Seeing the wood and the tree

Anjan Lahiri Anjan Lahiri is executive vice president for MindTree Consulting which offers IT services to large enterprise companies and software product companies. Justin Richards caught up with him during one of his visits to the UK to discuss the changing face of IT.

Can you give us a potted history of yourself?

I was born and grew up in India, and left at 25. I worked in India for a company called Wipro for four years before I went to the US. I left India in 1991 and went to the USA to do an MBA; there wasn't much of an IT industry in India in those days. I left India because I didn't really feel my future lay there. I felt that I needed to go to the US to make my life and be successful. I lived in the US for 13 years and then moved to London five years ago I joined MindTree; I was part of the founding group in 1999.

I have recently relocated to India and have settled in very quickly. It's been an incredible story, personally and professionally.

I was recently reading that India has become the fourth most important FTA for foreign investment and that the four richest Indians could buy out the stock market capitalisations of whole countries. When I left India it was all about how General Motors could buy out the whole of India with one year's annual revenue.

How did you find the difference between India and the US?

It is incredible to think of how great the differences were and how much the gap has been bridged today. 

To put it into context, at the moment, my broadband at home has stopped working so I'm having to go to work at night to clear mail, and you realise how much your life changes when you have something. And today you have TV and you don't realise what it is. When I left India there was one black and white television channel. So how does it matter - people didn't know what 'Friends' or 'Seinfeld' was. You land up in America and people dress differently, they talk differently and the only Americans you've seen were in James Bond, Star Trek or in an Indiana Jones movie.

Another thing was that Indians would get together and talk about America, about the roads, the malls, about US trends. But today when Indians get together socially, they talk about what's happening in India. That's enormous change. In some people's homes it's the same as for many in the US, it's the flat screen TV, the Toyota car, they have the music centre, and they have all the trappings they'd have if they lived in the states.

And offices are exactly the same; in fact the offices of a software engineering company in India today are possibly the best offices anywhere in the world. They're all brand new and made to the best specifications.

I think you've just confirmed what many of us suspected, regarding the rate of change, not just in India, but right across the world...

You've heard of Reliance? It was founded by a person called Dhirubhai; he died in 2002, at 69, and left £2.2 billion to his two sons. Today that same company is worth £100 billion. It shows how much has happened in just five years.

Why were you attracted to the IT industry in the first place?

I was the first person in my extended family to not work for the government. And if you didn't work for the government the only acceptable job was to be a professor. I remember an incident where there was a marriage going on in the family and the oldest men in the family were sitting together and I arrived. And one of them introduced me and told them I'd just got a job. This was 1987 and jobs weren't that plentiful. So they said 'oh, congratulations'. They'd heard I'd been studying and so they asked if the job was 'state' or 'central', meaning different areas of government. So I said 'no, I got a job with a company called Wipro', and I could see the collective dejection. They must have thought 'we thought he was a smart guy but he got a job in the private sector'. Back then going into the private sector was for the people who could not get a government job.

I had an epiphany, which was 'who’s done more for this world - Henry Ford or Mother Teresa? Who has impacted the world more?' It's a very cruel question, but I think the answer is obvious. And it was then I realised it was to industry that I wanted to go, to be able to contribute more because the profit motive drives social change.

When I first entered college there was a combined feeling that things would change. There were a few multinational companies, like P&G, but the real upstart companies were the Indian computer companies.

These companies had the feeling of being revolutionaries and I made up my mind that that was who I was going to join. I was amongst the first batch of people, my age, to do computer science at college - 1983 was the first year they started offering it at college. It was new, different.

It was all hardware in those days; there was no software. The software industry only really started there after India liberalised in 1991. By that time I had already left.

When liberalisation happened Indians were allowed to travel abroad and foreign software became legal in India. Then someone had this bright idea of going to Silicon Valley and saying 'now we can buy your stuff, but we have some extra engineers, do you need anybody?' Hence, the whole industry, as it is today, really started from there.

Then I joined a company called Cambridge Technology Partners. That's where it all changed because in Cambridge it was all about the software. Then in 1998 it was some of these contacts which were responsible for the core group that started MindTree.

So a group of like minded individuals originally set the company up?

In Cambridge there was a sense of dissonance coming in because we were doing exceedingly well in those days. Cambridge was 'the' company. My own billing rate used to be $3,500 a day. It was a bunch of us in Cambridge, of which I was the only Indian, who came together and said there has to be a different model. A software engineer cannot be worth more than a Nobel Prize winning economist.

