End of an Era at Infosys

Yesterday, N R Narayana Murthy retired from Infosys. In a touching farewell in Bangalore, friends and colleagues, present and past, bade him goodbye. There were breaking voices amongst the speakers and moist eyes in the audience. It was a great send-off for a great leader.

To Indians, everywhere, Narayana Murthy, means something special. For those of us in business, he didn’t just build Infosys into the global powerhouse that it is today. On the way, he set the standards in so many ways for the rest of corporate India – corporate governance, ethics and values, quality – he showed Indian industry what it meant to be world-class.

To ordinary Indians he is their inspiration. He makes them believe in themselves. That ordinary people with nothing except talent and ambition can make it big in modern India. And on the way, they don’t have to compromise on their values.

To me Mr. Murthy epitomizes what being a leader is about. I won’t even attempt to capture that in a few sentences because I can’t do it justice. But here’s a personal story that is pure Mr. Murthy.

One day in midtown Manhattan, I was walking with Mr. Murthy to a meeting. It was probably 1997 or thereabouts. Infosys was under $50 million in revenues and we were an inconsequential speck in the IT industry.

In midtown, we were surrounded by these skyscrapers adorned with the names of Fortune 500 companies. Suddenly, he stops, looks up at one such skyscraper and says “Basab, one day we’ll have our name on one of these buildings”.

That’s the way he is. Somewhere between ambitious and wild dreamer. The first step to being a great company is to aspire to be a great company. He knew that then. We know that today.

We will miss him being at the helm. Au revoir, Mr. Murthy!

Open Toolbox – Blogging etc.

tools that I use since my move to the Mac. At that time there were some requests to write about blogging tools. Since I know many of my readers have their own blog, or at least often think about starting one, this post will be about blogging tools.

I use WordPress hosted on Siteground. This is different from the wordpress.com website. If you are starting out, I would strongly recommend going with wordpress.com or a similar service. When I got my son Naren started out with his blog I opted for the free version of wordpress.com. When I started blogging in 2005, I opted for typepad’s similar service.

But I soon started hitting roadblocks. It wouldn’t let me do this or that. Completely understandable for a multi-tenant SaaS business model, but it didn’t work for me. So I moved my blog and all its content to a self-installed, self-managed WordPress implementation. At that time WordPress wasn’t as evolved as it is today and on a day to day basis I had to muck around with filezilla a lot. I don’t miss that at all.

I am on WordPress 3.x now. I can’t recommend WordPress enough. It manages to be feature rich, extensible and rock solid at the same time. I have also run my company website on WordPress where it played a combined blog-cum-CMS role and it did quite well.

Yesterday, I cut over to a new WP Theme. It is the official theme from WordPress itself called Twenty Ten. It is clean, elegant and works for me. I like stuff to be simple. Fancy features that get in the way, don’t last too long with me (although, I am a sucker for trying them out!).

I know how to make changes to the CSS and templates and have done so extensively to my older themes. But in general, you don’t want to go overboard there. Customizations to software take time and effort to make and maintain. Plus they make the website unstable. So far I have made just one CSS change to Twenty Ten. I hope I can keep it down low for a long time.

The header image, by the way, is of a sunrise at Mendocino, California. The photo credit is in the footer.

Plugins are what make WordPress extensible. I use several. And there are many more that I have used, but don’t anymore.

To control comment spam I use both Akismet and Bad Behavior. Even then, a lot of it gets through. Recently, I have started seeing comments that are clearly being written by a human being. I believe these services are being offered out of India. Comments with link backs are supposed to raise the Google rank of the websites they are promoting. I guess its a legitimate business. I just wish the comments made more sense. I just delete them.

I use plugins for Archives (Smart Archives), Google Analytics (Google Analyticator), Feedburner (Feedburner Feedsmith) and Sharing (Share This). Since most of my readers read my blog in an RSS Reader, I tinker around with Feedburner a bit too.

For Twitter, which I have started in earnest only recently, I found a pretty good plugin (or set of plugins) called Twitter Tools. Every blog post automatically goes out as a Tweet. Also, on a weekly basis, the week’s Tweets are posted to my blog. My Twitter handle btw is @basabp

For my Contact Form, I used the plugin Contact Form ][ for a while and it works fine. But I love Wufoo for forms of every kind. So my current Contact Me form is from Wufoo. It is not a plugin it needs to be embedded into the page.

I used Intense Debate for comments for a long time. I haven’t been happy with it. But the theme I was using till yesterday did not support nested comments. Yesterday, I retired Intense Debate after moving to my new theme. The social networking aspect of Intense Debate is bunkum. Nobody cares if your comments are aggregated across the blogosphere. Plus they seem to have lost on market share to Disqus anyway.

