“We should have faith in ourselves and the power of STEAM,” say authors of ‘The IT Story of India’
Industry experts Kris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu, and Krishnan Narayanan share insights on the tech industry, startup ecosystems, and collaborative growth.
Kris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu, and Krishnan Narayanan are the co-authors of Against All Odds: The IT Story Of India (see my book review here). The 350-page book shares perspectives from 50 stalwarts who shaped India’s global IT industry.
Kris Gopalakrishnan co-founded Infosys and is regarded as one of the captains of the IT services industry worldwide. He is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan. N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan are co-founders of itihaasa Research and Digital.
See also YourStory’s Book Review section with takeaways from over 350 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.
In this insightful interview, the co-authors share success tips for entrepreneurs, the growth of India’s startup ecosystem, and opportunities in hardware.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory [YS]: In the time since your book was published, what new examples have you come across of tech companies that thrived during the pandemic, and those who perished?
Gopalakrishnan, Dayasindhu, and Narayanan [GDN]: All the medium and large IT companies were resilient and could quickly transition to a ‘work from anywhere’ model in quick time.
The pandemic was most challenging for smaller startups, especially for those startups that were not well funded when the pandemic-induced lockdowns started. It is good to see some of these founders bounce back post the pandemic.
In some cases, founders have moved on to take up jobs in larger companies in the IT industry. Some of them are likely to become entrepreneurs soon. The cross-pollination between startups and the IT industry is good for the ecosystem.
Globally, a few concepts such as hybrid, phygital, Web3, NFTs, and metaverse have captured the imagination of people, and we are seeing innovation in these spaces.
[YS]: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
[GDN]: We are humbled to see that the Indian IT industry is celebrated as an Indian success story. The stories, beliefs, grit, and determination in the Indian IT industry resonate with our readers.
A few unusual reactions:
I thought Indian IT started in the early 1990s. Did not realise we got our first computer in the 1950s.
The chutzpah of Indian IT entrepreneurs dates back to the 1970s.
Wipro started as a hardware company that made minicomputers.
I got to know that the CXOs of Indian IT were also software engineers early in their careers .”
I always thought that Indian IT grew because of benign neglect of the government. Fascinating to read about the critical role that government policy and some forward-looking bureaucrats have played.
Your next should be a coffee table book on the history of Indian IT.
[YS]: What were some topics or stories that could not be covered due to a shortage of space and time?
[GDN]: In a perfect world where there are no space constraints in books and time constraints to launch, we could have included stories of all companies and professionals from Indian IT!
We are happy that we have presented a book that balances all eras and the important milestones of Indian IT. There is an entire book waiting to be written for every one of the companies and stalwarts covered!
[YS]: Many MNCs and large firms are courting startups through accelerators - what are the opportunities and challenges in this approach?
[GDN]: Large firms and MNCs engaging with startups are catalysts for the Indian startup ecosystem to grow. These firms help our startups understand the market and customer insights both in the Indian and global context.
They also help startups to sharpen their products and product engineering. They are useful in making connections between the Indian startup ecosystem to their industry ecosystem both in India and elsewhere.
The challenge is to make these initiatives sustain for the long term. The larger companies should get the buy-in from their HQ to run these accelerator programs for a decade or more.
Another aspect is to stay connected with startups and more importantly the founders who graduate from their accelerators on a continuous basis. This ensures that the knowledge transfers are sustained and are used to fine-tune the accelerator programmes.
[YS]: A number of colleges and universities are launching incubators for startups as well - what are the success factors for faculty to step beyond research or teaching and launch spin-offs or mentor founders?
[GDN]: In the book, we explain how we are trying to move the needle in India with initiatives like the IIT Madras Research Park and Gopalakrishnan and Deshpande Centre. Their focus is to strengthen the capability of STEM universities across India in commercialising research, thereby maximising impact on society by incubating and nurturing deeptech startups and helping innovation in large companies.
We need to inculcate a culture where some of our faculty focus on identifying pressing problems Indians face. Once this culture is established, the rest of the structures and incentives will fall into place.
Another important aspect we should focus on is developing a multi-disciplinary mindset. For example, passenger electrical vehicles involve mechanical engineering, battery technology, material science, electrical and electronics engineering, software including embedded, and AI/ML.
[YS]: How seriously are tech companies taking environmental and social responsibility in addition to business goals?
[GDN]: All leading IT and tech companies are taking ESG goals seriously. In the book, we talk about how Indian It companies pioneered a governance approach for globally-recognised standards of corporate reporting. We saw their commitment to social responsibility in their donations towards COVID-relief activities.
They focus on environmental aspects in the way they construct their buildings (e.g., LEED certifications) and manage their campuses.
[YS]: How important is it for tech founders to achieve massive scale, or is there value in sticking to niche markets?
[GDN]: It depends. There are some startups in ecommerce, fast-food, or consumer products that can achieve scale. There are others who can be profitable by being niche like providing specialised solutions, e.g., video-streaming.
Startups should aim to become profitable whether they are addressing a large or a niche market.
