If you work and live in the US, 7.45pm is quite past your typical dinner time. But, Sivaramakrishnan Somasegar (more on that oddly-spelt second name later), a senior vice-president at the world’s largest software company, Microsoft Corp., is in New Delhi and is keeping local time. I get in a little early to our scheduled meeting at south Delhi’s Jaypee Group-owned Vasant Continental.
Somasegar—or Soma to those who know him well or can get neither his four-vowel second name or six-vowel first name right—has been briefed well about Business Lounge and, as we walk to the hotel’s coffee shop, we make small talk on the newspaper and why he likes what he sees. We are accompanied by Debjani Mukherjee and Stacy Drake, both Microsoft spokespersons (remember that Somasegar is just one level removed from chief executive Steve Ballmer).
Both the coffee shop and, subsequently, a Chinese restaurant play music too loud for conversation. We finally settle down at an Indian eatery in the hotel.
Smart mover:“Soma” dropped out of his PhD programme to join Microsoft (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Somasegar does not have alcohol and chooses a fresh melon juice after I order a Talisker 12-year-old smoky brew. Just as Somasegar gleefully decides he wants to order a Gujarati delicacy Patra, a dish made of colocasia leaves, our eardrums are assaulted by a completely discordant lady who is singing to a restaurant full of charter tourists from Europe. Exasperated, we head to the nearby Basant Lok market.
At Punjabi by Nature they have a table for us and, though not quite quiet, the Microsoft head of what is called the developer tools business, and the company’s India development centre, starts chatting with me. Somasegar was born Somashekhar to Tamil parents in Puducherry, but given the French influence in the region since the mid-1600s, his name got misspelt when his grandfather registered him in school. Somasegar is not alone; it’s not uncommon to have Soureshs and Coumarens from that quaint seaside town.
Somasegar’s childhood was tough. His parents—father was a technician in a hospital and mother a homemaker—struggled to put him through school and college. “It was clear to them that education was first priority. There might not have been food, but school, and later college, was so important,” he reflects.
It helped that Somasegar was a bright student and went on to do his engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy, part of Anna University in Chennai. “Guindy was the only college that offered electronics and communications then, and that’s where I went,” he says.
The order is vegetarian, perhaps in deference to Somasegar’s likes. I go with Debjani’s choice of tandoori cauliflower, a paneer or cottage cheese dish, and mixed dal (assorted lentils). Tucking into the grilled cauliflower liberally brushed with a mustard marinade and some chopped onions without cutlery, the Microsoft senior shows how his Indian roots continue to be strong (he signs each post on his blog with a namaste).
Upon graduation, Somasegar was picked by the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, Thiruvananthapuram, as a research scientist, but chose to head to the US for an MS instead. “My grandfather was aghast. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘You have a good job waiting for you at Isro and you want to study,’” he recounts with a toothy grin. US was Louisiana State University (LSU), where his master’s was in parallel processing in computers. Then he did what most techie TamBrahm boys do: He signed up for a doctoral programme. Somasegar enrolled at the State University of New York in Buffalo, New York.
“Just before doing that, I’d sent out about a 100 résumés to various recruiters and one of them was Microsoft. They contacted LSU and found I’d left, but tracked me down at Buffalo,” says Somasegar. It was unbearably cold in New York for him and here was a recruiter paying for his travel to Redmond, Seattle.
Microsoft hired him, and that was a turning point for Somasegar, whose modest roots were still fresh in his mind. “The way I saw it then, I’d work for a few years and make $100,000 (Rs39,40,000), return to Pondicherry (now Puducherry), buy an apartment and live life,” he chuckles again. By the time he collected $100,000 in the bank, Somasegar was having a blast at Microsoft developing operating systems. Three years into the company, he was badged one of Microsoft’s fast-track executives to watch out for.
His management style of never showing his anger—“except to people very close to me”—has exasperated those who were used to being hustled by bellowing managers (i.e., Ballmer). But, the composed and measured manner in which he goes through his day helps him reach out to people and work better in teams, says Somasegar, admitting that it’s a weakness at Microsoft.
By March 2000, Somasegar was a vice-president, and “it felt good”. He had worked on eight versions of operating systems leading up to Windows 2000, XP (that even critics of Microsoft admit is the best personal computer operating system the company has rolled out) and Windows Server 2003. Life was “normal” for Somasegar—and wife Akila, who quit her Microsoft job when their second daughter was born—until one evening in mid-2003. Eric Rudder, a long-time Microsoft senior hand, proposed a dinner meeting. On offer was the chance to head the developer tools division. Such tools allow developers ready applications that run on Microsoft technologies, thus extending the reach of the world’s biggest software firm even further.
“My first reaction was, ‘No, are you nuts?’ I was having fun at Windows and why would I want to move. But Eric is one persistent man and he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Somasegar chuckles again. So, in December 2003, he took up the job and has been pushing an open and transparent style of management at the division. Earlier, he says, the developer tools division would preview its product to the world just a few months before its release.
Somasegar flipped that schedule: Microsoft now makes public the developer tool product just after the design is ready. “I tell my people, ‘The earlier a product is released the more robust the product will become.’ How amazing is it to get feedback from, say, a developer in Romania even before we start developing it,” he says, with a rare hint of combativeness.
Another achievement— Somasegar says he’s proud that he first scoped out the idea of setting up a remote development centre for Microsoft—the first of its kind for the company—in Hyderabad. The exercise, which began early in 1997, ended with a 20-person team in the southern city and has since grown to more than 1,400 developers working on global Microsoft projects. The development centre’s head Srini Koppulu, hand-picked by Somasegar, continues to run the Hyderabad operation—the biggest for Microsoft outside the US. Somasegar was tasked with replicating a similar centre in Canada, which he set rolling last year.
As we wind up and head out of the restaurant, we pass a PVR Ltd-run Cineplex, which Somasegar quickly scans for movies of his favourite star: Shah Rukh Khan. “Whenever we get time, we grab Hindi movies and watch them at home,” he says. Time, he admits, is a precious commodity. And, as the 41-year-old progresses through Microsoft’s upper echelons, it is unlikely that this state of affairs will change any time soon.
BORN: 13 August 1966
EDUCATION: BE in electronics and communication from College of Engineering, Guindy; MS from Louisiana State University in parallel processing; dropped out of a PhD at the State University of New York; awarded an Honorary doctorate from Anna University
WORK PROFILE: Joined Microsoft in 1989 and has stayed with it. Became general manager in 1998 and senior vice-president in 2008. Head of the developer tools business
FAVOURITE MICROSOFT PRODUCT: Visual Studio
FAVOURITE NON-ALCOHOLIC DRINK: Virgin Piña Colada
HOBBIES: Racquetball, reading