I have been with Forbes India since August 2008. I like writing about ideas, events and people at the intersection of business, society and technology. Prior, I was with Economic Times. I am based in Bangalore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The first time I attended a meeting at Cognizant was sometime in 2002. I went to its office around 7: 30 pm along with two or three other journalists. Then, its main office in Chennai was a few buildings away from the American embassy and a floor above the branch office of a local bank. We had already filed our stories, and were there to listen to Kumar Mahadeva, the CEO take questions from analysts on a conference call over the phone.
I had just started covering Cognizant. Until then, I knew Kumar Mahadeva only by his name. This meeting was the first time I heard him speak. His voice was self-assured and his answers were so precise and structured, he could well have been reading them out from a sheet of paper.
What convinced me though that he wasn’t reading the answers out was the occasional bursts of spontaneity. Whenever he got impatient, it showed. At one point, he said something to this effect: “We don’t want to benchmark ourselves against a tier three company like....” It would have been alright, except that the company he was referring was one of the top five in India then, and Cognizant half its size. In fact, Cognizant wasn’t on anybody’s radar then. Sitting in a corner, I tried to put a face to that voice. I imagined the face of a man with ‘a frown, and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.’
A day later, Cognizant sent me a photograph of Mahadeva by email. I realised my PB Shelley-induced imagination wasn’t so accurate after all. He wasn’t wearing a frown, his lips weren’t wrinkled, and his smile wasn’t mocking. He seemed to be an agreeable person, perhaps a bit stern.
Yet, over the next few years, as I heard people talk of Mahadeva, I realised my first impressions weren’t too off the mark. Whenever people at Cognizant spoke of him, it was with a sense of reverence. When they said he went to Harvard, it was as if Harvard was Hogwarts, and Mahadeva not just another student there, but Albus Dumbledore. When they spoke about his stint in McKinsey they could have been talking about Marvin Bower – such was their reverence.
Even in stories that tried to highlight his human side, there was a sense of mystique. Once Mahadeva wanted his home network to be fixed, and requested the help of a couple of Cognizant engineers who happened to be in New York. They landed at his Manhattan apartment, not far from Times Square, and got down to do their work. While they were on it, they continued their banter in Tamil, safe in the knowledge that someone with a name like Wijeyaraj Kumar Mahadeva, the son of a top civil servant from Sri Lanka and a Cambridge alumnus, who’d spent most of his time abroad wouldn’t know the language. Mahadeva was hovering around – seemingly deaf to their conversations. When it was time for them to take leave, at the door, Mahadeva thanked them - in Tamil. The story became the stuff of legend because until then, nobody, not even senior managers who moved closely with Mahadeva had a clue he knew Tamil. A bachelor then, Mahadeva’s personal life was, well, intensely private.
The aura that surrounded Mahadeva helped drive Cognizant. He was precise. A one hour conference call meant just that. It would start on the dot of the appointed hour and wouldn’t last a second more than what he’d specified. He kept people on their toes.
During its early days, Cognizant engaged a management guru to conduct a workshop for its top 10-15 of its top executives. The man asked everybody to write their vision for Cognizant’s future. Mahadeva’s was the shortest, clearest, and most authoritative. It simply read: Make Cognizant a 10 billion company in shareholder value in XX years.
When I asked a top manager to help me understand Mahadeva’s approach, he laughed and said it was simple. “He gave the orders, and we were expected to execute them.”
His exit from Cognizant was typical of him. One day, by some accounts, he stormed out of the boardroom, and that was it. A senior official would only give this as the reason: He is a different type of person. He suddenly decided 'this is not the thing for me', and he decided to go.
Lakshmi and the art of people management
Cognizant couldn’t have found a more different personality to succeed Mahadeva. Lakshmi Narayanan. Lakshmi’s education did not span multiple continents. He went to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore, after which he joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). By all indicators, he would have stuck to TCS all his life, if Kumar hadn’t shown extraordinary persistence to pull him into Cognizant - and, if Kumar hadn’t told him he could move to his favourite city - Chennai. So, while Mahadeva reigned over Cognizant from Teaneck, New Jersey, Lakshmi stayed put in Chennai during his three years as CEO.
By the time I met Lakshmi, Cognizant had constructed a sprawling facility on Old Mahabalipuram Road. It was a brief meeting that started and ended with introductions. Yet, I remember it because his smile was warm and friendly. For a moment, I almost thought he’d mistaken me for somebody else he knew well.
Lakshmi is a 'people person'. If Mahadeva’s review calls ended on schedule, the calls Lakshmi presided would go on for hours. He always had time for people and was delightfully unaware of hierarchy. Once, during an in-house cricket match – Cognizant takes its cricket seriously bringing in professional commentators etc - when a batsman wanted water, Lakshmi ran half way to the pitch to give him the bottle. At home, his favourite pastime is building toy trains. After building, he gives them away.
