As changing winds prevail, few things impact an organization better than a consistent, selfless, and stable tone from the top. U.B. Pravin Rao (known as “UB” by his friends) has been the great constant at Infosys throughout his tenure, combining an understated demeanor with sheer tenacity to build, equip and continue pushing a 240,000-person entity into the future.
Notwithstanding corporate honors as Member of the Board and COO of Infosys, Pravin was well-tapped to serve NASSCOM as industry Chairman for the next year. Quite simply, he has the best of the industry at heart and a comprehensive competence to not only steady the sails through the COVID-19 storm, but to demonstrate rapid response in support of the industry and community at large. With his footing firmly set in the present and eyes fixed on the horizon, Pravin clearly sees an infinite future for NASSCOM and the Indian industry as a resilient, ever-relevant, and trusted partner for the global enterprise. So now there is no live cricket to watch, we managed to drag him away from his Sudoku puzzles to share his intentions and vision for the Indian IT industry in his role as NASSCOM chairman.
Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HFS Research: Good afternoon to you, Pravin. It’s always good to catch up, I enjoy our conversations, and it was good to hear about your new role at NASSCOM. Before we get to that, can you just share a little bit about you, and how you ended up as COO for Infosys?
Pravin Rao, Chairman, NASSCOM: Good to talk to you as well. I am an electrical engineering graduate. from Bangalore University and joined Infosys in 1986. Actually, it was my first job, and this is my 34th year at Infosys. When I joined, we were less than 50 people, and today we are over 240,000 people, so obviously it’s been a great journey.
When I joined Infosys, it was a very small company, and obviously not very well known. I had just two motivations. One is that I didn’t enjoy my electrical engineering stint, and I wanted to get out of it. The second one… In those days and probably even today, for a lot of people in India – and particularly for youngsters – going abroad is always an opportunity, and that was one of my ambitions. In those days, I heard Infosys was sending people to the US, so that was the added motivation.
“In those days in India, if you joined the public sector then you were supposed to be set up for life, but I rejected those offers and joined Infosys. Many people thought I was crazy. I just wanted to see the world, and the rest is history”
Once I’d graduated, Phil, I had a couple of interesting jobs, one in the public sector. In those days, in India, if you joined the public sector, then you were supposed to be set up for life, but I rejected those offers and joined Infosys. Many people thought I was crazy. I just wanted to see the world, and the rest is history. I came from a technical background, I joined as a trainee, and I have played several roles. Since the beginning of 2000, I started heading some P&Ls [Retail, CPG, Logistics and LifeSciences] with Infosys. In 2014, I was inducted to the Board of Infosys, and, at the same time, I was also elevated as COO, so I’ve been playing that role since then. For a brief period, I was named the Interim CEO before Salil’s appointment.
Phil: So tell us a bit about this role that you’ve been elected to as Chairman for NASSCOM. What does that entail, exactly?
Pravin: Phil, the Indian technology industry is one of the key contributors to India’s economy; it roughly contributes 8 to 9% of India’s GDP. This year, financial year 2020, the Indian IT industry will contribute roughly $190 billion US dollars in revenue, and it today employs about 4.3 million professionals directly. So it’s a sector with a diverse mix of companies: Indian companies, multinationals, global tech centers of international companies, start-ups, and so on, and NASSCOM is the industry body that is representing the sector.
It’s an honor and privilege, Phil, to represent the sector as Chairman, and a great opportunity for me to serve the industry. Within NASSCOM we have a leadership council, which consists of past Chairman, Chairman, Vice Chairman, and President, and this council is tasked with driving the NASSCOM vision and agenda. From an individual perspective for me, it’s a 3-year commitment – one year as Chairman, Vice Chairman (served one year, last year), and after this year, one year as Past Chairman – it’s a 3-year commitment to the industry. Obviously it’s a part-time role, we have a President who runs the forum full time.
From a Chairman perspective, my immediate priority is obviously navigating around the COVID-19 situation, and ensuring minimum impact to all the stakeholders, to our clients, to our employees, and ensuring business continuity. In the long term, I hope, once we adjust to the new normal, we will focus on some of the work that NASSCOM has been doing, in terms of transforming the industry and making it relevant in the digital era. Obviously, after the current pandemic subsides, we should also gear up for the post-digital era, which is all about distributed ledger technology, artificial intelligence, AR, VR, quantum computing, and so on.
Phil: So this is probably the most critical juncture in the history of Indian technology, what’s been happening this year with the recent paradigm shock? How do you think you can support this, and respond to this, in your NASSCOM role? What sort of things are you really looking to do here?
