‘Against All Odds’ is a retelling of the extraordinary IT story : The Tribune India

Dinesh C Sharma

Often hailed as a success story of entrepreneurship and technological prowess, the software services sector serves as the face of India’s liberalization process. India exported $156 billion worth of software services last fiscal year. The industry, commonly referred to as information technology and IT-enabled services, contributes 8 percent of the country’s GDP and is the largest employer in the private sector. In its long history, the industry has seen many ups and downs. It is surrounded by many myths, especially when it comes to the people and events that contributed to its extraordinary success.

Over the years, Indian and foreign academics, authors and industry insiders have told the story of India’s IT industry from different perspectives, resulting in several books and research papers. This book is part of that trend. It was authored by Kris Gopalakrishnan, a co-founder of Infosys, along with two co-authors associated with the Itihaasa Research and Digital Project that Gopalakrishnan founded. It is largely based on interviews with around 50 people associated with the industry.

The overall history of this industry has previously been thoroughly researched and documented – the role of PC Mahalanobis and Homi Bhabha in early computer development, the establishment of pioneering data centers at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and IIT-Kanpur, the blueprint for self-reliance prepared by the Bhabha Committee, restrictive policies of the Department of Electronics, the advent of computer science education, the role of large government IT projects, etc. The authors have retold all of this with oral interviews and anecdotes. However, since they made no attempt to back up the narratives with documentation or references, certain errors crept in.

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The Infosys story was presented in parts in several places in the book. NR Narayana Murthy graduated with his MTech in 1969 and changed four jobs (IIM-Ahmedabad, SESA in Paris, Systems Research International in Pune and Patni Computer Systems or PCS) before founding Infosys in 1981 as an entrepreneur while working in Paris in the early 1970s , because he believed that “societies can only solve the problem of poverty by creating jobs, and the only people who can do that are entrepreneurs”. As the book is based on anecdotal stories, it would have helped readers to learn about or from Sudha Murthy (who was a computer programmer at TELCO in Pune) on the Rs 10,000 seed funding she provided to start Infosys.

The Indian IT industry prides itself on implementing a “Global Delivery Model” that makes the best use of skills and resources to deliver services. The book claims that Murthy conceived this model in Infosys’ early years, although it only became popular in the post-liberalization era. It’s incredible that a young startup with one client, half a dozen programmers and no computer of their own could imagine a “global delivery model”. This was also at a time when the dominant model among software companies was “body shopping,” where programmers worked at customer sites.

IIT and MIT alumnus Narendra Patni, who founded PCS where Murthy worked and learned the basics of exporting software services, receives only a passing mention. It was Patni who demonstrated the potential of remote work or outsourcing, first doing data conversion work for American clients from India and then developing software in India for American minicomputer manufacturer Data General. This experience paved the way for programmers like Murthy to become entrepreneurs. The industry-wide shift to offshore development only became possible after data connectivity became affordable in the 1990s and software technology parks established by the Department of Electronics gained momentum.

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While the role of industry lobby group Nasscom has been lauded throughout the book, the authors have also acknowledged government officials who have proactively forged a partnership with industry. This debunks the myth, perpetuated by some industry leaders in the past, that the Indian IT industry has grown due to government “benign neglect”. Overall, the book is an easy read, but does not give the reader a complete (and objective) picture. Anecdotes are interesting, but they don’t tell the whole story. In addition, interviews with the main actors were made after many years of actual events, so all recollections may not be accurate and objective.

— The reviewer is the author of “The Outsourcer: The Story of India’s IT Revolution”

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