Embarking on a profound odyssey through four decades in the ever-evolving landscape of the Indian IT industry, LC Singh, Founder and Executive Chairman, of Nihilent Ltd, a luminary and trailblazer, shares exclusive insights into the strategic pivots, transformative experiences, and innovative milestones that have defined his illustrious career. He witnessed the nascent stages of the IT sector in the 1980s, navigated the challenges of the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 and founded Nihilent.
Beyond the historical timeline, the conversation transitions into the recent events that have etched new chapters in Singh’s journey, notably Nihilent’s recent buyback of the controlling stake from NTT. Excerpts from an interview:
DQ: Could you share some key highlights from your remarkable 40-plus-year journey in the Indian IT industry, highlighting the evolution and experience that shaped your career?
LC Singh: My professional trajectory mirrors the unfolding narrative of the IT industry, commencing nearly from scratch in the 1980s and assuming a pivotal role in its evolution. The growth materialised during the 1990s, signifying a profound turning point. The roots of India’s IT industry expansion took hold during the Y2K era.
My journey, particularly at TCS, is intricate. I spearheaded the establishment of TCS's marketing department at a time when the concept of marketing in the IT industry was nascent. The success of TCS paved the way for the emergence of other companies, such as Infosys, while hardware companies like HCL and Wipro transitioned to software during the 1990s.
In the 1980s, Information Technology was generally perceived as a mere tool for automation, accuracy, and speed. However, in the 1990s, titles like Chief Information Officer (CIO) emerged. CIOs transitioned into strategic roles, securing positions as board members.
The late 1990s' Internet boom proved short-lived, giving way to the bubble burst in 2000. Remaining at TCS until 1998, I briefly served as the CEO at Zensar Technologies for two years before founding Nihilent in August 2000, coinciding with the bubble burst. Weathering the challenges of industry fluctuations, Nihilent emerged as a resilient newcomer.
My professional portfolio encompasses diverse roles, from establishing UK operations and expanding in Sweden and South Africa to pioneering product marketing at TCS in the 1990s. Under my leadership, products like EX, business management software, Prism, and Success Planned were launched, encapsulating a comprehensive journey within the IT industry.
DQ: About Nihilent’s recent buyback of the controlling stake from NTT, could you elaborate on the factors that led to this decision and the strategic vision behind making Nihilent an independently owned entity?
LC Singh: Initially, our funding came from a South African bank, a critical move facilitated by a senior manager who had shared my journey at Harvard in 1996, sponsored by TCS for further studies. In the early 2000s, contemplating the inception of my own venture, was exploring various funding options, and the bank played a pivotal role. Due to a lack of personal funds, Nedbank's support was instrumental, enabling us to kickstart operations despite financial constraints. Notably, our relationship with the bank as a customer continues to endure.
As events transpired, the IT bust impacted our South African bank’s technology investments, leading to board decisions to liquidate IT-related assets. Circumstances compelled the bank to sell, and Dimension Data, a global managed services company headquartered in South Africa, acquired these assets due to their prior relationship with the bank—a connection I had maintained from my TCS days.
In 2017, Dimension Data was acquired by NTT, marking our integration into NTT Ltd. NTT decided to streamline the operations of their major IT companies, aiming to leverage combined strengths. In the course of this integration, various companies acquired through previous acquisitions were evaluated for independent operations or potential sale.
During the selling process, NTT initiated the sale of Nihilent shares. Benefiting from our first right of refusal, we had the opportunity to bid, supported by the consortium of our bankers. This strategic move allowed us to successfully repurchase the controlling stake, ensuring that Nihilent remains an independently owned entity.
DQ: How do you envision the buyback influencing Nihilent’s trajectory, and what opportunities and challenges do you foresee in the post-acquisition phase?
LC Singh: Foremost, I express my gratitude for the invaluable lessons derived from all my preceding shareholders, including Dimension Data, Nedbank, and NTT. Their exceptional cooperation allowed us to mould our organizational DNA, a distinctive attribute that kept us on the cutting edge and set us apart from conventional body shopping companies.
Being a part of a larger organization navigating its transition presented both advantages and disadvantages. While challenges were successfully navigated through the buyback, our agreement with NTT to persist as a global services partner preserves our ongoing relationship.
As an independently owned entity now, we have the advantage of steering our own destiny. This empowerment allows us to prioritize faster decision-making and enhancing management efficiency. The success of our unique campaigns stands as a testament to our ability to take control of our destiny, leaving no room for failure.
DQ: How are you leveraging Generative AI, and how do you help businesses leverage these technologies?
