’

Nearly 25 years after he graduated from there, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai on Thursday visited his alma mater, IIT Kharagpur.

BYRamarko Sengupta

Nearly 25 years after he graduated from there, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai on Thursday visited his alma mater, IIT Kharagpur (IIT-KGP). This was his first visit to India and to the college since he became Google’s CEO in 2015.
A crowd of over 3,500 students and professors waited patiently for Pichai — he was late for the event by almost an hour — on an unusually warm January morning. When he spoke, they listened to him in pindrop silence, bursting into thunderous applause every now and then.
The Google boss was not at his candid best, but there were some moments. One was when he said, “What happens in college dorms stays there.” He was responding to a question on what posters he had in his room. Pichai was a resident of the Nehru Hall hostel at IIT-KGP.

Pichai at Nehru Hall, his residence for four years at the inititute

Another such moment was when he spoke about the time he called out to somebody “abey saale” (something akin to “you idiot” in English), because he thought that’s how people addressed each other in Hindi, and all hell broke loose. Pichai, who grew up in Chennai, said while he learnt Hindi in school, he never really had the opportunity to speak it before he came to IIT.
He spent time at Nehru Hall, his home of four years, took a trip down memory lane and talked to the current residents. “The dorm looks exactly the same. Some things don’t change,” he said.

“I got into Google because Larry didn’t interview me”

Pichai, who joined Google in 2004, also joked that he cleared the interview because Google’s co-founder Larry Page had just stopped personally interviewing people as they had scaled up to about 1,000 employees. “I got into Google because Larry didn’t interview me,” he laughed.
Every time he shared these anecdotes, the crowd went up in cheers and laughter.

A college romance and cricket

He met his wife Anjali at IIT. They were batch mates. While he was doing his engineering in metallurgy, she was studying chemical engineering. Talking about their courtship, Pichai said in those days of no mobile phones, he would go up to the only girls’ hostel (then) on the campus — SN Hall — and ask any girl going in to tell Anjali he was waiting for her. The messenger would inevitably shout out loud: “Anjali, Sundar is here for you,” and everyone would hear her, Pichai said with a shy smile.

Talking about his on-campus courtship with wife Anjali, Pichai said he would go up to the girls’ hostel and ask any girl going in to tell Anjali he was waiting for her  

He told the crowd at IIT-KGP that during his B Tech days, his idols were Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy — with whom he had breakfast in Bengaluru during this trip — and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. When asked about his favourite Bollywood actress from his college days, Pichai coyly deflected the question and said from the current crop of actresses, he liked Deepika Padukone, adding that he also enjoyed seeing her legendary whittler father Prakash Padukone play badminton back in the day.
Pichai said he still loves cricket and takes time out to catch up on the game. He is a fan of the legendary Sunil Gavaskar and from the current crop of crickets, he likes Virat Kohli, he said.
Sundar Pichai arrived to a 3,500-strong crowd waiting for him at IIT-Kharagpur on Thursday

The 44-year old CEO of the world’s second most valuable company, has been jetsetting around the country for the past week or so. He visited Bengaluru, where apart from meeting Narayana Murthy, he met startup teams. He was also in Delhi, where he visited Google’s office and rubbed shoulders with India’s minister for information technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Pichai visits India almost every year, usually in December. “He visits his family in Chennai and sometimes Google’s offices in Bengaluru and other cities,” said a Google employee, who didn’t want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. Pichai was here last in December 2015, just after he was named chief of Google.

Google on a roll in India

In October 2015, Google restructured the company by creating an umbrella holding company called Alphabet. Google — the search and internet business, became a subsidiary, like Calico, GV, CapitalG, Veril, X, and Google Fiber. Pichai was appointed the CEO of Google at that time.
India is a key market for the internet giant, which is locked in a larger global battle with Facebook for advertising dollars, and others like Apple and Amazon for the next billion users. To that end, Google has made many moves in the country in 2015.
Most recently, it rolled out free Wi-Fi at 100 Indian railway stations in partnership with Railtel, a government-owned broadband provider. The idea is to roll out the service to 300 more stations, or about 5% of all Indian railway stations. Not to be left behind, Facebook wants to take this a step further and provide internet to nearby villages using Railtel’s infrastructure.

India is a key market for Google. Recently, it rolled out free Wi-Fi at 100 Indian railway stations in partnership with Railtel, a government-owned broadband provider  

Google’s AI-powered messenger Allo was launched at Google for India in September last year, when the company also said that it will build a Youtube app from scratch for the Indian market. It also launched Youtube kids in India in November. YouTube, according to sources, has seen massive growth in usage since the launch of Reliance Jio in 2016. (Also read: What a 9 year old thinks of YouTube Kids).
There have also been a series of smaller launches like integration of public toilet information and cab services like Ola into Google maps, curated stories of Indian women of note, push to localise more Google search, Allo and Youtube content. It has also tweaked its services to work on low-speed internet, a key bottleneck for internet companies in India. YouTube offline and accelerated media pages were key among them.
For enterprises, Google announced that it will set up an enterprise cloud region in Mumbai in 2017. Google’s cloud services have picked up in India on the back of the startup boom. Moreover, the Indian government has been asking multinational companies to host their servers in India. Google’s investment arm has also picked up a stake in CRM software maker Freshdesk.

Parting note

Back at the amphitheatre at Kharagpur, a student jokingly asked Pichai how powerful he was at Google and if he could have a Google Doodle dedicated to IIT-KGP for a day. Pichai said there’s a dedicated team looking into Google Doodles, and even if he were to send a mail they might not listen to him. However, he said that he looks forward to having the institute featured as a doodle in a meaningful way in the future.

“There are lot of great people who don’t get into IIT” 

When asked about his grades at IIT, Pichai cheekily said he was too embarrassed to disclose his first year grades, but said that he made up for it in the next three years. On a parting note, Pichai said that while he held institutions like IIT in high esteem, “There are lot of great people who don’t get into IIT.”

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Ramarko Sengupta is a writer of FactorDaily.