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Swamy and friends

A former clerk leads a global team of engineers in a state crippled by bad governance. How passion and innovation keep Bangalore going, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2010 02:16 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

He doesn’t hide his 13-year career as government clerk and cashier, the spartan two-room flat he shares with a friend, the I-don’t-really-care attitude to travels that take him to Ukraine, Japan and Taiwan, and an ambition that involves quitting his job leading a team of eight engineers on the cutting-edge of technology.

Like his namesake in R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends, the 35-year-old Narayana Swamy M.K. is a small-town, ghee-rice-loving South Indian. “I hate Bangalore from the core of my heart,” says the amiable, self-taught software expert from Cypress Semiconductors, a multinational headquartered in Silicon Valley and — increasingly — Bangalore.

It is easy to dislike India’s technology heartland, the city that lets Swamy live his dream; the pensioner’s-paradise-turned-technopolis that led his country to the centre of the flat world. Glass-and-steel buildings sprout like weeds, uprooting grand, old rain trees in once-lush residential neighbourhoods. When there is no vacant land, buildings less than a decade old are torn down to make space. Garbage is everywhere. A land mafia rules Bangalore, and successive governments, whether Congress, Janata Dal or the present BJP, have proved venal and gloriously ineffective.

The Indian CEO of a European company tells me how he was blandly asked to pay Rs 18,000 as a bribe to get his flat’s electricity line transferred to his name. On Tuesday, a gathering of the city’s industry associations warned the Karnataka government it was “killing industry” by “cutting the hands and legs” of efficient officials and letting governance collapse in this city of 6 million. “Nothing happens here unless hands (sic) are greased,” says J. Crasta, president of the Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Despite the growing slide into third-world chaos, how does Bangalore continue to be a metropolis on steroids, home to 1,358 technology companies (according to state records updated in 2009), adding an average of three new companies every month?

Last month, Barack Obama warned young people in the US that they would increasingly compete with folks in Bangalore. He was right. The eclipse of the era of the software coolie and the call-centre has begun, as the transfer grows of senior-level US jobs to my old home town. At his company, Cypress Semiconductor India Pvt Ltd, Swamy rubs shoulders with IIT and IIM graduates, his intuitive ability and passion valued over his lack of educational pedigree (His only qualification is a one-year course in data and software). As the West slows, companies know they need innovative brains to make the next, big leap out of Bangalore into the world’s tough emerging markets.

As late as 2006, Swamy’s life revolved around the central excise department in the former royal city of Mysore. In his spare time, Swamy and two friends tinkered in home workshops and did some consulting. Geethesh N.S. was a former lecturer in a Mysore college, later unemployed. Ganesh Raja sold hand-made electronic lights. They knew hardware, Swamy knew software.

Over 2003 and 2004, they combined talents to win competitions building computer systems (a traffic-light controller and a digital front-panel for motorcycles) around a bunch of microscopic silicon circuits carved onto a Cypress chip called a P-SOC, or programmable system-on-chip.

Swamy quit his government job in 2006 when Raja saw his Rs 6,000 pay cheque and asked, “Is this what you work for?”

Cypress asked Swamy to move to Bangalore and build P-SOC applications. These included programming the chip for coffee makers and satellites; for Adidas sneakers that can tell you how long you’ve run and how fast; for the ingenuous scroll-wheels of Apple iPods, which respond to touch, or capacitive sensing (Cap-sense in techie jargon), a frontier technology that allows machines to interact with humans.

Today, Geethesh and Raja too work at Cypress, where Swamy manages the Cap-sense team, which, till a month ago, was in Seattle. Cypress’ Bangalore office sits in a quiet, lakeside tech park. At one end, defence scientists are working on gas turbines for warships. At the other, a residential neighbourhood struggles with unpaved roads and uncollected trash.

Swamy has little use for the Bangalore beyond his beloved P-SOC chip. “I am passionate about it, I love it,” he says. “It’s the only reason I am here in Bangalore.”

Every Friday, Swamy boards the 6.15 pm Chamundi Express to Mysore, heading home to his wife, two children and parents. He is back on Monday, figuring out how to make his silicon circuits respond to the needs of customers across the world.

Swamy may abhor Bangalore, but he loves his country. On Republic and Independence Days he salutes the tricolour. There is much he seeks, and so Swamy does not intend to be a Cypress employee forever. The company doesn’t mind: His ambitions revolve around their chip. “I want to give employment to at least 500 people, based on P-SOC,” says Swamy. “My only rule — it must all be in Mysore.”