“You have to encourage innovation. Companies become more conservative in decision making as you grow… be okay with failure and reward effort, not outcomes.”
In this episode of View From The Top, the podcast, CEO of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai,open in new window speaks to Archana Sohmshetty, MBA ’22, about the impact of access to technology and humanity’s challenge to harness it. “When you see the appetite and the desire for people to make their lives better by gaining access to technology, that is what compels me to go beyond.” says Pichai.
Sundar Pichai: The desire for people to make their lives better by gaining access to technology is what couples me to go beyond.
Archana Sohmshetty: Welcome to View From The Top, The Podcast. That was Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet. Sundar visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From The Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world.
I’m Archana Sohmshetty, an MBA student of the class of 2022. This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Sundar on campus. He shares the importance of rewarding effort, not outcomes; ways to lead with authenticity and putting employees first; and how gaining access to technology makes lives better around the world. You’re listening to View From The Top, The podcast.
Archana Sohmshetty: Sundar, welcome back to Stanford.
Sundar Pichai: It’s great to be here, and it’s nice to be back physically with people in the room. So it’s terrific.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And as you can tell, my classmates and I are so excited that you’re here with us today. And this conversation is extra special for me because your story hits so close to home. Like you, my dad is from south India. He is an alumnus of IIT and immigrated here about 30 years ago with grit and determination. He’s right here in the audience.
Sundar Pichai: [Unintelligible] Nice to see you.
Archana Sohmshetty: He’s a role model for me, and so are you. So truly, thank you for being here.
Sundar Pichai: Oh, the real pleasure is mine. It’s very nostalgic. I was just telling John I saw a volleyball court outside. Stanford was the end of my fledgling volleyball career coming here and seeing how good people there. But it’s really nice to be back.
Archana Sohmshetty: Lots of talent around here. And when you first became the CEO of Google, it created quite a buzz. Your Wikipedia page had over 350 edits just in the week that you became the leader. Have you seen some of these edits?
Sundar Pichai: Advice I would have for all of you is don’t read about yourself online.
Archana Sohmshetty: Well, we thought it would be a good way to start the conversation —
Sundar Pichai: Uh-oh.
Archana Sohmshetty: — by revisiting some of these Wikipedia edits — some of our favorite ones with fact versus fake news, your Wikipedia page edition. First of all, someone claimed that you decided to join IIT at the young age of 8 years old. Fact or fake?
Sundar Pichai: Uh, I think that was fake. My parents were tired of me. They sent me to school, I think, when I was about 2 and a half to kindergarten. I was pretty young when I came to Stanford. But that is not true.
Archana Sohmshetty: At the same time, everyone wanted to claim you from their hometown in high school. So there are quite a few edits to your page on which high school you came from. Where did you go?
Sundar Pichai: There are two schools which are right, but the final school is Vana Vani, which is inside the campus where your dad went to college. So that’s where I went to school.
Archana Sohmshetty: Wow. Okay. So the person that said you were homeschooled was definitely wrong.
Sundar Pichai: I don’t think I was homeschooled unless hitting while playing cricket. I wasn’t homeschooled.
Archana Sohmshetty: Well, on that note, were you the captain of your high school cricket team?
Sundar Pichai: I would have loved to be, but I was quite far from it. Yeah.
Archana Sohmshetty: In another life. In another life.
Sundar Pichai: In another life. Yeah.
Archana Sohmshetty: So now that we have —
Sundar Pichai: In the metaverses.
Archana Sohmshetty: You’re speaking my language. So now that we have the fiction out of the way, we can turn to some of the facts. You grew up in India with limited access to technology. And when you discovered technologies, it had a profound impact on you. How did you go from an initial delight in technology to devoting to career to access to technology for all?
Sundar Pichai: Growing up for me, every technology transition was very vivid, even as a kid because I had to wait a long time for it. We were on a waitlist for a rotary telephone. It took five years to be on the waitlist and get the phone. I would go to get my grandparents’ blood test results, and it would be an hour roundtrip each way. And you would go all the way to the hospital, and they would say it’s not ready today.