Pravin: Yes Phil, these are challenging times for everyone, including the Indian technology industry; however, our industry has, time and again, proven its resilience in the past, and I’m very confident that this time, too, we will emerge stronger and wiser. And, as I said earlier, during this time, maintaining business continuity and keeping in mind the safety and wellbeing of the employees was the topmost priority for the industry. Our industry has been enabling work from home since the first week of March and has been shifting assets and configuring the internal networks to make this possible. Today, roughly 85 to 90% of the workforce has been enabled to work from home – it’s much higher on the IT services side, and on the BPM side, it’s slightly lower. A small percentage of staff is working from our office, typically on mission-critical applications and dealing with sensitive data. And, considering the size of the industry, $190 billion dollars, and the scale, a 4 million-person workforce, the speed at which we have achieved this, I think, is a very remarkable achievement. We are also in regular touch with our clients and going the extra mile to ensure minimal business and service disruption.
“Our industry has, time and again, proven its resilience in the past, and I’m very confident that this time, too, we will emerge stronger and wiser”
The industry has worked very closely with the government during this period, both the central government as well as the individual states. First and foremost, we got IT and IT-enabled services categorized as essential services. That cleared a lot of hurdles. Then we had a lot of policies around moving assets out of campuses and policies around taking calls from home, so we worked with the respective departments and got it enabled as well. We are also working with state governments in terms of enabling ease of people movement, transfer of assets. The industry has actually worked very closely.
I think what is very heartening is that we have also come together in supporting the government in leveraging technology to fight COVID-19.
What’s more, Phil, I think what is very heartening is that we have also come together in supporting the government in leveraging technology to fight COVID-19. Each of our companies, individually, have been working both at the central and individual state levels, coming up with apps and other solutions. In addition, NASSCOM has created a taskforce with several companies together, working closely with the government in areas of containment, tracking, testing, and recovery. And, in fact, NASSCOM has also published a compendium of all the solutions that the Indian tech industry has put together to help various stakeholders in terms of dealing with this crisis.
Phil: So, as we look through the other side of this Paradign Shock, Pravin, do you think India will come out the other side unscathed? And do you see a different landscape emerging from this?
Pravin: I think, from a global perspective, the situation at this stage is pretty stark. There are still multiple scenarios being debated and discussed in terms of the global economy and the shape of the recovery. People are talking about V-shaped, U-shaped, L-shaped, and so on, and it’s very difficult to predict. Given the complexity and challenges which are unique to India, I think the government has done a good job so far, and the lockdown, as you are aware, has been now extended until May 3rd, although some activities will start opening up starting April 20th. For IT and IT-enabled services, wherever possible, the government has recommended up to 50% return to work. However, our industries will take a very phased approach. We want to be very responsible, so in the first few weeks, we expect only a maximum of 15 to 20% of the workforce back in the office, and it will actually take a few months before we get back to the old ways of working, probably close to 100% working in the office. From a country perspective, I think it’ll take about three, four months for things to stabilize.
The other aspect is that this industry is part of the global value chain, and any disruptions in that will have a ripple effect on both India and the Indian IT industry. Overall, I’ve seen forecasts talking about GDP being lowered by 1 to 2% than what it was forecast before the virus outbreak, and COVID-19 is obviously creating disruptions globally where businesses across countries and geographies are facing major demand-side challenges. For our industry, it will be impacted by the demand-side shifts as opposed to any supply-side issues, so from that perspective, I think that in the short to medium-term we will see some fall in demand, some of the discretionary spend being pushed out, and so on.
However, I believe that in the medium to long-term the industry will bounce back because as we get into a new normal, every enterprise will start looking at reimagining their ways of working. They’ll look at transforming talent and building resilience into their existing business models, and some changes will probably be permanent and be part of new normal, in these cases, technology and technology services will be very integral in all these models. Even today, technology is playing a huge role in enabling businesses to run remotely, and in the new normal this will be only amplified. So, in some sense, COVID-19 is a tipping point of the digital transformation of the workplace. The sudden shift to remote, digital work has the potential to accelerate digitally-enabled environments and workplace transformations.
So, I’m very confident that in the long-run, Indian technology industries and providers will be more relevant than ever to organizations globally. While what is short term, what is medium and long-term are difficult to predict, I think the industry will bounce back and will continue to be relevant.
Phil: We’ve obviously spoken a lot about the potential challenges this is going to cause and impacts on the economy, etc. What good things do you think are coming out of this? Do you think there’s going to be some positive behaviors, positive outcomes that we’re going to take away from this experience?
Pravin: Phil, I think the speed at which we have been able to ensure business continuity given our size and scale and enabling work from home, and without compromising on employee safety, for me that has been the most impressive one. And NASSCOM has worked closely with the government to enable this. That has been extremely positive.
