He is a self-acknowledged lover of gadgets but surprisingly enough, the TCS CEO, S. Ramadorai, “fought against getting a mobile phone for a long time as I believed it was a terrible distraction!” But he finally succumbed about 10 years ago. Today his Blackberry is a valuable tool “as I can communicate on it with several colleagues at the same time.”
His iPod is another precious gadget; a passionate lover of all kinds of music, particularly Indian classical — his wife Mala being a classical vocalist — he has over 1,000 songs on his iPod. He is plugged into it during travel, weekends, early morning or late evening. Then there is, of course, the music system at home... “the best there is of Bose.” And, a Nikon D80, “with which I love photographing wildlife.” He has done so at Kaziranga, Pench, Ranthambore, Corbett and Nagarahole wildlife parks.
Behind TCS’ support of musical events such as the Ruhaniyat festival of Sufi music is Ramadorai’s deep love for music… Indian and Western classical, pop and even Bollywood songs, mostly old ones.
Most of this CEO’s childhood and early adult life was spent in Delhi; his father worked in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and “taught us Maths and inculcated in us an interest in science as well as values such as honesty, ethics, hard work, music as a part of life.”
After a Physics Honours in Delhi University, he went to IIS, Bangalore for a Bachelors in Electrical Communication Engineering, which he completed in 1968. A year at the physical research lab (space research) in Ahmedabad followed before his setting out to UCLA (US) in 1969 for a Masters in Computer Science. Two years with the National Cash Register, “those days the No 2 computer company”, and he was at the crossroads — whether to stay or return home.
He decided to return and luckily the Tatas had already interviewed him for a position in TCS, “and my parents also wanted me to come back.”
37 years at TCS!
In less than a month he will step down as TCS CEO but he clearly remembers the date of joining — February 23, 1972, making Ramadorai that rare breed who has remained with a single company for 37 years!
So, over the years, didn’t he have good offers, temptations to jump?
With a chuckle he responds: “Oh, there were a lot of people after me but I said so long as the excitement is there, the opportunity to grow and try out new things, why should I leave?”
He joined as an assistant systems analyst and programmer and never dreamt he would go on to head the IT giant. “But the greatest thing was the opportunity to work with very good people who would trust and challenge me and collaborate as a family. It was a very small team and that made a lot of difference.” The size of the company then was in “low hundreds; today it has 1.43 lakh people.”
Ramadorai recalls the exciting times soon after he joined TCS when it was poised to take a crucial decision. “The era of IBM 1401s and ICL 1903 was ending and TCS had to look at the future in terms of technology. The US was the only country where technology was available but there was also the question of building capabilities for a future date if India didn’t give us an opportunity, and using people we had trained for projects elsewhere,” he recalls.
In 1974, the “exciting decision” to import a Burroughs computer was taken. More excitement followed in dealing with the Government for licence, guarantees, etc. “We’d be questioned on ‘why you need so much memory or disc; why two card readers or printers.’ Foreign exchange was so precious! Also, when we went abroad for training, they’d allocate funds for a week. What do you do after that… for three more weeks? We had to scrounge, conserve, cook (only mixed vegetables and rice!) and do more with less.”
But the excitement was “building capabilities for the future and selling Burroughs machines in India.” Each machine cost Rs 3-5 crore and when he names the first three buyers, you can’t help gasping. SBI, Regional Computer Centre in Jadhavpur University and Institute of Agricultural Research Statistics in Delhi! But he enjoyed the challenge of doing the configuration, working with the marketing and sales people, and installing the machine.
The next crucial stage came in 1978 when TCS had to decide if “we should be in consulting and services or do something else.” It decided not to merge with Tata Burroughs. By now he was a senior consultant and his boss asked him to go back to the US and build up a business from scratch. “He positioned me in New York for two years (1979-81) and the beginning of TCS internationally, and on its own, took shape.”
India then, and now
It was an era when “nobody cared about India or believed we could achieve anything; India was only a country of snake charmers and bullock carts. But perseverance, passion for excellence, wanting to do something and building a team around you, paid off. You had to do most of the work yourself, be it writing letters or making phone calls!”
So how have perceptions on India changed?
“Oh, it’s a sea change. Brand India is very, very powerful today, and very visible for intellectual and knowledge capital. The IT sector and India are synonymous and there is belief that we can create intellectual property and phenomenal competencies and capabilities for the future and engage the whole world.”
