Interview with Ravi Venkatesan – Chairman, Microsoft India

Interview with Ravi Venkatesan – Chairman, Microsoft India

Innovating from, for and with India is our mantra.

PiTech is the premier technology magazine for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alums and community. I had the opportunity to interview Ravi Venkatesan – Chairman, Microsoft India for the July 2008 issue of PiTech that celebrates 50 years of IIT Bombay. Below is the interview in its entirety.

You can read the entire issue here.



Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation India Pvt. Ltd.

Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman, Microsoft India is responsible for Microsoft’s marketing, operational and business development efforts in the country. In partnership with the leaders of Microsoft’s other business units, Venkatesan provides a single point of leadership for the company, playing an integral role in defining Microsoft’s relationship with policy makers, customers and business partners across Microsoft’s six distinct business units in India namely: Microsoft Corporation India (Pvt) Ltd, the Marketing Subsidiary, Microsoft India Development Center, Microsoft Global Technical Support Centre, Microsoft Global Development Center India, Microsoft Global Services India and Microsoft Research India.

Prior to joining Microsoft, Venkatesan worked for over seventeen years with Cummins Inc, a US-based designer, manufacturer and distributor of engines and related technologies. He served in various leadership capacities at Cummins including Chairman of Cummins India Limited and Managing Director of Tata Cummins Limited, a joint venture between Cummins Inc. and Tata Motors. His biggest contribution at Cummins was leading the transformation of Cummins in India into the leading provider of power solutions and the largest manufacturer of automotive engines in the country.

Venkatesan has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (1985), an MS in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University (1986) and a MBA from Harvard University (1992) where he was a Baker Scholar. Ravi was awarded Purdue University’s Outstanding  Industrial  Engineer  award  for  the  year 2000  and  the Distinguished  Alumnus  award  by  the  Indian  Institute  of Technology in  2003.

Venkatesan is a member of the Executive Council of NASSCOM, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a Director on the Board of Thermax Ltd and a member of the Advisory Council of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and IIIT-Bangalore. He has contributed frequently to the Harvard Business Review and some of his articles include, “Strategic Sourcing – to Make or Not to Make” and “The Strategy that Wouldn’t Travel.”

His interests include reading, travel, classical music and philanthropy.

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What are some of the problems that our industry hasn’t solved? What’s holding us back?

At first, in many ways India is the centre of the IT world today and the credit only goes to the huge amount of talent that we have. However, for all the expertise that we have in IT, there is a huge underserved market in India.

The IT uptake in the domestic market has been limited. With all the challenges that lie ahead of us as a nation, are it access to education, or market access for small business or even transparency and accountability in governance, technology has the potential to solve these but we have never really applied ourselves to it. We have largely focused our energies on the global market.

The fact remains, for India to continue the economic growth it has seen in the last three years, it is imperative for us to work towards addressing these issues.

What are the key ingredients of a strategy to outsmart competition?

The only way to stay ahead in the game is to focus on the customer. You have to hear and concentrate on the spoken and unspoken needs of consumer. Take for instance the success Apple has enjoyed with iPod. It’s not a technological innovation but a brilliant execution of an innate need of a customer, connecting the device and the online music service, which had never been clearly articulated. Much like the Walkman a few decades ago. Or X Box live. We realized people were not looking to just enjoy the game in their living rooms but also wanted to play with the best of the best, whoever they may be and anywhere they may be. And in addressing that need, we were able to close the gap on Sony.

How can technology companies better understand the needs of customers?

If we can balance the obsession with our products with an obsession for our customers and really listen to them, and listen to them not only before the sale but even post the sale, it will make all the difference.

Simplistic as it may sound, it all boils down to be less internally focused and ensure our people are walking in the shoes of our customers.

How do you see PC computing evolving over the next 5-10 years?

If you look at the emerging new world of work and lifestyle, an always connected environment where users want to access data from wherever and at any time, one can safely talk about the emergence of non PC devices as the center piece of the digital era.

Likewise as technology is increasingly deployed for the next five billion and we think about enabling people in various scenarios, one will have to innovate to enable access for them. That will lead to evolution in the modality of interaction.

For instance, we will need to address issues of language and literacy, which means changes in text user interfaces, vision and speech recognition. Essentially, the devices will be more intelligent. Not only will they recognize our voice, but they’ll recognize our intent, take intelligent actions and follow commands. This means display technology will also have to evolve quite dramatically Concepts like surface computing, automotive computing and mobile computing will really become a big-big phenomenon.

Another interesting dimension will be the integration of TV software & PC software for connected-home consumer experiences across devices. IPTV will become pervasive with the integration of end-to-end multimedia and video solutions.

Needless to say, all of this will be accompanied by a fundamental re-architecting of the microprocessor. As per Moore’s law, multi-core computers will play a vital role in ushering in supercomputing.

What are some of the key “big-picture” initiatives at Microsoft?

As we all know, there are Two India’s. One is the global corporate India which is every bit as sophisticated as any other company globally. As productive, efficient and technology savvy as anyone else. And we see ourselves as partners to them and in their growth.

Then there is the other India, to be precise 2/3rd of it which is at the risk of being left behind. Ironically at one level technology can be the divider. But it is also pretty much the most significant bridge to ensure an inclusive socio economic growth for the underserved India.

Over the last couple of years the focus has intensified in three areas and is aligned with the overall national agenda:

At first Investment in human capital both by way of education and skills has been and will continue to be a key focus area. IT is key, both as a subject of study and as the key facilitator in providing affordable access to education and skills.

