Sundar Pichai’s job wasn’t particularly easy before Covid-19. The 47-year-old CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet (he assumed the latter post from cofounder Larry Page in December 2019) was already dealing with antitrust allegations, employee unrest, and a feeling that, as a trillion-dollar behemoth dominating global search and advertising, the company’s mojo as a charming innovator was fading. But one can argue that despite the challenges of a work-from-home company, Google is managing through the crisis, as users turn to its services (maybe not Maps) even more. It has even used the opportunity to collaborate with key rival Apple on contact tracing technology. Pichai is already looking ahead, knowing that post-Covid, the world will change. But the pre-virus challenges will still be with him.
Pichai has been reflective lately, while preparing his commencement speech for a June 6 “Dear Class of 2020” YouTube event. (He’ll be speaking in a lineup that includes the Obamas, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift.) He talked to WIRED from his home in California—via Google Meet, of course—discussing the company’s Covid response (not committing to a work-from-home culture as Mark Zuckerberg did at Facebook), its antitrust and diversity woes, whether the company is still “Googley,” and his own journey from a small apartment in India to heading a trillion-dollar company. The interview has been edited for coherence and space.
Steven Levy: Google is a pretty good detector of what’s happening in the world. Did you get an early warning signal that a virus was going to make a huge difference to us all?
Sundar Pichai: It was very, very interesting to me to see emails from our Hong Kong, Taiwan, Beijing offices, where people were adapting to it. But I wouldn’t say that in early February I would have predicted the pace this would all roll out and affect everyone globally. It’s incredible to see.
How did you think of Google’s response?
Once we realized this was going to be bigger than any of us imagined, two quick thoughts: First, how do we keep our employees safe? So as early as we possibly could, we had to move the company to a distributed, global, work from home model. Second, in some ways Google and Alphabet were built for this moment. We are here to provide people information, help them in moments where they need help. So we realized it was important to step up our products and services but also the help we can give to communities and institutions.
You and Apple are collaborating on contact tracing tech that involves both your mobile operating systems. How did that start?
Both teams independently had started working on technology to support health agencies in their contact tracing work. Very quickly both sides realized that for this to work well it has to be available everywhere. So engineering teams across Android and iOS organically started reaching out. At some point, Tim and I decided to exchange notes and talk directly.
How often do you talk to Tim Cook?
We meet periodically, for sure. We partner with Apple in many areas. In this case, we felt the sum was greater than the parts.
Both your companies have been linked to surveillance capitalism, as some call it. But this product was crafted in a way that seems hyper-conscious of privacy, so much so that some people say it won’t be effective because it requires people to opt in.
You are right, opt-in is an important principle. We also realized we have to give users real privacy guarantees. I think we have struck the right balance. Even if only 10 to 20 percent of users opt in, this will have a real, meaningful impact. The more, the better.
Do you think this could open the door for other sorts of collaborations between the companies, which together own the world of mobile operating systems, or is this just a one-off?
Large companies working together in service of society is really good for the world. I am committed to finding other opportunities, and I had the same sense from Tim on this.
You said in your earnings call that once this emergency is passed, the world will not look the same. Can you elaborate?
The longer it goes on, the more lasting some of the effects will be. There will be lasting changes across all the areas the virus touched. Look at a hospital like Stanford, doing much more tele-health visits. If a hospital system was managing maybe 2 to 3 percent of the people they serve with tele-health, and the number is now 70 percent, they are not going to go back to 2 to 3 percent. Still, the need for human shared experiences is essential to who we are. Will people want to go back to music concerts? I think so. Will people want to get back in a stadium and watch sports? I absolutely think so. But I do think there will be lasting shifts.
Mark Zuckerberg just said that he thinks that half of Facebook’s workforce will be working from home by the end of the decade. Will that apply to Google?
I don’t think we are going to come out of this and be back where we were before this all started. So I expect us to adapt but it’s still too early to tell how much. Early on, I’m excited that some of this is working well. But it is based on a foundation of all of us knowing each other and having the regular interactions we already had. I’m curious to see what happens as we get into that three-to-six-month window and we get into things where we are doing something for the first time. How productive will we be when different teams who don’t normally work together have to come together for brainstorming, the creative process? We are going to have research, surveys, learn from data, learn what works.
What about this giant campus you’re building in Mountain View or the building you’re renovating in New York City? Do you have second thoughts about that?
