When Kumari Shibulal first entered her marital home in Alleppey, Kerala, her father-in-law, the late C.K. Damodaran, welcomed the young bride with an unusual gift. He gave her a small, beat-up radio, with a tangle of wires sticking out from its case, and said, ”This is what your husband made as a boy.” Turning the dial, he laughed, “Look, it still works!”
Twenty-nine years later, the son he spoke of, S.D. Shibulal or “Shibu”, now the chief operating officer of the $4 billion (Rs15,880 crore) global software services’ company, Infosys, remains a DIY electronics freak. He recently cobbled together two devices, Slingbox and TiVo, so that his daughter Shruti can enjoy her favourite TV shows live from the US, in their Bangalore home.
Shibu is not alone in his passion for gadgets. He is joined by S. Gopalakrishnan or “Kris”, a fellow founder-member of Infosys and its current chief executive officer (CEO)—Infosys was established in 1981 by N.R. Narayana Murthy and seven engineers in Pune with an initial capital of just $250.
Kris is a low-key person with simple tastes. For someone who steers the course for almost 90,000 employees in 25 countries, he still sets up his own computer in the office and, until recently, drove himself to work every day. But when it comes to cellphones, he confesses shyly, “I buy a new one every week!”
Deepak Satwalekar, managing director and CEO of HDFC Standard Life Insurance Co. and an independent director, Infosys, discloses how coffee breaks at board meetings are usually a lively race between the duo and Narayana Murthy to show off the latest gadget. Narayana Murthy’s usually pertain to music; he loves to listen to Western classical. “Kris and Shibu,” says Satwalekar, “show a child-like delight in their ability to use and adapt their tech toys!”
R.N. Koushik, associate vice-president, Computers and Communications Division, Infosys, says that in the 17 years he has known the pair, even in this domain, they share the best practices. “Both of them never explore the same thing. If one says a particular gadget is good, the other will buy or use it!”
But this is not about pride of possession. When Kris and Shibu buy a latest device, they never use it as it is: They examine it, take it apart and refit it to their needs, turning fad into art. That’s why at Infosys, where geeks are a dime a dozen, the two are revered as “gizmo gurus.”
S.D. Shibulal and S. Gopalakrishnan
For both, the fascination with technology started during childhood. At TD High School in Alleppey in the 1970s, Shibu would devour diagrams in the magazine, Science Student, using them to build motion and sound sensors that would turn on a light, or a small fan.
Later, living in the US on a shoestring budget, he simply couldn’t afford gadgets, so he assembled them with different parts from a RadioShack store. Way before PDAs were ubiquitous, he had one which he integrated himself. “When I have a need, I figure out a solution and integrate it. Now, I do it almost by intuition,” he says.
So, in their “smart” home designed by Shibu, the cellphone links up and rings on the landline as soon as one enters the house. Every room has a 12-inch touch screen on the wall. A mere touch, and the dulcet voices of Yesudas or Sudha Raghunandan waft in, or an episode of Boston Legal or Star Trek appears on the home theatre plasma screen. But, laughs Kumari, “I have to still figure out how to switch off the geysers using the touch panel!”
These days, Shibu’s PDA is his primary device. Its large screen allows him to view movies in flight; its 8GB hard drive lets him hear audio books. It’s also a mini notebook, a mobile phone, with mobile Internet and GPS, all rolled into one. For Kris, the cellphone is everything; he uses three different ones at a time. He is the king of utilities: On his previous Nokia N95, he had installed Google Maps, marked with specific locations, and had used the camera to create interesting backgrounds.
Currently, he is enthused by the iPhone—he loves its sketchpad feature, where you shake your phone, and the pad clears up. He also saves images, draws on top of them and mails them out. These are all things that a phone was never meant to do, he remarks. In the past, a phone was utilitarian; now it’s play (both men are keen to note that their personal use of these devices doesn’t mean an endorsement by Infosys).
In a 24x7 world, where you are always “connected”, measured by inexorable quarterly results, what constitutes leisure? For people such as Kris and Shibu, it’s any device that allows you to stay in touch with family and friends. And travel time, ironically, is when these devices let you catch up—on reading, movies or music. Kris reflects: “It doesn’t matter where you are. You are always in touch with work and family. The downside is that the distinction between work and home is blurred; there’s no transition.”
He knows this well, first-hand: In a typical week last November, he had flown to meet customers in Miami, then Kyoto, then back to the US, with a day-long stop in Bangalore and on to Australia.
Understanding personal technology has paid rich dividends in forecasting trends. Koushik explains: “Many technologies that we have developed at Infosys have been driven by Kris and Shibu’s personal exploration and knowledge brought into the company. They spend time working with us in IT, and are totally hands-on.” As the number of mobile phone users outstrips PC users, innovations in form factor, user interface and voice recognition have become important. For instance, Infosys’ platform, mConnect, allows the use of even basic cellphones for transactions via the Internet, and helps serve rural communities. Its software for Radio Frequency Identification technology will enable the Nandani Cooperative’s 5,400 small farmers in Maharashtra to sell fresh produce at a healthy profit to the Foodland grocery chain, while it is already being used in urban retail.
At Infosys’ Bangalore campus, surrounded by a dazzling multiplicity of laptops, cellphones, conference call devices and PDAs in an eternally connected “flat world”, the gizmo gurus go on to talk about the toys that have given them the biggest thrill. For Kris, it was the radio he built as an IIT student. For Shibu, it was a siren that cost all of Rs50, in 1967. He built it so that when someone entered his room in Alleppey, a loud siren would go off and startle the entire neighbourhood. He chuckles: “It gave me a whole lot of satisfaction but probably a lot of heartache to my parents!”
Name: S. Gopalakrishnan
Title: CEO and MD, Infosys Technologies Ltd
Education: MSc (physics) and MTech (computer science) from the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai
Kris is currently chairman of Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management (IIITM), Kerala, and vice-chairman of the Information Technology Education Standards Board set up by the government of Karnataka
Pursuits: Buying personal technology gadgets , reading books, particularly courtroom dramas, books of general interest and history, travelling, movies and cricket
Claim to fame: One of the founders of a $4 billion enterprise. Took over as CEO last year
Name: S.D. Shibulal
Title: Chief operating officer and member of the board, Infosys Technologies Ltd
Education: Master’s degree in physics from the University of Kerala and an MS in computer science from Boston University
Pursuits: Buying personal technology gadgets, listening to audio books, travelling
Claim to fame: One of the founders of a $4 billion enterprise
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