LC Singh: We have initiated various AI endeavours, with a specific focus on exploring Generative AI, a term that has gained substantial popularity in the last two years. While the hype surrounding it can lead to unrealistic expectations, we emphasize managing expectations and implementing AI within realistic timeframes as pivotal factors for success in our initiatives.
Our expertise in the data space, including Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and AI, is notable, thanks to strategic acquisitions. Operating globally, we implement analytics, ML engines, and algorithms, creating tailored platforms and IPs. The possession of unique IPs in this domain accelerates their market presence, with platforms being integral to showcasing our capabilities in automation and AI.
A demonstration of our AI capabilities at a specific level of automation is complemented by tailoring solutions for specific industries. Our research and development labs, situated in Pune, Dallas, and South Africa, engage in basic research to identify AI applications within the context of industry and business. This holistic approach defines our perspective on artificial intelligence and solidifies our commitment to driving AI innovation.
DQ: Apart from this, what are the recent developments and initiatives in Nihilent that will significantly contribute to growth?
LC Singh: Fundamentally, our Intellectual Property (IP), prominent practitioners and design thinking, play a pivotal role along with our key alliances. Collaborating with major partners such as Microsoft, AWS, Google, ServiceNow, Salesforce, SAP, and Snowflake is a core aspect of our operations. The strengthening of these relationships is a top priority, evident through my travels, partner meetings, and the showcasing of our capabilities in cloud, machine learning, and AI. Our IPs, especially those related to emotional detection, have gained significant attention, positioning us at the forefront of innovation.
Venturing into innovative technologies, we're introducing pioneering concepts like a marketplace for artists, incorporating augmented reality, virtual reality, and cloud technologies. This marketplace streamlines processes for both artists and consumers, facilitating easy ordering, resizing, printing, framing, and delivery. Additionally, our technology supports quick-service restaurants with demand calculation, auto-indenting, and efficient supply chain management.
In India, we're actively involved in substantial projects, including the support of Jubilant Food's 1700 Domino's stores with AI and ML. Our engagement extends to the financial sector, particularly in non-banking domains, as we strive to propagate these initiatives on a global scale. Our primary focus remains on the rapid and intentional global dissemination of these unique and impactful technologies, with a significant emphasis on SAP’s Business Technology Platform (BTP). We proudly stand as one of the largest implementers in India, especially within the manufacturing sector.
DQ: Reflecting on your extensive experience, what key lessons have you learned over the years, and how have these lessons influenced your leadership style and strategic decision-making?
LC Singh: A critical insight gained is that many technologies generate high anticipation, creating an expectation of a significant transformation. However, history reveals that numerous predictions do not materialize. For instance, in the 1970s, there was anticipation of robots handling tasks by the 1980s, which did not occur. Similarly, the promise of Virtual Reality (VR) creating an entirely immersive world in the early 1980s fell short of expectations, and the hype around Google Glass did not lead to the expected revolution.
Over time, I've developed a keen sense for distinguishing enduring technologies from mere hype. Experimentation is a key strategy, where practicality becomes evident through hands-on testing. We invest in technologies showing potential during experimentation, creating finished products and valuable intellectual property (IP). Change management, customer service, and design thinking consistently prove crucial in the transformation process. Solutions like MC Cube, emphasizing the alignment of people, processes, and technology, underscore the importance of addressing multiple facets for successful implementation. These approaches not only differentiate us in the market but also contribute to the overall success of technological transformations.
The emphasis on design thinking is pivotal in adapting to millennials' expectations, understanding their needs through direct interaction, and automating processes accordingly. Leadership plays a crucial role in instilling a mindset of experimentation, recognizing and discarding what doesn't work. Employee ownership, facilitated by stock options, enhances motivation and involvement, contributing to successful change navigation. The achievement of complete Indian ownership fosters a sense of pride and commitment, aligning the team with the company’s goals for overall success.
DQ: Can you share any recent achievements or milestones that highlight Nihilent’s continuous commitment to innovation and excellence?
LC Singh: Our lab products, incorporating VR and motion detection technologies, serve as a testament to our unwavering commitment to innovation. We extend an invitation to everyone to experience these ground-breaking technologies through our app (Artoreal), offering a glimpse into the distinctive advancements within the IT industry. These accomplishments underscore our dedicated efforts to push technological boundaries and carve out a unique position in the market.
The prospect of a future where technology not only understands thoughts but also replicates and responds to emotions is truly intriguing. Envisioning robots detecting and responding to human emotions adds a distinctive dimension to information technology. I eagerly anticipate exploring these innovations and experiencing their uniqueness firsthand.