Come back tomorrow. And then this phone came, and I could call, and they would tell me whether the results were ready or not. And so to me, that was super profound. And people who would come to our house to make calls. I saw how it created a sense of community. So I’ve always had this vivid sense of how technology can make a profound difference. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is bring that access to technology.
What I got, I got a lot more of it when I came to Stanford. Walking the suite all of the time and seeing rows of computers was life-changing for me. And I was very inspired by Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child project. And even today, a lot of what I’m able to do at Google, be it make cheaper phones through Android or bring the next billion people online or Chromebooks and try to make affordable laptops all hit close to that mission. Definitely.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And I can tell the way that you speak about technology had this impact on you. And it manifested in your studies as well. You got your engineering degree from IIT and then a master’s here at Stanford in engineering and were about to pursue a career in academia and get your PhD. Clearly, that’s not the path you ended up taking. What changed your mind? Why did you decide to leave academia at the time?
Sundar Pichai: I still, once in a while, have a conversation with my dad. I think I disappointed him a little bit not getting that PhD. But I literally came to Silicon Valley — for me, it was [as] literal. This was the place where semiconductors were built. I came here for the silicon in Silicon Valley. And I was a PhD student in material science. I was studying semiconductor physics and definitely that’s what I thought I would do. A few things — one is I was surrounded by other grad students who had worked on, at the time, what was the rage. It was superconductors — what was called ITC superconductors.
And I realized when you have [unintelligible], and it didn’t happen. And so that gave me pause, and I think something you all probably deal with. Being in the valley, there’s so much happening outside. There’s a lot that beckons outside. And so I was definitely interested in that. I had financial reasons to go get a job. And so the combination of all that made me go out and be in industry. And great learning moment — the semiconductor industry is extraordinarily cyclical.
In my first year at the company I worked, we hired 3,000 people, and the next year, we laid off 1,700 people. And so you get out and you go through that life learning. But that was the early days of the Internet, too. And definitely seeing what the promise the Internet had and connecting it back to what I wanted to do was what led me find my way back to Google. And I went to business school along the way — not here but another great school and eventually made it back to the valley.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. It seems like you saw the rapid change of technology outside of academia.
Sundar Pichai: Oh, yeah. Stanford, it serves as a special place. Most faculty here are very — it’s a very symbiotic relationship, which I’ve always thought is unique amongst many places in the world. And so definitely both being in the campus, you get a good sense for what’s happening outside. And going to industry here, you really get the sense for the dynamism. We take it for granted, but as I travel around the world, most people outside are trying to understand how the valley works and how to do better. So it’s an extraordinary place.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And many of us here are in a transitory period of our lives, figuring out which industry we want to go and impact. You’ve been at Google for now quite a while — 20 years — and faced several crossroads during your time. Sometimes choosing to leave an industry is as difficult as choosing to stay. What drew you to stay at Google over the past 20 years?
Sundar Pichai: It’s been very busy. Partly that. And it’s an extraordinary place. I think the breadth of talent you see, the kind of projects you get exposed to — you’re on the cutting edge of everything. I’m not a surfer, but I use this analogy. I don’t know why. But it’s like I’ve tried a couple of times and failed, but it feels like surfing and being on the edge of something all the time. So definitely, I enjoy that, and a big part of it is if you look at our products, search works everywhere around the world.
We take pride in providing it and it’s accessible to everyone, as long as they have computing and connectivity. Whether you’re here at Stanford or a kid in rural Indonesia, Google works for you. And that’s the philosophy we bring across our products, be it Gmail, be it Maps, be it YouTube. So we think about scale, being able to reach people and make technology more accessible. And it’s what I wanted to do in my life, and so it’s a privilege to do it.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And there’s no shortage of products to work on.
Sundar Pichai: No, there’s no shortage. Sometimes too many at Google, but that’s another story.
