Sundar Pichai has been acting like Alphabet’s top leader in Washington for more than a year. Now, it’s official.
Alphabet CEO Larry Page and President Sergey Brin made a surprise announcement yesterday that they are stepping away from day-to-day operations at the company they co-founded. They’re handing the reins over to Pichai, thrusting the Google CEO into the top role at Alphabet at perhaps the most critical juncture in its 21-year-history. The company is confronting broad political backlash over potentially anti-competitive behavior, its data collection practices and even election security, among other controversies.
But Pichai’s new job title will probably have little immediate effect on the company’s political battles. He’s already been on the front lines and weathering the techlash in Washington in the absence of Page, who he reported to until yesterday.
Page was largely missing in action in Washington for more than a year. Senators tore him apart last September when he was a no-show at an Intelligence Committee hearing with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.
Pichai – who also declined to testify at that hearing – was left to clean up the mess solo. He held quiet meetings with members of Congress, the White House and Pentagon officials to smooth things over. He was the executive the company later sent to Washington for a Capitol Hill grilling. President Trump even targeted Pichai personally in tweets over the summer as he attacked Google, without evidence, for being biased against conservatives.
Pichai has also been leading the company’s annual developer conference and quarterly investor call, Greg notes.
The new Alphabet CEO has “effectively been the spokesperson for Google and for Alphabet for a while now,” Alan Davidson, who opened Google’s Washington office in 2005 and now serves as Mozilla vice president of global policy, trust and security, told me in an interview.
Pichai’s treatment in Washington hasn’t been all that different from other embattled tech titans, like Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. The only distinction was that unlike those executives, Pichai didn’t have the top role in the company’s organization chart.
But he was overseeing the products regulators are most worried about, including YouTube as well as the company’s search and advertising businesses. Alphabet, the Google parent company established in 2015, encompasses a much wider range of businesses, including the self-driving car division Waymo, the smart-home appliance maker Nest and other “moonshot initiatives.” But regulators have largely not paid attention to the company’s organizational structure.
“Regulators have seen Google and Alphabet as largely synonymous,” Davidson said. “This move is not going to change any of that.”
Page will not have an operational role at the company for the first time since Google’s founding, though he and Brin will retain their board seats and company shares. The announcement marks the end of an era, especially because the two co-founders played an integral role in shaping the values that have defined the company politically, Davidson said.
“They played pivotal role in deciding what Google stood for,” he said.
They also shaped the company’s unique corporate culture – which was widely celebrated until recent years, as divisions between employees and management broke out over issues ranging from the company’s work with the Pentagon to its handling of sexual harassment claims.