The discretion of an unknown teacher changed the life of Senapathy “Call me Kris” Gopalakrishnan. Just two more marks and he would have become a doctor. Instead, Gopalakrishnan ended up in a boardroom and is today the CEO and MD of Infosys.
His parents’ wish was that he study medicine as there were no doctors in their extended family. “In spite of being a fairly good student, I failed to get admission in the government medical college by two marks. The number of colleges and seats were very limited then and the family couldn’t afford a paid-for medical seat,” says Gopalakrishnan.
But medicine’s loss has been a definite gain for information technology.
At the helm: Kris Gopalakrishnan took over the reins of the company at a difficult time, and his views on the growth of Infosys and the economy are cautious but optimistic. Jayachandran / Mint
Unlike his charismatic book-writing predecessor Nandan Nilekani, Gopalakrishnan is quieter, and weighs his words carefully. I have known Kris for nearly a decade—meeting usually during the monotonous quarterly results season, when the company’s numbers set the tone for expectations from the sector. Only twice have I witnessed a rather forceful expression of opinion from the soft-spoken, lean, silver-haired and unpretentious 53-year-old. On both occasions, the issue was the IT industry and its role.
When we meet over lunch in the company’s executive dining room in Bangalore, usually reserved for meetings with customers or key employees, Gopalakrishnan is his usual cheerful self.
As the immaculately trained staff serves us soup and croissants, Gopalakrishnan reminisces about his childhood. “My father came from a lower middle-class background and poor financial circumstances forced him to abandon studies at 18. He started a small plumbing business. But he was very keen that both his children get the opportunity to study, a chance denied to him. Like most middle-class families, the emphasis was on education as a passport to growth in life.”
Since Kris had a passion for physics, he decided to get a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology. At that time, in 1977, IIT Madras had one of the few mainframe computers in Asia. “I got interested in that and started learning Fortran (a programming language).” Not surprisingly, Gopalakrishnan stayed on and did a master’s in computer science too.
After campus interviews, despite offers from “a few others, including the Tatas”, Gopalakrishnan got on board the little known Patni Computer Systems. “The role you can play and what you can learn in a small company is significant,” he says, explaining his choice.
In Patni, he became part of a core team that included Murthy, the one which went on to form Infosys. After three years with Patni, Gopalakrishnan made another unusual choice, of joining a start-up. “I didn’t give it (the switch to Infosys) much thought,” he recalls. “We were getting about Rs1,700 (a month, in Patni) and Murthy inspired us all.”
In the tough early days of Infosys, Gopalakrishnan looked after the technical aspects, eventually managing customer delivery. In 1989, poor revenues almost had several co-founders, except Murthy, deciding to dissolve the company. But Gopalakrishnan was clear where he stood. “I was not in the country at that time but I had decided to go with whatever Murthy decided.”
Between 1987 and 1994, Gopalakrishnan was the vice-president (technical) of a joint venture between Infosys and Kurt Salmon Associates. The joint venture flopped, “but we learnt a number of lessons from it. I personally built a tremendous network of people during that time. The lessons for both Infosys and me were enormous.”
After the 1993 public issue, Gopalakrishnan started taking on key roles and became the deputy managing director in 1994, returning to India after seven years in the US. In 2002, Murthy stepped down and Nilekani, who was till then on par with Gopalakrishnan, became the managing director and CEO. Gopalakrishnan remained unperturbed. “Decisions are taken after consulting everybody,” he explains. “I was a part of that decision-making process.” His chance came in 2007, when Nilekani stepped down.
Market conditions changed soon after. The US economic contagion spread across the world and technology budgets stalled like hung computers. “Yes, these are challenging times. But Infosys believes in planning and processes, and we are geared to tackle these challenges.”
Some of Infosys’ co-founders are no longer with the firm. N.S. Raghavan left in 2000, Nilekani has quit now to join the government. But Gopalakrishnan is unfazed. “Of course, I consult Murthy,” he says. “He is the chairman and mentor of the company. We have our various councils and committees and board members. It is a collective decision-making process. At the end of the day, responsibility lies with me.”
He spends more than 200 days in a year travelling, meeting customers, employees and other stakeholders in India and abroad. Naturally, he has enough money to retire to a beach villa for the rest of his life. I ask him what keeps him going. New challenges, he replies. “It is the ability to change things. Technology is undergoing a tectonic shift. Can we play a positive role in influencing it? Can we do things which can change society for the better? If through Infosys we can, it would be worthwhile.”
Given all this work, his source of relaxation and his interests are predictable: family and gadgets, respectively. “A couple of months ago, we went on a holiday to Lisbon for three days. I love to spend time with my 10-year-old daughter.” He has traded in an Apple Mac for a new Toshiba notebook, constantly fiddles with his iPhone and never loses sight of his iPod. “Yes, I keep changing my gadgets. That’s one of my weaknesses,” he says.
Chances are that Senapathy “Kris” Gopalakrishnan would have probably had the same tastes even if he had got two extra marks in his medical college entrance exam.