Archana Sohmshetty: One of the early products that you worked on was Chrome. You led the team and initially, there was some pushback — high development costs, competitors in the space. But you had conviction that the browser was the way to go. Where did the conviction from, and how did you convince skeptics that Chrome was the future?
Sundar Pichai: At the time, Eric was our CEO — Eric Schmidt. And I remember him being angry once and saying — because we realized we were trying to build a browser. And he was like, do you know what it takes to build a browser? Because he had gone through the browser battles. He definitely didn’t — was hesitant for us to do it. Partly, how did I do it? I didn’t tell people for a while. I just had a small team and worked on it, and only when we had something to show — we had a chance to show the product, and that got people excited.
But it is a good lesson, I think. If you have a set of committed people — passionate people — you can achieve. Even I couldn’t have foreseen what it would eventually become. But it shows the power of a small group of committed people and actually not knowing the odds of what you’re working on. So I think both helps.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah And you can obviously see the direction that Chrome grew into as one of the most popular browsers today. And you really have seen Google transition from pre-IPO to the trillion-dollar company it is today. It’s challenging to scale an organization of that size. Over the years, what do you think Google has done well as it’s scaled?
Sundar Pichai: It is a complex thing, scaling a company. I would say things we have gotten right — the first thing that struck me about Google, when I joined the company, it was very different in the sense that it was a very optimistic place. So [unintelligible] place in which if you walked the hallways and you spoke to people and you had ideas, people expanded on them. Most of the times, people try to tell you why things won’t work. I felt the spirit was different. People would tell you, oh, that’s a great idea. You could do it this way, and it would be better.
So that struck me, that optimism — the fact that you can innovate, make things better, solve problems, I think, is a spirit I’ve tried to carry now. And it takes a lot of hard work. You have to encourage innovation. One of the counter-intuitive things is companies become more conservative as they grow. You have a lot more cash. You have a lot more resources. But companies tend to become more conservative in their decision making. And so encouraging the company to take risks and innovate and be okay with failure and reward effort, not outcomes.
And that’s very hard to do in an organization. People tend to reward outcomes, which means over time, the organization becomes more conservative. They take safer bets and so on. So a lot of scaling is about making sure you preserve the good things you had in the early days. And that gets harder as the company becomes bigger. You have to work harder at it. But I think a big part of what we try hard to do is to keep that culture of innovating with technology, building products, shipping things. And so that’s one of the many things.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And maintaining that culture as the company grows is not easy. It’s a difficult endeavor. What were some of the other kind of growing pains that you’ve seen Google have over the last couple of years?
Sundar Pichai: Definitely a lot. When you’re a small company — think about the size of the business school. All of you have shared context. You understand better what others are going through, and so you have better context around everything that’s going on. A larger company definitely gets harder. And Google was built on everyone — it’s a very open culture, even today. One of the most common things people tell me when they come from other companies is they’re shocked at how transparent the company is. You have literally access to what’s happening across the company.
But it can be overwhelming, and just because you have transparency doesn’t mean you have context. It’s very different from when organizations are smaller. So that’s been a big part of trying to figure out how to scale up the company. How do you organize more independently? Coordinate only when needed but can have more parts of the company move as smaller units. And that’s a hard balance to get right.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And now you’re at the helm of Google, and you see all of these teams working in different directions. But one thing that you’ve been vocal about and enthusiastic about is AI. You’ve said AI is the most important thing humanity has ever worked on, and many of us will go on to work with AI or advanced computing in some form. How should we be thinking about AI to help humanity versus harm humanity?
Sundar Pichai: It’s a great question. When I became CEO, one of the biggest directional changes we made is we’re going to approach everything as AI first. And we are applying it across everything we do in the company. It’s a big part of the R&D we spend. And the progress is palpable every year. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of progress. I think we concretely see the evidence of — just when you look at the scale at which translation works — or in search, how we use AI, or in Gmail, when you type, and you give suggestions. It’s applied all our products, and we can see the path by which we are making things better.