When he brought down the retirement age at Cognizant to 55 – he says he did that to send a message to youngsters in the company there’s enough room at the top for them - he also introduced a provision that allowed retired employees to have an office at Cognizant, and be around as consultants. Sometime back I met a person, well past 55. But he was still around, helping Cognizant deal with the government and talk to universities. He seemed happy, and felt very much part of the firm. That was a typical Lakshmi touch to what was a tough policy. Incidentally, after this policy was introduced, Lakshmi was the first to turn 55 and he promptly stepped down from the job.
But behind this easy going affability and old world charm, Lakshmi had a competitive streak. Soon after he took over as CEO, a newspaper published a report quoting a top manager from a rival company, who suggested Lakshmi might not be as good as Mahadeva. The day the report appeared, a message went to Cognizant’s sales team: “Go after his clients. Make sure he never wins a deal competing against Cognizant; if there are common customers, grab more businesses”. In short make him regret he ever made the statement.
It’s impossible to survive at Cognizant without having a competitive streak.
Hacker of business models
It's tempting to see Francisco D’Souza (Cognizant’s CEO since January 2007) in contrast to Lakshmi or Mahadeva, or to say he has in him a mix of both. But, Frank, from whatever we heard, is in a different mould. He took charge when he was only 38. (To know why that matters a lot read this post by my colleague Mitu Jayashankar).
But, equally importantly, he is more global than even Mahadeva, and more inclined to experimentation than either of them.
When Mitu and I did our first big story on Francisco, we started our narrative with a meeting in Mumbai to which Frank had rushed straight out of a flight from London. It was not only to highlight the importance of the deal for Cognizant at that point, but also to give a sense of how Frank works - of how he keeps his energy levels high, focus sharp, and empathy firmly in the direction of customers even while working across time zones.
His colleagues describe Frank as hands on. For the CEO of an IT company, it means endless flights around the globe. It would seem Frank was being prepared for exactly this all his life. His father Placido D’Souza, an art loving diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), put him at local schools wherever he was posted, unlike other IFS officers who preferred international schools. By the time he went to Carnegie Mellon, he had attended seven different schools in seven different countries. He was also steeped in different cultures. By one account, he wanted to get into Dun & Bradstreet because they had operations in over 60 countries – and that would help him see more of the world.
The other striking feature of Frank is his love for experimentation. Mahadeva’s focus was on ploughing the single furrow he was sure would give the high returns to shareholders. Srini Raju, CEO of the joint venture which eventually became Cognizant, said he tried to convince Mahadeva to get into ERP, in vain. From Mahadeva’s perspective, it was a diversion – and his will, of course, prevailed. Yet, Mahadeva’s god-like stature and his razor sharp focus was exactly what Cognizant needed most in the early stages. He didn’t want Cognizant to stray from its path, and lose its way among hundreds of other IT companies competing for the market then.
Lakshmi’s focus was on building where Mahadeva left from. His ‘friendly guy – fierce competitor’ image helped the company scale up fast between 2003 and 2006 without losing its entrepreneurial culture.
Frank is different. He taught himself programming while still at high school, and one constant in his changing world was a deep interest in new technology. R Chandrasekharan, a Cognizant veteran and now its group chief executive (technology and operations), recalls the time when he first met Frank. He was carrying a Palm Pilot, a device just a few days old and still had to take the world by storm. Frank’s current obsession, Lakshmi says, is with universal remote.
He is also a big fan of the Maker Movement in USA (An extension of the Do-It-Yourself movement, it’s about people who ‘invent, create, remix, tinker, craft, and simply make’ and about camps where people spend making stuff, and encourage children to learn to make). Gordon Coburn, Cognizant’s President remembers attending the inauguration of a camp with Frank. He learnt later that Frank took his kids to the camp over the weekend, and spent the entire day tinkering with technology.
Inside Cognizant, though, this desire to tinker with devices manifests as a tendency to question the status quo. Frank tends to challenge everything you take to him, says Lakshmi. If you ever take a proposal to Frank, warns Mark Livingston, who heads Cognizant’s consulting business, better be prepared.
Makers, Cory Doctrow said about his book that has now become a must-read in Makers Movement literature, is about people “who hack hardware, business-models, and living arrangements to discover ways of staying alive and happy even when the economy is falling down the toilet.” Frank would easily fit in that description.
Two years ago, Frank tinkered with Cognizant’s well-oiled business model – Mitu and I captured those changes in our story Fixing it before it’s broke. And in the last few months, Frank raised the bar even further, and made more fundamental – and more far reaching changes. And that’s what we have tried to capture in our latest story.
While reporting for the story a couple of weeks ago, sitting in front of a huge screen at a Cognizant facility in Bangalore, waiting for Francisco’s image to come up, I couldn’t help but remember my first impressions of Mahadeva in another dreary conference room nearly ten years back. I was then reminded of steely face of Shelley’s Ozymandias, something that I guess no one will ever associate with Frank. Yet, the broader theme of the poem kept playing out throughout our reporting – that the mighty will one day fall, and there is a good chance that nothing will remain – even if everything seems to be going well.
A few minutes later, Frank came on the screen, and for some reason I felt, it’s the awareness of that possibility that keeps Frank going.