As Srikanth Nadhamuni, 49, rides his Rockrider bike through the empty, dusty roads of Bellandur to the south-east of Bangalore on a Saturday morning, his friends across the Silicon Valley in the US track the ride through live feeds on Nadhamuni’s Facebook page.
Cyclemeter, an iPhone app, tracks his path on a map, graphs the distance, speed, elevation, and at the end of the ride posts messages on Nadhamuni’s Facebook page.
“My friends also get to see a picture of me having idlis and filter coffee at a roadside restaurant,” he says. “I listen to The Economist or an audiobook during my bike ride. I love to bike around the villages early in the morning, when it’s only me and the street dogs that are awake.”
Nadhamuni rides his decathlon cycle around the villages of Varthur, Mullur and Carmelaram a few times every week and manages around 30km—all this, despite three knee surgeries after he tore the ligament in his left knee a few years ago while ice skating in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, US.
Nadhamuni, a key member of the design team that built the Pentium processor at Intel, combines the sleepy old-world spirit of Mysore, where he grew up, with the maverick zeal of a Silicon Valley engineer—always at the cusp of the “next big thing” in technology that could potentially change the world.
In October, he joined Silicon Valley’s legendary entrepreneur and investor Vinod Khosla to set up Khosla Labs, an incubator for fledgling ventures and entrepreneurs focused on solving India’s problems through technology.
We meet at his four-bedroom villa, with an office-cum-home-theatre and a verandah around the house, located behind Intel’s chip- design facility on the Outer Ring Road, Bangalore. The room where we meet is a garage converted into a meeting room with two long tables at the centre, flanked by four 100-year-old teak pillars from Mysore. Nadhamuni spent a lot of time restoring the intricately carved pillars and doors in his home.
“I did the interior design of our house incorporating Indian design elements—of traditional carved pillars, village doors and wooden jalis (lattices, designed in Adobe Illustrator). I can watch carpenters and woodworkers for hours,” he says.
Though not as complex as designing computer chips, the wooden frames are quite delicately done.
“Designing a chip is an incredibly complex task, but it teaches you a lot about working with so many people focused on trying to pack millions of transistors on one tiny processor,” says Nadhamuni.
From solving the computing industry’s “packing problem” during the early 1990s at the world’s biggest chip maker, Intel, to creating a blueprint for storing and managing the world’s largest biometric database, Aadhaar, Nadhamuni has travelled further than he ever imagined. His complex skills in designing microprocessors and building futuristic healthcare systems would come together years later to create software for changing the rules of governance across 250 municipal corporations in India, and eventually be utilized to come up with the technology blueprint for the world’s largest biometric database.
In his 14 years of working at the Silicon Valley’s hottest start-ups, including Sun Microsystems, Inc., Silicon Graphics and Healtheon (now called WebMD), Nadhamuni’s interest in using technology to solve real-world problems in countries like India kept growing.
“There’s a certain guilt for a lot of us sitting in America, a huge pent-up thing about doing something meaningful in India,” he says.
But it all started on a hot summer day in July 1984 in Mysore when Nadhamuni went to watch The NeverEnding Story, the first film adaptation of the German fantasy novel by Michael Ende.
“I was loitering around during the interval when I saw a company called The First Byte in the backyard of the theatre,” he recalls. The First Byte was an early software development firm founded by the famous Irani family that also owned Jawa motorcycles, located behind the Shyam Sundar theatre.
He had almost finished his engineering degree in electronics and communication from The National Institute of Engineering (NIE) in Mysore, whose famous alumni include Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy.
“We had some brilliant teachers (at NIE), not from the suave point of view, but very talented and very sincere. The foundation that I learnt stayed with me all through,” says Nadhamuni.
The First Byte officials asked him to take an employment test.
“They liked my score, which I guess was the best anybody had scored in their history. So I was offered the job,” he says.
The first job paid Rs.4,400 a month, enough to buy a moped to vroom around town. But the assignment was not enough to satisfy his curiosity about computers and what they could do for the world.
“I was always very, very curious about computers,” he says. Back then, computers were not as powerful. Nadhamuni’s sister, Asha Baktavatsalam, who now lives with her family in Houston, Texas, US, gifted him a home computer made by Sinclair Research that could process information at a mere 3.5 MHz (today’s home computers run in excess of 2 GHz on an average).
“It could only manage 20 lines of codes,” he says.
