Friday, February 14, 2014

How Indians have contributed to technology

Satya Nadella's elevation as CEO of Microsoft marks the acme of global corporate leadership attained in recent years by first generation Indian immigrants. While Indra Nooyi at Pepsico, Vikram Pandit at CitiBank (who has since stepped down), Ajay Banga at Mastercard, and Anshu Jain at Deutsche Bank have already scaled the dizzy heights, Nadella's ascension was a landmark event given Microsoft's high profile and its close association with India, fuelled in part by a large section of its workforce being of Indianorigin. (The figure of 33 per cent Microsofties being of Indian origin is hyperbolic; it is less than 10 per cent, and from what Bill Gates told this correspondent several years back, it is about 20 per cent in the engineering division.)

The story of India's/Indian/Indian-American contribution to technology is not new; it goes back at least couple of decades, possibly more. Back in the 1990s, when I was working on a book that was eventually titled The Horse That Flew: How India's Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings, a librarian who was helping me with research would pull my leg about India having invented zero ("THE zero,'' I'd correct her), as we scoured the archives for stories about Indians in the science and technology fields. The idea for the book was triggered by then "hot male'' Sabeer Bhatia's sale of Hotmail to Microsoft for $ 400 million. Shortly before that, Vinod Dham had been instrumental in launching the Pentium chip, and Ram Shriram (who would later fund Google and become a billionaire) was a key figure in Netscape, the early browser favorite. Years before, Narendra Singh Kapany had done pioneering work in fiber optics, C. Kumar Patel was recognized for cutting edge work on lasers, Arun Netravali led the team that developed high-definition television (HDTV), and Praveen Chaudhari held patents for the erasable read-write compact discs, the kind you burned music on a generation back. I chronicled several such stories in my book.

However, Indians in the management and corporate side of things was a different deal altogether. There was the inevitable talk of a glass ceiling, and it was rare that an Indian went on to become CEO of a company, although several, like Vinod Khosla, Umang Gupta, and Kanwal Rekhi, had founded companies and even helmed them briefly. White-dominated America was leery of showing a minority face at the helm. It was only in the nifty noughties (2000 onwards) that things began to change, in keeping with the changing demographics and ethos of the US itself, and the self-belief and critical mass Indians attained, riding on the exploits of the pioneers.

In 2004, Surya Mohapatra, an alumnus of Sambalpur University and Regional Engineering College-Rourkela, his Odiya accent untainted by decades in the US, was appointed CEO of Quest Diagnostics, a Fortune 500 company. Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, who went to one of her first interviews in the US in a sari after her professor advised her to "be yourself,'' was elevated at PepsiCo in 2006. Nagpur-born Vikram Pandit at Citibank, Francisco D'Souza, son of an Indian diplomat, at Cognizant, and Adobe System's Shantanu Narayen, like Nadella a Hyderabad native, all scaled the top in 2007. Ravi Saligram at OfficeMax and Sanjay Mehrotra at SanDisk would make the grade by the end of the decade, when there were at least ten CEOs of Indian origin in the Fortune 500. The numbers compared favorably with Blacks (six CEOs), Hispanics (eight), and other Asian-Americans including Chinese, all of whose population was several times larger than that of Asian-Indians in the US.

There were several reasons attributed for this success by a number of experts I spoke to. They ranged from the Indian comfort with English and ease with numbers, to the fact that most Indian immigrants came from the relatively creamy layer of Indian society (although several achievers spoke to me about the tough grind they went through in India, from studying by candle light to walking miles to school). It all boiled down to hard work, initiative, and a hunger for success, topped off with some luck, in an American ecosystem that recognized merit better than in India.

But fundamentally, it also went back to a society that manages the paradox of at once being religious and superstitious and at the same time fostering a scientific temper and a spirit of inquiry; or at a higher level, balancing science and spirituality. For instance, India is very familiar with Swami Vivekananda and his epic tour of America to address the Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Less well known is Vivekananda's extensive engagement, pursuant to his interest in science and spirituality, with Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the pioneers of all things electric.

A decade or so later, a young man named Gobind Behari Lal, a nephew of the Indian nationalist Lala Hardayal, left India to come to the University of California-Berkeley, on a scholarship. Following his post-doc, he joined Hearst Newspapers as a "science writer,'' the first time the designation was used in an American newspaper. In a career that lasted more than half a century, he interviewed such formidable scientific titans as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Max Planck, winning a Pulitzer Prize (1937) on the way, the first for an Indian-American (Jhumpa Lahiri would come decades later, much after Lal died in 1982). His work inspired a generation of Indian-Americans who streamed into the sciences and technology.

Little of this was known in India, which on account of its own constricting policies and a lack of opportunity, gave up some of its best and brightest to the US, which on its part used its immigration policy to attract them. From 1965 onwards, when immigration rules were relaxed for Indians, more than a million educated Indians have streamed into the US for "higher studies,'' many of them staying behind to become "Indian-Americans,'' and often, particularly in case of their children, just "Americans.'' Few who have been in the US for more than 20-25 years and who have taken US citizenship bear any allegiance to India, and many of them find the media hysteria in India over their achievements quite cringe-worthy.

Source: Times of India

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