Prabhakar Raghavan is the surprisingly powerful exec running Google's most important businesses. Insiders describe how he went from wonky Stanford professor to CEO Sundar Pichai's most trusted lieutenant at record speed.

  • Prabhakar Raghavan was tapped last June to lead Google search with a vast product portfolio.
  • In April he shuffled executives in his organization so that the company could move faster.
  • Insiders reveal how Raghavan has become one of CEO Sundar Pichai’s most important lieutenants.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In January, Prabhakar Raghavan gathered tens of thousands of Googlers for an important meeting.

He’d been tapped as Google’s head of search last June during a major executive reshuffle. The move placed Raghavan atop a vast $147 billion portfolio of search and advertising businesses, including commerce and payments, Google Maps, and Google Assistant.

During the meeting Raghavan laid out his priorities for 2021. They included commerce as well as trust and information quality, which he saw as spanning across the product groups now under his control. Previously, some of these departments stood independently from one another, but the new priorities would “require substantial cross-team collaboration,” Raghavan told employees in a memo ahead of the meeting.

“We have a generation-defining opportunity to reimagine the future of information access and change the world for the better,” he added.

Raghavan, who is 60 years old, stands at just over 6 feet tall, and is given to quoting Latin passages, can come across more like a university professor than one of the most powerful people at one of the world’s most powerful companies. He reports directly to CEO Sundar Pichai and oversees almost 21,500 full time employees, according to internal data seen by Insider. A recent proxy filing revealed that Raghavan earned cash and stock awards worth $55 million in 2020, more than Alphabet’s Chief Financial Officer, Ruth Porat. 

Now, with Google facing stiffening competition from Amazon and Apple, as well as unprecedented regulatory threats, Raghavan must show a mastery for the bare-knuckle business realities that will determine Google’s future. 

In April, Raghavan rearranged several top execs in order to move faster, and he’s expected to open more doors between product groups. But with Google’s search and advertising business now squarely in regulators’ spotlight, he’ll need to tread carefully.

Colleagues say that Raghavan, who was born in Pondicherry, India, is more emblematic of Pichai’s era of grounded, deliberative leadership style than the freewheeling, ego-driven management that was once common. At the same time, some of Raghavan’s recent decisions are intended to expedite decision-making to help Google better compete with rivals.

That’s according to a dozen current and former colleagues who spoke with Insider, some on the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to speak to the press. Google declined to make Raghavan available for an interview, but it put forward Elizabeth Reid and Cathy Edwards, two senior executives who now report directly to Raghavan, at his request.

Rising up through Google’s empire

Raghavan is a relatively late addition to Google’s current crop of SVPs, though he was circling the company even during its startup days. As a consulting professor at Stanford, where he explored search technologies in the 1990s, he would engage in passionate debates with two students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The pair tried to lure Raghavan over to their fledgling company, but Raghavan turned them down. He was unconvinced Google would ever become a successful business.

In 2012, after seven years of running Yahoo’s research division, Raghavan joined Google as part of a research team focused on solving sticky problems across product groups. He was later tapped to fix Google’s ailing collection of enterprise apps — later renamed G-Suite — a Frankenstein of acquisitions and products in desperate need of taming.

There he reported to Cloud’s then CEO, Diane Greene. Raghavan quickly became known for his disciplined leadership, scientific approach to solving problems, and eye for hiring top talent. He oversaw the launch of smart compose and smart reply, two AI-driven features now used in Gmail software.

In October 2018, when Google’s head of ads and commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, announced he was leaving, Pichai approached Raghavan to step into the role. Raghavan was conflicted about the decision, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Despite Greene’s attempts to dissuade him, Raghavan ultimately agreed out of a sense of loyalty to Google’s CEO.

His expertise in web search gave him a solid foundation for running Google’s most important money engine, which included Google’s shopping and payment teams.

Raghavan’s understated style rankled some of the ad-sales team, who found him to be less aggressive on making decisions than Ramaswamy, according to a person there at the time. But it was there that Raghavan began talking to PayPal’s chief operating officer, Bill Ready, about how Google might push harder in shopping as Amazon’s dominance grew. At the end of 2019, Raghavan had hired Ready into a role overseeing Google’s e-commerce efforts.

Six months later, Pichai announced a massive reorg that sealed Raghavan as one of the most powerful people at the company, with several major product groups rolling up to him.

“Prabhakar basically has this portfolio that, 15 years ago, was Google,” said Elizabeth Reid, who leads Google’s core search-experience team.

Making Pragh-ress

Inside Google, Raghavan is often referred to by his internal corporate username “Pragh.” He will, on occasion, send out an email to his org called the “Pragh-ress report,” filled with musings about goings-on inside Google and inside his own mind.

The contents are often quite random: A recent one began with a commentary about how his team had handled, and learned from, a data loss on Gmail many years ago, according to a copy seen by Insider.

Everyone who spoke with Insider agreed Raghavan is highly technical, with an ability to go deep on many subjects.

“You’ll be discussing a casual topic, which will inevitably lead to a little math, and then to some discovery that you can publish a paper on,” recalled Vanja Josifovski, Airbnb’s chief technology officer of Homes, who worked with Raghavan at IBM, Yahoo, and Google.

Some described him as professorial, with a tendency to drop Latin phrases into meetings or emails. One former executive recalled being caught off guard at a Google Cloud event in Tokyo where Raghavan came onstage and began speaking to the crowd in seemingly fluent Japanese.

