Keeping up with the Times, TCS-Style

After 20 years with India's Tata Consultancy Services, Chief Technology Officer Krishnan reflects on the changes he's observed

As a student, K. Ananth Krishnan had been academically inclined toward Science and dreamt of becoming a scientist.

But when he was in his post-graduate program in Delhi training to become a physicist, the first computers became accessible to the student community. And he became hooked onto the "new toy". He finished his master degree, only to undertake a second one, this time in computer science.

The rest is, as they say, history. Twenty-five years of it, to be exact.

Krishnan, who has been with prolific IT services provider Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for the past 20 years, is currently the company's chief technology officer, responsible for over 500 researchers worldwide in 19 innovation labs.

The veteran, who is married with two children, shares with ZDNet Asia about TCS' development over the years, its innovation model and plans for the future.

Q: When you joined the IT industry, did you have a role model or somebody you admired?

Krishnan: The IT industry in India was all about TCS. In the mid '80s, when I was in university, the big role model was Dr F.C. (Fakir Chand) Kohli, who was the head of TCS at that time. I had the good fortune to work with Dr Kohli for several years, and still make it a point to meet him whenever I'm in Bombay. He's retired now but is still one of the sharpest individuals in the area of computing.

Through my career, the leaders in TCS, like my current boss Mr S. Ramadorai, have been role models for many of us. I think we found our role models in India and set ourselves to be what they have been and to take it forward.

You've been with TCS for 20 years now. What are some of the changes you've observed during your tenure?

The core principles have not changed--the Tata Group was built on a very strong value system and I'm very happy that the value system has remained constant. Integrity, leading change, respect for the individual, innovation, continuous learning--these values are very strongly built into [the company].

What has changed in TCS is certainly the scale--in 1968, TCS was maybe a five to six-person company. Today, we are a close to 100,000 people.

The second big factor I see is global footprint. When I joined TCS there were pretty much less than five international employees in the company. Today there are close to 9,000 international employees.

The third big transformation that I see is from purely an IT services player, we've become a full service player. IT services is still a very large part of our business but today we have eight new service lines ranging from infrastructure, management, engineering, business process and consulting to our own products. [These service lines] are becoming very significant and diversifying our capability to serve our customers.

You look after many different stakeholders--Board and management, customers, researchers. How do you manage your time?

At the beginning of each year, I start with a broad plan that [states] I will spend [a certain amount of] time--in actual days or hours--on roughly eight or nine activities that are top of my list.

A couple of activities will be related to my role as a senior executive of the company, and a couple will be related to meeting customers, participating in events. There will be a set of activities around research--looking for new ideas, actually implementing them. There will be a couple more activities on the research people, leadership as well as my own learning.

Then there is a habit that my father and grandfather taught me--to keep a daily log. When I was younger I'd actually write a diary. But today I do it on a spreadsheet and just note down before going to bed for each of these 10 activities that I have on my plan, how much time I actually spent. And today with spreadsheets you can keep track of what you've actually done. So I know that I'd planned to do this, and here is where I am on a monthly or annual basis.

If I find that I'm spending too little time with my research teams, then I will [make an effort to] spend more time next month. I try to make these corrections all the time. I won't say this is perfectly systematic, but it's at least a way by which I can keep track.

What challenges do you face as CTO as the company scales?

The first challenge is, I have to help our current business stay successful and grow. This is to do with what we call derivative innovation--that means it is about continuous improvement. That [presents] the first set of challenges--how I identify opportunities for improvement and help our project teams all over the world become more effective.

The second challenge is: How do I add new capabilities to our existing businesses? Today if we have a business in software development, how do I make that dramatically different? That's called transformational or platform innovation.

The third is to look for completely new businesses. These are potentially market creating opportunities for TCS. [It's about] how research and our co-innovation network can identify areas which are completely new, which we don't do today.

If I look at it from [the customers' point of view]&customers ask: How can TCS help me become more efficient? Another question that a customer would ask me is: Now that I am more efficient, how can you help me transform myself into a dramatically better organization? The third question is: How does a customer working with TCS create new opportunities for growth, new businesses, new markets?

As CTO, I have to work with business teams, customer teams, engineering teams to make all these happen.

What is the most pressing issue you face as CTO?

At the moment, the real challenge is the transformational aspects. The world of IT services and IT in general is looking for transformational help--to simplify information technology.

If you look at CIOs today, everyone would say their life is very complex and they need to simplify their business, applications and support--the whole IT infrastructure. The transformational story toward simplification is a major [area].

From a business perspective, this translates to freeing up of enough capacity and resource, both from a systems perspective as well as from the people perspective, for servicing current and future customers better. If the CIO manages to simplify and transform from the inside, the business benefit is that a greater amount of resource can be applied to better customer service, better market understanding and therefore market expansion.

What is your approach toward innovation and new technology?

We look at technology from two or three layers.

There is the need to invent new technologies, and we certainly with our research labs invent more than anyone else in India.

The world of invention is across all the technology players so that is where co-innovation comes in. We partner with many of the other companies in our eco-system, whether they are strategic partners like Microsoft, Intel, SAP or [even] start-up companies.

Invention is one [aspect]. [There is also] the transformation of an invention into an innovation--a systematic process to filter out the important ones and say these are the ones that are going to add value∧ then put the necessary business and implementation layers. That's because implementing an invention is the key to business success. We follow a set of steps by which [ideas] get narrowed down to 10 initiatives in a year which would have business impact. We have evolved this framework with the help of Professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School, who is an independent director on the TCS Board.

What do you see ahead for TCS in the next 20 years?

I would like to see the core values survive--whatever TCS becomes I think our value system should be in place. I hope we're customer-focused, employee-focused, doing everything we need to do on an honest and integrity-based model.

From a business perspective, we will become more global. We'll have a position that we had articulated about 12 years ago, that we want to be amongst the top 10 IT companies in the world. That will certainly happen in the future.

Beyond that, we will have to aspire to a leadership position in the dimensions that we choose. Maybe we'll be leaders in IT services, or customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and so on.

What is TCS' strategy when it comes to making large acquisitions? Are Indian companies able to acquire big companies from other regions?

TCS historically has acquired companies--we've acquired 10 or so companies within the last several years. These companies have been to fill out the full service play, geographic footprint and these factors have been the driving strategies behind the acquisitions.

So far, our strategy has worked for us&we've gained a lot of capabilities with companies like FNS in Australia, and alliances or joint ventures like Diligenta in the U.K. These have all been part of the M&A strategy and they've filled out the geographic niche or the full service niche extremely well.

[Making large-scale acquisitions] is a factor that we have to plan for extremely well. I don't think it's impossible--companies have merging in the Indian IT space or in the general business space for years. The lessons are certainly there for us to learn. For an Indian company to do a cross-border acquisition, whether small or large the issues are similar. It's something that the companies will have to learn as they go along.

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