Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google and Alphabet

View from Washington: Has Google found its voice?

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As Sundar Pichai steps up as CEO of Google and its parent Alphabet, he must become the public face both have noticeably lacked.

As Sundar Pichai settles into his role as CEO of Google and its parent Alphabet, he is immediately under pressure to prove himself in an arena where his predecessor Larry Page signally failed – politics.

2020 could be perhaps the most political year in Silicon Valley’s history. At the macro level, there are fears of economic disruption because of deteriorating relations between the US and China and jitters across global markets. At the same time, America’s general election in November will ensure that Congress remains keenly focused on all forms of dodgy online campaigning – particularly those companies they see providing a channel for it.

Meanwhile, individual Valley leaders such as Google face various international anti-trust investigations as well as criticism (and in some cases legal action) because of perceived failures when it comes to handling accusations of sexual harassment, the rights of workers to unionise, and participation in US government contracts.

As founders Page and Sergey Brin acknowledge in an open letter handing the reins to Pichai (Brin has also stepped aside as Alphabet’s President), Google is no longer an upstart company but “a young adult of 21 [that has reached] time to leave the roost”. As so many of us discovered on reaching that age, it is where the mollycoddling stops and reality bites.

It was long obvious that Page gave barely a foxtrot for the Washington waltz, at one point being empty-chaired at a hearing his opposite numbers from Twitter and Facebook did attend. He also shied away from the kind of strictly-managed interview paso doble that even Mark Zuckerberg submitted to as he performed his own dance of the seven – or was it 70? – apologies.

This alone makes Pichai’s promotion unsurprising, arguably almost inevitable since Eric Schmidt quit full-time work at Alphabet last spring. Both Google and Alphabet need a convincing, unifying and very public leader right now.

But already there are those in the Valley – and, for that matter, DC – who wonder if Pichai has grasped a poisoned chalice. Put him in front of a developer conference, and he comes across as calm, informed and convincing – developers like those qualities when they are being pitched something new or asked to change working practices. In DC, though, the same qualities can, at the extreme, suggest ‘lamb to the slaughter’.

Pichal certainly knows that the current generation of Valley CEOs has a mixed reputation on Capitol Hill. As adept as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook have been at gaming the system and charming its mavens, too many of Pichai’s other current oppos are viewed along a continuum that stretches from ‘unconvincing’ through ‘untrustworthy’ to ‘mendacious’.

Just to make thing easier, in taking on responsibility across all Alphabet’s operations, Pichai must now speak for YouTube. It arguably generates as much if not more political controversy than the main search business because of issues such as clips promoting extremist views and behaviours, ineffective age controls, doctored and inaccurate videos and, increasingly, deep fakes.

And all this comes on top of the Alphabet CEO’s traditional daily concerns such as oversight of its ‘Other Bets’ in industries such as autonomous driving, logistics and healthcare, and more traditional M&A (a $2bn acquisition of Fitbit is currently in train). Oh yeah, and signs that the online advertising market is reaching a plateau or even declining.

Facing such a volume of work, many analysts expect Pichai to combine the Alphabet and Google CEO roles for a relatively short time, essentially until he can find someone to replace him at Google and thus give himself more time to address his broadened remit. Those would be the practicalities dealt with.

But as regards the public factor, we are still waiting to see. Pichai recently reduced the frequency of Google’s internal town halls (leading to often blunt criticism from staff), and has not yet made himself available for the usual round of post-promotion interviews with the financial press.

While we must acknowledge that Pichai’s CV makes clear his immense strengths in all of the historically right areas, he will have to literally step up and address the public one pretty soon. If “Where’s Larry?” quickly becomes “Where’s Sundai?”, Google will have its biggest search problem ever.

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