Skip to main content

Sundar Pichai on managing Google through the pandemic

The CEO of Google and Alphabet joins The Vergecast

Share this story

Graphic by William Joel | Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Like all big tech companies, Google and Alphabet are playing an outsized role in our lives as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Whether it’s helping people find reliable information in search, working with the government on testing, building an exposure-tracking system into Android and iOS in partnership with Apple, or battling misinformation on YouTube, Google’s capability — and responsibility — has never been greater.

Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai recently joined The Vergecast to talk about the challenges Google faces during this time, including a shift in its core ad business and the challenges of managing the company remotely. Pichai is himself adapting to remote work; he’s actively blocking out more time on his calendar to read and think, something he used to do during his commute. And he’s learning to make pizza from scratch by watching YouTube videos.

“It came out okay,” he said.

Pichai also talked about Google’s commitment to its hardware business, including the Pixel phone line, and how the company is continuing to try to simplify its famously complex messaging app strategy.

“The irony of the Google Meet team working remotely to make and iterate the product to get it to where they wanted it to be was very interesting to see,” said Pichai.

You can listen to the full interview below, in the podcast player of your choice, or scroll down to read a full transcript, lightly edited for clarity.

Nilay Patel: There’s three things I really want to talk about. One, how Google is handling the pandemic. Two, how your business is being impacted. And three, I talk to every CEO about how they manage their time, and I’m confident that managing a company the size of Google remotely has changed that.

I want to talk about all that stuff. But there were two big stories about Google that are important [from last week]. I want to ask two questions about them right away. First, there’s a big NBC piece from April Glaser suggesting that your diversity efforts have been wound down [and] that the company is not even using the word “diversity” internally anymore. Is that true?

Sundar Pichai: Diversity is a foundational value for us. Given the scale at which we build products and the fact we do it locally for our users, we are deeply committed to having that representation in our workforce. I think we were one of the earliest companies to publish transparency reports, and we’ve shared that ever since. And we just released our recent annual diversity report. We’ve made modest progress in critical areas. There’s a long ways to go. But it is really important.

What we are doing in the company is constantly at our scale. We look at that first — see what works, what we can scale up better. All I can say is we probably have more resources invested in diversity now than at any point in our history as a company, in terms of the scale and the resources we put in.

NP: There’s part of that report, which is interesting to talk about, because we hear about it in regards to Facebook a lot, but I don’t know if we’ve ever really asked anybody at Google about it. It’s that criticism from the conservative side of the aisle is something you’re more responsive to with these initiatives, with how you’re running the company. Is that something you think about, in terms of who’s criticizing you from where?

Our diversity efforts, we don’t bring any such lens to it. There are many areas where we are still, as an industry, as a company, dramatically underrepresented. So there’s a long way for us to go. And we’ve just not had that consideration. I think, independently, just within the company, we have definitely made efforts to make sure the company can accommodate viewpoints, and no one feels they’re not part of the company, regardless of their political viewpoints, amongst other things. But that’s about it. I think these are two independent things.

Dieter Bohn: So the other big story that hit yesterday, from the day we’re recording, was over at The Information, about Mario Queiroz and Marc Levoy quietly leaving the Pixel division, and the Pixel sales numbers maybe not being super great. Is the Pixel business living up to where you hoped it would be right now?

I’ll comment on hardware, and then talk about Pixel, too.

The last couple of years have been a major integration phase for us because we’ve combined our Google hardware efforts with Nest. We absorbed the mobile division of HTC. So it’s been a lot of stitching together. And we have a wide product portfolio, too. So it’s definitely been a building phase. We’re super committed to it for the long run. Hardware is hard. And it definitely has components, which take real time to get it right, thinking about underlying silicon or display or camera or any of those tacks. And so we are definitely investing in it, but that timeline. I think we’ve made a lot of progress.

“Hardware is hard.”

Pixel 3A last year was one of our highest NPS-rated products ever, and definitely even benchmarked outside. So to me, it’s a clear indication we have made a lot of progress. We just launched Pixel Buds this week, which you guys covered — thank you — to a good reception. Our Nest Home Hub products are definitely doing well.

Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google, Inc., introduces the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones at a product launch event on October 4th, 2017, at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Elija Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images

We take a long-term view. We are not in it just for phones alone. We have a vision of where computing needs to go. And I think it’s really hard to drive that vision without doing hardware, software, and services together. You have to think of the intersection of it. I see a lot of value in thinking about it and doing it that way.

We are definitely going to have hiccups. We are a nascent player in a really complex space, so not everything’s going to be smooth. But am I excited about our portfolio for later this year — especially if I take a longer-term view? Because some of the deeper efforts we are putting in will take three to four years to actually play out. And when they come in, I think I’m excited about how they will shape where we are going.

DB: Yeah. I’ve asked you “How serious are you about hardware?” every year since you created the division, and sort of like with self-driving cars it’s, “Well, it’ll be a five-year timeframe, it’ll be a five-year timeframe.” That five-year timeframe always seems to be five years out. 

So when you say you’re in it for the long term, is that still the timeframe that you’re thinking of for [hardware] really bringing back really serious results in terms of big sales numbers or big influence in the market or are you looking for something more immediate?

No, I mean we think about our hardware efforts obviously in the context of our overall computing efforts and in addition to what our ecosystem is doing. So we take that into account. I do think it’s important we build a sustainable business, financially, too. Because I look at the level of investment hardware needs, both in terms of all the technology R&D you need to do, the kind of supply chain you need to develop, as well as the go-to-market investments you need. So it’s a deep investment. So to do it well, I think you have to do it with a clear financial sustainability goal. So that’s important. 

So for me, three reasons. One is to drive computing forward. The second is we really guide our ecosystem. Pretty much everything we’ve done well, you can go all the way back and Android’s early days, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which we worked together, was a pivotal phone. Nexus 7 in the tablet world. I can point to Chromebooks — all along, we did our original hardware to kind of bootstrap it. And I look at areas maybe where we haven’t done opinionated [work] — maybe [smart]watch is a good example where we haven’t. And then you can see it’s tough to guide an ecosystem to what your vision of it is, just building the underlying platform.

So I think that’s the second reason. And third is to really build a sustainable hardware business. I think all of it is important, and that’s how I think about it. And I’m excited. Rick [Osterloh] and team, working closely with Hiroshi [Lockheimer] and team, they have that long-term view. So we’re pretty committed to it.

DB: So you’re the CEO of Alphabet now, in addition to Google. How much of your time do you actually even get to devote to hardware? Are you looking at prototypes? Is it just sort of one meeting in a week? Or is it a larger part of your time?

It’s just a coincidence, I think, I spent my morning with the team today talking about our portfolio for next year.

DB: Anything you want to tell us?

You guys are going to figure it out anyway!

It’s a good question. Rick and Hiroshi drive these efforts. But I try to spend time in a more stepped-back way on some of the bigger things they are doing over time.

NP: Dieter is pointing out — he just reviewed the Galaxy... A51?

DB: That’s right.

NP: That’s a cheap phone. He gave it a seven. The reason we reviewed it—

I saw the intro to the video where you said, “This phone sells more than the Galaxy.” I actually watched the video.

DB: It actually was the top-selling phone last quarter worldwide.

I think I learned it from watching your video. It was just kind of interesting. Maybe I should have known that.

NP: That’s the question here. When we think about your phones coming out, we think about are you competitive with the flagship Samsung devices? We think, are you competitive with the iPhones? But the bulk of the market is down there, at $399, $499. Is that where you want to be? Or do you want to go make a big flagship phone and take share away from the top of the market?

The area where we have demonstrated the strongest value proposition, that’s why I gave the [Pixel] 3A example, it’s where we clearly have demonstrated it. But having said that, if you want to drive computing forward, that high end is where you’re going to also keep moving the needle. And it’s where we are putting a lot of our effort into. 

So you will continue to see us invest in both ends of the spectrum. We care all the way — [we’re] obviously working with our ecosystem [on] entry-level devices. I’m deeply passionate about that. But definitely, the high end is something where we’re putting in a lot of effort. That’s where some of the underlying investments pay. It accumulates over time because it takes two to three years to do some of the deeper investments you need to do it really well.

