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The 'Kid' reinvents Cognizant-and himself

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A few days ago, US-based overtook to become the second-largest IT company in India, an important milestone that saw the baton being passed from an iconic pioneer in the Indian technology space to a future contender.

The man steering Cognizant on Sunday is boyish-looking, 44-year-old Francisco D’Souza, who could easily pass for an energetic student at a management school, than for the CEO of a top-flight technology company. Much of Cognizant’s success is thanks to D’Souza, who, in the past five years as CEO, has propelled the company’s revenues from $1.4 billion, when he took over, to almost $7 billion on Sunday, at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 35 per cent.

D’Souza attributes much of his success, and Cognizant’s, to his peripatetic childhood. His father, Placido D'Souza, an Indian Foreign Service diplomat, had to move to a new country every few years, and he made sure his son attended a local school wherever they went: Whether it was Panama, Zaire, Trinidad, New Delhi, New York, Hong Kong or Pittsburgh. This resulted in the need to learn new languages, make new friends, explore different cuisines, and soak up diverse cultures.

"If there is one thing in my personal life that has made a decisive impact on business in Cognizant, it is the multi-cultural experience that I have gained and cherished,” says D’Souza. “From the beginning, we have consciously built the organisation with this 'multi-cultural' flavour, because to serve the global marketplace, you need to be global. What I learned growing up in a microcosm, is very much alive in the DNA of Cognizant", says Francisco.”

Born in Nairobi, D’Souza grew up in three continents. He attained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of East Asia, and a master of business administration degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, where he reportedly was the youngest in the class, thus acquiring the moniker, ‘the kid’.

When D’Souza took over in 2007, Cognizant was a late entrant in the IT services sector, dominated by giants like Wipro and Infosys. Playing catch-up was not easy. But D'Souza had a clear game plan— focus on a few areas and expand into adjacent ones, be it new geographies, solutions, or industries.

Within Cognizant, D'Souza had many roles to play — from the Director of the US operations, to the vice-president (North American operations), to COO, and now, CEO. During these stints, D'Souza set up and incubated the North American operations, European operations, and newer industry practices and solutions.

Yet, D'Souza isn’t satisfied. He recently announced that his ace team of Gordon Coburn, R Chandrasekaran and Rajeev Mehta will take over the ownership for over 95 per cent of the company's business, allowing him to focus on new business models, geographies, and technology architectures, somewhat akin to the decision Bill Gates made many years ago, when he handed over the reins of Microsoft to Steven Ballmer.

According to analysts, these new ideas, models and technologies may not have opportunities on Sunday. However, in the next three-five years this strategy will germinate, especially in areas like social media, cloud and mobile analytics. D’Souza refers to these as emerging business accelerators (EBAs), and expects those to be the material-drivers of Cognizant's future growth. The EBA segment comprises 18 new businesses, with D’Souza heading four. In effect, D’Souza has created a venture capital organisation within his IT enterprise and appointed ‘mini’ CEOs from Cognizant’s work force to head these verticals.

At this rate, D’Souza, at the tender age of 44, has a good chance of eclipsing the luminaries of an older generation of IT entrepreneurs, who set the bedrock for Cognizant’s success.

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