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'There is still so much Infosys in me'

By Krishna Kumar
August 01, 2006 17:18 IST
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A consolation for leading a basically sober life is that one remembers every crazy thing one did.

In 1989, I did something that would have then qualified as crazy. I quit a cushy job in a US computer firm, stock options and all, and left for India with no firm plans other than to work in the burgeoning Indian software industry. I had no job lined up, little experience, and few contacts.

A series of fortunate events led me to Infosys, where N R Narayana Murthy (Mr Murthy as I called him, or 'NRN' as he was more widely known) and Nandan Nilekani were kind enough to let me lead a software development project in data communications. Developing a networking product suitable for the Indian market was the putative goal, but the broader aim was for me to transfer the knowledge I had gained in the US software industry on communications protocols and software development methodologies to engineers at Infosys.

The deal was hopelessly one-sided in my favour. It was I who did most of the learning from some of the brightest minds in the software industry. Our group worked from the house where Infosys was founded, on a residential street in Jayanagar, sleepy even by the high standard of salubrity set by yesteryear Bangalore.

The atmosphere inside was dynamic and electric by contrast. We worked hard, wrote good software, and debated about the most technical of issues as well as the more mundane ones -- should we insist we be served coffee instead of the usual tea during the danger hours of the afternoon?

The lessons I learned went beyond the technical to matters of wisdom, many gathered from conversations with Mr Murthy -- how one has to be engaged with the system before one attempted to reform it, how idealism needed to be channelled into action rather than be allowed to succumb to defeatist hand-wringing, and how every small act had to be governed by an overarching commitment to integrity.

My most cherished moment at Infosys didn't even occur within the confines of its offices. Mr Murthy wanted me to accompany him to meet a potential client for our product, but insisted that I first join him for his weekly lunch at his mother's house. We were treated to a truly outstanding lunch cooked by his mother, with bisi bele bhaath, everyone's preferred choice in Karnataka's cuisine, as the piece de resistance.

Our conversation ran the gamut of the high-tech industry, the labyrinth of Indian bureaucracy, and the writings of a mutual favourite, V S Naipaul. His generous invitation was a quintessentially Indian and Infosys gesture, the mixture of the relentlessly professional with the utterly personal, inspiring as it was touching.

With the impeccable sense of timing that was to become my trademark, I left Infosys in two years, a bit before it set out on its path of explosive growth, adding zeroes to the end of its revenue figures faster than I could keep track. (I left the software industry altogether just before the dot-com boom made millionaires of many friends!) I have no regrets as I decided to pursue my passions elsewhere, but one does not ever leave an institution like Infosys even if one packs up one's bags and leaves.

So when I teach MBA students global economics with the aid of the PBS video Commanding Heights, and Mr Murthy is on the screen giving the most comprehensive definition of globalisation I have heard, I tell them I was there.

When I learn some of my students in India worked at Infosys before coming to business school, I tell them I was there.

When my friends in America tell me Infosys is an important part of their stock portfolio, I tell them I was there.

And as a research economist interested in economic growth and development, I am tempted to theorise that what Infosys did -- list itself on a US stock exchange to promote transparency, adhere to world-class accounting standards, and promote investor confidence -- could inspire a move by the Indian government to become more open and transparent, giving its economy a decisive edge over competing emerging markets, most notably China. What is good for Infosys is good for India. 

As you can see, I might no longer be in Infosys, but there is still so much of Infosys in me.

Dr Krishna Kumar teaches economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and is a senior economist at RAND in Santa Monica, California.

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