He always wears a disarmingly friendly smile. Behind his academic looks and firm frame lies a will of iron and tenacity of not giving up. Meet Sharad Sharma, the savvy entrepreneur, techie, venture capitalist, and most important of all Chair of NASSCOM Product Forum. He is a man on a mission—to provide a viable ecosystem to Indian software product initiatives using all the hats he wears [Entrepreneur in Residence, Canaan Partners; Partner, Indian Angel Network, and most importantly as NASSCOM Product Forum Chair]. How would you thenexplain the persistence of this “contrarian” (in his own words) path finder who stuck to his guns in software products when software services were setting a global benchmark for technological prowess out of India? At times, some serious work and real brains does not pay dividends instantly. But pioneering work provides a framework for a big take off. Some work quietly behind the scenes and such work may set in a revolution later. Viewed from this perspective, surely Sharad Sharma has sown a seed in the Indian software product domain and has shown the way for others to follow. His blog Orbit Change Conversations (aptly named to represent his worldview) captures his views and opinions. He believes in immersing himself fully to a cause larger than his life and feels entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship may just be a tool to achieve your sworn goals of a larger-than-life, changing the world cause. And you could only agree. He has used entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship in his career as support systems to achieve his goals that were larger than his life. This genial entrepreneur, ecosystem creator, and venture capitalist leaves you finally overawed by his simplicity of demeanour and richness of thought. YourStory.in’s chief evangelist Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy met him on a pleasant morning to get his “contrarian” wisdom. Despite his proclamation of holding a contrarian view, that impression never gained ground when he got immersed in an enlightening conversation for 90 enriching minutes. Instead what was visible was his tenacity, his philosophy of wedding to a larger-than-life goal, and an undying optimism of Indian software products reaching a global scale, with feet firmly on ground entrenched in reality of the now. We are really delighted to present to you Sharad Sharma who talks on his career, entrepreneurship, software product scenario in India, and his present roles.
YourStory: 23 years ago, when you graduated as an electrical engineer, software industry was in a nascent stage in India and Infosys was founded around that time. How did you choose software as a career because it was not a very attractive industry then and did you see a big wave for software industry in India?
Sharad Sharma: I was active in IEEE in my engineering days and I was chairman of its the student chapter. Some of us were interested in microcomputers at the time. We used the IEEE umbrella to establish a microcomputer lab to get the CPM machines. CPM and DOS coexisted at that time. We used CPM machines to write system software. By my third year, a group of us got interested in “dabbling” in software just as a hobby.
For our final year project, we decided to do something different, not electrical engineering, but something in the area of software. We were fortunate to have NIC’s CDC, a big computer of its time. NIC allowed four of us to develop expert system for news information retrieval. We got exposed to software that way. Out of the four, three of us were excited about software and one stuck to electrical engineering. So the three of us consciously chose to go the software way. These are life choices and our decision has resulted in very different outcomes.
YourStory: So, what are the other three friends doing right now?
Sharad Sharma: One is doing very well in Microsoft. The other holds a very senior position in Oracle. Both of them are in the US. I am right here. The fourth person who stayed with electrical engineering works for Siemens as would be appropriate given his background. He also holds a senior position. So the decisions were consciously made around the passion we have developed because of working with those CPM machines.
YourStory: Your career is an envy of a software professional. A couple of assignments to begin with and then Lucent Technologies. Then you were with AT&T’s R&D. You started your own venture. After that, you joined Veritas and turned around their operations in India, and you were head of Yahoo! R&D where you led the development of various global products. What amuses us is your choice of the software product domain. Did it happen by accident or did you focus on it as a career option right from the beginning?
What was your biggest learning in the organizations you worked with and the organization you founded?
Sharad Sharma: Good set of questions. Remember I started with the system software level. My first job was porting UNIX to Intel boxes in DCM Data Products. At that time, the tariff barriers were very high. So DCM, Wipro, and other companies were creating their own computers in India. So it was an enormously exciting work because you are working with the kernel of UNIX and stuff like that and building something of value. It was a very inspired team led by Dr. Joseph “Joe” Cleetus who subsequently became an academic in the US. He has now retired and moved back to India. A phenomenal and inspiring individual! He was a nuclear scientist by background. So it was a small team and lot of learning. What one learnt was that when you are building something like that, it is insufficient to be second best. You have to build, in your mind, the best compiler. Or the best twin CPU box that you are developing. If you don’t set out the build the best, then you know it will not succeed in the marketplace.
YourStory: Was it because of the competition?
Sharad Sharma: No. I think it is the dynamic of any product industry. If you are building any product, then you have to build the best product for the customers you are catering to. What Joe Cleetus did was to make us aware of this need. And that has in some sense stuck with me all the time. I have been beaten up many times in the industry. Because when we do a SAP implementation, we are trying to do good enough implantation to get acceptance from the customer. Here we are not going to give the best SAP implementation because it is going to cost so much. But the whole mindset of seeking excellence is there in the product side of the business, manifesting in a different form in process excellence rather than building the best implementation for the customer. This kept me in the product space rather than in the services space.