I think it will profoundly transform pretty much every sector. You see the potential in areas like healthcare. I think it’ll still take a decade for it to fully play out, but we definitely see the potential. I think your question of how do you make sure we develop it in a way — I think the essential struggle of humanity with every technology is harnessing it so that it benefits society. You can see the same debates about the Internet, even before you think about AI.
Has the Internet been a force of good? Obviously. Has it had effects which we didn’t fully anticipate? Yes. And that’s the debate, and we are working about how best to address it. With AI, I think we need to think about it earlier. So part of how we are approaching — we have clearly articulated publicly a set of AI principles and publicly stated it. And we publish a lot of research. We open-source technology. But that’s only part of the problem. I think academic institutions need to play a big role.
We were a founding member for Stanford’s AI institute — HAI — and proud to be a supporter there. I think they’re doing terrific work. But I think academic institutions, nonprofits, and the public-private partnership — government will end up having a role. There has to be thoughtful regulation about AI. You have to get the balance right so that there is innovation. But I think it’s important to think it through earlier than other technologies. And so doing it and engaging all the stakeholders is the only way I can think of approaching it.
Archana Sohmshetty: So it seems like it’s a living, breathing framework that evolves as AI also evolves.
Sundar Pichai: That’s right. And it needs to involve many people from many different institutions to make it work.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. I want to touch on your point on being forward about technology and thinking about the benefits and harms as we’re building it. In a post-COVID world, many of us have realized the importance of human connection, and we crave human connection. Yet sometimes technology can breed disconnection. How are you thinking about the future of quality connections with each other as technology becomes a larger part of our lives?
Sundar Pichai: Technology’s an enabler. Ultimately, it’s people in society — we have to organize around how we use technology. I think you’re raising a very important point and thinking through about how technology is not isolating or immersive in a way in which it prevents you from engaging, I think, generally is a good topic. I think all of us who have kids worry about it and struggle about it. I did like when our son started playing in the middle school band. It’s what you want to see them do more of. But every generation always is very worried about technology of the future.
It’s always been true when you look back at it. And so I think that’s part of the process. Technology done correctly can enable interactions in the real world. One of the companies we spun out of Google, which was Niantic, did precisely that with Pokémon and got people to move about and do stuff in the real world, which I found inspiring. But I think over time, part of — even if we augmented reality right, today, when you see people on their phones walking on the streets immersed, you see that in some ways technology forces you to engage with it. It hasn’t adapted enough to how humans live life.
And so part of solving more natural ways by which you can interact with computing — be it [unintelligible] computing, understanding what you’re looking at — may actually help us do this better. Done wrongly, it can be even more isolating. But done correctly with the right attributes, I think it can help bridge that gap. And so I think’s a potential for AR if done correctly.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. So it’s thinking in advance about the implications and then being there as the technology develops.
Sundar Pichai: That’s right.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. I want to take a step back and look at Google more as a whole. Some of the biases we’ve talked about with AI but more broadly, what goes on with Google’s culture? In 2018, employees staged a walkout for women’s rights. In 2020, Google was accused of mishandling the treatment of minorities on the Ethical AI team. To start us off, as these events were happening, what was going through your head? What was your reaction?
Sundar Pichai: One of the fortunate things I felt — like most companies, from day one, Google has had a strong employee voice. And for me as a CEO running a large company, I always found it helpful because you trust your employees to get it right at scale. So I viewed it as a strength of the company when employees speak up. I think it’s important for us to take it seriously. The walkout was a moment when the company hadn’t gotten something right, and that’s what the walkout was about. So internalizing it, acknowledging it, owning up to it, and committing on making the company better is how you approach those moments.
