In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Tata Consultancy Services CEO
Natarajan Chandrasekaran talks about re-imagining governance and why he believes in the concept of a unique identity.
Your profits have jumped from Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 19,000 crore. Your market cap has gone from $ 12 billion to $ 72 billion, six times in dollar terms. Next year, you will be the most profitable company in India. You have the highest market cap for a company in India, the most valuable company in India. You have signed a joint venture with Mitsubishi recently. This is a whole bunch of good headlines for TCS.
Yes, we have had a fantastic run. TCS always had great strengths. We have great people and enormous capabilities in terms of tools, technologies and methodologies that we have built over a long period of time. If you see the TCS business model, we have worked with leading companies in every industry in the markets in which we serve. We have a fantastic global footprint and really fantastic clients. I think we have tried to bring it all together nicely and it seems to have worked.
How is the TCS business model different from, say, other well-known IT brands in India — Infosys, Wipro? Or are you doing more of the same thing?
Every company has a different strategy. It could be in terms of the customers you serve, the markets you serve, the type of portfolios of services you bring together and your philosophy and then, a company culture. There are many aspects in the services sector that differentiate one company from the other.
But is there also a distinction in the creative input, in the products that these companies offer?
Yes and no. If you really look at it, there are certain parts of our business which are identical. In the sense that we do similar type of service plans…
That is the outsourcing part.
You call it application management or application development, etc. And if you take some other parts, like, for example, solution in a banking sector, some of us do it and some of us do not. Sometimes we take a call that this market is very important and we are going to go and build a business in this market. Say, for example, we took that call in Latin America in 2002, and in Japan too, we took that call. So there are bets that you make. The way we approach the products software and platforms is different from the way others do. There are always subtle differences, but these differences are important because they have a profound impact on the way you direct a company.
It is one thing for you to say that there are differences, but for someone who does not live in Bangalore or who was not bought up in the South on a diet of thayir sadam (curd rice) over 10 generations, it’s impossible for me to understand those differences. Will you explain some?
See, if you take the revenue portfolio of these companies, you can say that a lot of it is similar. But if you take the bets that we are all making, we are going for a much more diversifying model. We have a footprint in many locations, some of the others don’t go for similar footprints. Also, there are markets which we don’t go into, which others may choose to serve.
What is the new cutting-edge thing that you are planning in TCS? Are you going to do something disruptive? Is something on the cards?
We are of the opinion that digital technology — what they call analytics cloud and social and mobile — offers phenomenal opportunities for everybody to re-imagine whatever is going on. For TCS, our entire business can be re-imagined. In theory, today, if I have the systems in place, I can pretty much have a virtual wall in which I can see everything. I can see my 300,000 employees moving around, my customers, who is where, doing what. Whether I want to look up revenues or whether I want to look up collections…
But there is still a touchy-feely side to business. A doctor can look at 50 scans and 50 blood test reports, but you only feel better when the doctor touches you.
That’s true. We will not go away from human connect, but we will not waste time as all of it will be real time. We
are going to do a number of platforms.
A platform is a way by which you can bring things together and then give
So will you describe yourselves as a hands-on CEO or a hands-off CEO.
I am very hands-on. I understand business and I am connected with the customers. At the same time, I let my people do what they want to do. I am available when they want to talk to me.
And you keep very fit. I would have said you are the fittest CEO, but I have to be careful because a few miles from here is Mr Anil Ambani. There will be a diplomatic incident if I said one is the fitter of the two.
Oh, he is much fitter. I try to be fit enough, because my job requires me to travel a lot.
You run every major marathon and that is little bit more than ‘fit enough’. I bet you have offices in all those cities.
Yes, so it’s also an opportunity to run with some of my employees, so that’s fun. Otherwise, I wouldn’t meet them. They may be doing programming or whatever it is and they run and we get along.
How did you get started on such serious running?
I was not into any kind of athletics or sports. I was 44 in 2007. My family has a history of diabetes and my doctor said, ‘You should be reversing it. You should do serious walking.’ I thought, why not take up running? The next day, I couldn’t run 50 metres. And then I decided to work on it. I wish I had started 20-30 years ago. I really like it. I have the urge every morning to get up and run and that’s how I picked up running and I decided to run the marathon. I practised for a year, and in 2008, I ran my first marathon. After that, I took some coaching.
We have seen over the past many years Infosys doing many headline-making things, mostly related to its key people. Nandan Nilekani started doing UIDAI, then joined politics and now V Balakrishnan has joined politics. Many people have come and gone. Some have gone and come back. Why are we not seeing more talking heads and opinion makers from TCS?
You talked about Nandan and Bala. They are not in Infosys any more and are pursuing their passion, which is a good thing. Your life cannot be just one thing. For me, I realised running is something I really enjoy. So after one’s primary career, I think one can pursue whatever they like. Coming to TCS itself, there are many who are talking in industry forums in the right conferences internationally, but they are not talking so much in the public domain. Take my experts in digital or in the retail business, they are all there in these conferences attended by their respective communities. There are things to which we have to make contributions. We should definitely be talking about solving water problems and about education reforms…
Because you have done some work with governance reform. Passport service…
We have done quite a few projects in this country, but we have done them as projects. Whether it is passport, securities settlement… But I think what India has an opportunity now is in completely re-imagining governance. Take identity — UID has come now — but there are still other forms of identity.
