What is a life-like where you sit in the first row of not one revolution, but many—the first true software company, the first VC funding, the first public listing, the first ERP success—and what not? Flipping the pages of the album of this industry archetype—tells a lot
When you ask the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dataquest ICT Business Awards 2022, you are bound to enter a mystical land of memories, memoirs, and milestones that might have been tucked away for years.
Here are some lanes that Sunil Rajguru, Editor, Dataquest traveled with as he caught up with Ashank Desai and got a generous glimpse into this momentous journey.
When his father passed away and his mother decided to move to a new place, Ashank Desai learned the first lessons of adaptability and resilience at a very early age. “I started working hard, got medals, went to IIT as I began my journey through a hard life.” As he moved towards IIM-Ahmedabad, the first seeds of Mastek began. With classmates like Ketan Mehta and brains that were planning for the IT industry, he stepped on to a path that would redefine this industry. “It was a time when the software was given by hardware companies. India did not have software companies but system houses. One day we decided to meet our alums, and also met two-three professors who encouraged us to start a venture.”
That journey, in a second-class train from Delhi to Ahmedabad, was the beginning of an itinerary that would be dotted with huge turning points for India. “We planned an IT software company. I had a house, our friends stayed together, and we would brainstorm about our venture during the night. In 1981, our office started in my founder colleague’s house. We had no phone. We used a public phone. Those were some days! The industry was completely a hardware space, but fortunately, we had a management background. We decided to make IT valuable for management. It was a massive change because back then, it was just data processing.” Captured Desai as he looked back down the memory path.
We are still not considered to building technologies that are top in the world. We call ourselves the powerhouse of building software. What’s missing is R&D and building new products. India should be Number 1 in all aspects of IT. That’s something for which academia, industry, and the government need to work together. We need to build tomorrow’s technologies – in-house. My vision is that we should be seen as an example and India should be seen as Numero Uno in everything – especially in cutting-edge areas.
This turned out to be the DNA of Mastek—building solutions for management. “We were building solutions for multinational companies. By 1985, we decided to give software products. We were the pioneers of products for specific applications like stock-broking, accounting, advertising, etc. But the first six years were difficult. We got funds from the first venture capitalist in the country. We went public in 1991—the first IT company to go public after liberalisation. Infosys followed in 3-4 months. We soon went through waves of change—being ahead of our time—building products, not taking jobs just for the sake of revenue, building solutions, and riding through e-commerce and Y2K tides.”
He told Dataquest how the company built a complete prototype for an ambitious project at a global level. “That product for addressing congestion—which everyone said will not be successful—turned out to be a huge hit—in London. Our ability to build solutions was very high—for example, a large healthcare project we got with BT.”
He recalls fondly how the mayor of London had congratulated him—“I thought I was really taking a risk when I hired you for the London congestion project.”
Mastek was also a front-runner in insurance products by investing millions of dollars in 15 years—through R&D, acquisitions, etc. By 2015, Mastek had become a half solutions, half product company. “We were being perceived as a services company. That’s when we decided to create a distinction. And soon I was hitting a bell—being the first pure-play product company to be listed outside India.”
What a journey! Breaking the myth that products cannot be built in India. “Products are difficult to sell. But we became so successful, that we morphed into SaaS. The last six seven years have been a very satisfying time. Solutions have been our forte and today form 90 percent of our business.”
“We just celebrated 40 years! A great event to look back—and in a way, this award comes at the right time,” he smiles.
Thinking back about his years, and role, at NASSCOM Desai, unraveled how it was a time full of difficulties and victories. “NASSCOM worked very closely with the government. The technology park concept—STPI- came from the collaboration between industry and government. Game-changers like the zero-duty model were significant factors in making this industry strong. In the 90s, NASSCOM took delegations to various countries. It played a role in building the IT industry’s image. It was further augmented with SEI-CMM, People CMM, and other standards. NASSCOM played a huge role as a catalyst with a concerted effort to help the industry grow faster than what was happening.” He also shared about building skills, leadership, and social area strengths during his vast metier.
Rewriting the narrative of India’s muscle in many ways and teams, thus, fuelling the stratospheric rise of Indian innovation and IT power—Desai continues to inspire us and upend the world in a positive way. Until we sit again with him after many more path-breaking years, here’s wishing him a life full of new lanes and horizons.
(Catch the complete video interview on the Dataquest YouTube channel)
By Pratima H