At IIT Kharagpur, Google’s Sundar Pichai takes a trip down memory lane

Kharagpur (West Bengal): When Sundar Pichai was first interviewed by Google Inc. on 1 April 2004, he hadn’t still heard about Gmail. Google, which at that time employed around 1,000 people, had just launched the service.

Through the first three rounds of the interview, Pichai kept saying he hadn’t seen or heard about Gmail. He had almost dismissed it as an April Fool’s Day joke when in the fourth round the interviewer told him what Gmail was.

In the fifth round, he was asked to give his views about how it could be improved, recalled Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, on his visit to his alma mater, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur—or Kgp, as it is popularly known on the campus.

Google’s founder Larry Page wasn’t sitting across the table—perhaps the reason why he secured the job, Pichai said, making light of the biggest turning point in his career.

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The town of Kharagpur, which he had left with a heavy heart back in 1993, had changed a lot, but much at Kgp “looks exactly the same”, Pichai said, taking the stage with a sheepish smile.

Some 3,500 students gave him a hero’s welcome as Pichai walked in wearing a powder-blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his eyes glimmering with excitement.

The Kharagpur railway station, where he, as a fresher, was made to carry heavy bags for his seniors, now has Wi-Fi connectivity under a Google-partnered initiative. But the Nehru Hall, where he used to stay, hasn’t changed much, Pichai said.

Interviewed by Hitesh Oberoi, managing director and chief executive officer of Info Edge (India) Ltd, Pichai took a trip down memory lane to his years at Kgp as a student of metallurgical engineering.

From the time he was a student at the institute, he always wanted to build “computing products”, he said, and thus wound up with Google. In his free time at IIT, he would study programming languages such as Fortran.

On India’s centrality to Google’s plans, Pichai said the technology giant was training some two million people to develop mobile applications.

India has the potential to emerge as a powerhouse in software development, but it will take “a few more years to realise that potential”, he said.

What India needs to become “a global player in digital economy, competitive with any country in the world” is cheap devices—a $30 smart phone, according to Pichai.

In India, Google is working on launching its services in as many languages as possible, he said. Further, it is working with the government and state-owned enterprises such as RailTel Corp. to expand access to the Internet.

It is estimated that by 2020, India will have 500 million smartphone users.

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It is a “great opportunity” that in India, enterprises such as Google can work in collaboration with the government, Pichai said.

Globally, Google will continue to focus on building capacity in machine learning and artificial intelligence, leveraging the “dramatic improvement” in computing speed in recent times, he said.

Machine learning can make a “big difference” in many fields, he said, citing the example of diabetic retinopathy—a condition that can lead to loss of vision. Machine learning can help with early detection of diabetic retinopathy, which is key to dealing with it, he said.

Asked by a student where he saw himself in 10 years, Pichai said he wasn’t sure. Recalling that the first time he boarded a plane was when he made his first trip to the US, Pichai said technology is moving too fast to see 10 years into the future.

And in advice to his star-struck audience, Pichai said people at Google are encouraged to aim “high enough to fail”.

“And even if you fail, you end up doing something good.”

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