Do you believe UID has been damaged now because of politicisation? Do you still believe in it?
I believe in the concept of UID and it is a great thing. I think we have to make sure that it is fully implemented and fully integrated because we need a common ID and we need a mechanism by which we can validate things.
You think it should be taken forward irrespective of the results in this election?
Yes, I think so.
Do you have any suggestions on how UID can be improved?
See, I don’t know the specific intricacies, but for me, what is important is that we need to have a common identifier and that is a good thing. If there are pitfalls, we have got to see what those pitfalls are and attend to them.
You do not see any fatal pitfalls?
No, I do not. And if there are any, we have got to fix that.
Is there anything you would specifically want to fix with India’s governance? You talked about re-imagining governance.
I think it is a unique opportunity for the new government, because we are not fully digitised. We have digitised certain things, like passport has been digitised… But, you see, we are 300,000 people in TCS. As a corporation, it’s a lot of people, but 300,000 people is not a big number when you look at a nation. I cannot do anything with 300,000 people if I am not fully digitised. It is impossible to get anything across. It is not just about communication, it’s about making things happen real-time. So I do not see how one billion people can have an alternative solution. So we need more of digitisation, not only for communication but in terms of real-time availability, decision-making. So, I think we’ve got to look at business processes, we cannot look at ministries. We’ve got to look at a process that runs across ministries because anything you have to do, it has to jump across four ministries.
Four ministries, CAG, courts, activists…
Yes. So how do we create a process flow? We even say that the whole concept of work flows was created to get things done in a seamless way. I think today, everything is real time, work should not flow, work should simply get done.
There is something about your IT industry. You guys are taken a lot more seriously in public discourse than other corporates. Nobody calls an IT corporate a crony capitalist — at least not yet.
I think it’s also because the industry does about 90 per cent of its business outside India. That is not because we don’t want to do business here but because the market size is much larger outside. But there is a huge potential to focus on India and we need to create that market. To some extent, it is also our responsibility to go and create that market. We have to go and sit down with the government, once the new government is formed, and talk to them…
Does it matter to you who forms the new government?
No. To me what’s important is we need confidence. If we go anywhere internationally, the confidence in India is a little shaken. We’ve got to create that confidence, we’ve got to create stability and we’ve got to take advantage of all the positives we have.
What do you see yourself doing going ahead? You cannot be the CEO of TCS forever. Even a marathon has to end.
I don’t know. I am enjoying it now, really enjoying it.
Do we see you in public life or in the public domain in some way?
No, I am happy where I am.
That’s what you would say now, but remember, these things get recorded and they are played back.
You don’t know what you will do at any point in time. Currently, I am enjoying my job and have a lot more to do. I am a professional CEO, as you rightly said, and not an entrepreneur. So as long as I can do well, perform well… I think there is a lot of impact we can make. For example, how many jobs we can create, that is a huge thing. We can go into governance reforms and there is so much more we can contribute towards CSR initiatives. I think it is a great platform to be able to make a meaningful impact in society, in India as well as abroad.
Personally, you have had a brilliant life. You had a very humble beginning.
I grew up in a small town in Tamil Nadu near Tiruchirappalli. We were a large family. I am one of six siblings. I studied in a local Tamil-medium government school. It was the only school in the area. It was a fantastic atmosphere. I went to Regional Engineering College, which is now NIT, did my Masters and then came to TCS to do my project work, and since then… In fact, I have never applied anywhere else or even written my resume.
You know how I would have described you? If you have seen my book, there is a chapter called ‘The HMT Advantage’. HMT stands for Hindi-medium-type and it is generic because it could be Tamil-medium-type, Telugu-medium-type, Marathi-medium-type…
At the end of the day, what matters is what you learn in every circumstance and every environment. The other niceties that are required to conduct business can be learnt very easily. So it is not the school you go to. It probably helps you with a certain launching pad.
And English is not the most difficult language to learn.
It is not a difficult language to learn and we studied English as a subject. But then, for the first couple of years when I switched over, it was difficult because every math and physics problem, I would think in Tamil and convert. But over a period of time, it became very comfortable.
Tamil is to math in India what Greek is to math all over the world.
I would have done Tamil literature as a curriculum any day, any time. So I enjoy reading Tamil literature.
More importantly, I can see that you seem to enjoy what you are doing.
I have always believed in living the day. You can either keep regretting the past or dreaming the future. I enjoy every day. For me, that is very important.
I think you are blessed to have this wonderful campus in Mumbai.
I am very lucky. Great industry, greatest country, a great group, and a phenomenal team. I am very fortunate
And a brilliant Indian, Chandra. Thank you.
Thank you, Shekhar.
Transcribed by Jerrin Mathew
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