When the Google CEO Turned Up In Our Alma Mater.

When the Google CEO Turned Up In Our Alma Mater.

Sundar Pichai interacting with students at SRCC, Delhi University.

Sundar Pichai interacting with students at SRCC, Delhi University.

On a lazy winter morning, I woke up to realize that it was the day that the man who grew up in my vicinity in Chennai, and made it big in life, big enough to become the CEO of Google, was coming to my college. Sundararajan Pichai, so was he named. Although the winter vacation in Delhi University had already begun, there was an unusual crowd in front of SRCC when I entered. Google India had apparently hired a special squad from G4S to provide cover for their CEO. And so my favorite guard, the one who’d unfailingly greet us everyday was missing at the gate. However the Nooglers at the registration desk made up for his absence. The registration process was smooth and they were themselves equally excited to meet Sundar. They even gave me a media pass when I told them that I’d be blogging about the #AskSundar event. We had to enter the venue 90 minutes prior to the schedule for security concerns. Google is intuitive, it understands us. I was hungry and they gave me a felicitous meal box InnerChef. There were a lot of digital screens put up across the campus to keep us edutained. On some screens, you could take selfies and it’d automatically get uploaded on social media, or if you were a non-narcissist like me, then you could watch Art & History videos at the other screens. In the Sports Complex, there were drums everywhere and they made a musical program out of it. I felt the innovative setup of the event itself was giving us a message as to what Google stood for.

Drums, tamarinds, whistles and hoooyeees!

Drums, tamarinds, whistles and hoooyeees!

When the clock struck one, the man arrived. He looked like every other techie I’ve met in Chennai. He was humble, jovial and enthusiastic while answering all the questions that Harsha Bhogle and the students asked him. Although he spoke in an American accent, I could find the Tamil tone buried deeply inside his voice.The whole event was covered by most of the leading channels in India and it was also live streamed on YouTube. The Google team had rigorously pre-screened all the questions that were posed to Sundar. While I understand that they did not want to put their CEO in an embarrassing situation, the questions could have been more candid. These are the list of his favorites that he confessed to:

  • Favorite Sports: Soccer, Cricket
  • Favorite Players: Lionel Messi, Sunil Gavaskar
  • Favorite Train: Coromandel Express (Chennai to Kharagpur)
  • First Phone: Motorola StarTAC
  • First Software: A rudimentary version of Chess

When he was still in college, the Internet didn’t even exist. There were no smartphones, only books. He was completely into reading. So when the Internet started happening, it took him a while to realize its power. He talked about the attitude towards failure in the Indian society and how in contrast, in the Silicon Valley, it was indeed considered us a badge of honor. “India needs a culture of optimism and risk taking,” he said. He encouraged us to work with people who’d make us feel insecure. The Indian education system, according to him needs more experiential and project-based learning. He urged the Indian community to ensure that the system doesn’t penalize us for taking risks. Those were very valid points coming from someone who himself is a product of the system. And then he was kidding about how they should create an opinion poll for naming the next Android version & asked us to vote for an Indian name. He was also very optimistic about India. He said, “It’s happening in India. It’s just a matter of time. We’re a country of entrepreneurial culture. Whenever I go across India and find a tea stall in a random corner, I feel like ‘Well, there’s an entrepreneur here.’ India is very, very well positioned. Entrepreneurs here are just like the ones I find in the Valley.”

Someone asked him whether if it was true that he could memorize phone numbers hearing them just once. “Yes, I was good at them when I was in Chennai. Back then it used to be only six digits. But when I moved to the US and started using a smartphone, I stopped memorizing.” I wanted to ask him if technology has made our brains less efficient and the importance of memorization in a digital world.

There was another joke when Bhogle asked him how much he had scored in his Class 12. Sundar diplomatically answered that it wasn’t good enough for him to enter SRCC. Oh boy, I was so proud of myself. When I go back home, I’ll tell mom that I have achieved something the Google CEO couldn’t.

(Arshad Madrassi is a graduate from SRCC, Delhi Unniversity and the co-founder of Socify.)

An edited version of this blog first appeared on Huffington Post.