Saturday Profile: S Gopalakrishnan

The reclusive new Infosys CEO exudes confidence that emerges from simplicity, reports Narayanan Madhavan

business Updated: Apr 21, 2007 16:58 IST

Are good CEOs like good children -- to be seen, not heard? If that were true, Kris Gopalakrishnan, the new public face of Infosys, fits the mould. In a world of brash chief executives seen schmoozing the media more than their staff or customers, 52- year-old S. Gopalakrishnan, named this month as the next chief executive officer (CEO) of the darling of Indian software companies, is a somewhat reclusive person. But make no mistake; his soft voice goes a long way.

Shy, and heading a $3-billion company that has 72,000 employees and some 500 customers that sound like a who's who of global capitalism?

To unravel that mystery, you need to understand a bit about the software industry, a bit about Infosys and a bit about Gopalakrishnan, who is set to take over the reins on June 22 from Nandan Nilekani, who will become executive chairman. The original big man, N.R. Narayana Murthy is set to stay on as non-executive chairman and chief mentor.

Long before software and Infosys turned sexy for investors and parents of prospective brides, these gentlemen who co-founded the company in 1981 were doing the boring but valuable stuff, writing technical code to make computers run so as to automate or make more efficient some of the world's most lucrative businesses.

"I have known him since 1979 when he walked into my office as a very young masters in computer science graduate," Murthy says of Gopalakrishnan. "Right from that day I found him to be gentle but firm, consultative yet decisive, and thoughtful and action-oriented.

Simple pleasures

Goplakrishnan has not forgotten the prodding, low-profile days and has no intentions of doing so. He changes his mobile phones and laptops frequently, not to show off his higher status like Generation X kids do, but to keep abreast of the latest technologies. He still installs software and keys up his computer as a confirmed geek.

His US-friendly nickname, "Kris," a stylishly drooping moustache and the occasional pastel shirt may be the only concessions to flamboyance. Engaging demanding employees and customers has been an old habit Somewhere in the late 1980s, he stopped writing software code as management responsibilities grew, a fact he nearly regrets to this day

"There are a lot of things you miss because of the size," Gopalakrishnan told Hindustan Times. "You can't interact with all employees on a one-to-one basis. Previously, we used to recruit and do interviews ourselves.

Gopalakrishnan, among the seven co-founders who handpicked early staff now heads an organisation that recruits roughly 3,000 people every quarter, often using its own software to sift through applications.

Change has been relentless. The personal computer happened just when Infosys was founded, and then came client-server networks, network computing, the internet and now "ubiquitous computing" that makes smaller mobile devices like Blackberry connect with the world. At each of such steps, new technologies are involved, and new software needs to be tailored. This keeps Infoscions in business.

"You have to be on your toes and looking at what comes next," Gopalakrishnan says. 'Internally, if the company has to grow, the people have to grow. We are a collection of people."

After a master's degree in physics from Kerala, Gopalakrishnan secured an M.Tech in computer science from IIT, Chennai and began his career with Patni Computer Systems, the place where he met Murthy and Nilekani to start the idea that eventually became India's first company to list on the technology-heavy Nasdaq exchange.

His initial responsibilities at Infosys included management of design, development, implementation and support of information systems for clients in the consumer products industry in the US. Between 1987 and 1994, he headed a joint venture set up by Infosys and an American company and returned to India to become Infosys's deputy managing director.

In typical Infosys style, he moved up steadily. In 2002 Kris was appointed as the Chief Operating Officer, and was named in August 2006 as President and Joint Managing Director of which took his role to more strategic issues like customer services, investments and acquisitions. 110 is also chairman of Infosys Consulting, a subsidiary that blends business consulting with software.

CED is what CEO does...

Gopalakrishnan, in an almost deadpan voice, speaks about his CEO role as only that - a role. As if listing technical details, he says the role involves more external engagements, though he was already being groomed for that over the past one war as chairman of the Karnataka unit of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). I have always been quite involved with everything. The difference will be to the outside world," he says, and offers nothing by way of what his style means, saying that is a question for others to answer."I'11probably be personally getting involved (more) on the technical and innovation side," he says.

Gopalakrishnan has a focused air about him, and could be easily mistaken for a modest government officer amidst the lush-green Infosys campus buildings where executives from clients like Bank of America walk briskly in impeccable business suits, exuding Wall Street airs.

But there is a confidence laced to his simplicity, perhaps stemming from his strong, rooted personality.

Gopalakrishnan, who has a seven-year-old daughter, Megharia, says he likes to travel to hill stations and beaches because he does not like crowds, and eases up with all kinds of music. His favourite singers include M.S. Subbulakshmi and Balamurali Krishna. He also enjoys reading courtroom dramas of the John Grisham variety

First Published: Apr 21, 2007 15:56 IST