Ever since he can remember, Subramanian Ramadorai has begun his day with a tumblerful of South Indian coffee and a room filled with music. The chief executive officer and managing director of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India’s largest software services company, is up by 4.30am, taking in M.S. Subbalakshmi’s mellifluous rendition of the Vishnu Sahasranamam and the Venkatesha Suprabhatam, before the orange glow from Worli seaface filters into his Mumbai home.
As a child, he recollects waking up to hear his father V. Subramanian, a civil servant and Carnatic music connoisseur, chanting the hymns aloud. Ramadorai now listens to them on state-of-the-art Bose speakers—the one indulgence for a man known for his simple tastes. Son Tarun, an associate professor of finance at Oxford University, says, “My dad is a consumer electronics freak. We’ve been through generations of Bose speakers—the 301s, the Acoustimass—at conception stage!”
At 5.15am, Ramadorai starts work at his computer, meticulously crafting missives to his managers and customers across the globe. Like the notes of his favourite ragas that wander wherever the singer’s creativity takes them, Ramadorai’s improvisational and team-driven style has grown TCS into a $4.3 billion (Rs17,090 crore) global software and services giant. According to Bloomberg, TCS today ranks among the top 12 IT companies in the world, with 150 offices in 50 countries, and 95,000 employees drawn from 67 nationalities.
Emails done, Ramadorai and his wife, Mala, set out on their morning walk on the ocean promenade. “At six in the morning, he would rather listen to the sea breeze, than his iPod,” says Tarun. “His appreciation of music is combined with an appreciation of silence.” On long flights, husband and wife share a single iPod with their favourite music, two headsets nodding in companionable unison. And on weekends and free evenings, he sits in at Mala’s riyaz, unwinding wordlessly.
Ramadorai’s older sister, Shanthi Krishnamurthy, reminisces, “Although I played the veena, and my younger sister, Sumathi, is a proficient classical singer, it was Ram who would always guess the raga correctly when my father quizzed us. So, though he never learnt music formally, he learnt to listen well.” Today, Ramadorai has tuned such osmosis into a fine art. His colleague R. Gopalakrishanan, executive director, Tata Sons, says, “TCS’ assets are its low attrition rate and its multiculturalism. I attribute these to Ram’s empathetic management style, emulated by others down the line. He is a great listener and mentor.”
A passion for music, mathematics and education characterizes this family. Says Shanthi, “All of us pursue at least one of the three. My father would teach us mathematics and science; he went on to establish two schools, one in his village and another in Chennai. I too teach students these subjects.” As for music, Ramadorai’s younger sister, Sumathi Balasubramanian says, “Even during the higher-secondary exams, we continued with our singing lessons. And family outings were never to the movies, but to concerts.”
In 1972, Ramadorai’s parents accompanied him to “view” his prospective bride, Mala Venkatraman. In the traditional manner of such arranged meetings, she sang a chaste composition, Om Sharnavabhava, describing the glory of Lord Muruga. “My father-in-law interrogated me about notation and bhava,” laughs Mala. “Ram, however, heard me sing, and said ‘Yes’!” After marriage, Mala went on to get a master’s in education and Hindustani classical music both. She’s now an accomplished, performing vocalist and true to family tradition, teaches music at Mumbai schools.
Ramadorai reflects, “A purist may say, ‘I will only listen to North Indian or South Indian classical music.’ For me, tho-se boundaries have disappeared. Music teaches you reflection and listening skills, and the wider the area you are open to, the deeper the engagement. As we say in the IT industry—where speed of change is critical—it’s about lifelong learning,”
His own compendium of music clearly echoes this: As others buy art, he collects interesting compositions. Recently, he tracked down an old gem by an early Carnatic stalwart, the late Aryiyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, downloading it alongside fusion music, Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s flute recitals and Malini Rajurkar’s vocals (TCS is similarly eclectic in its corporate sponsorships: Sufi music concerts, upcoming and established artistes, even talented employees).
But his all-time favourite is Endaro Mahanubhavulu, “Salutations to all great people”, by the saint-composer, Thyagaraja. Says Ramadorai, “Over the years its simple language and sincere lyrics have acquired a far deeper meaning for me. It is timeless and enduring.”
It’s interesting to see how he has transferred this vision to TCS’ software training. Seamlessness or “Systems Thinking” underlies the way TCS programmers arrive at solutions for their customers, whether it’s providing British Airways with sophisticated customer feedback, or upgrading the world’s largest stock exchanges. “Software is music. And mathematics and pattern recognition are the foundation of both,” maintains Ramadorai. “What’s important is the ability to absorb the entire ecosystem, to see something not as an isolated object, but in terms of universal patterns.” Applying this in an innovative experiment, TCS is currently training traditionally skilled pattern makers like weavers and rangoli artists, to write software.
Music is also a catalyst for family bonding. Every December, the extended family meets in Chennai, as Ramadorai takes time off from work to join them in the music sabha season, where Mala too performs. In the last decade, they’ve celebrated many a New Year’s day together, attending violinist Lalgudi Jayraman’s concert.
Just last month, the five siblings, spouses and relatives gathered at the Lord Padmanabha temple in Chennai for Sumathi’s 60th birthday. As a special gift for her sister-in-law, Mala sang the evergreen Om Sharanavabhava , which she had sung when she met Ramadorai for the first time.
Earlier in the year, Ramadorai and Tarun shared musical memories over a tour of Abbey Road in London, made famous by the Beatles in their eponymous hit album. On Ramadorai’s personal music player, kirthanams coexist with A Hard Day’s Night and a smattering of salsa. And as TCS’ reach expands across multiple time zones and continents, Ramadorai’s music reflects the journey.
Name: Subramanian Ramadorai
Title: CEO & MD, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)
Education: BSc, Physics, Delhi University. BE, Electronics and Telecommunications, Indian Institute of Science. MS, Computer Science, University of California, USA.
Senior Executive Development Programme, MIT Sloan School of Management
Pursuits: Listening to Indian classical music and reading
Claim to fame: Helped build India’s burgeoning software and IT services industry into a global powerhouse. Under his leadership, TCS was the first Indian company to reach $4 billion in revenue
(Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at email@example.com)