DB: Are you seeing — especially now with everyone at home — are you seeing big changes in consumer behavior in terms of buying hardware? Is everyone going out and buying Nest cameras? Or they feel that they don’t need them because they’re at home anyway? Anything changing for you there?

Obviously, on the software side, we have clearly seen impact in terms of usage across several of our products. Some products have been negatively affected, too. But we can clearly measure it. Hardware is a bit more complex because it’s really gated by the supply chain, [which] got affected for different products in different ways, and demand has definitely been affected, too. Some of it is to do with lack of retail working well and all that stuff. So I think it is tough to exactly forecast what demand will come back. So for me, it’s too early to tell.

NP: Let’s skip into the broader business of Google and how it’s going. Dieter had the question about consumer behavior. I just had this guess, so I’m going to ask you: is Maps usage way down?

Yeah, totally. [Laughs] You alone not using it is probably contributing. No, I’m just kidding.

NP: I’m always using it.

No, it did have a significant — obviously, as people aren’t driving around, you clearly saw an impact. Interesting to me, was maybe over the last two to three weeks, we definitely see users coming back to it looking for local information. So definitely we see activity back around people trying to find services, what’s around, what’s open. People are exploring and discovering local services again. So there’s this clear inflection, but not clear what that fully means. But that’s where it is.

Google Maps Street View car seen at Google campus...
Photo by Alex Tai / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

NP: And then in your broader business — obviously Google makes the bulk of its revenue in advertising. We have felt the effects of the advertising market changing. The whole world has felt the effects of the advertising market changing. How are you seeing those effects at Google? What are you doing to manage against them?

I spoke about it in the earnings call. Compared to January and February, we clearly saw the impact in March. So for sure, Google is not immune to the global economy. In some ways, it’s representative across all sectors. So clearly, as entire sectors have been affected — travel being a particularly severe example of it — we have definitely felt that across the board.

“Google is not immune to the global economy.”

What’s interesting for us is, historically, compared to past cycles, search is something that is very highly ROI-driven, performance-oriented. And so advertisers adapt. They pull back quickly. We see demand shifts and people capitalizing on it. You will see activity in “office furniture” instantly, right then. So you can kind of see the economy adapt in real time. And so it’s fascinating to see it that way. But for sure, it’s definitely impacted our business.

DB: In your earnings call, you hinted that this wasn’t going to turn around right away next quarter. We’re in for a tough time for a while. But coming out of this in however long it takes, do you think that the ad market is going to look substantially similar to what it looked like a year ago? Or are you thinking that things are going to fundamentally change in your ad business, or in your business generally, in a way that you’re able to look at now? Or is it just way too early to tell? It’s too hard to forecast? 

It’s the question, which is on a lot of our minds: What are the trends you are seeing which have reverted back to the mean? And what is it that is here to stay? Well, will travel ever return to what it was before? And so on. 

It’s obviously tough to predict with the nature of the virus, how long it’ll be. We generally assume the effects will be there for a while. I think that’s the right way to think about it. As a company, we assume that it’s going to take a while to recover, and [we’re] planning for it that way. But it’s a bit hard for me to say. 

Human needs are pretty fundamental, I think, in terms of being social, wanting to meet people. Personally, I can’t wait to be back in a... I wish I could go watch a football game or something.

Would I like to go to a music concert? The answer is yes. So I think the innate human need is there. But I think it’ll be a while before we get back to it. So I expect it to be kind of a slow, steady recovery.

NP: How are you thinking about the general push to reopen? At Google, you said people are going to work from home through 2020. What are you thinking about for Google? And then broadly, how are you thinking about this push to reopen, particularly in the United States?

Early on, I felt we were one of the first to go to work from home, partly because I think it made sense for the health and safety of our employees. I felt that, given a lot of our work could be done from home, it made sense for us to contribute to social distancing. Clearly, the needs vary widely across different groups. We talked about hardware earlier — definitely having access to testing equipment, labs, it’s really important. You can’t test whether something works in 5G unless you can actually be in that testing environment.

