How India’s IT sector has built sustainability, innovation and global trust | So Good News
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Insiders’ accounts of the growth of Indian IT over the past six decades are well-documented in a new book, Against All Odds: A History of Indian IT Chris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan.
The book delves into the perspectives and funny anecdotes of 50 figures who have shaped the IT industry. The material is well referenced with 39 pages of notes. A chronology of events, an index, and a glossary of terms and abbreviations would be nice additions to the book.
S Chris Gopalakrishnan Co-founded Infosys and is considered one of the captains of the IT services industry worldwide. He is a Padma Bhushan awardee. N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan are the founders of itihaasa Research and Digital.
Here are my main takeaways from this authoritative 350-page book. See also my comments on related books Maverick effect, Change of orbits, Young Turks Launch Compass, conquest of middle India, Social Entrepreneurship in India, and Becoming an Impact Champion.
In the introduction, business analyst Gurcharan Das writes, “The quiet economic and social revolution fueled by IT is the most exciting story of India’s recent economic boom.”
India has come a long way from the government’s mistrust of private entrepreneurs in the early post-independence years. Rajiv Gandhi was the first “white knight” for IT, followed by liberalization in 1991.
“The IT sector has proved that a world-class industry can be built in India,” added Gurcharan.
The book is intended to be a labor of love, a collaborative storytelling exercise to preserve historical context and inspire and educate the next wave of entrepreneurs. Three main sets of entrepreneurial lessons are scaling, pivoting and finding opportunities in times of crisis.
Achievements, studies, stories
The authors begin the calculation by observing how the government adopted the second five-year plans. The first applications are related to crop planning, nuclear power and science. In the early years, computers imported into India were from USA, UK and Russia.
This space has been dominated by government and academia, with a focus on public sector computing. Some of the early computers imported for IITs were delivered in the last mile by bullock carts! The IITs produced the first computer science degrees and programming textbooks.
IIT Bombay was established in 1961. His first computer was the Russian Minsk II installed in 1967, which required input using paper tape and cards. “This was an innocuous start to IIT Bombay’s journey to becoming one of India’s powerhouses in computer science education and research in the years to come,” the authors describe.
But the missed opportunities in India were in building globally recognized quality brands in core memory manufacturing and general market hardware.
Computer Society of India was founded in 1965. Tata Computer Center was renamed Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in 1968.
“The first wave of entrepreneurship in Indian IT created a niche group of entrepreneurs focused on software products for domestic hardware,” the authors recall.
There were strict import duties on these computers, with exemptions only for those who used them to export software. Companies like IBM were kicked out under the rules and only returned ten years later. Companies like HCL and Wipro started with hardware and then moved into software and R&D services.
The era of Internet connectivity began with ERNET in 1985 and NICNET in 1987, followed ten years later by VSNL in 1995 (cf. A timeline of the growth of the Internet From a book I wrote in India with Osama Manzar, NetChakra).
The railway passenger reservation system in India was the first visible government IT project to inspire a change in public attitudes towards IT. Bank unions were initially concerned that computerization would lead to job cuts, but later RBI committees pushed for widespread adoption of IT.
NASSCOM has been instrumental in accelerating the software export industry, local IT education and overseas branding domestically and globally. In 1985, TI became the first global company to set up a technology center in Bengaluru, India.
The authors describe: “In 1993, Infosys was the second venture company after Mastek to go public on the Indian stock exchange.” Infosys was listed on NASDAQ in 1999, a first for an Indian company. Its business model was fueled by “predictability, stability, profitability and risk mitigation.”
The DoE’s STPI initiative sparked a wave of Indian IT services companies in the 1990s. The global delivery model along with quality certification for global reliability and trust was a game changer.
Y2K was a big boost for the industry. A clear focus on financial strength, customer relations and branding has helped the Indian industry scale beyond the century. Foreign players have taken notice and set up their own GCCs in India.
“The 2000s saw India’s IT services industry solidify its position as the world’s No. 1 choice for outsourcing,” the authors assert. “Indian IT is expected to grow rapidly in ‘technology’ in the 2020s,” they added.
While the first wave of hardware and software startups between 1975 and 1995 was represented by companies such as HCL, Wipro and Infosys, the second wave of Indian IT entrepreneurship in the 1990s was represented by the likes of Cognizant, Mindtree and Microland.
The third wave between 2005 and 2015 included B2C startups (Flipkart, Ola, Paytm) and SaaS ventures (Druva, InMobi). Strand Genomics was India’s first bioinformatics startup, while Mu Sigma focused on data analytics services.
The authors show that there is a symbiotic relationship between corporations and startups through innovation accelerators and incubators.
Examples here are Netapp R&D Services and Target IT GCC. Startups in the deep tech space include Niramai. The founders of Dailyhunt, Uniphore and CropIn are targeting the ‘next billion’ Indians.
The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) network was launched in 1993 in Silicon Valley and expanded to India. NASSCOM launched the 10,000 Startups initiative in 2013. This wave of startups is also taking on the public digital foundations of Aadhaar and UPI.
The authors show how startups, industry giants and the government have used technology to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote work has become more enthusiastic, and IT firms’ global clients have accelerated their digital transformation.
Arogya Setu, Co-WIN and healthcare cobots were some of the government’s technical responses. Startups like Modulus Housing, Nocca Robotics and PathShodh Healthcare are focused on providing healthcare solutions.
The Indian IT industry has developed resilience and crisis management best practices over the past four decades.
“This guide, drawn from our collective and shared experiences, is helping to achieve resilience in the face of the unprecedented disruption caused by COVID-19 globally,” the authors assert.
“The key word was endurance. History was repeating itself for us,” they added.
Key lessons from the crisis include trust in computing, scaling up world-class trusted systems, entrepreneurship and leadership.
Opportunities and Challenges Ahead: Harnessing Industry 4.0, bridging the digital divide, strengthening global partnerships for digital transformation, supporting research and incubation for deep-tech startups, driving next-generation government initiatives in areas such as cybersecurity, AI ethics, and healthcare.
Former NASSCOM chief Kiran Karnik warns that Indians should prepare to live in a world of uncertainty. “Knowledge has a half-life of maybe five years now, so you have to learn how to learn,” he urges.
“Over the past six decades, we have built a solid foundation in the IT industry. It is our collective responsibility to take this legacy forward and ensure that India remains a leader in IT and related technologies,” the authors signed off.
YourStory has also launched a pocketbook “Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups” as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: apple, Android).