I used Gravatars for a while too, separately, and then because it was built into Intense Debate. But my readers are not the types to have gravatars. So instead of having empty boxes all over the comments section, I just discarded it.

Another thing that went away yesterday was the related posts that you saw at the end of every post. These related posts were generated automatically by a plugin called Yet Another Related Posts Plugin. It worked well. But I don’t know if people noticed it or found the suggestions useful. At times, the suggestions degraded to where they were just visual noise. I might bring it back, but for right now its inactive.

I tend to write long essay-like blog posts, sometimes over multiple sittings. I could do that in WordPress – the Admin panel is pretty easy to use and auto saves. Actually, it is worth mentioning that the WordPress Admin is one of the best designed pieces of complex software that I have used. Thanks to Happy Cog.

Anyway, I got into the habit of writing up my blog posts in Evernote before I bring them over to WordPress. Evernote takes care of the auto save, and the archival to the cloud, in case something were to happen to my WordPress database.

I use images frequently, for which I use Skitch – free image manipulation software for the Mac.

Would love to hear from other bloggers out there who run their own blog.

Survey Results Analysis

I promised to share the survey results. So here goes. The sample size for all responses fell between 68 and 77. Which is a pretty decent sample size.

Interaction with the blog

A large portion of the sample don’t remember when they started reading the blog – which probably means that they have been reading it for more than a couple of years. But there does seem to be a significant percentage of relatively new readers. I like that. If I were a business I would want to both retain old customers but also keep getting new customers.

Readership on the website is surprisingly high. Just shows how even a tech savvy audience can differ in their preferences. Case in point is actually my own family. Vidya, my wife, is an avid reader and has more blogs bookmarked in her browser than I have in my feed reader. She prefers going to the websites. I prefer my Google Reader.

About the Reader

Only 4% of the sample was female. A little disappointing. I thought I was more popular with the ladies 🙂

The age profile of the readers is well distributed.

97% of the readers grew up in India. Given my background and the things I write about, it is not surprising. The blog probably does get hits from a whole bunch of non-Indians but they are going there essentially to read a particular post, or because they were searching for something specific, not because they are regular readers.

56% of readers live in India. 36% in the United States.

The “home state” question turned up interesting results.

I asked the books question for a reason. Instead of asking the question “What subjects are you interested in?” I asked if readers had read books that indicated interest in the subject. There was no book on Offshore Services (until we write ours ;-D) so I picked Nandan Nilekani’s book as a proxy.

I guess nothing was surprising. Except perhaps the percentage of readers who have read Black Swan. But it is heartening to know that my readers are a bunch with varied interests.

Lot’s of engineers among my readers. Not surprising. A lot of MBAs too. Nice. But then that’s what I am.

The industry of employment also held no surprises. Management Consulting was not one of the choices. Perhaps it should have been.

Readers are well distributed across startups, small companies and big companies. The above 100,000 is overweight probably because of old friends from Infosys.

The qualitative feedback was in general positive and encouraging. Many of you wanted a higher frequency of posting and more engagement through comments. Also, more on the future of IT Services, entrepreneurship, balancing work and creative pursuits, life of a global Indian etc. Very good suggestions.

Time constraints get in the way of posting oftener, also because I tend to write long posts. I have started tweeting actively now, which allows me to have a short message outlet and I can also share interesting readings. My twitter handle is @basabp

Commenting is something I have gotten better at, I think. But I comment where I can achieve something in a short comment. Sometimes readers leave open-ended questions in the comments. I can’t always respond to them, but if someone else can, you are welcome to. I will be delighted if the comments section becomes a forum for the interchange of ideas with a very light touch from me. Many successful bloggers like Matt Yglesias have achieved that.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to respond. The survey is now closed.

Conference: The Future of Offshore

I am helping BRICS Securities organize a conference that we are calling “The Future of Offshore”. The mini-conference is on August 13 at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. More details here.

It all started when Anand Tandon, Head of Equities at BRICS said that he wanted to do an investor conference for the IT industry, but do something different. There are many investor conferences for the IT Services sector anyway, but they all have similar formats which revolve around presentations by public companies on their prospects. There was a need to do something that looked at the industry as a whole – issues, challenges – and peer into the not so immediate future. He asked if I could help and I jumped at the opportunity.

As a result we have a conference which will address, what I think are, the seminal issues facing the industry today. The speakers are leaders of companies that represent different segments of the industry. I am quite excited about it.

