Story of India’s first IT Services Entreprenuer

Story of India’s first IT Services Entreprenuer

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If you have the will to move forward, it will eventually take you down the road to success. 

Narayana Murthy, the legendary entrepreneur who laid the foundations of Infosys and made it the global tech giant it is today, proves that through his roller-coaster of an entrepreneurial journey.

Born into a middle-class family in Karnataka, Murthy showed signs of genius at an early age. His father wanted him to become a civil servant. (His uncle was a civil servant himself.) Given Murthy’s interest in studies, his family was sure he would make it to an elite post. 

Murthy had other plans. He was enthusiastic about Maths and Physics, which most of us find appalling. He wrote the engineering entrance examination and got admission into an IIT with a fairly high rank and a scholarship. Murthy’s father, being a high school teacher, earned just around 250Rs/month. Murthy was the 5th among his 8 children. He couldn’t afford the enormous fees at IIT despite the scholarship. 

He was clear about his decision:

“If you’re smart you can go to any college and be able to do something worthwhile.”

Even after decades, his words ring true. Especially in the era of the internet and digital learning. So, that’s what Murthy did. He joined the local engineering college, National Institute of Engineering, University of Mysore. He graduated in 1967 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Like most electrical engineers that day, Murthy wanted to join as a junior engineer in a hydroelectric power plant owing to their sustainable aspects. Their non-polluting characteristics and pristine surroundings attracted him. Also, the macho factor involved in building a big generator. However, getting in was not that easy. Since he hails from a socially privileged class, his chances of getting good jobs in Karnataka were very slim. But that setback opened up new avenues. He was one of the top-ranking students in his batch. Which meant, he could get into a reputed institution to pursue his higher studies. 

Soon, Murthy joined IIT Kanpur for his master’s, which was in its prime with young, optimistic professors and jubilant students. Under the Kanpur Indo-American program, IIT-Kanpur tied up with eight American universities including MIT, Berkeley, Purdue.

How is that of relevance to our story?

Because of the tie-up, IIT-Kanpur got an IBM computer when one was introduced at MIT. The first IBM computer at IIT-Kanpur ignited a spark in him. He was hooked to the wonder machine, for life.

After completing his studies, Murthy served as a Research Associate under a faculty at IIM Ahmedabad and went on to become the chief systems programmer. Murthy vouches that it was one of the phases he has enjoyed the most in his time. That was when he worked on India’s first time-sharing computer system. That was also when he got the opportunity to work on the designing and implementation of a BASIC interpreter for ECI. 

“It isn’t theory but the application of the theory to solve problems that make a difference to society.” He says while recounting his time at IIM. The unconventional career choice gave him experiences for a lifetime. 

However, he had more dreams to pursue. Visions that could kickstart an IT revolution in India.

In the mid-70s, Murthy started a company named Softronics that offered computer algorithms to Indian companies. The company saw little traction as the Indian market, still heavily reliant on agriculture and traditional industries, was not ready for a tech rejuvenation yet. Murthy’s maiden entrepreneurial venture bit the dust just a year and a half into starting. After that, he joined Patni Computer Systems in Pune. 

The Making of the ‘Compassionate Capitalist’

Murthy has been a staunch leftist from a very young age. His years in Paris played a huge role in shaping the man he is today. He was in awe of how western countries, including those under a socialist regime, were aware that wealth has to be first created before it can be distributed. Socialist or capitalist, they created an environment where it was possible for people to create wealth. It was also during this time he realized that socialism, as practiced in India, was not effective. India treated communism as an ‘ism’ that was completely disassociated from reality.

Murthy decided to return back home and donated his earnings. WIth $450 in his pocket, he set out to India and onboarded a train from Nis, a border town between the then Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. He was in a conversation with a girl in the compartment when the train stopped and the police took the girl away. They looted him and put him in a terrible room where he was to spend the next 60 hours. When they learned that he was from India, they let him go. 

The bitter encounter made Murthy reassess his stance about socialist principles and their implementation.

“I felt that if this system treats friends this way then I did not want anything to do with it. This experience really shook me”.

From a confused leftist, Murthy became a “compassionate capitalist”, which eventually prompted him to found Infosys in India.

Laying the Foundations of Infosys

When Murthy decided to kickstart a tech venture in India, he received many offers to settle down abroad. He was also aware of the fact that India hardly had a tech market. That couldn’t budge his decision though. He was very clear that he wanted to cater to the tech industry in India. He co-founded the company with his 6 other friends. Since the market was not big enough, they would have to look for foreign clients in the initial stage. He was pretty sure the Indian market will soon onboard the IT wagon and bring about an economic uprising.

The road to that future was not smooth. Murthy and team tackled each challenge head-on with dedication and patience.

For starters, they didn’t have a computer! Computers were in their early phases of evolution, much like Infosys. It took you anywhere between 15 to 24 months to get one. Although Infosys started its journey in 1981, the first computer at the company was installed only in February 1984. Likewise, it took them a year to get a phone connection in Bangalore. There was no way they could keep the company up and running without a telephone connection, given that most of the clients were from outside India. When it comes to getting a telephone connection, businesses were even behind retired government servants in the queue. All this forced Infosys to ship the team out, much against their will. 

Things took an upturn by the early 1990s. But then, it went down the hill again. 

Infosys had offers for acquisition which many suggested Murthy should consider as the company wasn’t making much progress. Despite Murthy’s confidence in the company, the team was adamant that they should move forward with the offer. So, Murthy decided to do what he had to do. He announced that he was going to buy out Infosys. 

“I know it’s going to be tough in this country but I have no doubt that we’ll see light.” he said with conviction. Murthy’s quick response shook his team. They stood by him. 

“From now onwards we will never discuss the issue of closing down, getting tired, or giving up. This marathon will be restarted.” They collectively agreed. 

The rest is history. 

“Leadership is about making what seems impossible, possible; about changing the perception of what reality is. The reality in India is dirty roads, pollution, bad traffic, etc. Reality is what we make it; it is for us to change. If you give confidence to people they can achieve tremendous things. We have run this company as professionally as any other corporation in the world in terms of the principles of corporate governance, in not using corporate resources for personal conveniences, with respect for the professionals.” says N. R. Narayana Murthy, the recipient of Padma Vibhushan (2008), Legion of Honour (2008), and Padma Shri (2000). Now he serves as the Chairman Emeritus of Infosys. 

Failure is when you stop trying. No matter how poor your background is, the burning desire to achieve will take you where you want to go. Narayana Murthy’s story reminds us to dream huge and work hard for it. He will be a role model for generations of entrepreneurs to come in developing countries like India. If you have what it takes to endure setbacks and failures for a larger vision, you don’t have to explore foreign territories for opportunities, your country will take you to new heights. 

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