He loves Italy and wine, passions he’ll often share with colleagues, be it offering tips for must-visit Sicilian cafés or gifting bottles of cabernet sauvignon made from the vineyard at his home in San Jose, California.

Another former colleague recalled Raghavan getting enthusiastically involved in a dance competition during an off-site event run by former Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene. “He’s not a good dancer but he really went for it,” they said.

Associates say Raghavan is loyal to his team, but if someone is not a good fit or isn’t working to an acceptable standard, he won’t keep them around. “He’s the most empathetic dispassionate person,” one person said.

His more direct management style has sometimes been seen as un-Googley, which occasionally rubbed some the wrong way during Raghavan’s rise to the top. One former executive recalled how Raghavan would sometimes call up managers to tell them when one of their reports had screwed up.

“He was pretty brutal when he thought someone wasn’t doing their job right,” the person said.

The great consolidator

Raghavan’s approach to leadership is similar to Pichai’s. He likes to make smart hires, gives them accountability, then lets them do their jobs, colleagues say.

During his time in Google Cloud, Raghavan became known for a unique management technique where he would deliver the group’s strategy to his direct reports and have them feed the same strategy down to the chain. Employees at the end of the branches would then provide feedback and feed it back up, allowing Raghavan and managers to consolidate the improvements and iterate the strategy.

It created accountability and proved remarkably effective, according to Sam Ramji, a former Google Cloud VP who said he introduced a similar approach at companies he later joined. “I’m a student of business, and what Prabhakar came up with, I’ve not seen that anywhere,” he said.

When working on ads and commerce, Raghavan would put numerous roles under a single manager as a way to streamline decision-making, a former colleague in the group said.

It’s a trend he’s continued since taking over search: Last month Raghavan reshuffled his team and rolled engineering and product teams for each product into one manager, a realignment of hierarchies that places less emphasis on engineering leadership — another sign of a shifting philosophy at Google. He also appointed three leads to oversee core parts of search.

“We made the org changes to increase clarity, accountability, and the speed of decision-making, all in service of our macro goal to move faster,” Raghavan said in a memo to employees in late April.

The shuffle gave more power to Google’s commerce president, Bill Ready, who absorbed responsibilities from the outgoing Caesar Sengupta, including payments and Google’s Next Billion Users group, which focuses on building products for developing markets.

“In Prabhakar world, that’s a huge vote of confidence,” one former exec said.

Under Raghavan’s leadership, the company has introduced several changes to Google shopping, to help it take on Amazon. The most significant one lets retailers advertise products in Google’s search results for free.

Raghavan is also expected to move more quickly with Google Assistant, insiders say. A former employee said Raghavan had previously been critical of some architectural decisions made by the Assistant team around privacy, once remarking that they weren’t thinking ahead, the person recalled.

Last month, Raghavan appointed Sissie Hsiao to lead Google Assistant’s product and engineering teams. Scott Huffman, who had led engineering on Assistant for nearly a decade, has stepped down. It’s unclear if he will remain with the company.

But as Raghavan works to speed up search and cross-pollinate among groups, potential antitrust action looms. Regulators are looking for evidence that Google has quashed competition in search and unfairly preferred its own products.

Three antitrust lawsuits were filed against Google last year, including one from the Department of Justice that cut to the core of the company’s search business, which maintains more than 90% of the market share.

Under Raghavan’s watch, Google has continued to push the argument that its search products are helpful and dismissed notions that it uses its dominance to keep rivals out. “There’s never been more choice in competition than the ways people access information,” said Raghavan during a search event in October, as CNBC reported.

Five days later, the Justice Department filed its suit against Google, alleging the company had leveraged its power in search to stifle competition.

The new Google era

Pichai’s ascent to the top of Google, and later to CEO of Alphabet, brought about a shift in the corporate philosophy that has allowed managers like Raghavan to thrive. The once freewheeling culture let siloed operations act independently, hoping the best ideas would bubble to the surface.

But that system struggled to scale as the company ballooned. Pichai’s Google is one where managers, not engineers, hold the power, and where top-down leadership can — as in the case of Google Cloud — prove successful.

Though he is undoubtedly a technologist, colleagues say Raghavan very much embodies the new era of Google led by steadier hands, diplomatic leadership, and more direct management.

“Google’s culture can often be very bottom up,” said Cathy Edwards, who leads Google Apps and ecosystem products under Raghavan. “It can lead to a lot of consensus decision-making. When you want to make big bold new decisions it is maybe not the best structure.”

And like Pichai back when he was leading Android, Raghavan has focused much of his time cross-pollinating among product groups, which, combined with his history working on search and algorithms, made him Pichai’s pick for the top Google job last June.

“There was this feeling that Google was losing its way technically,” said one former executive about why Pichai chose Raghavan to lead Search. “And I think Sundar really just wanted the kind of no-drama, steady hand at the wheel … He doesn’t have to worry that there’s some crazy story just around the corner.”

As Pichai’s attention is increasingly spent on matters like stabilizing the company’s internal culture, Raghavan’s steady hand is perhaps more needed than ever to guide the company’s most important money drivers. Raghavan could be considered something of a deputy CEO.

There are no expectations that Pichai, 48, will step aside anytime soon. But start talking about succession with Googlers and Raghavan’s name comes up.

Some point out that he may be considered “too old” for the job when it eventually opens up, but everyone Insider spoke with agreed that he’s among a small handful of people inside the company who would be capable of taking the chair.

One person said, “You’d be hard pressed to find somebody stronger than Prabhakar.”

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