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Sundar Pichai: Sometimes Nice Guys Finish First

When Sundar Pichai was named to succeed Larry Page as Google CEO in August, many in the mainstream business press responded with a collective “Who?”

What many of them didn’t know was how extensively Pichai’s fingerprints were spread across the Google businesses they were so familiar with.

In just over a decade, Pichai rose from the position of product manager for Google’s ubiquitous search bar, to the man who spearheaded Google’s launch of its Chrome browser, which begat the Chrome operating system. Next up, Pichai took the reins of Gmail and Google Docs for two years before Page put him in charge of Android in 2013. Android is currently dominating the market with an 82 percent global share of the smartphone OS market, according to IDC, running on 1.2 billion devices.

In 2004, Page elevated Pichai to head of products and his No. 2 exec. Said Page of Pichai: “He has deep technical expertise, a great product eye, and tremendous entrepreneurial flair. This is a rare combination, which is what makes him a great leader.”

Upon naming him as his successor, Page said by way of explanation: “Sundar has been saying the things I would have said — and sometimes better — for quite some time now, and I’ve been tremendously enjoying our work together.”

And what’s not enjoy? According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, 89 percent of Google’s $66 billion in revenues in 2014 came in through the products division that Pichai led.

Pichai’s backstory is as humble as it is impressive. He grew up with his parents in a two-room apartment in India where he and his younger brother slept in the living room. The Pichais didn’t own a car and they got their first telephone when Sundar was 12 years old. A top student, he studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology and then went to Stanford University on scholarship. He then went to work as an engineer and product manager at Applied Materials in Silicon Valley, and from there he went to Wharton, earning an MBA in 2002. Next he worked as a consultant at McKinsey before starting at Google in 2004.

Perhaps Pichai’s strongest trait, besides his intellect is his demeanor. As Google VP Caesar Sengupta, put it to Businessweek: “I would challenge you to find anyone at Google who doesn’t like Sundar or who thinks Sundar is a jerk.”