At the same time an old friend of mine called Subroto, who used to be in Wipro and Lucent in India, approached me saying he wanted to start a new type of software company and would I be part of it? Hence, along with the group from Cambridge, and a number of distinguished individuals, from Wipro and Lucent, we co-founded MindTree.

What are your thoughts on professionalism in IT?

That's a very politically charged question. So I'll give you my answer at a different level. I think if you look at government, the closer you go to human life, the higher the regulation becomes. A surgeon, a dentist are regulated more than an accountant because of the trust factor. In some countries regulations are still high in jobs like chimney cleaners, in Germany for instance. IT professionals fall somewhere in between.

There are two reasons for regulation. Firstly, if I'm buying something in the market, how do I know what I'm paying for? And secondly, to ensure a certain standard and quality. Maybe the first one doesn't apply in this industry. Having said that there is a need for being able to ensure that a person gets what they paid for.

It's probably more relevant in India where the numbers are enormous. India is producing 450,000 engineers a year. Just about three companies together will hire about 75,000 people this year and these people are coming with zero professional background. Their parents probably didn't have an industry job, any industry - not just IT, and they're coming without the social framework, which allows them to excel in a business environment.

How do you create a structure where you are able to assess who they are? I think what a lot of private institutes have come up is akin to creating a stamp of approval.

We have the MindTree academy, for example, and we hire young kids and we put them through four months of training. Many major companies have something similar. And all of them say that at the end of the training they are worth something. So, is there a need for having a commonly understood language, which defines the profession? I think that is always desirable. What is more contentious is the way of doing it, which is a separate issue.

What are the dos and don'ts of managing an IT project?

A few years ago there was an MIS magazine dedicated to why big projects fail. A friend of mine picked it up and I said 'don't even open it - I'll tell you the reasons. It's always down to communication issues and user inputs and stuff like that.' The Standish Group publishes a yearly Chaos report, and I think the findings of that report have been consistent for the last 15 years.

It's very difficult to say exactly why projects fail. Is it due to communication problems, politics, etc? Possibly, but I think modern technology, which includes web 2.0, allows us to flatten the communication structure in ways which were never before possible. What is the latest project plan? Ten years ago it could only be on one guy's desk top, now suddenly everyone involved with that project can have access to that information.

I've always found that, as a manager, if you expose that information to a wider audience, whether they need it or not, the quality of that information improves. I think IT project management has a lot to learn from the construction industry, which is miles ahead.

In any project the details that the top five people are discussing in a room need to be shared with the people in the trenches. And the information in the trenches should not be ignored by those in charge. That's why I believe that open communication with web 2.0 facilities can help to improve this situation.

You're not the first person I've interviewed who has come back with that response about communication, or rather a lack of it.

Yes, when senior project managers are giving presentations about their work they will always emphasise the importance of communication but obviously when they're actually doing the project they forget about it. When managers have a completion date in mind they need to put it on the intranet and encourage a discussion about it; what it means and what challenges there are in meeting that date.

Do you think it's a wise move for any country to do as much offshoring and outsourcing as the UK seems to be involved in?

The question is 'should enterprises look for the most efficient ways of producing and delivering their goods and services', not 'is offshoring or outsourcing a good thing?'

The issue is very simple. For example, you need to develop the congestion charge software. Either you can tax your people 10 per cent extra, and get it done right here, or you can get it done in the most efficient way. The question is who is paying for that? If your job is to reduce the cost of producing the services that you deliver, then it's clear what you need to do. If you stack the amount of offshoring done by various countries against their GDP growth rates, you'll see a pattern there.

I was recently at a conference and the person speaking was saying how they'd been offshoring and that when 9/11 happened they didn't miss a beat and their entire operations moved to the UK, within minutes. This person then said that today their disaster recovery site is in Bangalore.

Another speaker said that offshoring was really bad - it destroys industry, destroys society and then he was talking about how he'd improved the process, whereby he didn't need 35 people anymore, just 14, hence he didn't need to offshore. My question is, why did he do it with 14 people - what happened to the jobs of the rest of his original company? If his job is to protect jobs then he shouldn't have improved the process.

People's lives will only improve by improving productivity. So you need to invest in improving productivity. I don't think offshoring is a social issue at all, but is a business issue.

Looking back is there anything you would do differently now?