[YS]: What will it take for India to become a hardware powerhouse? Have we missed the boat here altogether?
[GDN]: The PLI scheme introduced by the Government of India has rapidly increased our ability to manufacture mobile phones both for domestic consumption and exports. The Government has introduced PLI schemes in semiconductor and other hardware domains as well.
We need to get more integrated with the global supply chains in hardware. This can happen when different parts of the global supply chains see value in Indian capabilities. The strong point for India is its market size for mass-consumption electronics.
We also have a vibrant engineering higher education system. We need to ensure that our engineering students get trained in different aspects of manufacturing hardware just like they are exposed to different aspects of software development. Where required, we need to reskill our engineers to take on responsibilities in hardware manufacturing.
Last but not the least, polytechnics also have an important role to play in building capabilities. STEM universities and engineering colleges need to closely work with the electronics manufacturing industry to make this happen.
[YS]: What trends are you seeing in the rise of tech firms targeting Indian Tier 2-3 cities and smaller towns and villages? How can this be accelerated?
[GDN]: In the book, we touch upon the emergence of startups catering to the next billion Indians and solving India-specific challenges. We are seeing an uptick in the number of tech startups in smaller cities. There has been a steady increase over the years.
If we consider Karnataka, Robosoft from Udupi was among the first developers to have game apps on the App Store when it was unveiled in 2008. Sankalp, a chip design firm based in Hubbali was incorporated in 2005. It is now part of HCL. There are similar examples from across India.
We need programmes to develop the ecosystem of both startups and established firms in smaller cities. Simultaneously, we also need to build the capabilities in the engineering colleges near these smaller cities.
The government of Karnataka’s Beyond Bengaluru initiative aims to nurture technology clusters across the state. We need similar programmes from other Indian states, especially those that have an established technology cluster.
[YS]: Do you see a need for the creation of a 'Startups Association' for Indian founders, like NASSCOM for the IT services sector?
[GDN]: We believe that the existing associations like CII and NASSCOM have shown the intent to bring startups into their fold. These associations understand that startups require a different focus compared to larger companies and are actively working with startups.
The existing associations have strong connections with industry and government to meaningfully engage with startups. While there is nothing stopping startups from forming their own association, it may be quicker to move into a higher orbit by working with existing associations.
In the book, we highlight the importance of initiatives like the NASSCOM DeepTech Club and India Deep Tech, a pan-industry alliance, to support the growth of emerging technology-enabled startups in the country.
[YS]: We are also seeing the ‘dark side’ of tech through the rise of fraud, hate speech, and security breaches. How should techies combat such threats, and build moral conviction to stay away from inappropriate use of technology?
[GDN]: This is an important topic of which all techies should be aware. In the final section of our book, we talk about the rise of emerging technologies such as AI/ML and gene editing/CRISPR in the world.
These technologies lead to wonderful solutions, but there are also some inherent challenges. Technologists, as they develop solutions, should be aware of aspects like bias (in data), ethics, fairness, and explainability.
It will help if young technologists are provided with a multi-disciplinary learning environment in their colleges: STEAM education instead of just STEM.
[YS]: Would you say the tech startup movement has reached a tipping point in India or is there still a way to go for mainstream acceptance and support for startups?
[GDN]: Startups are not new to India. In the book, we present four waves of tech entrepreneurship—starting with the IT “startups” like TCS, HCL, Wipro and Infosys in the 1960s-80s to our present times. Today, India has the third-largest startup ecosystem in the world.
More startups get created every day. Even during the pandemic, new startups emerged with pivoted business models. There is no going back and startups are here to stay and rule!
[YS]: How well is tech entrepreneurship being taught in Indian colleges these days? And in schools? How can this be scaled?
[GDN]: The best way to teach STEM entrepreneurship in Indian colleges is learning by doing. The incubation cells in many Indian engineering colleges are facilitating this process. We need to identify the best practices from all these incubation cells and share them across India.
We should also use digital learning and collaboration platforms to cross-pollinate and bring complementary expertise from across different departments and colleges. This will foster a multi-disciplinary mindset.
There are some interesting initiatives at the school level—like Atal Tinkering Labs, which gets the children interested in problem-solving using STEM. The New Education Policy is also increasing the focus on experiential and skill-based learning.
CBSE has entrepreneurship as a subject in grades 11 and 12. We are on the right path and these initiatives are on a national scale.
[YS]: Are there plans to launch an online companion for your book, with useful resources?
[GDN]: Our history of Indian IT is a one-of-a-kind online video repository that was launched in 2016. This has interviews with over 50 actors who shaped Indian IT.
The videos are bite-sized and tagged with over 10,000 keywords that make it easy for anyone to search a topic, person, or company of their choice. Our book draws extensively from this repository.
[YS]: What is your next book going to be about?
[GDN]: Writing a book is a very immersive process. We need to catch our breath before plunging into the next one. We will let you know when we are ready!
[YS]: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring tech entrepreneurs in our audience?
[GDN]: The future belongs to India. We should have faith in ourselves and the power of STEAM to make our lives better.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta