Ode to a Humble Programmer

In the recent years, one name has often come up as a contender for the
Dataquest IT Person of the Year award: that of the Indian Software Programmer.
What the jury members have not been able to agree on is whether it is time yet
to give the award to a nameless winner; but few have disputed the contribution
made by him per se. This ever-increasing tribe has not only impacted the economy
of the country significantly, it has changed the collective psyche of the Indian
nationit has made us realize our potential; it has made us change our
decades-old belief that our large population is a liability, not an asset. But
most important of all, it has changed the way the world looked at Indiaa nation
of snake charmers and mystics, which occasionally supplied some blue-collar
workers. Today, if you are an Indian in any major city of the world, you are
first asked if you are a computer programmer.

By unanimously deciding on Lakshmi Narayanan, the vice chairman and ex-CEO of
Cognizant as the winner of the Dataquest IT Person of the Year award for 2008,
the Dataquest jury panel, headed by last years winner Ajai K Chowdhry, has not
just acknowledged his personal contribution to the development of Indian IT but
has also recognized the contribution made by thousands of techies who have
smoothly evolved into leaders; have built and nurtured hundreds of
relationships, created employment opportunities for thousands, while creating
billions of dollars in shareholder wealth. Narayanan, who shares his first name
with his wife, is an epitome of that humble programmer who smoothly transformed
himself to the role of the largest project man, before playing a strategist,
an institution builder, and a leader, while establishing his credential as a
visionary. And he has done that by working in just two companiesprobably
providing at least one cue to the techies who want to be leaders, on what could

Those two companies of course are extraordinary companies. One of themTCSdefined
the offshoring phenomenon, and established rules, which hundreds of
firmsentrepreneurial as well as established oneshave followed since then. The
otherCognizantwhich Narayanan helped build from day one, redefined some of
those rules, busting the myth that you have to be headquartered and listed in
India to be on top of the offshoring game. Cognizant is a case study of how to
build true global companies from scratch while still being on top when it comes
to business metrics such as growth and profitability.

The Formative Years
Coming from a family of engineershis father was an electronics engineer in
Hindustan Aeronautics and his elder brother too is an engineertechnology ran in
young Narayanans blood, even though like many Indian mothers in the 70s, his
mother wanted him to be a doctor or a civil servant.

Narayanan graduated from the Bangalore University in 1974. Armed with an MSc
degree in Electronics, he pursued his MBA at the IISC Department of Industrial
Management. In 1976 he joined TCS as a management trainee with a salary of Rs
950, an impressive figure those days, even if not a princely sum. Even though I
could not answer a question about the relationship between inflation and
interest rate, I was selected in TCS, he quips, his face brightening up with
nostalgia. Narayanan reserves all the positive superlatives for his first
employer, even though it is a top competitor for his present company.

  • Served as chairman of the board of Nasscom
    in 2007-08
  • Member of the board for the US-India
    Business Council (USIBC) since 2007, the premier business advocacy
    organization, representing 250 of the largest US companies investing in
    India, joined by two dozen of Indias largest global companies to
    strengthen US-India commercial ties
  • Awarded the Economic Times Entrepreneur of
    the Year 2005
  • Under his leadership, Cognizant became the
    youngest IT services company to reach a billion dollar revenue milestone,
    and also went past a market capitalization of $10 bn

TCS is where his career blossomed. He not just remembers all the major
projects that he worked on, he points out meticulously what he learnt from each
of them. One of the first projects was with Taj Hotel, for which TCS was
assigned to develop a payroll system. Pastries and biscuits used to be a major
attraction when we worked in the hotel, Narayanan says with a smile. Even in
those days, it was a complete collaborative culture, something that people are
talking about today, he adds on a more serious note.

TCS had just about 400 people those days and the reporting structure was so
flat that any delays in the execution of the project would come to the notice of
FC Kohli, the founding head of TCS.

The second major project he did at TCS was for Bennett & Coleman for the
automation of their classified advertising system. A major learning came in the
next big project for UTI. The warrants that the company was printing for sending
to its unit holders had some mistakes in certain cases. Some of those who got
those warrants happened to be Members of Parliament and the issue was raised in
the Parliament. Narayanan remembers his meeting with Tata Sons big honchos and
UTI chairman on the issue. But at the end of the day, they could come out of the

Going back in time he gives the flavor of how codes were written in the
1970s. There were no terminals those days, we used coding sheets that went to
various places and got punched and came back. Writing a simple program could
take days.

The big break for Narayanan came in 1977, when he went to the US to do a
project with General Motors spark plug division. He held various capacities in
TCS in the US for about eighteen months and established his credentials as a
skilled programmer. He even got praise from one of the CEOs of the Tata facility
who referred to him as a bright young man with all the gods in his name.

The late 1970s were times when whoever went to the US stayed put. But Lakshmi
chose to remain in TCS and came back to Mumbai and played various roles. He
became a project manager and supervised the computerization of one of Indias
largest trust fund during 1979-80. In 1983 he became the program manager at TCS
and executed large IT deployments in the BFS space in the UK. In 1989, Lakshmi
went to Switzerland and was instrumental in setting up TCS operations there.

