Why the US loves Indian tech CEOs

Sundar Pichai's appointment as the new head of Google underscores the American love affair with Indian CEOs. The reasons for this range from humble backgrounds to an understanding of emerging markets
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Last week, Larrry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google announced that Sundar Pichai, the 43-year-old Googler responsible for the birth of the Chrome browser; the Chrome operating system for cloud-driven laptops and guiding the development and expansion of Android, was handed the reins of a restructured company.
Google's Sundar Pichai
(Image: Google)

Some would say that Pichai's appointment was an inevitability. Apparently, in early 2014, Microsoft was in negotiations with Pichai for him to assume the throne at the software giant, but eventually appointed fellow south Indian Satya Nadella as its chief. So it's no surprise that Google, sensing the risk of seeing its talent poached, decided to anoint Pichai as Page's heir.

Pichai's promotion is the latest in a series of appointments in the last decade or so where Indians have been thrust into the top job at global firms--Indra Nooyi, President and CEO at Pepsi; Ajay Banga, head of Mastercard; and Anshu Jain, former co-head of Deutsche Bank are just a few celebrated examples.

Yet, it is in the tech firmament that Indian CEOs truly proliferate. In the recent past, as I had pointed out in a ZDNet article published last year soon after Satya Nadella's appointment, at least five other Indians (aside from Nadella) were the heads of global tech companies. Of these, four were turnaround artists, resurrecting the fortunes of companies with plummeting fortunes.

Of course, the Valley is no stranger to Indians. In fact, it is over-run by them. According to a 2014 study by professor Vivek Wadhwa, as many as 15 percent of the Valley's start-ups were birthed by people from the subcontinent. They make up the largest population of immigrant tech-company founders, greater in number than the next four groups (from Britain, China, Taiwan, and Japan) combined.

Still, starting a company is one thing, but assuming the reins of a global tech giant can be something else entirely, and this is where Indians have come into their own.

What is it that makes Indians so uniquely appropriate for the top slot at tech firms? Why is it that Indians dominate here in numbers and not eminently capable migrants from China, Japan, or, say, European nations?

Most of today's Indian tech-CEOs are engineers first and foremost, making them an 'engineer's manager' and not just any ol' MBA. They have emerged from many of India's leading engineering colleges like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) located across the country or from the plethora of regional engineering colleges that funnel talent to US graduate engineering programs in droves.

(Image: Microsoft)
While Satya Nadella grew up in Hyderabad and studied at Manipal Institute of Technology, Adobe's Shantanu Narayen, for instance, studied at Hyderabad's Osmania University. Sunder Pichai is an alum of IIT Kharagpur, while Dinesh Paliwal, who was responsible for turning around high-end audio manufacturer Harmon, is a graduate from IIT Roorkee. Most of these individuals went on to do an MS, Phd and/or an MBA in the US, some even filing significant industry patents while doing so.

This has allowed many of these CEOs forge a sense of camaraderie with their engineering work forces, especially those in companies that were on their way south and therefore plagued by low morale. Sanjay Jha, turnaround artist at Motorola for instance, is famous for rolling up his sleeves and working alongside his fellow techies when he arrived at the company.

Almost all the Indian tech CEOs have been heads of product companies or have risen through the ranks by heading product divisions. Almost all were entrenched in a world where yesterday's solutions could easily be discarded onto tomorrow's dumps, necessitating a continuous search for cutting-edge innovation and risk-taking.

Pichai is a bonafide products man--suggesting, developing and launching the Chrome browser despite then-CEO Eric Schmidt's objections, and then going on to roll out Chromebooks followed by low-cost Android phones, amongst other things. Prior to this, Pichai was an engineer and product manager at Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, Applied Materials.

Before moving on to steer chip-manufacturer Globalfoundries, Sanjay Jha was most famous for his rescue act at Motorola, where he jettisoned Symbian and every other kind of operating system the company was in, and bet on Android (a winning one in retrospect), while going on to develop one of the most popular phones in the world--the Moto G. This was perhaps the only reason why the company was snapped up by Google for $12.5 billion.

Engineer-manager Paliwal, having already turned around Swedish engineering giant ABB, rescued Harmon by reverse engineering Harmon's products for developing markets as well as using the culture of low-cost innovation overseas to churn out quality products in navigation, connectivity, internet and telematics for upscale auto brands such as BMW and Audi at half the price that they would normally command.

You can't get more humble than Sundar Pichai. He grew up in the southern India city of Chennai in a house with just two rooms, where Pichai and his brother slept in the living room. His mother was a stenographer while his father an engineer at a components factory. They didn't own a car and only installed a telephone in the house when Sundar was twelve. Many other CEOs, like Sanjay Jha who hails from the small town of Bhagalpur, Bihar, share Pichai's roots.
Adobe's Shantanu Narayen

What this means, according to many, is a management style that is less abrasive than the likes of a Gates, Ballmer, Jobs or Page, as well as an ability to manage conflict. Pichai has been famous at Google for being able to reach consensus in a fractious environment and was actually installed at the head of Android after the powers that be considered Andy Rubin (who sold Android to Google) too difficult.

Similarly, Narayen at Adobe weathered the trauma of being at the receiving end of Steve Jobs' ire after Jobs deep-sixed flash from the iPad OS. The Adobe head is apparently a cool, understated customer. Microsoft's Nadella is cut from the same cloth, quick to apologise for errors (his recent gaffe about pay hikes for women comes to mind) and generally known for his "collaborative, nice-guy approach to management"-- dramatically different from the fist-pumping, belligerent and intense Ballmer, his predecessor.

India turns out to be a big influence on almost every one of these CEOs for many reasons. While colonisation under the yoke of the British may not have been that great for the country for innumerable reasons (Indian GDP was 24 percent of the world's economy when the Queen took over and was subsequently reduced to 4 percent in the twentieth century), they did give Indians the one thing that helps them vault over Chinese and European counterparts--the English language.

Indians also inherited the technologies of management from their colonisers. Running companies in a structured fashion, leading teams and becoming experts at industrial organisation became second nature. For a great read on this, pick up my old man and Indian management guru, SL Rao's book 'From Servants to Masters.' In fact, the exact same trend of Indians helming the top tech outfits also applies to management schools across the US and Europe. They are overrun by Indian bosses.

The other vital advantage that prospective Indian-born CEOs bring with them is the ability to understand booming, often-complex developing markets, which is where the next spurt of growth for many tech companies is taking place. To know how to operate there and how to cater products to them could be

the difference between winning and losing. It isn't all that surprising therefore that Pichai was in India unveiling the low-cost Android One phone (admittedly, not a glittering success, but it's too early in the game to definitively dub it a failure). Apparently, Nadella was recently in Kenya for the launch of Windows 10 where he disclosed a number of new initiatives for the country.

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