The mavericks who helped India ride the IT wave
The upcoming book “The Maverick Effect” by Harish Mehta, chronicles the beginnings and rise of the information technology (IT) sector in India. While technology was a globally disruptive force that would have come to India one way or another, without the efforts of a few intrepid entrepreneurs, we might have yet been behind the wave, rather than riding it. This story also shows that when our backs are against the wall, Indians do come together despite their differences to make things happen.
Living in an age where startups, software and technology are an integral part of our lives, (sometimes too integral), it is hard to rewind back to a time when technology was something “new” and yet to arrive. Growing up as a 80s / 90s kid, I still remember the days when computers were obscure and a novelty. India was still a closed nation, with most comforts out of reach of ordinary people. Over the years, we have seen this change with the dramatic rise of the IT sector. People like Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji have become billionaires and legends. Software companies with dazzling IT parks have become the staple of every Indian city. Millions of people working for these firms have become the consuming classes that have powered malls and real-estate, changing the aesthetics of the country.
Through this book, the author chronicles the rise of the industry through the lenses of his own personal story and the story of NASSCOM — the industry body representing the IT sector. Started off as a group that specifically focused on the needs of the software sector (as against the hardware sector), NASSCOM became a brand on its own, spearheading the India IT story globally. While on hindsight, the rise seems spectacular, all through the book the author shares anecdote after anecdote of seemingly fatal setbacks, and when all seemed lost, someone came to the rescue to take things forward. It was almost as if this was destiny’s child.
Right from the obstruction of the hardware manufacturing association (MAIT) to unsympathetic government officials, this group of entrepreneurs were tested at each step. The tale of how India got connected to the SEA-ME-WE-2 undersea cable in 1991 is a great story that almost did not happen. At that time India only had analog internet at 9.8kbps that was not only slow but also unreliable. The government could not fathom why India would need more bandwidth, and getting both the buy-in and financing in place was so necessary for India to be ready for exploiting the next big opportunity around the Y2K bug.
While the current times seem wild, the real wild-west days of Indian IT were the 90s, personified by the rise and the fall of the swashbuckling Dewang Mehta. The wild days ended with the disgraceful fall of the bellwether Satyam Computers, one of the top IT companies of the day. The industry managed to survive all these turbulent times and is now dominated by humongous Indian and multinational players. Inviting global companies to set up 100% owned offshore units was another brave move by NASSCOM that has helped Indian IT become world beating.
While the book is filled with numerous anecdotes about how this group of entrepreneurs facilitated the rise of the industry, the personal journey of the author is equally fascinating. Coming back to India from a cushy job in the United States, to being part of pioneering firms of the industry, to being betrayed by your partners and never giving up in the face of numerous personal tragedies is super inspiring. My only criticisms of the book are that it gets too preachy and patriotic at times and downplays the fantastic wealth acquired by its members. Otherwise is a fast breezy read that will be accessible to many readers. The book was especially illuminating for me since the author happens to be my uncle (my mother’s brother)!
Towards the end, the author laments the stagnation of NASSCOM. It is no longer the tiger that used to roar, but is now a pale shadow of itself. In a way, NASSCOM is a victim of its own success. Incumbency has meant that responsibilities are more important than risks. Many of its member companies are now multi-billion dollar enterprises that have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo. NASSCOM failed to capitalise on both the rise of the Cloud and software-as-a-service (SAAS) that are already disrupting the industry again.
The India IT story is in no way over, there are new frontiers and new storms on the horizon and it’s now up to the next generation to take up the mantle and take this story forward. Maybe the environment these days is so supportive of entrepreneurship that we don’t need an association like NASSCOM. With abundant venture capital and access to tons of free and open source software, entrepreneurs have everything they need to get started and build the next generation companies from India. If for a change, India starts from a position of strength, and we have NASSCOM and its intrepid founders to thank for that.
My review is based on an advance copy. The Maverick Effect will be out on 20th March. You can pre-order on Amazon