N. Chandrasekaran and the transformative power of IT
Thanks to the rise of private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s, and increase in demand and supply of software engineers, almost everyone benefited
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The Tamil Nadu of the 1980s was a pioneer in the field of technical education—not so much in terms of what was being taught, but where and how. That was the decade the state government decided to allow private engineering colleges. Tamil Nadu wasn’t the only state to do so. Around the same time, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh also decided to allow private engineering colleges.
The motive for all states was the same—to address the demand-supply gap.
This was particularly acute in Tamil Nadu, where 69% reservation meant anyone from the so-called forward castes, who wanted to be an engineer, had either the intelligence or the economic wherewithal, or both, to secure admission to a top government engineering college (The College of Engineering, Guindy, was at the top); an Indian Institute of Technology; College of Engineering Roorkee; BITS Pilani; or the Regional Engineering College (REC), Trichy.
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By the middle of that decade, enough private engineering colleges had emerged. By then, young people wanting to be engineers in the state had discovered software services companies (or rather, software services companies had discovered them). The demand for computer science soared among students seeking admission to engineering colleges.
Even with the increase in supply, there still wasn’t enough to go around. Companies such as NIIT Ltd and Aptech Ltd thrived on the surplus and also on demand from science (even commerce and arts) graduates who wanted to “do computers”, so as to land a job with a software services company. Loath to be left behind, government universities and private colleges decided to offer a master’s programme in computer applications, called MCA. The main objective was to target graduates in other disciplines who would otherwise end up with a private computer education institute.
N. Chandrasekaran, who was named chairman of Tata Sons on 12 January, was a beneficiary of this. He joined Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) after completing his MCA from REC Trichy.
That was in 1987, by when Chennai had already emerged as home to one of TCS’s biggest development centres (on what the city still obstinately called Cathedral Road, although the government had long ago renamed it Dr Radhakrishnan Road after one of the country’s presidents). Interestingly, the TCS office was almost strategically located—right next to the US consulate. Back then, anyone who joined TCS wanted to be sent to the US on an assignment. Many succeeded. Chennai was well on its way to becoming a city of parents. But that’s another story.
Chandrasekaran isn’t from Chennai. He was born in Mohanur in Namakkal district (famous for poultry farms) and studied in a local Tamil medium school till Class X. Although he didn’t go to engineering college (he graduated in applied sciences from Coimbatore), he must have been aware of what was happening around him (and also from his two elder brothers, N. Srinivasan and N. Ganapathy Subramaniam). Back in the 1980s, it was hard to be a student in Tamil Nadu and not get caught up in the whole “computer thing”. And when Chandrasekaran completed his MCA from REC Trichy, he went to work in TCS’s Cathedral Road office. Interestingly, his brother N. Ganapathy Subramaniam was already working for TCS then (and still does).
Sure, Chandrasekaran’s career really took off after he served as then chief executive S. Ramadorai’s executive assistant for a couple of years in the late 1990s, but it would be unfair to ignore the other factors that have contributed to his success: his own abilities; an environment that encouraged computer literacy (actually, proficiency); colleges that offered the right kind of courses; and the deeply meritocratic nature of the IT industry.
Interestingly, Chandrasekaran wasn’t the only beneficiary of this. Nor were all the beneficiaries Tamilian Brahmins (or tam-brahms for short; Chandrasekaran is one), although that was the community at the vanguard of the first great westward migration by Indian IT professionals. In pre-dominantly Brahmin parts of Chennai, such as T. Nagar and Adyar and Mylapore, the joke in the 1980s (and the early 1990s) was that every family had to give at least one child to Uncle Sam.
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Thanks to the 69% reservation and the increase in both demand for and supply of software engineers, almost everyone benefited. Thanks to IT, Tamil Nadu’s affirmative action actually worked, perhaps one reason why the state’s social indicators are healthy.
In the mid-1980s Tamil Nadu (and Chennai, which was still Madras), it was clear that if one wanted a job one should “do computers”.
And through the 1990s, the 2000s, and perhaps the 2010s (although the last is arguable), it was clear that IT companies were among the best managed in the country. They had to be. Their clients were usually Western corporations with high benchmarks, and their success meant they were tracked extensively—sometimes obsessively—by analysts.
It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that a young man from Mohanur who “did computers” and then worked in an IT company, gets a shot at managing one of the largest conglomerates in the land.
Chandrasekaran’s success is that of the Indian IT Everyman’s.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.