Subramanian Ramadorai, the information technology ace who guided Tata Consultancy Services to the billion-dollar league, reflects on the personal and the professional, the days when India was a software backwater and the years of change and achievement.
Subramanian Ramadorai came of age as a professional in what was the infancy of information technology in India, a time when getting to work on a mainframe computer was considered the epitome of career advancement. Mr Ramadorai did that and a lot else besides, rising to become the chief executive and managing director of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and guiding it to a leadership position in the industry.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Mr Ramadorai completed a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and began working in the United States before returning to India, in no small part because his parents wanted him to come back and get married. It was a decision that turned out to be the making of him, providing him the opportunity to join TCS and, over later years, be part of the small group of people who helped put India on the global information technology map.
When Mr Ramadorai took the helm at TCS in 1972, the company’s turnover was $155 million a year and it had 6,000 employees. By the time his tenure had ended in October 2009, revenues at TCS — now a publicly traded enterprise — had climbed to $6 billion, making it one of India’s most profitable companies; it had 143,000 professionals; and it was being counted among the biggest players in the global software and services industry.
Currently the vice chairman of TCS, chairman of Tata Elxsi, Tata Technologies and CMC and on the board of several Tata and non-Tata companies, Mr Ramadorai is also an advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Indian Government’s National Council on Skill Development (he holds a cabinet minister’s rank). He is also the author of the recently released The TCS Story. In this interview, Mr Ramadorai rewinds to the life he has lived and talks about the TCS of then and now.
Could you tell us about your growing up years, the people and experiences that influenced you as a child and as a teenager?
Since I grew up in a government environment, most of my friends were from the government fraternity and we all went to the same school. In 1962 I joined Hans Raj College in Delhi, where I majored with BSc honours in physics. From 1965 to 1968, I was at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, from where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering. I then went to UCLA for my master’s programme in computer science.
What were your ambitions when you were young? Did things pan out as you anticipated?
What were the major influences in your life during those days?
You joined TCS in what were the dark ages for information technology in India. Could you give us a flavour of those times?
Tata Inc was recruiting people for TCS and my father urged me to send them my resume; back in those days a Tata job was the next best thing to government employment. So I came back from the US and joined TCS at a salary of Rs1,000 a month. My bosses at NCR were not happy and friends in America thought I was out of my mind. There was very little happening in TCS at that time; I took that chance because there was a sense of excitement in trying something different.
PM Agarwala was the director-in-charge at TCS then and FC Kohli was the general manager. When Mr Agarwala died following a heart attack, I started working with Mr Kohli, who was a tough taskmaster, slightly intolerant but with an excellent intellect. As long as one could put up with his toughness, the experience of working alongside him provided an excellent ground for learning. It was difficult but it was also fun and challenging, I got the best professional inputs and the best mentoring I could ask for.
Did you have any regrets about joining TCS in those early days?
You have had many high points in your career, but there may also have been some lows. How did you tide over the bad times?
I believe one should never live in the past; tomorrow is a new day and you will have new experiences and a brighter future. There are always setbacks and lost opportunities in business, but one should not brood over them.
One often has to face personal setbacks as well and there are two ways to respond: get angry and react, or just keep quiet and wait for your turn. I always take the second option. It is difficult because you seem for a while to be on a dodgy wicket and even your own colleagues begin to treat you differently, but if you are strong internally and deliver on the ground, no one can take that credibility away from you.
I have always put in my best and I have never worried about failure. I found that a lousy day was always followed by a better one.
What were the standout moments for you in your role as head of TCS?
Beyond this milestone, a big standout time for me was when we got our first Burroughs mainframe computer; it was the highest level of technology in the country then and it took TCS to a completely different level, putting us on par with the best. Setting up an office for TCS overseas in 1979 as its first resident manager, was also a critical moment; it was the start of this company establishing its presence in the Western market. Then, of course, there was TCS’s initial public offering in 2004, when we raised a billion dollars. That year was also special because TCS received the JRD QV Award for business excellence.
The crowning moment for me was the transition and handing over of reins at TCS to the next chief executive — the moment of recognition that one had done one’s bit.
What has it been like since you moved on from being chief executive of TCS? How involved are you with the company currently?
What kind of challenges does the Indian information technology sector, in general, and TCS, in particular, face in the years ahead?
Another issue that comes with globalisation is the need to be a global player in multiple markets rather than be dependent on any single market. TCS needs to build marketing, sales and delivery capabilities in non-English-speaking markets. Innovation will be a key differentiator in the next wave of growth; so along with investment in research, creation of its own intellectual property will be crucial for TCS.
There is also the challenge of how to do more with less. We will need to add to our intellectual property as we create solutions, not just bring more people on board. We should be open to disrupting our own models. TCS, and the IT industry as a whole, has to become paranoid about competition and disruption because in a hyper-connected world competition can emerge from the most unlikely places.
As TCS expands across the world and into multiple geographies, a big challenge will be to integrate its workforce and make sure that the Tata value systems and ethics are intact. Also, we have to keep maintaining the privacy and security of our data and our customers’ data without any violations.You are an advisor to the prime minister in the National Council for Skill Development. What are the challenges and responsibilities of this role?
One of India’s many challenges is the social implication of a large base of unskilled and unemployed youth. The government has estimated that the nation will need 500 million skilled people by 2022. Education is the biggest challenge facing this country. On the one hand, there are a large number of school dropouts; on the other hand, people chase paper degrees. If we can inculcate a mindset that favours vocational education, that would be wonderful. We could then, for instance, encourage the family traditions of artisans and craftsmen to continue and find a place for these skills in the marketplace.
The scale of the problem is huge and involves vocational education of millions across different verticals; it involves large-scale digitisation and tracking mechanisms.
Then there are the regulations, inter-ministerial consultations, the need for credit support to address all these efforts; it calls for collaboration of the highest order through public-private partnerships. It’s a mammoth task, but if we can make even a small impact, it would have been worth it.
What would your colleagues say if they were asked what’s it like to work with you?
Where does Subramanian Ramadorai go from here?