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Take A Techie Like That!

A history of India’s largest IT employer is laden with unknown detail, with a dash of entrepreneurial wisdom

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Take A Techie Like That!
Fotocorp (From Outlook, October 10, 2011)
Take A Techie Like That!
The TCS Story...And Beyond
By S. Ramadorai
Penguin Portfolio | Pages: 304 | Rs. 699

Ask a bunch of twentysomethings, “Who pioneered the Indian IT industry?” and the name they are most likely to come up with is N.R. Narayana Murthy. The truth, however, is that Tata Consultancy Services—or TCS—is where this silent revolution started. It was a story waiting to be told, and who better to tell it than S. Ramadorai, a man who joined the fledgling TCS in 1972 and left it in 2009, as its CEO?

At one level, The TCS Story is an exciting piece of business history. Starting as a division of Tata Sons meant to handle data processing for its group companies, in 1968 TCS became a separate entity. Operating from Nirmal building in Nariman Point in the early ’70s, it was as though TCS was a ‘Silicon Valley start-up’. It was into this Wild West atmosphere that Faqir Chand Kohli from Tata Electric was deputed as general manager. Ramadorai jokes that since Kohli controlled the power to the entire city, it was probably felt he could control the ‘unruly lot at Nirmal building’. Small asides like this brighten up the book, making it less corporate than your average business ‘success story’.

The long and short of it is that in 1978, TCS faced the biggest challenge of its life, when Tata Sons formed a formal joint venture with Burroughs, basically leaving TCS to fend for itself. TCS desperately needed a new source of revenue, and it’s out of this necessity that the first ever overseas office of an Indian software company came into being.

Ramadorai was the man chosen to pound the pavements of New York, in search of clients. He recalls, “I typed letters, sent faxes, and sometimes I was even the delivery boy”. The idea of ‘offshoring’ began when Ramadorai landed TCS a contract with IGIC (Institutional Group Information Corporation). Taking advantage of the time difference, programmers in India worked on code while America was asleep. Two programmers from India were sent to the US for six months to work on-site, at IGIC.

From the shock of importing a mainframe computer (after paying 101.25 per cent duty) to how it won the bid to build software for the National Stock Exchange, the section on ‘Building TCS’ has many learnings and oh-I-never-knew-that moments.

The rest of the book is about how TCS built its systems and processes, to take itself to the next level—becoming India’s first $1 billion software company in 2003. That’s equally important, but materialised at a more mature phase. At times there is too much to digest, as Ramadorai jumps from one initiative to the next. But if you’ve ever wondered how companies scale up, you will find it fascinating.

A small but very interesting chapter is the behind-the-scenes story of the TCS IPO. Apparently at the roadshow, global investors constantly compared TCS with Infosys. On returning to India, Ratan Tata wrote a letter to Infosys’s management, saying, “I must tell you that I felt so proud that here is an Indian company which is considered a benchmark in governance and transparency.” It’s for nuggets like this and the many insights into leadership peppered throughout the book that I strongly recommend The TCS Story.

The question you might ask is—is this a book only for IT types? The answer is, not at all. There are some details which techies might enjoy more than the lay reader, but it’s not a ‘technical’ book. In fact, along with the TCS story what you get is a strong parallel track on personal career growth.

In a quiet and understated way, Ramadorai shares his own remarkable journey from trainee to CEO. And what it takes to ‘succeed’ at every stage. Recalling days spent programming in assembly language, the “lowest level of the value chain”, he observes: “I still believe that rolling up one’s sleeves and getting down to basics is the most empowering form of learning and one realises the value of this when one reaches the very top.”

Although not out-and-out inspirational, the book does have an important message. You can be an ‘entrepreneur’ even within a large company. You can make a difference, wherever you are.

However, I do have one major crib with this book. The back cover blurb proclaims that it is meant for the youth and the “next generation of professionals”. Then why overprice it? At
Rs 699, in unwieldy hardcover, The TCS Story will not reach the large audience it deserves.

(Rashmi Bansal is a best-selling author and motivational speaker.)

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