The head of Google in India and South-East Asia knows that at Google, every improvement has to be 10x. Now, he is trying to bring a billion Indians online.
Trust Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google, South-East Asia and India, not to own a television set. “For the last nine years, we haven’t had a television at home,” he says. “But then, who uses TV? Everything is online. Our entertainment tends to be Internet-driven.”
However, the real reason Anandan, 48, got rid of his TV set was because as a one-year-old, his daughter Maya would gravitate towards the idiot box. That worried his wife, Radhika, immensely, and the couple decided to discard it.
Maya, now 10, is learning how to code. Anandan swears that coding hasn’t been forced upon the little girl. The idea came from her mathematics teacher, who believes that learning to program is the best way to learn math. “But it is exciting for me,” he says with a wide grin.
As a child, Anandan was academically inclined. “I would be studying all night in fourth grade while my brother would be out there playing sports,” he recalls, sitting in a small meeting room at Google India’s office in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi. A can of diet Coke is on the table. “I had a bit of an academic gene, but I missed the sports gene,” he says.
If you look at the slim, agile man talking animatedly, you wouldn’t buy this. Anandan doesn’t look a day more than 40. He is vivacious, articulate, down to earth and so full of energy that his colleagues find it difficult to keep up with him. He has steered Google India for more than five years and introduced a clutch of exciting products and services.
Mention sports and his eyes light up with childhood memories. He grew up in Colombo in a household where sports and adventure were a way of life. A Sri Lankan Tamil, Anandan’s father, V.S. Kumar Anandan, was a swimming champion, best known for crossing the Palk Strait that separates Sri Lanka and India. He was obsessed with breaking world records in sports.
On New Year’s Eve, when most families would plan dinner parties, the Anandans would try to break records in swimming, treading on water, cycling or standing on one leg. “It was fun then; it sounds exhausting now,” Anandan says. When he was 7, Anandan’s father promised to get him a bicycle if he completed 100 push-ups. “Of course, I did not get the bike,” he says, chuckling. “I am fundamentally not athletic.”
At the age of 17, he left Colombo to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US for his bachelor’s degree in science. He also holds a master’s degree in science from Stanford University. What he remembers distinctly about MIT is working 40 hours a week to earn some money. He worked at a cafeteria and a museum, and even tested new tennis rackets for their structure and weave.
Anandan joined Google in early 2011 to lead the company’s business in India. Before that, he was in different leadership roles at Microsoft, Dell and McKinsey & Co. His last job before joining Google was as managing director of Microsoft India.
The experience of working with stalwarts such as Michael Dell, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin has been gratifying. All of them have traits in common, says Anandan. For a start, all of them were focused on building great companies in the long term.
“Even though Steve (Ballmer) didn’t start Microsoft, he was with Bill Gates throughout the journey. Effectively, he operated like the founder-CEO,” says Anandan. “Michael (Dell) taught me never to give up. From him, I also learnt execution…how do you execute at scale. Whereas with Larry (Page), it was how to leverage technology to solve huge new problems, be it search, Android, YouTube or driver-less cars.”