PROFILE: CEO and MD of Infosys Technologies. He is also one of its seven co-founders
HE SAYS: You become far more successful if you adapt when circumstances change and then do the very best you can, at that point in time.
The position will automatically come. Do something useful.
Senapathy “Kris” Gopalakrishnan, 55, was born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram (then called Trivandrum). His father had started work as a clerk, right out of school, but he soon realised that he was not meant to be one and started a small plumbing business that he ran all his life. On both sides, Kris’s grandparents were teachers. So, Kris’s father starting a business was an anomaly of sorts; but subliminally it did pave the path to entrepreneurship for Kris.
The interesting thing about entrepreneurship is that more than a specific competence, it calls for comfort in giving up job security. Because that idea was embedded in his childhood memory, decades later, Infosys co-founder Kris didn’t think twice about giving up job security.
“My entire childhood and schooling was in Trivandrum,” says Kris. “Very early on, I started a liking for science as a subject. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged by my parents in what I did. I studied in a government school. Though my parents were otherwise not involved, the only thing they asked of me was to study medicine.”
Kris studied to be a doctor. He put his heart and soul into the medical entrance examination. But then, a man has two futures: The future of desire and the future of fate. When the results were out, fate was working over desire. Kris fell short of a medical seat by 2 marks. And he hadn’t worked out a Plan-B.
“It devastated my family. It devastated me. After that incident, my parents never, ever influenced me in anything I ever did,” he says.
Not having applied to engineering colleges, Kris now signed up for a B.Sc. course in Physics at a local college. There he realised that his maths wasn’t up to the mark. His self-confidence now dented in several places, he sought help. Help came in the form of a chain-smoking, tough-talking tuition teacher named C.C. Phillips. Phillips did fix his maths but more importantly, he told Kris that all was not over. “He did not show me the path forward but helped me regain confidence,” Kris says.
Kris got over his maths handicap and stood fifth at the university level. This is when someone told him about the Indian Institute of Management as a great option. He wrote the entrance test and got through to the interview only to find that he could not express himself in English at all. He did not make it. Kris, of course, did not know that though he could not qualify as a student there, one day he would be on the board of governors of an IIM. “The IIM experience taught me how important communication is,” Kris says.
This time, Kris did have a Plan-B. He opted for a masters degree in Physics and eventually, for an M.Tech course in Computer Science at IIT Madras. He loved the M.Tech experience. He worked day and night on the then state-of-the-art IBM 370 mainframe computer at the campus. He realised he could now write his own program! The past started receding.
In time, the first door to his future opened. A man named Narendra Patni (founder of Patni Computer Systems) was asking him in. Soon, the experience gained at Patni would lead him to the second door — Infosys. This time he would be dealing with quite another kind of man.
“NRN [N.R. Narayana Murthy] was a tough task master. Extremely fair. He put people first. You knew he will take care of you. He showed you leadership by example,” Kris says. “When we did start Infosys, I wanted to work on embedded software. That is what I loved most. Infosys wanted to create technology for message storing systems.”
But Infosys and Kris, both realised that the money was going to be in business applications. So, he packed his bags and went to the US, this time, learning how businesses worked and implementing enterprise solutions. In the process, he listened to his customers; each time, he went back to make the necessary changes and then return to communicate. Communicate.
Kris was changing from inside. Then, one day he returned to join in the process of building one of India’s most loved companies.
I want to know from Kris how to take things in your stride, how to pave the path for emergence, how to remain unfazed.
“You may nurse a certain ambition for yourself,” says Kris. “It may even promise you an amount of success. Along the way, you do have the option to doggedly pursue your ambition. But you become far more successful, if you adapt when circumstances change and then do the very best you can, at that point in time… You can fight the system; you can try to change things not under your control. But the thing to do is to understand where you are. Come out with a strategy and a plan. By all means, have your goals but be very flexible. Sometimes, it is better to swim along.”
The early morning stillness is giving way to activity in the sprawling Infosys campus. We are drawing curious gazes from Infocions trooping in. Here is a man I have known for a long time but in this moment I feel connected enough for one last question: “Tell me something for posterity.”
The CEO and MD of Infosys, Padma Bhushan Kris Gopalakrishnan replies in his signature measured tone: “The position will automatically come. Do something useful.”
Subroto Bagchi is co-founder & gardener, MindTree and a best-selling author. His brief: Every fortnight, exchange tales of the road with successful entrepreneurs