Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications, Monday, Mar 05, 2007 ePaper
`R&D vital for IT too'
A chat with Shivanand Kanavi of Special Projects, TCS
Shivanand Kanavi is a theoretical physicist from IIT Kanpur and Northeastern University, Boston, and has carried out research at IIT Bombay as well. He has authored Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology, which was supported by the Tata Group as part of the centenary celebrations of Jamsetji Tata and JRD Tata.
The book tells the story of the global evolution of digital technology and for the first time chronicles seminal contributions of Indians in lasers, semiconductors, telecom, computing and the Internet.
Kanavi is currently with Tata Consultancy Services as Vice President-Special Projects. Excerpts from a recent interview with eWorld:
A brief description of your work in TCS, as Vice-President-Special Projects.
To use a cricketing term, TCS has been a company that lets its "bat do the talking". As a pioneering company, it innovated in several directions to achieve technology depth, to convert software services from artisan-like activity into a highly industrialised activity with automation, tools, standards, quality, etc, and to build a truly global services company.
However, as a publicly-listed company, it needs to communicate these achievements to its shareholders, clients and employees effectively. Moreover, in the frenetic growth of the company that we are seeing, it is as important to build the internal brand as the external one. There are several initiatives being taken by the company in this direction since 2000 and the Special Projects that I am involved in are part of that.
On the history of innovation and research in TCS. And IPs created thus far.
Though it is not exhaustive, the recent book we came up with, Research by Design: Innovation and TCS , on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of our R&D centre in Pune, gives a good introduction. It covers a span of nearly 30 odd years, long before Innovation and Disruptive Technology and so on became fashionable buzz words. However, Intellectual Property, Patenting, etc, are new phenomena.
Even then, TCS has nearly a hundred patents, its researchers have published several hundred papers in highly respected peer reviewed journals, they have presented papers in hundreds of technical conferences, they have been involved in setting standards and quality bench marks in industry forums and in IEEE and so on. There are a large number of copyrighted software tools, products, frame works, etc, which allow TCS and its clients to increase their productivity greatly.
We can say TCS has been at the forefront of the global IT industry in creating Software Engineering tools, which generate thousands of lines of code of extremely high quality. All that software architects and developers have to do is provide the business logic.
Now next generation tools are being worked on, which will lead to systems that can easily change and evolve as the client's business evolves and so on. Similarly debugging old software written by some one else and adding new features to it, (in IT Industry parlance it is called Maintenance, though it is very different from maintenance of machinery in a manufacturing industry), is a very necessary service required by many clients. At the same time it is not considered "sexy" by young programmers.
TCS has come up with tools that do this by themselves, using very esoteric theoretical computer science. The list goes on.
Is it necessary for a software services company to spend resources on research? Why? Should such work be confined only to software/ IT?
It is imperative for any industry to invest in R&D. This is easily understood in the manufacturing sector. But that is not the case with services industry. Hence, the farsightedness of the TCS leadership in establishing R&D over 25 years ago when it was not heard of in the global IT industry except in IBM and a couple of others such as AT&T Bell Labs (where C and Unix were created).
Today, any product or service gets commoditised very quickly in the global industry. So if one wants to run a profitable and sustainable business, which delivers value to its customers and customers' customers, then one has to innovate continuously.
However, this cannot happen unless there is: a culture of innovation, proper balance in long term and short term planning, encouragement for out-of-the-box thinking, intellectual freedom and non-hierarchical atmosphere where everything can be challenged on purely intellectual grounds, and lastly allowing some space for kite flying and skunk projects.
I look at TCS from an outsider's eyes, of those of a journalist and my interactions with scores of people in the company in the last three years have convinced me that TCS leadership created these conditions consciously and that is why innovation has flourished in TCS. The challenge is to continue that in the present atmosphere of explosive growth and even taking it to the next level.
As for research in non-software areas, the work in TRDDC in process engineering is a shining example.
Today people talk of domain knowledge, verticalisation and so on, but TRDDC, from the very beginning, built IP in steel making, mineral processing, non-ferrous metallurgy, cement manufacture, process control and modelling, and so on.
Today some of the scientists there give keynote addresses at international conferences in these areas and any company in the world in the area of cement, metals and minerals would love to consult them.
Similarly, efforts invested more than 20 years ago in engineering design technology, have given TCS its current premium position in Engineering and Design Services, so that every auto maker (Formula-1 car makers included) and Aerospace companies want to develop a collaborative development relationship with it.
And lastly, our corporate social responsibility (CSR) should have the stamp of having used technology to come up with societal solutions. Sujal water filter, computer-based adult literacy and various other such projects of TCS are examples of that.
How do Indians rate as innovators compared to those elsewhere? What are the best practices that we can follow from other countries, with regard to innovation?
Indians have shown a "can do" attitude in engineering in almost all areas under difficult climatic and cultural conditions and in the most competitive environments. Be it reviving a steel mill in Kazakhstan, competing in Silicon Valley or disrupting global services industry and creating their own model. So the quality of talent in Indians does not need any more proof and that is why there is such a worldwide scramble for grabbing Indian talent. As for learning from the best practices to nourish and retain innovators, we need to do two things: we should create parallel ladders in companies so that good technical people rise in a technical ladder and good managers rise in a management ladder; So far we have focused on hiring bright engineers now we should also hire bright people from liberal arts background, who will then bring a different perspective to all that we are doing.
The Indian IT industry is blamed for not doing enough for the country. Your comment.
IT was not encouraged in the government and financial sector in India. These two normally comprise the biggest users of IT in any advanced country. The fear of job losses and lack of public awareness about benefits of IT acted as impediments. Many Indian companies hence looked at the export markets where margins were also higher. However the computerisation of Indian Railways passenger reservation system in the late 80s and early 90s, changed all that. That was a decisive moment. TCS and CMC have been exceptions, even under very difficult circumstances they continued to advocate the benefits of IT and wherever possible brought their learnings in global markets to the benefits of ordinary Indians. In fact there were a few analysts who were criticising TCS during its IPO for doing low margin work in India instead of chasing higher margins abroad like other companies, since about 11 per centof TCS' revenue comes from India. However TCS and CMC have a commitment to India. What is the use of wiring up the rest of the world for the 21st century, if your own country is still in the 19th century? It is a different issue that TCS must be doing something right, because despite all this still its margins are enviable!
About your next book...
It has taken 38 years for the first book to come out of TCS. I am sure you will see them more often than that now, since there are many aspects of its work that are worth writing about. I am also doing some skunk work on the side on some other projects: a history book on Bhakti movement and its impact from 10th century to the 19th. Another `work in progress' is on India's Nuclear Programme, still one more, which I do not know when I will start working on will be on the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. So wish me luck.