You find one of these fellows in every engineering college everywhere. We also had a palmist in our batch. And some of us would go to him and ask him to do his predictions. He looked at mine and said that I would make much money and travel around the world.
This was a different time. I had no idea I would be joining Infosys. I was a chemical engineering student from KREC Suratkal (now National Institute of Technology, or NITK). Chemical engineers didn’t travel around the world in those days. I thought, then, that his prediction was...unlikely to come true.
After graduating I joined Kirloskar Group as a management trainee. The company was a big name in those days.
I wouldn’t say it was a bad job. Management trainees were rotated between several departments. You got to travel a lot. For instance, I was once posted to a town in Rajahmundry district. I loved the Andhra food. But it was a one-horse kind of town. One post office, one hospital... but five cinema theatres.
But at that time labour was cheap. You could do whatever you wanted with trainees. Or do nothing at all. One of my last assignments on rotation was to spend some time in Surat. This was when I was working in the pollution control department. There was a vendor in Surat who made water clarifiers for us. There were delays in shipping and the company sent me to figure out what was going on.
I sat in the vendor’s office from 9am to 6pm. Every hour or so I would get up and ask him for updates. That is all. Everyday. From morning to evening. I would get frequent reminders from my office. And then I would go and pester him even more.
Early bloomer: Arunachalam, who now runs a start-up, left Infosys in 2009. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Then I rotated to Kirloskar’s Bangalore office. By this time most of the guys in my friends circle had started working in IT. There were maybe seven or eight of us. And six of them had already moved. So I began to wonder.
One day, in 1995, I saw a job advertisement for Infosys. But I decided to attend an interview because of one more reason. The interviews were for the new Infosys Mangalore office. Mangalore is close to my engineering college. So I figured that it would be a good chance to drop in at the campus as well.
I was employee No. 2,482 when I joined Infosys Ltd. The numbering in the company begins at 1,000. So I was among the first 1,500 employees. Today the Infosys training centre in Mysore handles 14,000 people at a time.
My family was shocked. As far as my parents and grandparents were concerned, Kirloskar was a huge name. I was giving up all that to join an unknown little company. For years they were unhappy. Until 2001, when I used my stock options to buy a flat.
You have no idea, when you work for a company like Kirloskar, what working for an Infosys is like. No idea. You don’t even know what to expect. What the work would be like. What the facilities are like. What the campus is like. Everything was a surprise. Though in the beginning the campus was still being built in Mangalore. So during training we sat in this huge hall with a blue curtain through the middle dividing it into two. One half was a classroom and the other half a computer lab. After each session, 25 of us used to pick up our chairs and walk through the curtain for the next one.
At Kirloskar, there was a lot of paperwork. A lot of time was spent getting various people to sign and approve various things. So imagine how excited we all were about email. Email was huge and trainees didn’t get email.
The biggest change for me, in terms of work culture, was the intensity. At Kirloskar, like I said before, labour was always considered a low-cost commodity. But at Infosys we were constantly working. Once, during a meeting with NRN (N.R. Narayana Murthy), we complained that Bangalore only worked for five days a week while Mangalore worked for six. He gave us a spiel about us being new and untrained. But then said that if he could, he would make Bangalore work six days as well.
Five hours of sleep in a day was common. All of us kept tab of the longest time we spent with no sleep. Mine was 36 hours. I must have been a slacker because there were people who did a lot more.
Of course, if I had been at Kirloskar I would have slept a lot more.
Monday and Tuesday were tie days (later changed to Monday only). We used to hate wearing ties in the sultry Mangalore weather. Over time though, it became a symbol of “we are different”. We would go to really seedy restaurants with ties on and enjoy watching people gaping at us.
I began travelling. We worked hard on those trips as well. I once went to Paris for 45 days and managed to get just one day to do any sight-seeing. Then I came back and waited for my next chance. Once they kept sending other people abroad and I began to get frustrated. Meanwhile I had no option but to work harder and harder. Eventually I won a chairman’s award for performance. Which was a piece of paper with stock options. I had no idea what to do with it.
Then in 2001, I decided to buy a house in Kochi. Suddenly, I realized how valuable that piece of paper was. I used the options to pay for the flat. Finally my family decided that Infosys had been a good decision after all.
Yes, I suppose things would have been different indeed if I had stuck to Kirloskar. Sometimes I look at my batchmates who stuck to their industries and feel a certain grudging respect. Some of them perhaps didn’t make a lot of money. But...there is a certain respect.
Would I have worked as hard in Kirloskar? I don’t think so. But there is no point in thinking like that. The problem with the IT industry, as a whole, I think, is that sometimes you lose track of the bigger picture. You are so obsessed with your work and the intensity, that you forgot what it is doing to you and your family. I think a lot of young people have that problem these days and not just in IT.
Three things happened while I was living and working in the US that made me stop and think. First, I once fell asleep at the wheel of my car out of exhaustion. I think it was December 2005 in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. We had pulled an all-nighter. I rear-ended the car in front of me. Thankfully, no significant damage was done because the traffic was slow.
Then once my wife left me with my child. It was a Saturday. We used to send our son to a day care but because he was sick and it was a holiday for me, we decided to let him stay home. My son was sleeping, so I said I was OK to get on a conference call. Midway through the call, right in the middle of what was my section of the call, my son woke up, walked in and wanted to be held. The call was “important”, so I went into another room and closed the door behind me. My son started crying but I kind of shut it out since I was focused on the call. When it was finally over, and I went to finally pick him up, my son was in terrible shape from crying.
Then I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. I had to take time off work and spend a lot of time at home. That gave me a lot of time to think.
I left Infosys in 2009 and spent a year doing nothing. Now I work on a start-up. When I left the company, I drew up an excel sheet with all my assets and liabilities. I entered inflation estimates and cost of living estimates and all that. I figured that for a few years I could make do with the savings I had. So financially, yes, some of us from those early years did well for ourselves.
When it comes to Infosys, I have many feelings about the way things are today. It is very different from those early days in a hall in Mangalore. When people criticize the company I get very defensive. I have had fights with my father over this. But with my friends from Infosys I sometimes admit to those same problems.
Would life have been different if I’d never left Kirloskar? Who knows? I don’t really think about that all that much.
Param Arunachalam is an IT professional and founder of technology start-up, Mavrix (www.mavrix.in). Mavrix is an early stage start-up with a vision to make it easy and fun for music lovers to discover new songs based on their tastes for music.
As told to Sidin Vadukut.
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