The conference is an investor conference but if you are a C-level executive at an IT-BPO company, or in the Pvt. Equity industry and would like to attend, please drop me a note or ping BRICS Securities.

Besides Mumbai I am visiting other cities as well to do some primary research for my forthcoming book on the Offshore industry. So if you have something that might be interesting for the book, I’d love to meet for coffee. My itinerary is:

Chennai Aug 5-8
Bangalore Aug 9-12
Mumbai Aug 13-16
Bhubaneswar Aug 17-21

By the way, the survey is going great guns. It’s just a few minutes. I hope you’ll take the time.

Be There or Be Square

I used to do a lot of theater in school and college. So much so that I remember a conversation I had with a Psychology professor at IIT (I also did every Humanities course I could!) about how I could combine my interest in active theater with a career.

Well, it never panned out. I never stepped on a stage after entering the work force. But recently, as I take a break from full-time work, an opportunity came my way via a friend and I jumped on it. On July 23rd, the curtain goes up on 30 Days in September. This play by Mahesh Dattani is easily the most intense, powerful play I have ever done. At 70 minutes it is compact. There are only four actors (though I play four roles!). The other three actors and the director Rooben Morgan, are all experienced pros (unlike me!)

If you live in the Bay Area or are visiting, please come see the play. There are seven shows in San Francisco. More details can be found here. Tickets are available here.

An Update

Some readers have asked for an update on the book. So I’ll start with that first.

Gaurav and I started out thinking of the book as a “How To” book on Offshore Services. But as we started writing it, it was turning out to be like writing a technical book – dry, precise and meant for the practitioner. In short, not a whole lot of fun.

I spoke to a well-known writer whose own book went through a little bit of a metamorphosis as well. Her advice was to write the book that you want to and will love to.

So we switched tracks and started thinking about a book that would be useful, widely read but also fun to write. A book about the Offshore industry that would go into all the issues and challenges facing it today and in the future. But it would be simply written so that even readers outside the industry could appreciate it.

That’s the book idea we took to Penguin. They liked it and they will publish the book in India in 2011. We plan to simultaneously self-publish with Amazon for markets outside the sub-continent.

On the personal front things have made a big U turn with my son Naren, who I wrote about a few months ago. In April the school district allowed him to attend regular school, but a different school. Yesterday was his last day at Hopkins Jr. High. We were confident that Naren would do well, but he exceeded all expectations. Not a single behavioural incident and every teacher had good things to say about him. In a new school, in just a short period of time, he made friends. The boy was determined to do well and he succeeded with flying colors. He also got a 4.0 for the last term. He now feels very confident that he can overcome his challenges and succeed in life.

There was good news outside of school too. Naren was accepted into the music composition summer program of the SF Conservatory. It is a prestigious program that’s hard to get into. He is absolutely thrilled about it. He now has a channel on YouTube where his compositions for the piano are posted. He also writes frequently on his blog at narenpradhan.wordpress.com about video games, scripts for TV shows and environmental issues.

Our battle with the school district to get Naren the right placement and services has been long and hard. It is not over yet but the worst is behind us. My wife and I can now start thinking about a future where life catches some kind of a groove.

A couple of other updates. I am doing a conference along with BRICS Securities which is slated for August in Mumbai. The conference will look at the long-term trends and issues in the Offshore Services industry. We are in the process of confirming the panelists for the panel discussions. I’ll post an update as we cover more ground.

In college I was very active in dramatics. Since graduating, I have wanted to, but have never had the time to commit to doing a play. Well, an opportunity came my way recently and I grabbed it. Who knows if I’ll ever have the time again.

The play [link is now updated] is a Mahesh Dattani play called “30 Days in September”. We will be doing eight shows in San Francisco in July. If you live here, I hope you’ll come.

What I Am Upto

While things keep me occupied on the personal front, I have been refashioning my professional work to fit it. And it’s been going surprisingly well.

First, I have started taking on consulting work. Most of it is strategy and business performance related work and it is quite energizing and interesting. Most of it is of course in the Offshore Services industry where I can bring my experience to bear upon problems that managements are facing as growth levels off in the industry and companies really have to compete for business.

Second, I am writing a book. Some people want to be able to bungee jump before they die. For me it was writing a book. “Regret minimization”, to paraphrase Jeff Bezos.

The book is going to a business book about the Offshore Services industry. Not a history, more of a guide or a how to book on the market side of the business. My co-conspirator on the project is my good friend Gaurav Rastogi. (Check out his recent posts on Afterlife – thoughtful, creative stuff.)