Secondly, all the industry players….are coming together. I think sometimes adversity brings the best of you, and it’s been amazing how people have come together and shared best practices. And even, I talked earlier about some of the tech solutions that they have provided, working closely with the government, in terms of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. So from that perspective, I’m very proud of the way the industry has come together to deal with the crisis. And some parts [of this] will become the new normal. In the past, I think clients were very reluctant to allow work from home; hopefully, this experience will help them look at it differently. If we are able to demonstrate productivity and good quality without compromising security, I think clients will get adjusted to this way of working, and that will also help the industry in the long run.
“Sometimes adversity brings out the best of you, and it’s been amazing how people have come together and shared best practices”
In terms of infrastructure side, the country has to improve telecom infrastructure, particularly the last mile connectivity, I think that many people still don’t have fiber connectivity, so that’s one area where I’m sure government and even the telecom providers will focus. And the second area reflects some of the policies, … the government has to make some changes to enable work from home [to be] more permanent. So these are some of the areas where probably we need to improve a lot, mostly from an infrastructure perspective but otherwise on the ability to do stuff and adjusting to the new model – those seem to be going on well.
Phil: How do you think this paradigm shock is going to impact the role of NASSCOM? What do you think its role should be, as things develop, Pravin?
Pravin: I think NASSCOM will continue to play a critical role, Phil, and more so than ever before. Right? Once the new normal happens, it’s important for NASSCOM to play a leading role, in terms of shaping the narrative around how the Indian technology industry was able to respond and with very minimal impact to the business continuity of clients. So, in some sense, NASSCOM has a crucial role in reaffirming India’s technology industry as a trusted partner for global enterprise. So that’s one role it will continue to play.
“NASSCOM has a crucial role in reaffirming India’s technology industry as a trusted partner for the global enterprise”
Secondly, as I said earlier, the Indian technology industry will continue to be relevant in the global context, post-crisis, so NASSCOM has to continue its role of policy advocacy with various governments, ensuring ease of doing business, articulating Indian tech and the technology industry contribution to the global economy and to creating jobs in the local economies. India technology industry is investing millions of dollars in these economies, how its increasing competitiveness of enterprises. So, these are some of the things which we are doing, and they are some things which we will continue to do.
The third aspect is that the skills gap that is there globally will continue, and so NASSCOM has to play a large role in terms of promoting skilling and reskilling, not only in India but globally as well. So that’s a role it can play, and it can bring the Indian technology industry expertise to that. And, in some sense, NASSCOM, NASSCOM in the future will be much more broad-based. It will probably represent companies across the industry. For instance, in India, when there’s been a debate on data privacy law, data strategy, and so on, the NASSCOM voice is heard. So that’s a role I think it can start playing there, and globally, as well. In some sense, every organization today is a tech organization, and NASSCOM can play a huge role in representing the technology industry voice.
“In some sense, every organization today is a tech organization, and NASSCOM can play a huge role in representing the technology industry voice”
My sense is that NASSCOM’s role will continue to be very crucial and as the Indian industry gets adjusted to the new normal – and we are very optimistic and positive about the future – NASSCOM will have a large role to play in that.
Phil: Good. Well, thanks for this, Pravin. I think there’s one final question I want to put to you. If we meet again in a year’s time when you’re finishing your tenure, what do you think we’ll be talking about?
Pravin: I hope, by then, COVID is done with, though sometimes I get scared when people are talking about two, three cycles of COVID, and things like that. But anyway, jokes apart, I hope at the end of one year, we will probably be talking about looking back at crisis how we dealt and we dealt with the crisis and how successful the Indian IT industry has been able to navigate around the situation, ensuring business continuity for our clients and proving our resilience. Hopefully, with COVID behind us, we’ll also be talking about how seamlessly we have adjusted to the new normal, and we’ll probably talk more positively around the growth prospects of financial year 2021, I think, at the end of this year.
Phil: Well, thanks very much for this time, Pravin. This was really insightful to hear your views, and how you’re going to tackle this. And it’s been very heart-warming to hear how the Indian community, in particular, has come together with the government to tackle this crisis so quickly, and I think you guys will all come out of this fairly unscathed, and actually, in a more robust place. I very much hope we’ll all be together, physically, in a few months at your big India Leadership Forum event in February, so I look forward to it very much.
Pravin: Of course, Phil, thanks a lot. I also hope that very soon this will be behind us, and I look forward to more positive conversations in the future. Stay safe.
Best wishes to you and your colleagues and family.
Phil: Yes, absolutely, Pravin. Same to you guys. Stay healthy. Stay sane! We’ll talk again very soon. Take care.