When his father died, just before Nadhamuni went to college at 17, his mother Vasantha Sundararajan, a Carnatic singer who performed for All India Radio, wanted him to stay on in Mysore. After the stint at The First Byte, Nadhamuni was convinced his future was in computer programming, and that meant taking up higher studies in the US.
Somehow, he convinced his mother to let him study abroad.
“The condition was that I had to live and study in Louisiana, where one of my cousins lived,” he says.
Nadhamuni got admission into the master’s programme at the Louisiana State University, and relocated to the US in August 1986. While studying, he also got a research fellowship to assist a professor that earned him $1,000 (around Rs.55,000 now) a month.
He got his first job at chip-design firm Silvar-Lisco as a software engineer after completing his master’s in 1988.
From there, he moved to Sun Microsystems. “Sun was to Silicon Valley what Apple is to the world today,” says Nadhamuni.
In many ways, Nadhamuni’s plan to move back to India and get involved with a social project started taking shape after he was introduced to his wife, Sunita, by an Indian friend. At Sun Microsystems, where he met Sunita, Nadhamuni helped create a group of non-resident Indians called Indians for Collective Action that raised funds for charity.
“She sent out a mail one day asking to meet for lunch. I go there and she had invited 10 other guys! I thought I was the only guy she had invited,” he recalls.
They raised $30,000 in two weeks to help Bangladesh residents during the cyclone of 1991. Their employer, Sun, matched it with an equal amount.
Nadhamuni and Sunita found common interests beyond philanthropy.
“We would do the 2-hour drive to Petaluma, California, every Thursday to listen to lectures by Eknath Easwaran on meditation and Indian spirituality,” he recalls. They were married in India on 22 August 1992.
Nadhamuni’s friends say he is a little bit of a “renaissance man”. “He has always had a social cause in everything he does. What’s really unique about him is that he helps others come along instead of being a pure activist,” says Prasad Saggurti who now works as a marketing manager at electronic design automation firm Synopsys in Mountain View, California. Suggarti is also a childhood friend of Nadhamuni’s wife Sunita.
At Sun, and later at Intel, Nadhamuni learnt about working on complex problems along with hundreds of engineers—something that helped him bring the best minds together to work on the core technology blueprint for Aadhaar.
“What I learnt over there was that building a chip was incredibly complex. We were 200 of us working on one tiny chip—my first glimpse of what it takes to work with so many on such a complex problem,” he says.
After four years at Sun as part of the Sparc CPU design team—the spitfire—Nadhamuni joined Intel, where he worked on the Pentium processor. At Intel, he helped the chip maker solve what’s called “an NP-complete problem” (NP stands for nondeterministically polynomial) in the computing world—no matter how much processing power you put and even if you took infinite time, you would never reach the best solution.
Nadhamuni used his understanding of Hindu philosophy to create virtual chip designs and solve this problem. In his book India: A Portrait, author Patrick French quoted Nadhamuni on how he solved the chip-design problems.
“In designing a chip, Srikanth was using ‘simulated annealing’, as the ‘temperature’ rose, the peaks were higher and the troughs were lower. He was searching for the lowest possible trough, where everything fit into a smaller space,” French wrote.
Nadhamuni says the ideas, or the Hindu philosophy “I was learning as a kid perhaps made it easier to make some mental leaps and to work in the virtual world of designing the chip”.
He quit Intel in March 1994 and spent the next six years at several Silicon Valley start-ups, including Healtheon—among the most high profile in those days. Healtheon was founded by James H. Clark, the Netscape creator, and his partner Pavan Nigam.
“We had everybody staring at us, the first customer, Blue Shield of California, came and gave us a cheque before we had built anything. It was a very strange time, thanks to these big founders,” says Nadhamuni.
A dot-com start-up, Healtheon offered software products to streamline the US healthcare system by connecting hospitals, doctors and patients, and eliminated paperwork.
“We took on an industry that was so fragmented; we wanted to change the world. A lot of what I learnt about start-ups came from there,” he says.
He quit Healtheon in 2000 to launch his own start-up, GlobeTrades Inc.; it proved to be ill-timed—the dot-com bust followed.
“It was a humbling experience because everything crashed. I could have decided to hang in, but it just didn’t make any sense. We merged with a European company and decided to quit,” says Nadhamuni.
By then, Nadhamuni and his wife had started evaluating options to relocate to India and explore a social cause to work on.
They had started looking again.
“We realized that sending money to India was not good enough and we needed to relocate to make it really meaningful and impactful,” he says. “We gave away half of what we had to The Salvation Army, shipped everything else to Bangalore,” he recalls.
