He headed India’s largest IT services provider, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for 13 years from 1996 to 2009. During his tenure TCS grew from $1 billion to over $6 billion in annual revenue, to figure among the top 10 tech companies in terms of revenue. S Ramadorai, now TCS’s Vice-chairman, documents these changes and more in The TCS Story... and Beyond. Excerpts from an interview with Shyamal Majumdar and Leslie D’Monte
What led you to write this book?
No one ever wrote a book about TCS. Very few people know about the company. So after I retired, my colleagues encouraged me to write this book and I decided to take up the challenge. But the sheer magnitude of describing my journey of 40 years at TCS was challenging. It took me two years from idea to inception. The most difficult part was the logistics — to find time to get people and customers to tell their stories. But having worked so long with the organisation, I could remember the names of people who helped make this organisation what it is today.
You have mentioned your wife extensively. Did she like your debut as a writer?
She’s a good critic. She performed surgery on the chapter wherein I’ve spoken about the “Maitree” programme, since she was the original brain behind it.
Why did it take TCS almost 50 years to list?
TCS was run as a company within a company with its own chairman and an executive team, which I had led since 1996. It had proven extremely successful as a Tata Sons division, but inside TCS we believed that in order to take the business to the next level in the global marketplace, we would eventually need to be an independent public company. For Tata Sons this was a very sensitive topic and a complex issue because it required a massive restructuring, which took nearly five years. Finally the Tatas pressed the button to go ahead with the TCS IPO. May 2004 was the target date and there was a huge sense of relief and excitement.
Why was TCS for so long not considered the bellwether of the Indian IT industry?
We always felt people did not understand TCS. We were told that since we were not listed, no one was obligated to write about us. But it was also our Tata culture that taught us to do more and speak later. In the minds of IT buyers in the US and Europe, there was little differentiation between Tata and TCS. We, as engineers, had paid little regard to marketing and the need to build a brand that could compete on an equal footing in the global IT services markets with the likes of IBM, Accenture and HP. Hence, we did some testing around the phrase “Experience Certainty” and it seemed to resonate both inside TCS and with clients.
How did your leadership style differ from that of your predecessor as CEO, F C Kohli? You have called him a “benevolent dictator”.
[Laughs] He was difficult to deal with but more since he was very competent and would cut people short. He had little patience when presented with “poor” ideas. Hence, I learnt to communicate in writing, and engage in dialogue later. This worked for both of us. When I took charge in 1996, I dispensed with hierarchy to a great extent. There was more of a collegiate atmosphere.
You refer to Naval Mody as a difficult person.
When I arrived in New York, Naval Mody, who was then President of Tata Inc., saw my presence as an unnecessary expense. He understood trading but not sales so did not see any value in my role. He told me I should just take the next flight home. I was caught between two bosses — Kohli and Mody. But I saw it as a challenge. In 1980, there was a subway strike in New York. Many people stayed at home but I walked one and a half hours to make it to the meeting. I would like to believe that Mody saw me in a different light after that day. We did later become good friends with respect for each other.
One of the first issues we had to face when we decided to get serious about the TCS brand was that TCS already had a tagline: ‘Beyond the Obvious’. But as Jayant [Pendharkar, head of global marketing] noted, ‘It became obvious that it was beyond anybody’s comprehension what it stood for — because it could stand for anything.’
In fact ‘Beyond the Obvious’ had become our tagline almost by accident. Someone in our Bangalore office had liked the phrase and put it up on his wall. Then one time when Jack Welsh [sic], the GE Chief Executive, was walking through the facility he had commented that he liked the sign, and from then on it became our official tagline.
The problem was that whenever prospects or customers asked us, ‘What does the tagline mean?’ we had no clear answer; more often than not it was left to individual interpretation. I decided that we needed to undertake a more formal exercise and define what TCS really stood for, so I asked those most directly involved in marketing TCS in India, the US and the UK to get together and come up with some recommendations.
The group held a two-day meeting and came up with some ideas, but we quickly realized that we actually needed the involvement of an external source, because a brand is what the outside world sees you to be and not what you think you are. So we began looking for a firm of strategic brand consultants to help with the task. [...]
We chose the New York-based firm of Siegel and Gale [and asked them] to focus on two key questions: First, what is it that makes TCS special? Second, what is it that our clients really value and desire?
We wanted to find a way to articulate the answers to these key questions in an interesting and compelling way that differentiated us from our competitors. The Siegel and Gale project team began by reviewing our existing research and marketing collateral. They conducted numerous interviews with TCSers spread across the world, sometimes meeting them face to face and at other times speaking on the phone, even at odd times of the day and night because of the time difference between India and the US.
It was an interesting process because for the first time TCSers were having to think about what TCS was really about. [...]
But we also felt it was important for the Siegel and Gale team to get an external perception of TCS, so we invited them to attend our US customer summit and to meet and speak to our clients. What the team discovered after talking to both internal and external audiences was that there was an overlap between the in-house and customers’ views of TCS. [...]
They told us that our customers saw us more from an operational perspective — for example, that we did work on time, we had good people, we knew the technology — rather than from an aspirational perspective. For this reason they argued that we needed to adopt a two-step approach. First, we should establish a brand position and tagline that could be defended and that would help us differentiate ourselves and pull us away from our competitors, then go to the next step — our aspirational goal.
One option that we considered was to highlight the innovation at the core of the TCS service offering, but IBM was running its ‘innovation’ campaign at that time and Siegel and Gale was not sure that the message was the right one, particularly with the economy in a down cycle when innovation might not be as highly valued as during an upswing.
But what did come through very, very clearly in all the discussions that the branding team conducted was a notion of ‘certainty’. When TCS undertook a project for a client we looked them in the eye, told them what needed to be done and how long it would take, and then, come hell or high water, we delivered. [...]
It was something that the Siegel and Gale team heard time and again during their interviews, and so the first idea that the team presented to us was that TCS stood for ‘The Science of Certainty’. The tagline was meant to convey the notion that TCS had cornered the market on the science of how you make IT systems work 100 per cent of the time. [...]
At TCS we liked this concept, but we felt that we wanted the brand to be more closely identified with delivering business solutions, so we sent the Siegel and Gale team back to think about the word ‘certainty’ a bit more. They then came up with several alternatives and the one that eventually emerged as the strongest was more of a declarative statement: ‘Experience Certainty’.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin India
THE TCS STORY ... AND BEYOND
Author: S Ramadorai
Publisher: Penguin Portfolio
Pages: xiv + 288
Price: Rs 699