With hindsight, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have left India. However, I've had great opportunities. I've been fortunate enough to work in Calcutta, London, New York, and San Francisco. It's been a great experience. Typically you discount the value of experience until you use it or need it somewhere. I'm happy with the way my career has gone. Perhaps a more interesting question is 'if I was still as young as I was in 1987/88, would I still follow the same path' and I don’t have an answer to that.

What would you say have been the biggest and most significant changes in the IT industry within the last five years?

I think the IT industry was pretty much the same throughout the 50s and 60s and beyond, until 1992 when visual basic came out. I think that's when it all changed. Before then it was witchcraft and the business users could never see what they were going to get. And suddenly, through Visual Basic and Delphi, they could actually see something, not realising how it was coming to them.

For two or three years the guys in their glass houses were kings; business users could ask for something and they'd return something and then business users figured it out. They realised it's not that difficult and IT lost its power. Since then it's been the business beating the IT guys up, saying 'you don't understand the business.' It happened because of Visual Basic and the power of visual engineering.

The next major thing to happen was the internet. I personally haven't yet worked out how web 2.0 is going to change the enterprise in such a dramatic way as web 1.0 did. I'd say that since 1999 nothing fundamental has changed within the industry except that the business users are extremely sceptical of any new acronym thrown out by IT.

I think the ERP standardisation has been a big thing and I think the fruits of that efficiency are still coming through. It's like an arterial system facilitating the movement of information. That's what a SAP system is doing today. Before 1998/9 everything was on a spread sheet. I think that is a huge step forward. I don't think we will see changes of the magnitude of 98/9 happening in the immediate future.

How do you think the industry could shake off its geeky image, and increase the numbers of students training in IT?

Let the Darwinian process work. Charles Darwin's theories apply to every aspect of life. I'll give you an example. I was coming down from the eighth floor of our building. We have a lot of college graduates and there were five girls who had obviously just joined the company and they were in the elevator with me. And they were all about 21 years old. They were deep in a conversation and all five of them were talking about some Java sub-routine that they had just learned in a class. They were just talking about the intricacies – someone had done it one way, someone another way, and so on. These were five 21 year old girls. And I was thinking where in this world will five 21 year old girls, outside of a classroom, outside of an exam, be bothered to talk about a Java sub-routine. It's just not going to happen.

And I think that's the power of globalisation, that's the power of letting people lead the Darwinian existence. The same five girls graduating from Manchester are possibly talking about something very social, something to do with feelings, something to do with perceptions and they will contribute toward a new device interface. Why force them into a place where they probably don't belong anyway. Different social groups have different advantages, different ways to contribute.

Why do you think that women are generally less attracted to IT than their male counterparts?

I think, in this country, the situation is possibly more acute than in the US, because over in the US there are more women in IT than here. If you have a meeting regarding IT in the US there will be a woman involved - not so here. In India, when I graduated in 1987, we had 3,000 engineers, out of which maybe there were 15 girls. Today, in any IT camp in India, it's a 50:50 male to female split. I think it's a good reflection of the incredible social change we've had in India over the last twenty years. When we hire from campus it is pretty much 50:50, or close to that. I think women have found IT to be a fantastic and very sociable job.

In this country, maybe more than any other country, in my experience, IT has been perceived to be a technician's job, as opposed to an actual profession. Perhaps women don't like the idea of having screwdrivers hanging from their belts! You find a lot of people in senior IT positions, who don't have an IT background, they just started as technicians, and that might have been off-putting. And you always need role models for the next generation, which I don’t think IT has managed to provide.

What's the hardest part of your job and what’s the most rewarding?

To witness the life of the clients, for whom you have done work for, change for the better because of the work you did for them. It's the customer's customer which is of most interest to me. For example, every time we make life better for somebody, that's a great feeling. Helping a business market themselves and provide their own customers with a better service, that's what gives enormous satisfaction to me. If your customers prosper, all the other rewards will come - your own growth, your own company's growth, your people's growth, all that will come. Managing growth is very exciting but also very challenging.

One of the most stressful things always is going to a new country, a new city and meeting a new person. People have different cultures and different laws and you learn them and deal with them. But that's what makes you grow as a person.

How would you describe your own company?

When we first started up we said we were going to be much more business backward and business enabling than other Indian companies were at that point in time. We decided to differentiate and that came more from the Cambridge roots. The Cambridge Technology Partners was more of a consultancy led business. It was not a consulting company, as such, but endorsed the idea that IT needs to start much closer to the business than is often the case.