This is the time when he convinced both Swissair and his bosses at TCS to get
Swissairs back-office operations to India through a joint venture, AFS, which
later merged with TCS. This was Indias first BPO, almost at the same time as
Amex and much before British Airways and GE. Narayanan has never been credited
with bringing BPO to India. For him, he did not see it as a potentially big wave
but was convinced that it was a great proposition. Probably, like Columbus, he
himself did not know for a long time, the far-reaching impact of his pioneering

By that time, he had built his reputation as (in his own words, labeled as)
a largest project man. So, when Narayanan then came back to India, he was given
the charge of Tata Steel project. In 1993 he became TCS head of North Indian
operations based out of Delhi.

Clearly TCS was the springboard to his career where he got both technology
and managerial exposure. He travelled across Europe and understood the onsite
dynamics and client requirements. His biggest strength according to him is the
ability to design the project frameworks, which is critical to successful
deployments. The exposure at TCS gave him the ability to understand complicated
computing problems in the financial sector and gave him the deep domain
expertise. In 1994 when Narayanan was leading a contended life in Delhi, he got
an offer From Dun and Bradstreet Satyam Software, which later became Cognizant.

Curriculum Vitae

Lakshmi Narayanan
  • MSc in Electronics from Bangalore
  • MBA from IISc1976
  • Management Trainee at TCS-1976
  • Project Manager, TCS (1979-80)
  • Program Manager, TCS (1983-86)
  • Head of SW Development Center, TCS
  • Regional Manager, TCS operations in
    Switzerland (1989-93)
  • Business Unit Head, TCS North Indian
    Operations (1993-94)
  • Joins Cognizant as CTO (1994)
  • Becomes President and CEO of
  • Chairman of Nasscom (2007)
  • Vice Chairman, Cognizant from 2007 onwards

Initially Narayanan was reluctant to take the offer. But one of the former
directors of Tata who had left the group persuaded him to take the offer. So in
1994 Lakshmi Narayanans 18 years of career at TCS came to an end and he joined

Moving Forward
Lakshmi Narayanans technical excellence made him become the CTO at Cognizant.
Few CTOs have effortlessly moved to the role of CEO. While he was comfortable
with technology, he was equally comfortable with handling relationships and
large operations.

The challenge, hence, was not really running an organization, but to build it
in a fundamentally different way that would give better value to the customers
and need we say, investors?

The fundamental challenge Lakshmi faced at Cognizant was to establish it as a
dependable IT company because Cognizant had to be built from scratch. That was
both a challenge and opportunity. Narayanan and his predecessor Kumar Mahadeva
decided that they could not afford to become another me-too.

Analysts still struggle to label Cognizant. It is the only large
offshore-centric company that is not headquartered in India. While some club it
with the likes of Infosys and TCS (as in SWITCH meaning Satyam Wipro Infosys TCS
Cognizant and HCL), some label it as an American company. Headquartered and
listed in the US, most of its employees are based in India.

The American company tag associated with us is a perception, while there is
nothing wrong in being called an American company, we consider ourselves as a
global company, says Narayanan. The companys first CEO was based in India, the
second in the US, the third (Narayanan) in India and the current one is in the

The biggest challenge for Lakshmi at Cognizant was to deliver customer
expectations of its US clients through its offshore development facilities in
India. Scaling up the company in terms of human resources, technology expertise
and creating state-of-the-art delivery centers which became the driver for the
companys growth, and Lakshmi did these tasks with great expertise. Under his
leadership, Cognizant created a client-centric global delivery model. He took
the company through the Y2K phenomenon and charted the course post that with
various IT transformation projects that Cognizant took. Cognizant also became
the fastest company to achieve the $1 bn mark and it is also the first offshore
IT services company to be inducted in the NASDAQ 100. Cognizant also made it to
the S&P 500 index and became the Fortune 1000 company.

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From a humble programmer at TCS to vice chairman at Cognizant, Lakshmi
Narayanan has come a long way. At TCS, despite donning specific roles, his
technical excellence acted as a proof-point of excellence and in a way
epitomized the Indian talent in the IT space. His role in Cognizant brought to
fore his skills in creating a company from scratch and making it into a
successful enterprise. In 2007, he became the chairman of Nasscom and here he
played a key role in bridging the gap between the industry and academia and
worked towards forging closer ties between them.

His tenure as Nasscom chairman also saw the body taking initiatives such as
highlighting SMB achievements in IT as well as taking initiative as data
security council.

Despite all his achievements, Narayanan is humble, unassuming and simple. His
humility and simplicity often hide that he is the same man who has been part of
writing the early success story of Indian IT Inc, and a man who has helped his
company grow three times in just three years as CEO, while trebling the market
cap as well, during that period.

His is a story of what difference a techie can make; what difference an
employee can make; and what difference a seemingly simple and straightforward
man can make.

Shyamanuja Das and Shrikanth G

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