And even today, I think employee input is something, as a company, we value deeply. And I would argue they push the company to be better across all the things we do. It is complex, as I said earlier. The context around some of these decisions are always hard, and at scale, not everyone has the full context. But for what it’s worth, I’ve personally always felt one of the strengths of the company — and when it comes to getting AI right or doing things at scale and getting it right — we do it in many countries around the world, and I still today take great comfort in knowing that our employees deeply are guardians of our values. And we’ll do everything to get it right.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And I guess these past events help inform the future decision making of Google. How are you thinking about promoting DE&I — diversity, equity, and inclusion — at Google moving forward?
Sundar Pichai: One of the most important moments as a company we’ve been through — and I think many companies around the world — was the racial equity moment around the murder of George Floyd. As a company, for us, it was a profound moment internally. I’ve never seen anything affect the company that much in the 16 years. We publicly committed to a — I consulted and worked with our Black leadership advisory group in the company. And understanding most of the company wanted to do the right thing, tapping on the moment, and converting it into lasting commitment.
So we have publicly committed to a set of initiatives, and we are holding ourselves accountable. We give transparency reports on how we are making progress on that. And be it committing to improving our leadership representation from underrepresented groups, be it committing to driving improvements in our products — last year in Pixel — in our camera technology — we launched Real Tone, a more inclusive way to capture pictures to cover all skin tones.
These are all examples of how you can use technology to make progress here. Scaling and giving more people access to technology, particularly in underrepresented groups — these are all commitments we have made, and that’s one part of how we work through moments like those.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. So it seems like you’re taking a technological approach as well as an empathetic approach, listening to your employees, hearing what they have to say. What’s top of mind for employees right now is the future of work. You recently released your future of work plan for Google employees. And I can imagine you’re balancing a lot of perspectives that are competing. How did you integrate competing preferences when crafting your Future of Work plan?
Sundar Pichai: For me, for what it’s worth, I am incredibly excited about this next phase of the future of work. And I think 20 years ago, Google was kind of — it’s now done so much around the valley, people take it for granted. But Google did rethink what workspaces could be. They thought workspaces could be fun. We had slides in our offices. We changed workplaces pretty radically. We gave people a lot of agency — our employees had a lot of agency. It felt fun to be in the offices, and we didn’t think that was at odds with being productive. So the sense of creating community, fostering creativity in the workplace, collaboration all makes you a better company.
I view giving flexibility to people the same way. To be very clear, I do think we strongly believe in in-person connections. But I think we can achieve that in a more purposeful way and give employees, again, more agency and flexibility. So I think hybrid work is great. We’re going to leverage the scale of the company. We have many locations around the world, so people can move to other places and work.
We are starting with a 3-2 hybrid option, but we have encouraged employees to apply to be fully remote as well, and we have supported 85 percent of those applications. So I’m excited. You earlier asked about diversity. One of the best ways we can now approach diversity is actually showing up in places where diverse talent is. More importantly, when we get that talent, them being in communities which have the supporting structure for them.
And so we are now in Atlanta, in Chicago, in D.C. recruiting employees. I think being able to support the participation of women in the workforce — I think the flexibility is going to be a huge asset. So I’m excited by it, and I find when people come back — and people are very excited to come back to the office, by the way. It has to be opened up. We are easily at over 70 percent already back to our pre-pandemic presence in the offices, and it’s growing. But giving people that choice — it always bothered me that the stress around commutes or when people had parent-teacher conferences or doctor appointments — balancing all that, there’s a lot of stress which people are carrying.
So I think it gives us a chance to rethink. Also it’s a technology, since we build products like Gmail, Docks, Meet, and so on, it gives a chance to rethink products, too, and make it all work better. I think it’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening in the workforce, and I think you’ll see the benefits of it over time.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. Absolutely. It seems like you’re emphasizing intentionality and flexibility when it comes to hybrid work. And your plans really do set the stage for other companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. So we’re all looking to you and your leadership for guidance on things like this. You also recently just got back from Warsaw. You were helping out with the Ukraine refugee crisis. When is it appropriate for corporations to step in on public issues like Ukraine/Russia?
