Thoughts on a Birthday

Thu, Dec 11, 2008


Posted by A.R.Ramachandran

I just saw on TV the news about Narayana Murthy (NR), the legendary chairman of Infosys ‘“ retiring on attaining 60 years of age.

Here’s wishing him many, many, happy returns of the day ‘“ his birthday. And now for some thoughts of the legacy he has left behind.

NR has left behind a great personal example of what a mere mortal could achieve with inspiration and dint of hard work. His parents could not afford to send him to IIT because they could not afford to pay the hostel fees and he did not allow that to dampen his dreams. He studied in a lesser known institution and still went ahead to found a great company. All those who founded Infosys were from the middle class. Their lives and achievements essentially mirror Indian middle classes’ aspirations and energy. Though Tata Consultancy Services conceived the outsourcing model, it is Infosys that is the Brand Indian IT in outsourcing and the trendsetter in many ways. The middle class before and after Infosys never remained the same. Infosys helped launch a thousand dreams ‘“ and millionaires. That is the kind of revolution that NR wrought. Along with Reliance, Infosys scripted the great Indian Stock Market story. A person of clean habits and incorruptible, there has even been rumors of his being seen as the next President of India (the rumors that he has scotched since). Infosys is also an example of social good, with Mr. and Mrs. Murthy spearheading the Infosys Foundation with much commendable work to its credit . Apart from IT, NR has been very articulate on many aspects of Indian democracy (on Bangalore roads, for example, but only because that could retard the growth of the IT hub that Bangalore had become). Despite his many denials, NR has been Infosys and Infosys has been NR – a few are skeptical about the Company’s future without his active presence. It would be hard to do justice to this man’s achievements.

Despite my personal admiration of the man and his mission, I think NR has left a mixed legacy in many ways.

The picture of NR in my mind is that of a good PR person. And good PR in India is not an easy thing. There was a time when his mails to his employees asking to leave the office on time and come back the next day refreshed, would make headlines in the newspapers. Everything about Infosys seemed to be an example ‘“ NR cleaning his own toilets, his wife, who gave up her career to allow him to serve the company full time, and their children. The spouses of other Senior Management members also made news. The Infosys foundation made news, and so did their Global Internship Program. Their sexual harassment policy made news and so did their domestic recruitment. The papers were full of them. Nothing wrong with any of these policies – except that they did not appear to be much different from the practices in other companies. NR was always the first to rush to press with them all. NR was a competent wordsmith. His statement that ‘Infosys’s greatest assets leave the gates every evening’ rang long after it was first heard. He, among India’s many Industrialists, perhaps had the longest love affair with the media and he had them eating out of his hands for such a long time.

However, much of his PR was not empty PR ‘“ the company did disclose when in doubt and declared results first. It might not be right to attribute every PR stunt of the company to him, but he was its Chief Architect.

So, what was mixed in his legacy? Did the IT industry deserve all the poetry that NR spun around it? If TCS opened the world’s first IT factory built around writing codes, NR made it look respectable. Much before NR, there were other great businessmen who contributed their might to the nation without undue hype on their work. How much is the ‘knowledge’ component of the routine work in Infosys and other companies? In perfecting the model that TCS invented, Infosys and other companies brought about the new kind of brain drain. Educated engineers in various disciplines no longer leave Indian shores, but now work only for IT companies. IT companies absorb civil engineers, mechanical engineers, biotechnologists, chemical engineers, electrical engineers and so on, such that other Industries that require talent are unable to secure it. Is IT such an attractive field for all of them? No, but ah – the money makes it! And exactly how did this association of IT and big money begin in the first place? The legendary tales of Infosys, where it was known that even NR’s driver was a millionaire by being there (There are many such tales, and there have been no denials). And after Infosys showed the way, other IT companies did not have to think much about good and better HR practices, the money made up for it. Maybe, if NR had thought of the greater good of Indian industry, he would have thought of a more balanced approach to distribute the resources among the various sectors. Though it would be unfair to blame all of this on NR, being a Chairman of the most influential IT company in India, this issue was not beyond his grasp or a solution not beyond his intelligence. He emerges as a man of limited vision.

Infosys, like many of the other Indian IT biggies, are not exactly renowned for innovation. NR’s seems to have a fascination for size rather than breakthrough innovation. I am hardly able to think of any that I could mention for this article, but may be you could help me by recalling some. Going into future, how much is this model likely to hold good? NR has hardly shared any of his thoughts on them and I am not sure how much Infosys is geared to successfully battle the challenges ahead. Perhaps, the truest to NR’s legacy is yet to come. There is little in media about the kind of work done in Infosys, though there is plenty about the layout of their learning centre in Mysore, a day in the life of NR, a day in the life of Infoscions, etc. There is nothing romantic about software work in general and if there is not much written about the kind of work Infoscions do, I think there is not much to differentiate either, much like rest of the Industry. Maybe, an IT company’s image does not really depend much on what they do.

What NR could have been makes me wistful. He could have been a spokesperson for the Industry in general and worked for the balanced growth of several segments of the economy. Indian agriculture needs a spokesperson of his caliber, for example. In focusing on little more than Infosys, one of India’s greatest sons has not done enough. By all means, let him walk out of the gates of Infosys, but it is too early yet for him to walk into the sunset.

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