19/12/2015 10:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

When The Google CEO Turned Up In My College

Arshad Merchant

On a lazy winter morning, I woke up to realise that it was the day that the man who grew up in my locality in Chennai, and made it big in life, big enough to become the CEO of Google, was coming to my college.

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, Sundararajan Pichai. And so my favorite guard, the one who'd unfailingly greet us every day, 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.

I felt the innovative setup of the event itself gave us a message about what Google stands for.

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 an InnerChef meal box. There were a lot of digital screens put up across the campus to keep us edutained. On some screens, you could take a selfie and it'd automatically get uploaded on social media; if you were a non-narcissist like me, you could watch art and history videos on 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 gave us a message about what Google stands for.

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 discern some Tamil intonations buried deep in 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 prescreened 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. We did get to learn about some of his favourite things and firsts though:

Favourite sports: Soccer, cricket

Favourite players: Lionel Messi, Sunil Gavaskar

Favourite train: Coromandel Express (Chennai to Kharagpur)

First phone: Motorola StarTAC

First software: A rudimentary version of chess

When Bhogle asked him how much he had scored in his Class 12 exams. Sundar diplomatically answered that it wasn't good enough for him to enter SRCC.

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 realise its power. He talked about the attitude towards failure in Indian society and how, in contrast, in the Silicon Valley, it was considered to be a badge of honour. "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 focused on project-based learning. He urged the Indian community to ensure that the system doesn't penalise us for taking risks. Those were very valid points coming from someone who himself is a product of the system.

On a lighter note, he joked about how they should create an opinion poll for naming the next Android version after an Indian mithai and 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 [with an] 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 memorise phone numbers on 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 memorising." I wanted to ask him if technology has made our brains less efficient, and about the importance of memorisation in a digital world.

There was another joke when Bhogle asked him how much he had scored in his Class 12 exams. 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.

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