Sundar Pichai: Well, first of all, for us, we are directly involved because both — we have employees in Ukraine and Russia. Our products work in these regions. Being an information company, at moments like this, it’s really critical for us to get these moments right. So we approach it a few ways — foremost, the safety of our employees, like every other organization — making sure employees are safe.
Second, very critical for us is getting access to information right, tackling misinformation, removing what we felt were propaganda information and raising what we do in search and YouTube — at moments like that is raising higher quality information, including providing information within Russia at moments like this. It’s been a large part of the work we do, launching important things like air raid alerts on Google Maps in Ukraine.
Being in Warsaw, one of the things that struck me — and it’s true for pretty much everyone there — an average Google employee had two to three refugee families with them. These are mainly women and children. People don’t speak the same language all the time — people using Google Translate on their phones to communicate so we had to do a sprint to get the language translation working right.
We opened up a portion of our space to NGOs as well as entrepreneurs from Ukraine. And more importantly, we committed to investing in Poland. So we announced a $700 million investment, both in office space and to hire more people in Poland. And we’re commit to investing in central and eastern Europe at this pivotal time. But I think definitely, the war shows how much we have to continue fighting for, and so it’s an important moment to get right.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. It’s incredible to see corporations like Google committing time, resources, financial investment and technology to causes like this. And I’m personally in awe of how many causes that you are invested in. Apart from Ukraine/Russia, you also have announced plans recently in investment in Africa in things like job skills training for low-to-middle income folks. More broadly, how do you choose which causes you want to invest your time and effort into?
Sundar Pichai: It’s a great question. With the company and its scale, there’s a lot of things that come your way. I think you have to be disciplined about where you think Google can make a difference and what is a unique perspective or value proposition you can bring to the table. And over time, we have understood things we can do well, and things other organizations are better at doing. An area, for example, given our focus on information — skilling has been a big focus for us — digital skilling.
I think there is no substitute for college but unfortunately, not everyone has access to and can afford to go to college. So skilling people — giving them access to digital skills — has been a big push. In the U.S., we launched a career certificate program. It’s a nine-month program. We’ve done it on four major areas, and we back it up with working with employers to recruit people.
And it’s been extraordinarily successful. 75,000 people have gone through it, and almost 50 percent of it is from underrepresented groups. And when I look at the demand there is from people for these things, I think as a society we need to figure out about how we can scale and give access to digital skilling to more people. But that’s an area where we feel Google can strongly contribute. And so we choose and get involved in areas like that — sustainability is another one, so we choose where we think we can add value.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. So it seems like you look at your strengths and then look at what impact you can make based off of your strengths and pursue those issues.
Sundar Pichai: That’s right
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. And you touched on this briefly but sustainability — a couple of years ago, you announced this lofty goal of being carbon neutral at Google by 2030. And you have to unify many business units and product lines to achieve this goal. How are you going about getting the whole company to rally behind a goal of sustainability?
Sundar Pichai: One of the important things — and if I could clarify one thing because it’s subtle and people — we’ve been carbon neutral since 2007. So Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and one of the earliest companies to do so. Sustainability has long been an important goal. What we have now committed is by 2030 to be carbon-free — so not using offsets but actually running our operations 24/7 carbon-free. That is a hard challenge because today we can use offsets.
And that involves investing in developing new technologies beyond wind and solar, be it carbon capture, how do you store energy, and to do it around the world. But it excites us because it’s a lot of R&D again, and you can apply technology. And when we bought some of the earliest wind and solar contracts in 2010, and costs have fallen by 85 percent in the last 10 years. And so, again, looking at these new technologies, we just have a whole data center now up and running with geothermal.
And so tapping into new technologies and we want to bootstrap it and help drive the technology and the cost curve over the next decade so that we can reach there. But it’s a challenge. It stresses us out. But I’m incredibly excited as a technologist, the chance to make progress like that.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. None of these big initiatives were asked of you and asked of Google. These are things that you as a company and you as a leader have decided to take on. The theme for our slate of speakers this year is Beyond Expectations. So we’d love to hear what motivates you to go above and beyond what is expected of a business leader.