So it varies widely across teams. And we are going to be conservative on the return back for the broad company. When the local ordinance allows, I think we’ll probably start with trying to get 10 to 15 percent of the company back, prioritizing people who actually kind of need to be there. And that way, we can really have a de-densified environment and have a lot of safety procedures in place. And just because we are talking about 10 to 15 percent capacity doesn’t mean that many people — we can rotate and actually get more people in once or twice a week.

“A vast majority of employees we think will likely work from home through the end of the year.”

And you have people in two different buckets. There are people who really want to come back, and they miss it. Especially at Google, for 20 years, we have genuinely invested in our physical spaces and the culture it creates with a view to having people work well together. And so I think there are people who miss that part of the experience, depending on what your personal situation is. And then there are people on the other side of the spectrum who want to be conservative. So we are trying to make that play out. 

But I expect by the end of the year, we’ll be at 20 to 30 percent capacity. Which may still mean we are able to get 60 percent of our employees in once a week, or something like that. And so that’s what we mean, where a vast majority of employees we think will likely work from home through the end of the year. But it’s a very fluid situation. If things, of course, look better, we will adapt to it. We want to be flexible. Trying to really understand what works, what doesn’t work in this.

DB: Are you thinking longer term in terms of the number of people that might work from home or work remotely? Twitter just announced forever. You can work from home for as long as you want. Are you thinking in that way, too? Or are you going to wait and see how things play out?

I want to be driven by data here, and so I view it as a research phase, and [we’ll] see where the data leads us. In some ways, I’m glad Twitter is running a kind of one-end-of-the-spectrum experiment. So thanks, Jack. It’s good to see that end of the spectrum. 

Productivity is down in certain parts, and what is not clear to me is — in the first two months, most of the people are already on projects in which they kind of know what they need to do. But the next phase, which will kick in is, let’s say you’re designing next year’s products, and you’re in a brainstorming phase, and things are more unstructured. How does that collaboration actually work? That’s a bit hard to understand and do. So we are trying to understand what works well and what doesn’t.

We’re probably going to be conservative in it. We want to make sure things work well. But coming out of it all, do we all learn and have more flexibility in how we think about this? I think so, yeah. That’s how I would bet.

NP: I’m going to take this moment to somehow transition and ask you about messaging strategy. I’m going to figure it out. You just come with me as we do it.

[Laughs] How can I do a Verge podcast without thinking about our—

DB: Pop quiz, hotshot. Name all the products.

Our entire complexity in messaging is to make sure Verge has plenty of material to work with.

NP: Google has historically been good at dogfooding and using its own products. Obviously, this is a moment to use these products in a way that maybe had never been stressed before. You added gallery view to Meet. That seems like a button that should have been there, and suddenly everybody realized it’s not there, and snap, it’s there. 

But there are some bigger competitors. There’s more consumer-focused companies that are succeeding, like Zoom. Is this a moment of clarity for you? To say, “We actually have to win this. We know what we need to do because we’re using our own products as much as we are.”

It’s definitely an important moment. We brought Javier [Soltero] in a few months ago, before all this, with a clear view. So we had a clear sense of where we wanted to go, so some of the efforts were clearly underway, and in some ways, when COVID hit, we weren’t fully done with all the changes we had wanted to make. 

I think the irony of the Google Meet team working remotely to make and iterate the product to get it to where they wanted it to be was very interesting to see. Javier has a very, very long commute, and one of his biggest concerns was the commute when he was joining. He’s doing it all virtually now. But it is an important moment. Many schools, many organizations already use Google Meet. So we are doubling down.

“RCS is where we are like United Nations. We try to herd a bunch of people.”

Obviously, COVID has blurred the lines between consumer and enterprise, and people are using products in all kinds of contexts. And so definitely, we are using it as an opportunity to make Google Meet and Google Chat, scale it up and make it more available. 

And obviously, we are a service provider [but] we are a platform, too. Hence RCS and all the work we are doing. RCS is where we are like United Nations. We try to herd a bunch of people. So it’s making better progress than it appears because you’re collecting so many people together on it. As people sign up, you will see more and more momentum. 