In all scenarios I expect us to need physical spaces to get people together, absolutely. We have a lot of growth planned ahead. So even if there is some course correction I don’t think our existing footprint is going to be the issue. I am positive we will put it to good use and I’m anxious to see some of those projects get done.
Google’s advertising has taken a hit, particularly in sectors like travel. Will you be making cuts or layoffs?
We are not immune to the global economy and we have been impacted. And we support partners around the world and when their businesses get affected, that has an impact too. For sure I think we are navigating through those challenges. We are seeing opportunities, too. There are areas where we are seeing increased usage and engagement and we are supporting that. We are moderating our hiring plans but we are still bringing in people. That doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for efficiencies. We are looking at areas where we can course correct, where we can be more efficient, where we can streamline.
Let’s talk antitrust. There are reports that state and federal officials will file cases this year. Will the outcome result in a changed and constrained Google?
The scrutiny is not new for us. I think it is a proper function of a society to scrutinize large companies. We are in many ecosystems—for example, in ad tech, we are in the middle of an ecosystem where we’re supporting users, publishers, advertisers. I want to engage constructively. We will make our case as how we have approached our work through the lens of being helpful to users and customers.
Do you feel now constrained in M&A, fearing that your acquisitions will be blocked because of your market dominance?
We have operated that way for almost 10 years now. There are definitely acquisitions which we said “Okay, maybe that doesn’t make sense for us.” But it’s important to remember there are many, many areas where we are a smaller player, an emerging player. So we still see opportunities to do M&A but it just depends on the area.
Since you became the CEO of Alphabet, have you taken a second look at the concept of the holding company model, which seems to me to have had mixed results at best?
I was very closely involved with Larry and Sergey in thinking through and setting up Alphabet back in 2015. We were aligned in our long-term thinking. The bet was we were investing a lot in foundational deep technology, but not everything would fit in what I would call the internet space. And Alphabet was set up to be able to do that and to have separation from Google because some of the problems are very, very different where you’re applying technology. All of us realized this would be a bet for the long term. If you don’t have some failures you aren’t aiming big enough. So stepping back. I say that structure has been very, very helpful. The Google management team, which already has a lot to deal with, doesn’t need to worry about the other bets. And some areas where we have made a lot of progress we are actually now beginning to stand up as their own companies. We recently brought outside investors in Waymo, so it’s more of a functioning company.
Why not just spin off Waymo? The project has been going on for 10 years.
This goes to what I’m saying. If you look at the underlying, common technology, there’s a lot of synergies we see with artificial intelligence at Alphabet. Part of the reason we have gotten outside investors is to give the company the management structure and the governance and the expertise needed to work its way through. So it’s a combination of both.
So it is a step towards spinning it off?
We have no current plans. But just in general in the Alphabet structure, is there a possibility for some bet in the future? Yes, absolutely. Those are the opportunities for us to think about.
How much are Larry Page and Sergey Brin now involved in the business?
Through the transition, both Larry and Sergey told me that they would be there when I need to talk to them. So we talk all the time but it’s more informal. I enjoy our conversations. They both are brilliant long-term thinkers, Brilliant and … is the right word unconventional or nonconventional?
Larry promised the company would not be conventional.
Yeah. They are not conventional thinkers. There is value because they are not involved in day to day. Sometimes it’s always refreshing for me to talk to them because we talk with different time horizons..
When is the last time you talked to Larry?
Just a few days ago.
From your point of view, why did they leave?
I think I will leave that for them. They wrote that if the company was running well, they wanted to spend their time on the next set of things. But they are obviously active shareholders and board members.
You arrived at Google on April 1, 2004—the day that Gmail launched. It leapfrogged everything in the space and is now the standard. Google used to be known for this—Larry Page always said it wasn’t worth pursuing a product that was 10 percent better than competitors, and wanted new products to be 10x or 100x better. When was the last product like that at Google?
Since we did Gmail, we built and scaled up many newer products to be billion-user products. Photos is coming up on its fifth anniversary next week. I look at other areas where we are in early stages. Assistant is an example of that. People take it for granted now that you can ask a computer any question, anytime, anywhere. It’s part of our lives now. On our scale, some innovations happen within the context of a particular product. For example in the Pixel we can do live captioning for everything, call screening for every call. We are also doing it at a foundational level—just last year as a company we demonstrated quantum supremacy.