Sundar Pichai: I would tie it back to the first question, at least in the context of the work I do. I travel around the world, and I still today — particularly when you go into emerging markets, it’s a very different view from here. You see how eager people are to get access to technology because they understand how it will make their lives better, so you see it, you feel it when I go to Vietnam or India or Africa. And there’s a lot more work to be done.
And just in India recently, we are working on a cheaper high-quality smartphone, maybe around the $30 price point. And last week, we just announced in Africa — our product development center in Nairobi hiring engineers, UX designers, and so on. When you see the appetite and the desire for people to make their lives better by gaining access to technology, that’s what compels me to go beyond, and I think it’s very consistent with what our company has set out to do.
Archana Sohmshetty: Yeah. I can tell how much intentionality you have behind all the initiatives within Google and externally, so truly, thank you so much for giving us a framework and ideas behind how you make decisions that we can take away from here. With that, we do have student questions, so we can turn it over.
Melissa Zhang: Hi Sundar. My name is Melissa Zhang, and I was a former Tapestry employee, so great to meet you. My question is going forward to the year 2030, in what capacity do you see Alphabet partnering the most with governments? And this can be from tech access to grids to search. And what will make you most feel proud of getting right?
Sundar Pichai: The second part is — I do think sustainability is going to be the defining issue for us to get right in the next decade or so. So we are definitely committing Alphabet seriously. Just to get to a carbon-free goal would involve billions of dollars in incremental investment from us, but we think it’s the right thing to do. It’ll be good for us as a business, I think, over time. But I think that is something I want us to be able to get right, and I think definitely something we’d be proud of if we can get there. The first question — I presume you’re asking by 2030, how do you see us engaging with governments and so on.
One of the bigger, more profound changes underway is I think technology is going to be a regulated industry. And part of as a company working at scale is anticipating, working constructively with regulators — because I think at the end of the day, technology affects citizens. And so every country is going to be thinking about this deeply. Take Europe’s GDPR as an example. It’s an important foundational privacy legislation.
And I think we had to anticipate it. We invested almost 18 months of work to get ready for it. And I think it’s given certainty to both European citizens — it gives businesses certainty about how to operate, so that’s one example of legislation working. And so we would expect to be constructively working with governments around the world. Archana mentioned AI, and I think that’s going to be important for us to get right, and I think governments will end up playing a key role in that timeframe.
Shanice: Hi Sundar. I’m Shanice. Thank you for being here. Yesterday, we had the privilege of having Barack Obama on campus. And he spoke about how changes in the way we communicate and consume information has a massive impact on our democracy. So while Google is not a social media company, I’m curious to know what you see Google’s role in that debate is.
Sundar Pichai: First of all, I think it was an important speech, and I think it’s something we think about deeply. It’s in our stated mission. And if you think about search, this is what we are trying to do for every query. We are trying to sort what is higher quality information. And so it cuts to the essence of what we do. In YouTube, we brought the same principles. Such a complex topic — maybe I can answer it with an example. It’s actually easier to do this as a company when society agrees on an area. So when there has been society [converges and agree]. You can see that happening in the context of the war — Russia/Ukraine.
And I think that’s why you see a lot of companies be able to get it right. When society is very divided about where to draw the lines, it inherently gets harder. But the way we approach is generally, on important areas — to use YouTube as an example — we raise what we think of as authoritative information. That’s journalistic content. Or in the case of if it’s health-related maybe from universities or hospitals or public health organizations. So we use those tools, just like we have done in search, to try and think out about what are higher quality sources of information, and we view that as a goal.
And that’s one way by which we tackle the problem. But it’s an important issue. And I think part of it is if there are better rules, including laws and legislation, I think it will actually make it easier. But you’ll find writing the law and legislation is hard because I think as a society, we are still grappling with we think is the right answer for many of these things.