So all of that is coming together well, I think. I’m glad we realigned it, everything with Javier. He works both with our cloud team with Thomas [Kurian], and our platforms team with Hiroshi. And so I think we’ll get to the right place. I’m very excited.

DB: You brought up RCS. You know I’m going to ask. What are the—

This is a rare moment where I am like... because I know Dieter wants to talk about it. So I had to go there.

DB: In an age when Facebook is saying, “We are going to integrate all of our messaging products, and we’re going to put everything under full end-to-end encryption,” do you think that Google having multiple products in multiple contexts is still the way to go? Or do you think there needs to be more integration there?

We definitely want to have a more integrated, simplified view, but in all scenarios, I see our platform offering. Android is open as part of the open platform stack. I think you need an open standard messaging framework. And we have to evolve that from its SMS days, and that’s RCS for me.

And obviously, we’ll continue doing that in all scenarios because I think that’s part of building that open stack. I don’t see that changing. But in terms of our services, I want it to be as simplified for people as possible. And I think we’ve made great strides compared to where we were with Google Meet and Chat. Of course, we have Duo. We intended Duo for consumers and Google Meet and Chat for businesses, effectively. But the lines have blurred. And they share a lot of common underlying technology. They’re both built on WebRTC, and so there’s a lot of common work, and given its common teams, hopefully we can iterate.

But some flexibility, I think it’s fine here.

NP: We started out by talking about phones. One of the reasons Apple’s phones are so sticky is they have a great messaging product. Do you think that that is connected? You need a great sticky messaging product to move people over?

Let me give a user answer and a technical answer, too. 

From a user standpoint, any Android phone you get, you always want a phone number-based messaging product, which you’re going to create, and you want something which comes with the platform, and we’re trying to align that. And that integration, I think is critical. And so I do feel it’s an important part and where Android has been behind. So I think it’s important there.

Technically, different OEMs and different carriers having different RCS implementations was one of the biggest causes of fragmentation in Android. It caused real pain. So simplifying that is a tremendous multiplier in terms of productivity and efficiency and simplicity. And so for both reasons, I think, it’s important to invest, and get it right.

NP: So we lured you here by saying we were going to talk about the pandemic. We’ve mostly talked about messaging. I want to make sure we talk about the pandemic.

[Laughs] What a surprise.

NP: I feel like your team prepped you well. You had to know this question was coming. I keep track every week of when Trump and his team held up the flowchart and said, “Some x thousand Google engineers are working on it.” 

Just walk me through that day. Did you expect that to come? The next day, Trump said someone from Google had called and apologized to him. Did that happen? Just what was that set of days like?

Very early on through COVID, we decided as a company we should do everything [in] areas where our expertise could help. And so we had a wide set of efforts. 

I think there were two efforts, and we were in touch with the [White House] coronavirus task force. And there were two efforts, both in terms of what Google can do to provide more information, and Verily was working on a way to develop wide-scale testing, particularly with an emphasis on drive-through testing, with a focus on first responders. And we were in touch on both efforts. And so that’s what it was.

Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Today, I think Verily right now is in 86 sites across 13 states. And that’s what that effort was. It’s obviously taken more time than most of us expected to get there, but there were real constraints along the way. But I think we’ve made a lot of progress. My view on this is, at a time of global pandemic, we want to do everything we can to help the US government succeed. And so we’re trying to play our role in it.

NP: I’m just going to ask you directly: did you call President Trump and apologize?

My discussions were with the task force, so that’s who I was talking to.

NP: It’s quite a quote. It just struck me at that time that the distinction between Google and Verily was not being well-made. And so I think my follow-up here is: is that clearer now? You’re the CEO of Alphabet. Verily is under Alphabet. You’re also the head of Google.

I think we were communicating across two areas. We were communicating both. I do feel like the onus is on us as a company to clarify and be clear in terms of how we are communicating. I don’t think we got everything right in terms of communicating across the two groups, which were talking back and forth. So I just wanted to make sure we were clear in terms of how we were communicating.

NP: So what now is the relationship between Verily and Google? Do you still have volunteers working at the Verily project?

Yes. Because they’re both under Alphabet, we view it as areas where we help. So sometimes Google is doing work on health care, Verily is doing health care. If we share resources where we need to, sometimes there could be an AI breakthrough from Google, which is what Verily uses to commercialize. But at a technical level, we can exchange ideas. At a regulatory level, we work together to have a compliance process, and all that framework we built in. But I’m excited at the progress Verily is making as well.

DB: Do you find that separation, as sort of two separate companies under one umbrella, it’s still useful? Or has your thinking changed about the distinction between Alphabet company Verily and Alphabet company Google?

It’s a good question. There are many areas where I find the distinction to actually help because when you take something like Waymo, and the timeframe it needs to operate in, [it’s] dealing with a very different set of issues than building a typical internet product. I like the fact that there’s structural separation, that the Google management team doesn’t have to sit and think through that breadth, and they can be more focused. And it allows us to play these different bets with the different characteristics they would need and different time horizons and so on. 

So Alphabet creates that flexibility. The underlying commonality across all of Alphabet is we think [there] has to be a deeper technology play — something based on some foundational technology to solve something. That’s the underlying commonality. 

Google is broadly focused on the internet space, and you know if [a problem] is distinctly different from that, and allows us to still apply the technology — maybe share common things like AI and our data centers but have the right structure, right incentives, right approach to go tackle that problem. And so I think it’s been really helpful to have that flexibility. I would expect sometimes we may look at something and say, “Hey, it’s in Google. Maybe it makes sense to be more in Alphabet” or vice versa. We created that structure to create that flexibility. Nest is a good example. It made more sense that it’s aligned closer with the hardware team, and obviously, there’s convergence there.

NP: So there’s a couple big health initiatives inside the Alphabet umbrella. Verily is one of them. This is a moment, I think, for biotech, for health sciences. Would you say Verily is entirely now focused on COVID and the pandemic? Or is it one of many things it’s doing?

It’s one of many things. There are a lot of folks there who are doctors and health care people. Obviously, by calling, they feel motivated to help at a moment like that. So there is a lot of focus. But they’re focused on areas like diabetes, a longer-term disease. So they’re clearly focused on other aspects of health care as well, and they will continue doing that. And so those are big doubled-up efforts already underway.

NP: Google is doing a bunch of other stuff around the coronavirus and COVID-19. What are some of those other things outside of the website?

It’s a big part. By now, we’ve committed over a billion dollars in various ways, be it grants to public health organizations, ad credits to small / medium businesses, and then working in each country through the official agencies’ direct loan programs to small / medium businesses as well. We have undertaken efforts on PPE. There’s the deep work we have done on ventilators out of Rick’s team. And obviously, our support for schools through products like Meet. We have provided Chromebooks. So it spans a wide variety of effort. 

And obviously, exposure notification, and the work in the contact tracing has a big effort, jointly with Apple as well.

NP: Is it not often that Google and Apple collaborate at this level. How did that come about? What was your conversation with Tim Cook like? How’s it going in terms of the two companies working together?

It’s been a really terrific effort. It started, I think both of us saw the problem and saw the opportunity to do something, and the teams had started working on it. And at the right point, you realize in this problem, particularly to do it well, we saw some of the earlier app efforts actually struggling to work well. 

And so we realized as platform providers, we really want to make it easy, and to make it work at scale, obviously with user consent and privacy protection. And the teams started talking, they saw an opportunity to do it better, so Tim and I connected, and we talked, and we said, “Let’s announce it jointly.” That helps clarify that we are going to approach it consistently. 

And so for public health organizations planning, we wanted to give a clear commitment and a framework that they can actually invest, and we’re going to support it as a platform.

The teams talk multiple times a week across the two companies, and we are in conversations with public health organizations around the world. You will see there are large countries where they are fully developing a service on top of it. Our goal here is to have one more toolkit in all the efforts you need to manage COVID. We wanted to make sure we created the option value and add one more step in that toolkit.

NP: When you’re on the phone with Tim Cook, what was a problem that needed the two of you to solve or decision that needed the two of you to make?

One example I would give, when Tim and I talked, it was mainly actually deciding to just go public and lay it all out, earlier than both companies would normally do in a process like this. 

