[Techie Tuesday] From building VR simulation at DRDO to low-code enterprise infra: Journey of Nagendra Raja
In this week’s Techie Tuesday, we feature scientist-turned-entrepreneur Nagendra Raja, for whom engineering was not a profession to make money, but to discover and create things to make life better.
“I enjoyed computers from day one because it actually allows you to flexibly change your thought process. Everything we are talking about now is what we will talk 40 years later, but technology will make it better,” says scientist-turned entrepreneur Nagendra Kumar Raja, Founder of TejaSoft Innovations.
Nagendra has abided by this mantra throughout his 28-year-long career. Whether as a DRDO-CAIR scientist, an IT engineer, or an entrepreneur, for him, engineering has always been a profession to not earn money, but to discover and create things and make life better with code.
“In the early 90’s, software was running on Silicon Graphics machines, and then came the desktop, and then people fought to run the same software on tablets, mobile phones, and now even in wristwatches,” Nagendra tells YourStory.
Today, he is successfully running TejaSoft Innovations, a bootstrapped startup, for more than 16 years. Offering Service 2.0, it allows software intellect to deliver products by senior talent (15 to 25 years daily hands-on) effectively at lower costs on planned timelines, and in noise freeway. Working with a six months to one year commitment with clients, the company has so far served 35 clients like BroadVision, Honeywell, Indian Railways, Nuware, and others in five countries.
“I went to DRDO-CAIR five years ago. They remember me as a computer guy, and even after 20 years, they said that softwares are still being used and enhanced continuously. But the seeding was done by me. That is the power of software,” Nagendra says.
First tryst with computers
Nagendra was born in Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh. From childhood, he was good at studies, which placed him into one of Hyderabad’s premium schools through the Govt of India merit Scholarship for six years.
Sharing one of the incidents, he recalls that once he wanted to repair an old mechanical table clock and happened to open it entirely. Although he was unable to put the pieces back, he got his curiosity around how objects actually work, which later pushed him to product engineering.
“It was 1987 when I completed my schooling. Medical and engineering were among the two most popular career trends back then. My elder brother also opted for engineering. So I chose Mechanical Engineering,” he says.
However, it was only during the second year of engineering that one of his friends encouraged him to learn computer programming.
“In 1989, a new computer lab was set up in our college, encouraging students to join. In my first class, I wrote two lines of code and got 80 errors. This made that thought process kick in and that’s where my passion for solving problems with computers began,” he reminisces.
When he graduated, he was famous among his friends as the ‘Computer Scientist’ because of his attitude towards troubleshooting and debugging software. He had already learnt languages such as C, C++, and even graphics despite the systems then not being much compatible with the new softwares.
“I also wrote a calculation software program for an ice cream factory, which was internally implemented by them. I always believed that we should make computers do what we want to do, and not the other way around, where we are doing only what a computer is able to do,” he adds.
Later, while pursuing Master of Engineering (ME) from Anna University in 1993, he joined a network called the Computer Society of India, an initiative by Anna University, Chennai.
“I was introduced to courses on artificial intelligence, computer vision, virtual reality, Production Engineering Automation, and image processing. Luckily, in the first year itself, I got an offer letter from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for a scientist position,” he says.
While at DRDO, Nagendra had to first take a break from his post-graduation studies to start his year-long training. Post training, Nagendra was posted at DRDO Chennai in 1994.
He shares that the lab was good, but he could see the scientists and mechanical engineers struggling with software. The main software was AutoCAD, but there was a lot of rework and not reuse. Also part of the work profile was to go on the fields, to check the performance of the manufactured armaments based on their design and record it.
“The performance was all recorded manually. I could see a lot of gaps in terms of productivity. But being legacy systems, there were a lot of restrictions. I used to earn only Rs 6,000-7,000 at that time. But I was so passionate that I bought my own Pentium 5 system worth Rs 70,000 and started working on solving the existing gaps,” he adds.
He later enhanced AutoCAD with a lot of LISP (a family of programming languages) libraries, added capabilities to automate recording performance on the ground, capture all data and share analytics reports. This was the time when a 1GB hard disk cost Rs 70,000, so bringing a change was certainly tough both from the cost and mindset perspective.
Impressed with his work, Nagendra’s then superior got him transferred to DRDO’s Center of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), where he actually worked on building VR/AI software in Mechatronics and Simulation for the Indian military forces.
“We remember conducting a virtual reality workshop for the entire DRDO and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) community when I was in CAIR. And everybody was shocked because at that time it was certainly new to see the practical use case of these technologies in the world,” he says.
“Today, all these technologies -- whether it is AI, ML, IoT or cloud, have all been commoditised. But that was the era when these technologies were premium and working on them was a lifetime experience,” he says.
The turning point
After four years at DRDO, the passion to do more with technology pushed Nagendra to work in the private sector. His first job was in LG Soft, where he was responsible for building Java Group - Java Competence Center for LG Soft around 1997. He was also part of Java Card, Digital TV (Digital Broadcasting Association) bodies to bring in set top box and payment products in that era.
In 2000, Nokia conducted a smartphone challenge. This was the time he was working on a public-private key for transaction, which is nothing but today’s OTP, and he won Rs 13 lakh.
Later, he moved on to Satyam Infoway. However, it was during his stint at Sun Microsystems that he got his hunch for entrepreneurship.
“Between 2003-2005, I worked a lot on streamlining complex codes on the concept of agile and clean code. Along with my team, we turned around a 10 year legacy code, bringing in two patents, applying unit testing refactoring, which became the genesis for my startup TejaSoft,” he adds.
Taking a plunge into entrepreneurship
Nagendra started TejaSoft in 2005 with its first flagship digital brand ‘Clean Code’. As he shares, money was not a problem by the time he started his venture, and he had already built an industry credibility. As a result, a few of his early clients were big names like Honeywell, Virtuosa, and the Indian Railways.
“In 2004, the Indian Railways started with online ticketing, but the system was crashing at just 6,000 tickets a day. Now, it has the capacity to handle more than 2 million tickets per day,” he adds.
However, he later realised that the industry knows clean code as a philosophy. There needs to be another meaningful way to develop enterprise-level low code tech infrastructure. This is when he came up with another digital product -- Code Doctors.
“This is basically a CTO or tech team on-demand kind of service. We have a team of global experts to treat and revive complex software code and to rapidly build enterprise-grade engineering teams for startups and service companies in a scalable and flexible manner with a focus on solving critical problems and to make code healthy,” he adds.
Having started his career in 1993, Nagendra has treasured a number of learnings and has shared some valuable advice for new-age techies. Here are a few:
Unit testing is an important tool: Unit testing takes time, but to enhance productivity and cut costs, it is an important tool, which the developers should not ignore. Trying and failing 10 times and then going ahead 11th time can help build great products.
Follow clean code practices: There are always ways to bring down two hours’ worth of work to 5 minutes. There will be someone in the future who will be able to do it in 5 seconds. “This is the beauty of technology, always helping people to get a better job done and there is always scope for perfection,” he adds.
Code is never wrong, requirements are different: Nagendra believes that IT is an industry where codes are not wrong.
“As a developer, instead of only focusing on what a client wants, one should look at the problem at its root and try to give a quality solution with scalability and flexibility considering the expected future requirements in the rapidly changing world of technology,” he concludes.
Edited by Megha Reddy