It has been head winds all along. If you go back, the services industry has done enormously well and the product industry has not lived up to its initial promise. So you needed a capacity to be a contrarian to persist with it. I would imagine I may have some of that. Some people may call it stupidity but I would say it is a contrarian streak.
YourStory: Ultimately, only such a view succeeds…
Sharad Sharma: I don’t know whether contrarian view is successful or not. The question also arises what do you define as success. And my family would testify what I say. I am lucky enough to immerse myself in what I am doing and enjoy it. If you look at it this way, you are always having fun. You always feel you have learnt something from it. So you always feel you have been successful. So I am at peace with myself (laughs!).
YourStory: So that’s your definition of success.
Sharad Sharma: I don’t know. But one part of success is to immerse yourself, be fully engaged. Second is to be learning a lot. To be pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and that’s when accelerated learning happens. If you do something different, you are forced to learn. The third element of success is being able to influence outcomes around thing you don’t control.
This is essence of entrepreneurship in my view. An entrepreneur seeks to change something that they don’t have the power to change by force. They can only change it by influence. And very often influence of good ideas, good products, good partnerships, and good insights. You therefore try to punch above your weight class by trying to influence stuff you don’t control.
I have seen myself as that kind of an entrepreneur all through my career.
YourStory: Whom would you call were your mentors, or the people you looked up to as bosses, or someone who had inspired you even outside your industry?
Sharad Sharma: I have been very blessed in working with very remarkable people. I have learnt a lot from many people. I won’t say I have tried to emulate any one person in particular. But I have tried to emulate a little bit of many people. And it has been a journey of self-discovery. Getting self-aware that I should be better in some respects has come in stages and over time.
If I go chronologically backwards, one person from whom I have learnt a lot is Qi Lu. Qi Lu used to be a colleague of mine in Yahoo!, heading search and advertising systems. He is now President of MSN, part of Microsoft. A truly remarkable colleague to work with and hardworking. What I learnt from him was his ability to be very detail oriented and yet be able to step back and be strategic. I would love to emulate that capability—to be very good at the strategic level and also very good at hands-on tactical level.
Inspired by Azim Premji—keeping soft promises
I have never said the following in public. I have been touched. I will share this with you.
YourStory: Thank you so much.
Sharad Sharma: I came back from the US in the middle of 2004. When I was with AT&T, which was a big customer of Wipro, I had met Mr. Azim Premji several times. So after coming back from the US, I ran into him at a meeting. I was in Veritas at that time. I greeted him and asked him if he would be interested in coming to Veritas office and speak to the management team. He asked me if Veritas was located in Pune and I said yes. He replied: “When I come that side, I will let you know.” My interpretation of that was it was polite way of saying no. I thought it’s fair and he should be busy. Further, I didn’t know him that well.
This happened in the middle of 2004. In January 2005, I get a call from his office stating Mr. Premji had told you if he comes to Pune, he is open to speaking to the management team of Veritas. He is going to be coming later in the month and are you still interested?
Here is person who made a soft promise in passing but he is disciplined enough to honour that promise. He could have easily got away without doing that. This character trait influenced me a lot. I have tried to learn from that and emulate that to the extent I can.
As I had said before, I have never shared Mr. Premji’s story with any public forum before. But that touched me. I don’t know if I can be as good as that. Those are the kind of experiences that have improved me over a period of time. I have been blessed to have many of those.
YourStory: What were the prominent challenges that you faced and what was within you that helped you overcome them?
Sharad Sharma: After I became a father, my worldview has changed a little bit on that because some of that was clearly to do with my upbringing. My parents invested in my self-image that if you set your mind to doing something you can. My parents invested in me a self-image that you can do something once you have set your mind on it. That has certainly played a role in what I am today.
Second, I have been fortunate to meet life’s challenges very early on. I had very high myopia, which made me unfit for the UPSC exams and even medical test following the IIT entrance exam. My ability to turn that into an advantage—despite this disadvantage I can go forward—gave me confidence that I could face more challenges like that.
When I was in my seventh semester [in engineering course], I had a very bad road accident. This meant I ended up in the hospital for many many months. It took me from December to August to walk on a crutch. I survived and emerged much stronger because of that.
Those early experiences gave me fortitude to deal with setbacks and ask myself the question what can I do to emerge stronger. So if it doesn’t kill me, it has to make me stronger (laughs). That attitude has definitely played a role in dealing with career challenges and other life challenges as well.
YourStory: What was your greatest professional challenge?
Sharad Sharma: After my few years of work experience, I have defined every role in the organization I have worked with. In the last ten years, explicitly and publicly, I have taken a challenge about changing something. Therefore my blog is called Orbit Change. I am infused with that idea. By definition I tend to define my job in terms of changed challenge that exists. If it is a big company like Veritas or Yahoo!, it is in the context of what changes can you bring about. In the startup Teltier Technologies which I was part of [where he was a cofounder], that was about a change we were trying to bring about. In the modest success we had, our intention was changing the way in which mobile networks dealt with dynamic information. So we needed to influence a lot of stakeholders. We did not have much control as a startup. We still tried to make it happen.
In NASSCOM Product Forum, it is about changing the product ecosystem. So I have always defined my roles around the challenges. But many times I have not been successful. My hit rate is probably only 50-50 at this point in time.