We would have probably normally waited to develop, hash out more issues fully. But we both realized, given the public nature of it, given the responsible conversation you need to have with many societal institutions as part of it, it was important that we put it out and shared details, and engaged in a conversation. So we basically made that decision, I think teams had maybe different timelines on when they should be announced. And so we talked through, and we decided to announce it sooner rather than later.

DB: You and I have talked previously about Google’s responsibility when it comes to AI and making sure AI was ethical. With this, you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you’re in the middle of a whole bunch of different countries with their own health organizations. How do you think about your responsibility as the CEO of Google in this pandemic? Because from a certain perspective, it rises to a governmental level of a social contract with users. Or you could say, “No, no. We’re just a tech company.” So how do you see that?

It’s a good question. It’s a one in 100-year kind of issue we are dealing with. So it’s important. I want to do everything we can [and] always be aware that we are a company, a private company, working through an extraordinarily public moment. We clearly have products, which people come and rely on, and so doing that well, both in terms of providing high-quality information and getting it right trumps everything as we handle that. And that is the biggest way by which we can do well.

Beyond that, supporting our employees, supporting the communities we operate in, all that goes hand in hand. And then there are longer-term efforts where, because we have deep technological underpinnings, we can bring that technology to bear to support health care organizations and so on. But that’s the way I think about it. 

I think it’s an important moment where the big companies need to step up. But I think you need to do it in a construct in which you realize you’re a private company, and you’re one small part of big value chain to solve this.

NP: So that’s an interesting way of putting it because some of the problems you’re solving are new. We’re going to use the Bluetooth radios in everybody’s cellphone to do exposure notification. I think, historically, that’s a new idea. I don’t think people had that before. It’s obviously got a bunch of new problems to solve.

On the flip side, there are some very old problems to solve here. Are people getting reliable information? Can they trust their leaders? Can they trust the companies they rely on? Google obviously provides a lot of information in search. You provide a lot of information in YouTube. 

There have been some massive coordinated disinformation campaigns on both of those platforms. Facebook just recently announced what amounts to a worldwide supreme court for free speech on its platform. Are you thinking you need to do something at that scale to manage the very old problems of reliable information on your platforms?

It’s the foundation of what our company is built on. Search was designed across the web to surface the highest-quality information. So it’s something we’ve thought about for a long time. Obviously, the challenges have gotten more complex and harder, for sure. And so we have evolved our approaches, too. 

I’m following what everybody is doing with a lot of interest here. So for example, in YouTube, over the past maybe four years, we have definitely, for categories of information, relied on external experts. On violent extremism, we partner with counter-extremism organizations. So we tap their expertise to help shape our policies. And as we evolved our hate and harassment policies last year, we consulted many organizations. We took inputs. 

So I think relying on deep experts, other nonprofit institutions, governmental expertise, is a natural way we want to approach our work. And so I think to me, whether you set up an oversight board — I will look to see what the learnings from it are, and definitely going to study that. I think it’s important to understand that.

I think we are going to be flexible. If we find something works, we will be really open to adopting it. But we also, I think directionally, have really worked hard to bring outside input in terms of policy definition and so on. So that’s how we generally think about it.

NP: I want to just ask about how you are managing Google. Vergecast listeners know I tend to end all these interviews by saying, “How do you manage your time?” And that question, it used to have one kind of very clear set of answers. Now, it’s all different. So as CEO of Google, you’re obviously managing a giant company remotely. You’re dealing with governments. You’re dealing with your own employees. How are you currently just managing your time operating the company?

I’ve tried to have two parallel tracks. One is explicitly, there’s a definite focus on COVID response. So I’m spending a significant chunk of my time on something like that, which I wasn’t spending two months ago. 

But also making sure the company operationally is focused on continuing to pursue all efforts they are doing and being able to compartmentalize, and do that, too. And so I’m making sure that our meetings just have a real sense of normalcy, and that’s why I gave the example of the earlier morning meeting today when I was reviewing our product plan for next year. It’s just a normal meeting, which I would have done. And so being able to do—

NP: What surprised you in that meeting?

