The Tagore open air theatre at IIT Kharagpur was packed to its full capacity as 3500 IITians turned up to listen to their alumnus, Google CEO Sundar Pichai. For Pichai, it was an emotional homecoming, his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1993. “The last time I was here, I was leaving for the railway station to catch my train. It was a sad journey leaving the institute. I have not been back since,’’ said Pichai.
Twenty three years later, Pichai, now one of the most noted of IITians, addressed a gathering of students spanning different departments, who had queued up to listen to him since the morning, all wearing black Google baseball caps which they had earlier been given.
“When I first came to Kharagpur, I didn’t know any Hindi as I had just arrived from Chennai. But over the weeks I picked up a spattering of the language, confident enough to go to the mess and order food. So I went and called out to the server – ‘Abey Saaley’ – I didn’t know what it meant, but assumed that it was a common greeting because that’s how everyone around me would greet each other. The mess guys were so angry that they shut down the mess for a while,’’ he said amid roars of laughter.
Answering questions about his days at the Institute, Pichai said that he would bunk classes like anyone else. “It is a sort of rite of passage in college,’’ he said hurriedly adding, “But I also worked very hard.’’
“The ragging I went through was quite mellow. As freshmen we use to go through something called CG Change, CG standing for Central Gravity. We would lock our rooms and leave for classes and when we got back we would find our rooms completely overturned, with the doors still locked. Our seniors would use rods and sticks and re-arrange everything in the room,’’ he said. Pichai met his wife Anjali, his classmate, at IIT Kharagpur and would walk over to the only girls hostel at the time, SN Hall, to meet her.
“I come to India every year. The rate at which things are progressing in the country, at least digitally, is phenomenal. Growing up we didn’t have access to computers. The first computer I ever saw was here, on the IIT campus. And now there are 300 million smart phone users in the country. I just went to Nehru Hall before coming here however, and that looks just the same – I guess something will never change,’’ he said.
Ten years after he left IIT Kharagpur, Pichai joined Google. Ten years after that, he became its CEO. Talking about Google, Pichai said that the latest buzzword in the market, and what Google is currently focusing its Research and Development on is “Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence”.
“Google’s R&D focus right now is on machine learning and AI. We have recently published a paper on diabetic retinopathy – which is the fastest growing cause for blindness in the world. We are looking at applying machine learning to all fields such as this eye disease so that one would no longer have to go to a ophthalmologist for diagnosis but a regular doctor will be able to diagnose such diseases as well,’’said Pichai adding,
“Google is trying to build products for everyone in the world. For India, we need to get Google working in as many languages as possible and not just English because everyone does not know English.”
“We want to be able to reach out to India’s rural population and do better there. Giving access to people to the internet is important. So we are looking at cheaper smart phones as well – priced at no more than $30. I have heard that Kharagpur station is now connected by WiFi – this is fantastic. All I remember about the station is being made to carry our seniors’ luggage across the platform – and it is a very long platform,” he said.
Through his interaction, Pichai was thrown a volley of questions by the IItians – “What was your GPA at IIT?” “Who is your favourite Bollywood actress”, ‘Do you still get calls from your college friends?”, ‘Who was your favourite professor at IIT” , “How do I get a job at Google” and “How much power do you have as the Google CEO? Can you put up the IIT Kharagpur Logo as the Google Logo for a day?”
One student even asked Pichai, “How can I replace you at Google?” To which a laughing Pichai answered, “Be careful what you wish for. But you can always meet me for a cup of chai and we can discuss it.’’
“Every year when I visit Bangalore and Delhi, I meet a number of entrepreneurs running start ups. There is nothing missing in our startups. As a matter of fact they are exceptional and can compete with the best in the world. But the Indian market is not large enough to invest in technology. India has great potential, but a part of the problem is that the digital market is still developing. Otherwise in a country of 1.3 billion, only 300 million have smart phones right now. Hopefully companies will broaden their horizons and their markets and start building products not only looking at the Indian market but also at Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and other such countries. The emphasis should not only be on national, but international,” he said on Thursday.
On competing with China, Pichai said that India’s goal should be a little different. “I am absolutely certain that India can soon become a global player in the world’s digital economy. There are great start ups here. So we shouldn’t just look at competing with China. Very soon we should be able to compete with anyone anywhere,’’ he said.
“One of the great things about India is the tremendous interest in education – both among the students as well as their parents. But I come across cases of children in the eighth grade who start preparing for IIT. I am shocked by this. Our education is still very bookish whereas we need a more all-round development and exposure. There is still a lot of pressure to follow set lanes through our colleges and our careers.”
“In the US the emphasis is on creativity, and we need to push more for this. IT is very hard to get in to IIT and quite an achievement. But an IIT or any other premier institute is not a guarantee for success. At Google we have many people from IIT. But we also have people from other institutions across the globe and India – and these are remarkable people with remarkable talent as well,” said Pichai when asked about Indian education.