Francisco D’Souza | Unique strategies for a flat world

Francisco D’Souza | Unique strategies for a flat world
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First Published: Fri, May 15 2009. 09 14 PM IST

Young gun: D’Souza sold his first piece of software 25 years ago. Jayachandran / Mint
Young gun: D’Souza sold his first piece of software 25 years ago. Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Fri, May 15 2009. 09 14 PM IST
Just a few minutes on the open rooftop at Taj Connemara’s popular Raintree restaurant, and I hasten back inside. Even the azure waters of the pool facing the restaurant cannot mitigate Chennai’s evening heat. I retreat into the comfort of the enclosed, air-conditioned portion of the restaurant, order a watermelon juice, and wait for my guest. Francisco D’Souza is the CEO of Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. (CTS), the fourth largest Indian information technology (IT) company, with revenues of $2.86 billion (around Rs14,000 crore) last year, and around 70% of its 62,000 employees based in India. Two years ago, when 38-year-old D’Souza took over as CEO, he became one of the youngest heads of a major technology company in the world.
D’Souza walks in exactly on time and orders a pineapple juice while a colleague of his, who has joined us, gets a beer for himself. Clean-shaven, almost baby-faced, D’Souza has an easy smile. He drapes his jacket over the back of his chair and sits down, looking informal in a formal shirt open at the neck.
Young gun: D’Souza sold his first piece of software 25 years ago. Jayachandran / Mint
These are not exactly easy times for chief executives of IT companies—technology spending, especially in the key US and Europe markets, has seen a slump. But D’Souza seems unfazed. Sipping on his juice, he posits the view that Cognizant is better placed than most players “because of our strengths. In fact, the current slowdown will help us pull further away from competition”.
The confidence comes from having survived and thrived in various environments while growing up. The biggest influence was his father, an Indian Foreign Service officer. “Every three years, he would get transferred and we would be uprooted and thrown into a new milieu,” he says. Born in Kenya, D’Souza has lived in 11 countries and has studied in places such as erstwhile Zaire (now Congo), Panama, Hong Kong and New York.
And unlike several expatriates, D’Souza says, his parents did not want to leave their children in boarding schools in India or put them in “international ones”. Instead, they enrolled their children in local schools wherever they were posted. That cross-cultural adaptability, he says, became a key strength.
A precocious child, he says his fascination with technology started at 13, when a friend of his father’s got a computer. He learnt programming on his own and, at age 16, sold his first piece of programming—an inventory management system for the Trinidadian army: “Though don’t remember how much I got paid, I still have a letter of appreciation on their letterhead.” When he was 18, D’Souza’s father was posted to Hong Kong. Those days, most day colleges there taught only in Cantonese so the young D’Souza joined an evening college and spent the mornings working as a teller at a branch of the Indian Overseas Bank.
He noted that the bank was using an antiquated punch-card system to store data and volunteered to write a software program for the bank’s Olivetti computer—he did it successfully. “I have always loved technology and deploying it to enhance efficiency and deliver cost savings,” explains D’Souza.
A year later, he teamed up with a friend to build a mass fax machine: “My friend built the hardware and I did the software part wherein the machine would do what is today’s equivalent of email spamming— sending out several hundred faxes advertising our products,” grins D’Souza. He adds that he learnt a lot about entrepreneurship from Hong Kong’s gritty trading houses.
After five years in Hong Kong, he moved to the US to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at the Carnegie Mellon University, a mecca of computer science. After the programme, he was recruited on campus by conglomerate Dun and Bradstreet (D&B), a credit information services provider.
In 1994, when D&B was looking at entering the Indian market, D’Souza jumped at the opportunity to return. As a part of regulatory approvals, D&B had to agree to export software services. Thus, he became a part of the founding team of D&B’s India outsourcing arm, which eventually morphed into CTS.
D’Souza’s reminisces on the origins of the present-day IT behemoth between nibbles of cottage cheese dipped in basil sauce. Few thought CTS’ model of providing MNC-quality services at Indian prices—so unlike the models followed by domestic heavyweights such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys Technologies Ltd and Wipro Technologies—would work. The company, however, has proved many critics wrong. Over the last four-five years in particular, it has clearly shown that its model is working. D’Souza explains: “Look at the growth we have had since, say, 2003 onwards. The results you see today are a vindication of the strategy we have followed.”
I am meeting D’Souza a few days before the announcement of the company’s annual financial results and I ask him about revenue guidances from CTS that many analysts deemed too aggressive. “We have taken all factors into consideration before guiding the market and I am confident that we will meet it,” says D’Souza, dismissing analyst concerns (when first quarter results were announced on 5 May, CTS’ revenues had jumped by 16%, vindicating a guidance of 10% growth for the full year).
But what makes this model unique? What sets the company apart from traditional Indian IT services vendors? CTS gets about 75% of its revenues from just three verticals: healthcare, life science and financial services. Twenty-seven of the top 30 life sciences companies in the world and at least six of the top 10 global healthcare companies do business with D’Souza’s company. “In these segments, our competition is from the likes of Perot and Accenture rather than Indian IT companies,” says D’Souza.
And conveniently for CTS, many of these focus areas, such as healthcare and public sector companies, have weathered the downturn, helping to prop up its business as the competition struggles.
Large Indian IT companies may be growing at a slower rate for the first time, but D’Souza is confident Cognizant will do well. “Yes, we will be affected by the external environment to some extent. But we believe that we have the skills and offer enough value for our customers to continue growing. Our adaptability to changing market conditions is one of our biggest strengths.”
D’Souza learnt adaptability as a child—and that is what he is now teaching his two children. “We learnt to survive and thrive in a flat world even before the term was in vogue,” he says. His Brazilian wife of Portuguese extraction speaks to their children only in Portuguese and he talks to them in English. “It’s not just language skills, but the ability to work with and across cultures which is key.”
Even as he grapples with the business challenges of increasing CTS’ growth from close to $3 billion in revenue, D’Souza talks about a domestic challenge—battling his son on a Nintendo Wii. As we tuck into the main course, he explains: “Playing with my children or reading up a legal thriller on the inevitable long flights is the way I relax.”
And no, the downturn isn’t getting in the way of his relaxation: “It is both exciting and challenging times for both the company and the industry. I like nothing better than tackling challenges.”
venkatesha.b@livemint.com
Curriculum Vitae | Francisco D’Souza
Born: 23 August 1968
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration (BBA) from the University of East Asia, Hong Kong, and a master’s in business administration (MBA) from Carnegie Mellon University, US
Current Designation: President and chief executive officer
Work Profile: Part of the founding team at CTS, which started in 1994. He was named CEO at 38
Biggest Influence: His father, who was an itinerant diplomat, writer, accomplished portrait painter and social worker. D’Souza says he was a true ‘Renaissance man’
The Firm Fan: D’Souza is a huge John Grisham buff. On long-haul flights, he is either flipping through technical material or digging into Grisham’s latest, preferring to read for hours rather than sip wine and sleep
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First Published: Fri, May 15 2009. 09 14 PM IST