Nadhamuni relocated to Bangalore in July 2002 with Sunita, son Nischal (6) and daughter Kaveri (2). While the idea to return had been brewing for a while, he had still not figured out what exactly he would do.
“Everybody in the family was completely shocked—‘Are you nuts, and you don’t even have a job.’”
For six months, Nadhamuni and Sunita deliberately stayed away from any work or hunt for a job.
“I was the only guy playing badminton during the daytime with the ladies in the apartment where we lived,” he says.
In Bangalore, Nadhamuni experienced the hardships of availing common citizen services, such as getting himself a driving licence.
“The driving licence took three days. I realized that it was too complicated. To me it was important that I should work with government and it’s not enough to stand out,” he says.
One day, he walked into the office of then Bangalore commissioner Sreenivasa Murthy and offered to build a product that would help the city municipality double its revenue. In six weeks Nadhamuni, along with a bunch of software programmers, created what he had promised.
“I could see real problems to solve instead of just saying, ‘Hey, I can design a faster chip,’” he says.
“We picked a ward in the Shivajinagar area where the municipality used to collect Rs.400 crore in revenue—it doubled to Rs.800 crore after our product got deployed,” he recalls.
Another municipal sub area, Whitefield, saw its property tax collection increase by 800% after Nadhamuni’s team identified property owners using the geographical information system (GIS), a technology that combines satellite images with computer data.
Now more than 250 municipal corporations across the country use the software he designed to bring transparency and offer better citizen services.
He first met Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani when he attended a meeting organized by the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), a public-private entity working with government departments, to upgrade the city.
Nadhamuni convinced Nilekani of his software for government functions and in March 2003, registered the eGovernments Foundation that owns and offers software for municipal councils across the country now.
“This was like a California start-up—developing a product from scratch and solving a problem. We built an ERP (enterprise resource planning) for municipalities,” says Nadhamuni. “I was impressed with the way BATF was looking at problems by involving stakeholders, identifying issues and setting deadlines.”
Later, when Nilekani wanted a technology blueprint for the world’s biggest biometric project, Aadhaar, he hired Nadhamuni. Apart from the technical expertise, Nadhamuni has a diehard approach to problem-solving, Nilekani says.
The project aims to provide an identity number linked with biometric data to every citizen and help millions of Indians prove that they actually exist. This Aadhaar number will help citizens establish identity and avail government services apart from other transactions, including opening a bank account.
Since a project of this scale and complexity had never been attempted anywhere in the world, Nilekani began a hunt for the best and brightest Indian minds from Silicon Valley. In Nadhamuni, he found an ideal candidate who could deal with this massive complexity of data and develop a solution that made sense. More importantly, Nilekani wanted somebody who could get the core solution out quickly.
“Srikanth was a very critical member of the core team when we set up Aadhaar. He is accomplished at technology and execution and has the rare ability to ‘push the product out of the door’. His passion and optimism is infectious,” Nilekani says.
The core architecture of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) uses open source software and will be 10 times bigger than what Facebook manages in terms of data when some 1.2 billion citizens are enrolled in a few years.
Now, Nadhamuni is back to the start-up grind, figuring out ways to solve India’s social and infrastructural problems with Khosla.
“Having come full circle—doing technology start-ups in the US, and working with NGOs and government transformational projects in India—perhaps the next step is put the two together, work with Vinod to help create start-ups that focus on solving important underlying problems here in India.”
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Nadhamuni loves Bollywood music, apart from listening to Sufi tracks from Abida Parveen, Kailash Kher and Shafqat Amanat Ali. He can be very possessive at karaoke, he says. Here are his 10 favourite tracks:
• Raga Darbari Kanada, Pandit Jasraj
• Raga Lalit, Rashid Khan
• Raga Khamaj, ‘thumri’—‘Sachi Kaho Mose Batiyan’, by Gauri Pathare
• Raga Abheri, ‘Nagumomu’, by Vaishnavi Narasimhan (his niece in Houston, Texas)
• ‘Ramooz-e-Ishq’, Abida Parveen
• ‘Aankhon Ke Sagar’, Shafqat Amanat Ali
• ‘Tere Deewani’, Kailash Kher
• ‘Mai Ne’, Atif Aslam
• ‘Zara Zara’, Bombay Jayashri in ‘Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein’
• ‘Iktara’, Kavita Seth in ‘Wake Up Sid’.