It is just — timelines are hard to plan around. Your disruptions are kind of concerning. So when you plan timelines — and they’re for sure hard — it’s not a surprise. It’s what was different about the meeting.

NP: I almost got you. I was this close.

[Laughs] Almost. That’s why I’m laughing.

NP: So you’re having meetings on sort of a normal cadence with a sense of normalcy. What else has shifted for you in how you’re managing your time?

The art of doing this, and I’m actually talking to others who have worked from home before, and the line I heard was, “Working from home is as much about not working from home, too.” 

I think that’s been harder for IT. How do you draw the boundaries? I miss transitions giving me a chance to drive and think about stuff and process. And so on hand, it’s a bit more efficient because you can move across what we are doing right now might have taken a lot more time, maybe not as a podcast.

“I miss that space to think quietly.”

But I miss the transition. I miss that space to think quietly. And so for me, that’s definitely something I need to progress better. But I’m managing my time. I have a clear sense of the major areas in the company I want to spend a percentage of my time [on]. I actually look back at my calendar every three months to see whether I spent my time on the things I wanted to spend. And I’ve always done that. So any aberrations that come out, I step back and think, “What can I do structurally to make sure I get back to how I want to spend my time?” 

So it’s a constant reiterative process. And sometimes you look back in horror, and you realize you got it wrong, and then you course-correct. So that’s how I think about it.

NP: So the classic question I ask is “When do you work?” Because it’s a question I’m very focused on. It sounds like you did a lot of your time working and thinking in those transitions. How are you building that time now? Or is that something you’re just working on?

It’s a good question. I’m trying to force-block times on the calendar, specifically to read and think. I think it’s hard to do. But actually block the time and do that.

That’s how I had the time to watch your Galaxy A51 video. Sometimes just trying to understand what’s going on and spend time outside. So I think carving out that thinking time is one tool I have. But drawing boundaries is something I’m working on as well. Definitely picking up hobbies, which I never thought I had before. I made pizza last week from scratch, thanks to some YouTube cooking video. It turned out okay. And so things like that help.

NP: As you look out over the course of this next year, over the course of the crisis unfolding, what are the leading indicators of change that you’re looking at that maybe other people aren’t looking at? Maybe that’s specific to Google, maybe it’s broader than that. But what are the signals that you see? You have access to a lot of signals. What are the signals you see that indicate change is coming, one way or the other?

It’s effectively user pattern shifts, trying to understand — is telemedicine a real thing? Does it sustain? Or is it just something people do, and do people revert back to how they do things. 

So looking at recovery patterns and seeing where you’re actually seeing a difference, a long-run difference, is what we are trying to piece out and understand, where we can. And we’re very interested in how does work culture shift? How does travel and meetings shift for the long run? And hence its impact on things which will do well because of that, and things which will have to adapt. So shifts like that.

Education is a big area where we are watching, and definitely I know you’ve been passionate about rural broadband and connectivity. To me, distance learning really identifies those gaps, too. And so figuring out how through both connectivity and computing we reach those things, is a long-run journey, I think, which we’re working on.

But I think trying to get those snapshots of where things are changing and trying to be data-driven and adapt is something — I do think these are moments of opportunity as well to build a future. History shows through times like this because so many people are facing so many problems, entrepreneurs rethink things and solve things. So it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

NP: Do you see it differently around the world? You have access to a lot of data from around the world. Some parts of the world are in different states of this. What are you seeing around the world that is giving you an indication that things are going to change in the long term?

One thing, which has been striking is — I don’t think in our lifetimes we have seen such a global moment where everyone seems to be going through a shared experience. That’s unique. So it’s kind of one of the few positives. It feels like a moment for humanity together as a whole.

But for sure, when you look at places in Asia, which have gone through and come back, we do see some shifts in areas, like as people get used to ordering online, some of those effects seem — some of the shift stays. So we see trends like that. But I see a lot more common than not, which, to me, shows the commonality of humanity, more than how different we are. So there’s more common patterns I see rather than differences.

The Vergecast /

The flagship podcast of The Verge, featuring interviews with Sundar Pichai and more.