Is Google still Googley?
Absolutely. There are many, many aspects where nothing has changed. There is still Googleyness to walking around, and finding a sense of optimism and curiosity that reminds me when I first came to Google. Obviously we are at a different scale now so some of that manifests in the context of your individual teams rather than always at a company level. But the heart and soul of the company hasn’t changed.
One thing that did change was the way you did your weekly all-hands meeting TGIF. You no longer take any question employees would throw at you.
We are doing TGIFs repeatedly. In fact, I just did one two weeks ago. We have some of our highest attendance ever. The only change we did is we are doing them more periodically, once a month. We take questions at unit group levels because that’s the scale at which it works well. These are natural evolutions which we do as a bigger company.
One evolution is a tension between workers and management, as your workforce has pushed back on subjects like defense work, harassment and other issues.
Maybe what played out in the last couple of years had a more external component to it. But there have always been vocal debates within Google on many things.
Recently NBC News reported that Google was retreating in some areas of pursuing diversity. You pushed back on that. But more broadly, Google has been releasing diversity reports regularly, and the improvements have been minimal. Google is a company that prides itself on moonshots, taking on seemingly impossible missions. Why not a diversity moonshot, doing whatever it takes to make significant changes in those numbers?
It’s a good question. As you said, we were one of the first companies to publish reports. And last year we continued to increase representation for women globally and for black and Latinx employees in the US. We have done programs like a partnership at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. One of the things which makes it hard to move the numbers is that we are growing a lot. But I absolutely accept the premise that we all need to improve. We are all asking ourselves the question what would actually move the needle more and what are the bigger things we need to do.
What is your OKR (objective and key result) on diversity numbers?
On these areas, we took a long-term view so we don’t have specific goals. Our numbers are much below where they need to be so we have a lot of room to make up.
Where does Google stand on China now?
Today, we have a presence as a company in China. But we are not currently offering or have no plans to offer any of our core products in China.
Is the Dragonfly Chinese search engine dead?
We have no plans to offer search in China.
A couple of questions about our president. The White House announced that you are on the Great American Economic Revival Industry Group. Did you know this in advance?
I don’t know all the underlying mechanics of how it came about. We already committed to helping the government do everything we can.
How would you describe your relationship with the president? There was the case where he said Google was working on a testing website that didn’t exist. Later, he said that you had apologized to him when apparently that call didn’t happen. What’s the way that an important company handles a president like Donald Trump?
We take our civic responsibility seriously. So we stand by ready to help the government. I have engaged with the president and our engagements have been constructive, focused on the task at hand.
Do you participate in content decisions? If the president spreads misinformation on your platform, would the discussion of whether to remove the post bubble up to you?
Obviously, the vast majority of the YouTube decisions get handled there. Depending on the importance of it. I am in meetings too. But we bring in a lot of outside expertise. Last year, when we expanded our harassment policies, for example, we consulted widely with a bunch of external groups. We are doing the same with medical misinformation. We engage widely with outside experts and outside clinics, or in some of the health cases, public health agencies. But yes, I am definitely in some of the debates as needed.
Would you be prepared to block a Trump speech or statement that gives dangerous medical misinformation?
I don’t want to answer hypotheticals. In general it’s really important in a democracy that as a company you support political discourse. Our role is to surface news sources actively in context around any of these things.
Do you feel it’s necessary or desirable to have an outside body that can overrule you, like Facebook has just started?
I am always watching all the different processes that other companies are doing. To the extent that there are valuable learnings from it, we’ll incorporate.
You came to the US as an immigrant from India and are now the head of one of the world’s most powerful companies. Tell me how you view your own journey.
I was fascinated by technology, but I had very little access to it. I vividly remember our first rotary telephone, television and so on. Coming to the US and getting much wider access to computing changed my life. A lot of my journey has been about making sure that that access to technology can happen at scale. I never obviously expected to be doing what I’m doing today but I’m grateful and I think it’s a privilege to be working in a way that you can touch the lives of billions of people.
This touches on the mystery of Sundar Pichai. The most frequent comment about you is how nice a person you are. But one doesn’t get to become the CEO of a trillion-dollar company without a lot of relentless drive. What don’t we know about you?
I get a lot of satisfaction and drive from building things which people use and impact people’s lives. The rest is an outcome of that for me.
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