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Coming of digital age

How the growth of Tata Consultancy Services put India on the software map of the world. Dipankar Bhattacharyya writes.

books Updated: Oct 29, 2011 00:39 IST
Dipankar Bhattacharyya

The TCS Story...and Beyond
S Ramadorai
Portfolio

Rs 699, PP 287

Stories of companies, written by their bosses, tend to raise yawns among the small and declining tribe of book critics. Then you stumble on a passage like this: "Too quietly perhaps did we wear the mantle of pioneer, something for which we paid a price in later years. Let us not forget that for all the companies that followed, TCS's initial investment created a springboard to take off from." Subramaniam Ramadorai, a self-confessedly shy CEO, is understated in telling it, but The TCS Story is breathtakingly audacious.

The life and times of TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) is, after all, a chronicle of India's journey into the digital age. Starting out as a data processing division for the Tata group of companies, TCS has pushed the envelope at every stage to put India on the software map of the world. With an enviable list of firsts. The first Indian company to import a mainframe, the first to seek business in the US, the first to build an Indian electronic stock exchange, the first to spot the millennium bug.

Ramadorai joined the fledgling infotech firm fresh out of engineering college at UCLA and was at the frontline when most of these were happening. Under a tough mentor in FC Kohli, the author had to put in criminally long hours and use all his ingenuity to break into the big league of technology consulting. Part of the success, says Ramadorai, owed to the licence raj that TCS had to work under. Foreign exchange restrictions required Indian companies importing computers to earn twice as much over the next five years in dollars. When TCS bought a computer from Burroughs in 1974, it offered the mainframe maker software development services to migrate to a new platform. Thus was an industry born.

As Ramadorai sees it, TCS grew because it developed skills that were too expensive in the West, and absolutely unavailable in India. Once it had convinced American and European companies that Indians could do the job, it was only a matter of time before India's information technology needs began to surface. And TCS, along with the competition, was there with the frugal engineering skills that have built India's IT backbone. The National Stock Exchange and the National Securities and Depositories followed within a decade of similar IT infrastructure being set up by TCS in Switzerland. Naturally, they work like a charm.

The TCS Story is a chronicle of the transformation of the Tata group. A generation ago, Tata bosses tended to be larger than life, running their businesses as satrapies. By the time Ramadorai hung up his boots, Ratan Tata had managed to create a cadre of consensus-wielding managers trained to work in a vastly different business environment. JRD Tata let his chieftains a free hand as the Indian economy closed up on itself. Ratan consolidated the business empire as India began opening up. In the process, he does not seem to have stifled entrepreneurship within the group. TCS bears testimony.

Ramadorai brings a rare candour and humility to his storytelling. He just might have stumbled on his true calling after retirement.