From farming to Big Tech — The South African in charge of Google’s Chromebooks division


Few might know that one of the leaders at tech giant Google was born and bred in South Africa.

For almost four years, John Solomon has been vice president and general manager for ChromeOS, Google’s growingly popular desktop operating system.

Under his leadership, Google’s Chromebooks have recorded massive growth, outselling Macs in 2020 while continuing strong performance in 2021.

Before his role at the head of this division, he occupied senior positions at some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Apple and HP.

MyBroadband recently interviewed Solomon regarding Google’s big Chromebook push in South Africa.

Speaking from an undisclosed holiday destination in South Africa, Solomon said his upbringing informed his decision to join the company and helped shape his vision for ChromeOS.

“Ultimately, what attracted me to Google, and this really resonated with my South African upbringing, is that Google believes in making an impact,” Solomon said.

“The markets we are in, we don’t tend to dabble in. We tend to go into markets where we think we can make a difference and really affect a lot of users.”

Acer Chromebook

Solomon said he was very proud to be a South African and kept his connections to the country strong.

He grew up on a farm outside of Nelspruit in Mpumalanga, after which he attended high school at St. Alban’s College in Lynnwood, Pretoria.

He went on to study and complete his degree in industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University from 1983 to 1987.

In 1990, he pursued a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Washington in Seattle in the US. This is when the tech bug truly bit.

“I was obviously interested in tech, to some extent, doing engineering,” Solomon said.

“But I really got interested in ‘new tech’ when I got exposed to what was happening at Microsoft and the software and hardware businesses,” Solomon said.

HP recruited Solomon out of university, and he worked at the company in various roles for three years.

He briefly returned to South Africa to work on the family’s farm in Crocodile Valley for three years.

“It was great, but I also realised I missed tech,” he said. “If I’d farmed for five years, I might have struggled to get the ‘tech lords’ to take me back.”

He moved back to the US, where he returned to HP and served in various executive roles for over 14 years.

Solomon speaking at an HP event in Singapore

In January 2015, Solomon was appointed Apple’s vice president for enterprise and government, where he was responsible for selling the company’s products to corporates for two years.

After serving on various boards and in advisory capacities, Google approached him and said it wanted ChromeOS to become a game-changer in the OS market. Solomon said this idea appealed greatly to him.

“Google has a healthy disregard for the status quo,” he said. “If you think the status quo is not good and you can do better, you are encouraged to change that,” he said.

“I felt like growing up South African, that was how I saw the world.”

He explained that his father’s views on farming influenced him greatly in this regard.

“He was a very progressive farmer and changed a lot of things in farming practice,” Solomon said.

“I grew up with the view that you can make the world better, but you need to have a long term view, and you need to have patience.”

While adventurous in trying new things, he was also taught to be humble, listen well, and think about problems holistically.

That is why his team considers feedback from customers carefully for shaping the road forward for ChromeOS.

“It helped me that my upbringing was around that — this combination of being humble but also being confident if you are working on something that matters,” Solomon explained.

“People will tell you: ‘You can’t do a new operating system, there is no space for an operating system’. You just have to stick with it and disregard the naysayers.”

Now read: South African tech helps small-scale farmers grow


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