Home >Lounge >Features >Alok Ohrie: It’s all in the tech

Alok Ohrie towers over me as we meet at the lobby-level lounge of the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. At over 6ft—a height that served him well as a bowler in college cricket—he just about manages to squeeze himself into the low sofa-chair that’s clearly not designed for a person of his height.

On a break from attending the company’s CIO Forum at the hotel, the managing director and president of Dell Technologies India has another session later, but he appears unhurried, almost languid. He is enthused about new Dell Technologies research, the Future Of Connected Living, which forecasts the top ways emerging technology will transform lives by 2030. This includes 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Extended Reality (XR) and Internet of Things (IoT). Not surprisingly, the subject of technology gets him animated—whether it’s about his cutting-edge car or a sensor that existed decades ago in the factory his father worked in.

Growing up in small-town Bhilai (then in Madhya Pradesh, now part of Chhattisgarh), where his father worked in the steel plant, Ohrie led an idyllic life. The town was a hotbed of academic excellence and provided a “deadly combination of collaboration and competition". Friends would study together at night but compete with each other in exams the day after.

His 1984 school batch was much talked about those days—over 30 students cracked the IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination) exam in an obscure town of barely a few hundred thousand people. Ohrie was one of them, but chose to go to the Karnataka Regional Engineering College (now National Institute of Technology) in Surathkal, which offered him his elective of electronics and communications.

“I remember talking to dad," Ohrie says, grinning. “He said, become a mechanical engineer, because he was one and it’s an evergreen field. He said, if you don’t find a job, the worst you can do is open a repair shop for cars and scooters."

College opened up his mind and drew out the introvert. While continuing to excel in academics, he participated in dramatics, competed in dumb charades, played cricket, started programming and got hooked on to technology. Campus recruitment took him to Mumbai, withESPL Ltd. As a sales executive there, he fell in love with a city known to be initially hostile to newcomers, embracing them after a while. The job got him “off the horseback" of technology because “not many companies were doing anything specific in the field in 1988".

“Mumbai is tough and unforgiving for an outsider initially," says Ohrie in his gentle, measured manner. “You are in a whirlpool, rotating all over the place. Mumbai gave me professional discipline, alignment to my thought process that nothing comes easy. You have to be determined and persevere."

His work experience includes jobs at Wipro Infotech, Tata Information Systems Ltd, two stints at IBM, AMD and EMC. He became president and managing director of Dell India in 2013, before the company acquired EMC.

Ohrie remembers his early days, the three-and-a-half years at Wipro that made him a beneficiary of its talent and strengthened his belief that business is not as important as credibility and integrity. “(Former chairman) Azim Premji used to do something called belief sessions—he had seven beliefs and would talk to new recruits himself. It was a match of my thinking and their culture."

Much later, when he was asked about career goals during a conversation with a senior from the Asia Pacific headquarters of IBM, Ohrie said, “One day, I want to sit in your chair." Soon enough Ohrie was off to a two-year stint in Sydney with the wife, gaining the international exposure he craved.

“I have never been intimidated by the personality in front," says Ohrie, dressed in a striped grey suit and a striped tie. “I respect and give importance to the position. We grabbed the (Australia) opportunity also because I always had this unfulfilled desire of going (and studying) abroad. Mom was sensitive that people who go abroad don’t come back but this was a temporary thing."

When he returned in 1997, he moved to Bengaluru, and has been there since—his wife’s family too lives there.

His six-and-a-half years helming Dell have been satisfying, Ohrie says, because the company offers people the space to try new things. “It allows you to innovate, bring to life some of those things that have never been tried. Satisfaction is the first level of reaching that goal of happiness," says Ohrie who is now in his early 50s.

India is the second fastest growing market for Dell—close to $3 billion ( 7,034 crore) in revenue in India—with considerable market share across multiple product portfolios, like storage, servers, networking, desktops, virtualization software and data protection software. “It’s a fascinating field—the IT industry changes extremely fast," says Ohrie. “There is always something you don’t know or are missing out on."

Is rapidly changing technology a challenge or a worry for a tech company? Ohrie says: “A company that invests $4.5 billion in R&D (research and development) every year, for the last three years, for sure, will never have any challenges in technology because the company is anyway working on emerging technologies."

I ask him how much technology is good. Ohrie cites “learning" as a comparative example, saying no amount is detrimental as long as it’s the right subject. “Technology can never be bad; its usage can be. People have to see it doesn’t get into the wrong hands or is misused. You should go for more and more because you are looking for the progress of mankind. Technology, democratized properly, is a great equalizer."

He gets most excited about the evolution of technology, naming some of the factors that will shape the future: AI, to manage explosive data growth and use it to create insights; multi-cloud to run the AI engines; the Edge—devices to consume and create content—and 5G, which will make “things not just faster but bring to life things that have never been tried in a big way".

“All these years," Ohrie adds, “computer capacity didn’t exist to pull data from so many sources—now it’s easy to do. As AI engines become more complex, you will need big capacity of compute and storage, which is in the cloud. The speed at which decisions have to be made, that window is amazingly small. For that, the computing power has to reside on The Edge.

“Finally, if I can add one more, and I am greedy on this, it will be IoT."

As he pours himself another glass of sparkling water, minutes before he heads back to the forum, Ohrie says he neither has a defined leadership style nor does he see himself as entitled. “I like to earn my right to be in the position I am. That brings down a whole lot of barriers most leaders have because it intimidates people. I tend to forget and forgive—just move on."

His weekends are devoted to staying home because he is unable to do that on most other days. His son, Aditya, is doing his graduation from Grinnell College in Iowa, US, while his wife, Sheenam, is vice- president, Dell Digital and APJ CIO Leader, Dell Technologies. Whenever possible, Friday evenings are devoted to the latest film release, because Ohrie likes the whole experience of a popcorn tub and reclining seats.

He also enjoys long drives, particularly on NH44, which leads to Hyderabad and beyond, though he has not made it that far. He loves his cars, an affection endorsed by the fact that he drives himself on Bengaluru’s cramped roads. Ohrie hangs on to his old automobiles, though he would not say how many are parked in his garage.

Does he feel there is any advantage to having grown up in a small town? “I am a beneficiary of corporate life, of business. My advantage is not because of coming from a small town. I think it’s to do with focus and aspirations. I have never taken anything as impossible. But I have never seen an environment anywhere like what we had in Bhilai, you know?"

I do know, because I grew up in the same town—which is smaller than Bandra—and, at one point, Ohrie and I lived barely 100m from each other. Our fathers interacted often in the blooming mill and machine shop of the steel plant, while it took us a few decades to meet for the first time, far away from the sooty factory and empty streets that remain an undying memory—and a conversation starter.

***

Last movie: ‘Dream Girl’—it was a bold subject to tackle.

Last book read: ‘Grit: Why Passion And Resilience Are The Secrets To Success’ by Angela Duckworth

Last movie abandoned: None. I will sit through any movie, however lousy

Favourite actors: Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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