The reason we are writing this book is that we feel that for a $50 B industry there is little out there in terms of a body of knowledge on the Offshore Services industry. Sure, there’s a lot on software engineering and quality, but not on how to run the business itself. We hope to make a contribution to that body of knowledge.

Anyway, details will follow as we make some progress. If anyone is willing to contribute their ideas or just anecdotes, we’re very keen to talk to people outside our circle of acquaintances which naturally is skewed towards Infosys or ex-Infosys people. Any ideas on publishing – in India and in the US – will also help.

My Son and Asperger’s Syndrome

Autism is in the news. My Name is Khan was released last weekend. The movie takes on some important topics (Asperger’s, religion based profiling). The movie was very average, but any movie with SRK in it is automatically big news.

The other big news is that the American Psychiatric Association has recommended that Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) be dropped from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Asperger’s Syndrome will be subsumed under Autism and will disappear as a separate diagnosis altogether.

The reason for this change, from an op-ed in the New York Times:

The change is welcome, because careful study of people with Asperger’s has demonstrated that the diagnosis is misleading and invalid, and there are clear benefits to understanding autism as one condition that runs along a spectrum.

Several NYT readers have written in, most of them against such a move.

Elsewhere, a new movie about Temple Grandin, an autistic inventor and writer was released by HBO this month.

All in all, a very active month for Autism. Which is good. My son, Naren, has Asperger’s Syndrome. We welcome the light that is being shone on Autism and AS. Autism is not well understood in schools and by the general public. Since the most important deficiencies among Aspies (as they are called) are social deficits, and the incidence of Autism is the highest it has ever been, society benefits from a better understanding of Autism.

In the US today, 1 out of 150 kids get a diagnosis of Autism. That is a very high incidence of a disorder of any kind. In fact, there is some thinking that the genetic traits that are responsible for Autism are far more widespread than we think. In many people, the compulsive need to create order is actually a symptom of a muted Autism trait. Tyler Cowen an economist has a book out which is partly about the need for Autistics to impose order on a disorderly world. The question arises as to how Autism traits could be so widespread in the face of evolution and natural selection. The answer, some people suspect, is that in some ways Autistic traits can offer benefits and therefore increase evolutionary “fitness”.

Undeniably, there are many talented and famous people who, it is thought, were Autistic. Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson, for instance. Vernon Smith, a Nobel prize winner in Economics, considers himself to be autistic. A five minute interview of Smith on CNBC is here.

That Autistic children can be talented is not something I need convincing about. My son Naren was identified very early as a GATE student (gifted program in California). In eighth grade, while he was having all his problems at school, he was still pulling straight As in his Honors courses. He writes with clarity and maturity [the link was wrong. fixed now]. And he is a talented musician. He plays the piano, the trumpet and the guitar and has composed four delightful pieces for the piano. Here’s one.

Harpsichord Hero

We are so proud of Naren’s achievements. But Naren also has problems. Like most autistic children, he doesn’t automatically learn the norms of social interaction. He stands out in a group of children. His interests – music, DC comics, manga – are deep and narrow. He has no interest in sports. It’s tough for him to make friends.

In middle school, Naren also started showing behavior problems. Teenage and Asperger’s didn’t mix well for him. Many things now frustrate and anger him. Last year he started having anger outbursts. The problem grew to where the school district didn’t think he could continue in mainstream education. We disagreed and are negotiating for the placement we think he deserves.

We know Naren will get better and be successful. He is of course, getting the inputs he needs – doctor, therapy, group work and a lot of love and support from his family. But most importantly, Naren himself, really wants to get better.

Till very recently, we never got a definitive diagnosis of AS from any doctor. Naren’s AS is typical in many ways, and atypical in others. But now, a clear AS diagnosis from both his doctor and neuropsychologist is actually a relief. That is the power of a category, or a label. Naren can now be told that he is an Aspie. He and we can now relate his condition to thousands of other Aspies. We are now part of the AS community. The resources – treatments, therapies, books, online support – available to AS kids are now available to Naren. As a descriptor – Autism is just too broad and fuzzy. On the other hand, Asperger’s is a single word that gets you very much in the neighbourhood of where Naren is.

Which is why we will keep calling it Asperger’s regardless of what they do with the DSM. I suspect most people with AS will too. People want to identify with a group with shared characteristics, which is why the group is formed in the first place. If those characteristics are shared weakly, the strength of the group identity weakens too.

We took Naren to see MNIK. In the first 15 minutes he said “I’m not like him at all.” But at the end of the movie he said “This was the best movie I have ever seen. It was all about me.”