Secondly, as we work towards addressing the unique scenarios of our country, it is obvious we and the entire ecosystem will need to innovate. We have to create a relevant enabling environment and that requires innovation at all levels.

Last but not the least it is important to sustain the current growth of the Indian economy and create appropriate jobs and opportunities for the growing young population of our country. Again IT plays a dual role of both as a facilitator and a key provider.

And in this commitment to realize the “Unlimited Potential”, we run several initiatives in the country such as:

Project Shiksha for accelerating IT literacy and enhancing the classroom environment among government schools across the country. We have already covered over 1,10,000 school teachers and impacted the lives of over 4 million students.

Project Bhasha for promoting local language computing wherein we have tried to break down one of the barriers by providing local language interface packs for Microsoft products in 14 Indian languages.

Project Jyoti which provides lifelong learning for adults in rural communities especially women through Community Technology Learning Centers. Run in partnership with NGOs we have already impacted the lives of several women who in many instances have now become bread earners for their families or simply gained social esteem and confidence and are leading examples for women’s empowerment in their communities.

Project Vikas to enhance the global competitiveness of the SMEs by IT enablement. Run in partnership with the national manufacturing council it entails a five year action plan to help the Indian SMEs address their ‘soft’ challenges of market access, knowledge networks and enablement of supply chain linkages in the cluster ecosystem. We have successfully seen the first phase of deployment in three sectors: Tripur (textiles), Pune (auto components) and Ahmedabad (pharmaceuticals)

In addition to all the innovative work we do at our own business units, we also work with the Indian SI, ISV and developer community to build a robust software product ecosystem in India. We are engaged with them to support them on quality, technology roadmap, business skills and mentoring, venture capital funding and provide all the end to end tools to become commercially successful. It is towards our quest of ‘Made in India’ software.

But at all times we are aware of the need to deliver affordable PC solutions and that is central to our India mission of building a digitally inclusive society. So over and above the special licensing for the government and academic community, we have in place a ‘Good-Better-Best’ segment approach. Essentially, different SKUs with different levels of functionality and therefore differentiated prices. Good example is Windows Vista Starter Edition, specially designed to spur PC usage in India it is the lowest cost Microsoft offering available today.

Or innovative models of delivery, such as the “pay-as-you-go” business model enabled by our flex go technology. It uses the familiarity and flexibility of prepaid mobile phones and applies it to personal computer, bringing down the entry barrier of costs for PC ownership.

Like I have said before, Innovation is key. Innovation in product, business models, solutions and services.

What technology (ies) is Microsoft building specifically for India?

India is the only subsidiary outside of the US where Microsoft has an end-to-end presence of its entire product lifecycle right from research to product development to support. The large talent pool is naturally empathetic to the needs and problems of our fellow citizens. Therefore we can explore various technology, tools, solutions and services which are relevant not just to India but all emerging markets. As a result we are ‘Inspired by India’ we therefore we ‘Innovate for India’.

Take the example of Microsoft Research India. It is one of the premier industrial research labs globally and as of March 2007, MSR India had already published more than 60 papers in leading international journals and conferences. While it focuses in areas including Cryptography, Security, Digital Geographics, Mobility and Multilingual Systems, it is the work they do for Emerging Markets is very heart warming.

Take MultiPoint – a simple yet powerful technology which will enable multiple children to share a single PC using multiple mice. For the purposes of primary education, it can multiply the benefit of a single computer by three, four, five, or more.

Equally inspiring is Digital StudyHall (DSH), an independent research project primarily supported by Microsoft Research, which aims to overcome both the problems of staff shortage and availability of standardized study material among underserved communities.

Simply put, it records and distributes DVDs of subject classes led by India’s best grassroots teachers. Underserved areas can access the DSH database via DVDs, while areas that are more developed will be able to access the content via the Internet.

Some other areas it is working on and very relevant to scenarios like India is Text Free User Interface to overcome the language barrier or the Split Screen UIs to multiply benefits for small businesses.

The Microsoft development centre which does end to end product development for Microsoft globally and contributes significantly to all our products, is also incubating technologies which will make computing more, far more intuitive and integrated with entertainment and therefore more compelling and more affordable.

How does India help Microsoft in the Asian markets, Global markets?

India is amongst the fastest growing markets for Microsoft both from a talent perspective and from a market perspective and it’s no surprise that we are contributing significantly to the revenues and product innovation at Microsoft corp. Our contributions are immense.

Microsoft Research, with over 50 people, is one of the premier industrial research labs globally and as of March 2007, MSR India had already published more than 60 papers in leading international journals and conferences. It focuses in six areas including Cryptography, Security, and Algorithms; Digital Geographics; Mobility Networks, and Systems, Multilingual Systems, rigorous software engineering and emerging markets and is committed to advancing the state of the art computer science research in India. It partners with a number of educational and research institutions in India and abroad to push forward the boundaries of scientific research.

The Microsoft India Development Center (MSIDC) at Hyderabad is fully integrated with the key product families of Microsoft and is the second largest MS software development center outside Redmond. It has more than 1300 employees working on over 50 products and technologies for the global Microsoft portfolio.

Team here have end-to-end responsibility on projects and cover all aspects of software development – Development, Testing and Program Management. Teams work collaboratively with Redmond on future releases of products and are constantly innovating to enhance the user experience. MSIDC is a leader in creating intellectual property from India and has filed for over 130 patents in the last two years.

The Global technical support centre, Microsoft IT and the Global consulting and services centre are also based out of India and are supporting global customers for Microsoft and contributing significantly to Microsoft revenues.

Innovating from, for and with India is our mantra.