Ramadorai returned to India in 1981 and TCS started expanding in the US, the UK, and rest of Europe. “Between 1981 and 1995-96 we took some very bold decisions in getting hardware not only from Burroughs but also IBM, Tandem, Stratus, Digital.” It set up multiple centres across India believing that multiple technologies would be the way forward and nobody would remain tied to one vendor.
Next came the focus on research and the Tata Research and Development Centre, a part of TCS, was set up in Pune. “It was way ahead of its times”, and closer to 1998 came the Y2K problem, a critical moment that had to be addressed.
In 1996 he was made CEO. On the TCS IPO coming out much after Infosys and other IT companies its CEO says this was “a deliberate decision. There was no compelling reason to raise capital.”
Patience, ability to listen
Talk to his executive assistants and the adjectives that pour out are “extremely hardworking, patient, ability to listen, leading by example, humane, flexible.”
His response is a huge smile. “The ability to listen I developed from my boss F.C. Kohli. In the early stages he’d do most of the talking and when he did that we simply listened! The same thing with my father; he was a strict disciplinarian and talked a lot.”
So what about his role as father?
“Oh, I’ve been much more liberal, but you have to ask my son! It is important that you listen while dealing with both customers and employees. The more you listen, the more you understand about opportunities,” he says.
On the flexi-timing he had provided his executive assistant when the latter had just become a father, telling him “I don’t need you to be my shadow”, Ramadorai says the physical presence of an employee is not necessary, provided he is within reach. “I might be the most productive between 4.30-6 a.m. but I don’t call for meetings then. If somebody called me at 2 a.m. for a meeting I would say: ‘Sorry, I can’t come because I won’t be able to contribute anything. People should be given space, and I also gave them the freedom that if I called them at home, they could say I’m busy now and can I call you later.”
While he is proud that TCS has about 30 per cent female employees and no company can afford to miss out on this huge talent pool, he admits that dealing with women employees is “a little more challenging. Not from the view of professional capability or competence, but the more important question is adjustment in teams with both male and female employees. That’s where one sees the interface as a problem. But I’ve also seen problems in women versus women teams; actually that’s more a problem than men versus women!”
On sexual harassment, he says TCS has “phenomenal whistleblower policies” in place and an ethical officer with independent charge so any employee can raise this issue without fear.
On women’s working style being different from men’s, he says: “They are not as vocal in meetings as men; they seek very specific roles rather than more challenging roles probably because of the home front. But they are better mentors.” He adds that TCS is a “very gender-friendly” company and provides flexi hours, etc. “But at the end of the day we respect their intellectual capacity.”
He passes on the baton of CEO and MD to N Chandrasekaran from October 6. Ramadorai will be the non-executive vice-chairman and director on the TCS board. On his new roles at TCS and continuing as director on the boards of Tata Tele, Tata Elxsi (where he has been made chairman), he says, “It is the Tata culture to retain people who have built the organization and have the ability to mentor, strategize or help successors. Continuity and ability to contribute are more important than everything else; you are expected to contribute beyond just the company you are heading.” He is also excited about involvement in the super computer on which 100 people are working. “We’d like to see some phenomenal applications coming up… those that have not been attempted in this country because we did not have the capacity. While those challenges will continue, travel is bound to reduce.”
What about his long day at work?
“Well, that is more personally driven. The culture… value system in this group is that you have to set your own bar continuously, and be very sensitive to people with potential and encourage them to perform to their best, and set an example. But I don’t ask everybody to get up at 4.30 a.m. or sleep at 11 p.m. as I do!”
Looking back, he is gratified about the stature of the organization he has built and the opportunities for the future. “The challenge for all of us is how do you leverage that... not for money alone but also for social good. In agriculture, the relevance of technology is going to be very important. Also, if in our lifetime we’ve seen the revolution in telecom, with broadband there is phenomenal opportunity for education and skill building.”
But the last word has to go to wife Mala. “She has brought to my career something unique. Coming from a liberal arts background, she gave me the perspective to look at the bigger picture. An engineer’s way of looking at things is very direct, but a creative person never wants boundaries. She has taught me that very important dimension.”
Their partnership is almost as long as his stint at TCS, which he joined in February, and he married in June 1972. “She says TCS is my first wife.”
So, which has been a more rewarding partnership?
“Family comes first; without that you can’t do much,” is the candid reply.