We always wanted to know more about the business and that was our differentiator. And that is why we are known more for management consultancy and that's how we managed to bring in some of the larger clients initially, and that continues to define us.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing your company and others like it?

Well if anyone knew the answer to that they'd be very rich indeed! There's a huge wave of consolidation - I think the growth rates will temper. The large Indian companies, the 'Switch companies', are being given good competition by large US companies, such as IBM, who have recently employed 100,000 staff from India.

We've positioned ourselves as the best mid-sized company out of India. We have a revenue guidance of about $228-238 million for this year and we've put ourselves in a bracket that any other company around that revenue scale is substantially older than us. So the question is 'if you extrapolate five to ten years what will the market look like?' Will there be ten large companies or will it go to the rule of three?

Further consolidation will happen, almost inevitably. We intend to maintain our position and that, in itself, will be a challenge; I think we'll get downward pressure - some people who are not able to stay at the top will come down, other people will challenge us.

Do you think all this consolidation is a good thing?

I think companies will become bigger and consequently become more efficient at certain things, setting up training centres, providing service 24/7, in 15 different countries, but at the same time they often lose touch with the customer.

As you become big you can't move as fast, you can’t talk to the customer, so I think there’s always a space for smart thinking smaller operators. Then as they become bigger there becomes a space for another smaller enterprise.

We get customers who come to us and say they don't want to go to a big company because they want to be a significant part of a company's relationship. We don't look at consolidation as a threat, but it is a reality, it will keep happening and it will create spaces for other people.

Who in the IT industry has inspired you or was a role model for you?

The thing that pulled me, pushed me, and continues to do so is the thought how can I make a difference? Recently I read a book called 'Shantaram', which is about an Australian (Gregory Roberts), who spent time in an Indian jail after getting caught up with the Indian mafia. He was wanted for murder in Australia, left there, finally went back, served his term and is now a successful author. He describes the poverty in India. The fact of the matter is you can't be a person in this world and not think about 'what can you do to improve the lives of people'? People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela are people whom I admire and inspire me.

In terms of the IT industry, there's Bill Gates. I was listening to an interview where he was asked 'you are the richest man in the world - how do you deal with that responsibility?' His response was 'I don't think it's a question of that. I think God has given me a great opportunity to make a real difference to the world and I pray for guidance to do my bit to help those less fortunate.' His generosity to charities and his business knowledge inspires the hell out of me.

I also admire people like Steve Jobs; he came back and did so much. I look at my profession as a social profession, so I look more at what people stand for than what they've actually done in the realms of software, etc.

Would you start another business?

No, I think I'm in MindTree for another 45 years, if I live! I'm 42 years old and I think I'm very fortunate to be an Indian with global experience and only 42 years old. I think the next decade is going to be very important for Asian business. For all its size, India still has a GDP probably smaller than the city of Los Angeles each year. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there which we need to harness globally.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary?

It has to be supported. I think open source will lead innovation but it would have to be proprietary for me.

Blackberry or Smartphone?

Blackberry; I've used more Blackberrys than I have Smartphones. I think they're more innovative. Smartphones don't talk to me as a business professional. I don't care about a lot of the things they're meant to do.

Apple or PC?

PC; although I think PCs will change.

In MindTree we've just recruited 1500 people. And those 1500 people all have a machine sitting on their desk. For security we have to disable the CD player, take out the USB, and any other input/output channels. And the feeling is, why can't we just take all these machines and put them in a block somewhere and leave the monitor. Like the old mainframes.

Mainframes had the monitor and someone just had to boot up. I think the home PC will live on but in the enterprise I think there's a place for a mainframe type of system. You don't need a PC on your desk - there's nothing personal about a personal computer at work.

Wii or Playstation?

Honestly, the last game I ever played was 'Digger'! I've never played on a Playstation but I went to a friend's house and I saw him using the Wii and it looked revolutionary. Playstation, Xbox, still seem incremental but the Wii is something else. I'd never seen anyone sweat while playing a computer game before. That's an innovation.

Geek or nerd?

Neither, although I'd love to qualify for both!

How would you liked to be remembered - what would the words on your headstone be if you could chose them?

For having grown people. I would love to think that people could contribute what they could contribute because of something I enabled them to do. And for make people happier.

www.mindtree.com

June 2008