Brian Humphries
Brian Humphries

Cognizant wants the best talent and will spend more on skilling: CEO

Brian Humphries shares his company’s strategy, views on the IT outsourcing market

Brian Humphries had big shoes to fill in when he replaced Cognizant veteran Francisco D’Souza as the CEO of the company in April this year. Humphries shared his company’s strategy, views on the IT outsourcing market and recent media reports on layoffs in an interview held last week. Edited excerpts:

What’s been your strategy since you took charge?

We have traditional businesses that we want to optimize or protect--we need to get more on the attack, we need to get after competitive renewals, we need to scale more internationally. North America, as an example, is 76% of our business (so) we would need to scale in Europe and Asia. And we have to make ourselves efficient in traditional businesses too. But simultaneously, we need to embrace digital even faster than before and accelerate our digital position. We have identified the four key battlegrounds in digital that we need to be strong in the years ahead--cloud, digital engineering, data, and IoT (Internet of Things).

How are you going about this task?

We have a series of things that are needed to materialize our strategy, which are the enablers. We need the best talent in the world. For example, this year we’re taking 30% more freshers. We discussed with the leading Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to get the best people into Cognizant. We need to spend more on skilling than we have historically but we need to have a strong brand. I hired a new chief marketing officer in the last two months. I think our brand presence in India and North America is strong. But we need a cost structure that makes us effective. I also differentiate between cost and investment. If I paint the wall, that’s a cost but if I retrain somebody to be cloud architects or if I do a marketing campaign, it costs me money but I view it as an investment for the future.

You enjoyed an industry bellwether position at one point in time. What has changed? What are you doing to address the issue?

My view is we haven’t reached our true potential. So everything you hear me talking about is establishing our position as the bellwether of IT services companies. We have an incredible brand that I have inherited and an incredible canvas to build from. I really think Francis (Francisco D’Souza) is an outstanding executive who’s done amazing things for Cognizant over 25 years. And now I need to build on that.

I think the stories that will be written about Cognizant in the years ahead is how we got back to re-establishing growth rates that are more in line with what you would have expected us to achieve. One of the things that make me stay awake at night is anticipating what’s coming next – the next technological curve, the next geographic opportunity, what might happen in the industry in terms of consolidation. So I’m always fixated on being paranoid about what might happen and how I get a competitive edge.

With 76% of your business coming from North America, what are the challenges you’re facing in the US, especially in terms of H-1B/L1 visas?

The H-1B and L1 visa situation is something I take very seriously. I spent a lot of time this week with Nasscom and the US Chamber of Commerce, making sure that we speak openly and eloquently around the importance of talent and what we do in North America, which is helping companies out there be successful in the digital world.

What’s your take on the recent media reports on the massive layoffs?

I think the noise, particularly in the India media around layoffs, restructure, and realignment is just an unnecessary distraction. People are making up stories in the absence of news. We are a large company with about 300,000 employees. So, 50 people here and 100 people there is tiny in the broader scheme of things.

Give us a sense of visibility in IT spending over the next few quarters...

I have spent time with hundreds of customers in the last six months and they do not talk to me about recession. This conversation seems to happen more with financial analysts and media. I think these days, IT and IT services are not viewed as discretionary anymore. Today, this is the business, not a cost centre. I am optimistic about the market and I think the growth rates will continue to be strong. The good news about Cognizant is we have not penetrated too many markets. Example, we’re very strong in North America, not so much in Europe. And our digital mix is lower than many. So that gives me an open field running to go in and attack.

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