Archana: Hi Sundar. I’m the other Archana at the business school and also from Madras, so it’s really nice to meet you. I used to work for the Gates Foundation, thinking about bringing innovation to emerging markets and underserved people, so everything you say resonates. My question is a more personal one. Doing the work you do, there are many difficulties — difficult moments, highs and lows — do you have any everyday habits or personal mantras that keep you going when things get tough?
Sundar Pichai: It’s a great question. First of all, most decisions — it took me a while to realize when decisions come to you, the higher up you are in the organization, the easy decisions don’t come to you. And by definition, when something has come to you, it’s because others have spent time on it, and they can’t resolve it. So in some ways, I realize that. So two things. One is I think you making that decision is the most important thing you can do. You’re breaking a tie, and it unlocks the organization to move forward. And it’s also an important thing.
One of the mentors here, Bill Campbell, taught that to me early. Every week he would see me, he would ask me, what ties did you break this week? And so it’s always struck with me. And so I view making these decision as you’re really helping the company. And so that makes it a bit more fun. The second is with time, you realize most of those decisions are inconsequential. It might appear very tough at the time. It may feel like a lot rides on it. But you look later, and you realize it wasn’t that consequential.
There are a few consequential decisions and judgment is a big part of leadership, and you don’t always get it right, and you have to learn from it. But I think most decisions aren’t that consequential. So thinking through both helps me think about it as it’s just another normal day in the office, and so you keep going through it
Archana Sohmshetty: I think we have time for one more question, right back there.
Nick Bashour: Hi Sundar. My name is Nick Bashour, and in Syria, 20 million people don’t have access to all of the products that Google produces. That’s because of regulations that are put in place by countries like the United States and certain countries in the European Union. So on top of being under dictatorship, 20 million Syrians don’t have access to the financial world, don’t have access to basic technology products. And the gap between the developed and developing world is really just increasing. You’re one of the most important leaders in the world. What are you doing to advocate on behalf of these people and give truly universal access to technology products? Thank you.
Sundar Pichai: That’s a great question. As a company, our mission is to provide universal access to information, and any time we are not able to do that for a set of reasons, we struggle with it. We feel compelled to try to find a way. We do have to comply with laws as a company. And in areas like Syria, the ways we have contributed — a) we have been involved in the refugee work around Syrian refugees for a long time.
We build access to open-source technologies in many of these cases and support things. Android is open source. Things do make their way into these countries, so we work at an open-source level in areas where we are not fully able to directly work. But I think it’s important question. I don’t have all the answers here, but thanks for asking it. And I’ll think about it more.
Archana Sohmshetty: Awesome. We typically conclude our conversations with a lightning round. I will start a sentence and you will finish it, so it’s a fill-in-the-blank. First of all, something that inspires me is…
Sundar Pichai: Watching the next generation blossom. And I think society always worries that the next generation isn’t as good as they are. That is not true. And the next generation ends up making the world even better. That inspires me.
Archana Sohmshetty: I am the most proud of…
Sundar Pichai: Trying my best to do the right thing by the people I am involved with, both obviously personally and professionally — people I work with.
Archana Sohmshetty: During my time at Stanford, I loved…
Sundar Pichai: I used to love just being out in the quad and sitting and grabbing lunch with friends. Driving today reminded me of that, for sure.
Archana Sohmshetty: I am the happiest when…
Sundar Pichai: Many things. But being around people building products and solving problems makes me very happy.
Archana Sohmshetty: And finally, the best piece of leadership advice I’ve received is…
Sundar Pichai: Be authentic to yourself and be the best leader you can be. I think there’s one right template, and don’t try to be in someone else’s mold.
Archana Sohmshetty: That’s wonderful. Sundar, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure.
Sundar Pichai: Thank you.
This article first appeared in www.gsb.stanford.edu
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