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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Information innovator

Information technology (IT) is all about innovation. Vish Iyer can’t agree more.

Mobility, social media and big data are all hot-button topics. Cloud computing frees up people from the desk, so an IT system can be managed even on the road. “For a bank, it could be payment via Internet banking or mobile phone,” says the high-flying corporate executive, dapper in a light purple shirt.

Vish Iyer: 'There is no advantage in having 20 or 30 years of experience unless you are ...very merit-driven and work-driven'.

“For an insurance company, it could mean enabling an agent to get quotations and conduct transactions on his or her mobile.” For an airline, pilots no longer carry huge bags with heavy operating manuals. “We put that on an iPad,” he adds.

Few would believe the president for Asia Pacific at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has neither training in IT nor a background in engineering. He learns by doing.

Born and raised in Kolkata around the time when India’s first computer arrived, Iyer graduated from St Xavier’s College, one of the city’s best-known educational institutions with a major in taxation and economics.

Now the head of the largest service provider in the Asia-Pacific region based in Singapore, he manages 10,000 employees in 13 countries including Australia, Japan, China and South Korea.

The 45-year-old Indian company, whose clients include Microsoft and ING Group, is the provider of IT services and business solutions, with a turnover exceeding $12 billion and market capitalization of $45 billion on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

It is part of the Tata group, India’s largest conglomerate in seven sectors including communications, engineering and energy, with a revenue of more than $100 billion in the fiscal year 2011-12.

As a certified accountant, Iyer moved on from the financial field to other areas including human resources, marketing, strategy, mergers and acquisition. “I have been a chief financial officer many times,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly at the TCS Hong Kong office.

But that didn’t stop him from venturing into new fields after three and a half decades. Midway through his career, he moved into a new-born industry in India.

His rationale is: “What matters is how you put your basic training to use and how you quickly learn from the surroundings. You can do anything as long as you have a will to do it, and you are determined to work hard enough.”

He spent a decade at IBM, where he was director of corporate development. IT has since become his longest stint.

He has witnessed the birth of the industry along with the ups and downs. “The IT industry is very fascinating. Every two to three years are completely different. In that sense, everybody got to continuously learn,” he says.

In the IT world, experience doesn’t necessarily give you an edge over the younger generation. Two-thirds of the company’s workforce has about three years of experience and the average age of a TCS employee is just 28.

“There is no advantage (in) having 20 or 30 years of experience unless you are … very merit-driven and work-driven,” Iyer says.

“This is the industry across the world (where) everything looks the same. There is no different standard in the US or Japan. Once you are inside IT, it is the same. It talks the same language and (has the same) quality level.”

The capability to locate young talent matters for the industry. To Iyer, the Chinese mainland not only has a staggering domestic market but also vast trained manpower resources.

TCS is among the first Indian companies to enter the Chinese mainland as the first wholly-owned foreign enterprise. The IT consultancy commenced its operations in Shanghai in 2002, then established a development center in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province in October of the same year. Its banking products are used by Bank of China in more than 40 provinces.

Iyer sees the potential to substantially increase China’s TCS workforce from its current number of 3,000 people, as the company’s sales growth in China outpaces that in the Americas. TCS now has relations with 20 colleges in China.

“Our business is all about people,” he says. “At the end of the day, we need to find out where are these talents available for serving our customers. China is very important from that point of view — as a pool of talent. It’s equally important for the size of the economy, too.”

“We are very bullish about China,” he said in a previous interview. “Its full potential has not yet been harnessed … We’re looking to leverage its position as an innovation center and a hub for the Northeast Asia region.”

TCS has started to provide a ground-breaking cloud-based service that enables smaller banks and credit unions to establish their own Internet, mobile and ATM facilities by paying a monthly fee. “A village bank need not have an IT department, but the same technology that empowers a (central bank) is now available to small and medium enterprises.”

The TCS pioneer project has found a home in the world’s second largest economy. iCity or the Intelligent City, utilizes smart technologies and collective intelligence to improve a city’s livability and sustainability.

These cities will be built on cloud infrastructure that makes them easy to run. Every citizen will own a personalized information page for health records and blood pressure measurements and even get health alerts and doctors’ advice.

Imagine buildings that glean energy from the sun and rain, reducing energy consumption, and embedded software in cars and traffic poles that automatically monitor local traffic. At the same time, healthcare and consumer services are dispensed to citizens at home, saving time, cost and valuable resources.

An iCity project in southern China’s port city of Guangzhou is slated for a soft launch later this year. More blueprints are on majors’ drawing boards in first- and second-tier Chinese cities, including Tianjin, Ningbo and Chengdu.

“The Indian IT industry over the last 20 years has done exceedingly well,” Iyer says. “Works of best quality are from this industry. There (has been) a lot of proud achievements — so it’s an exciting place to be in.”

But when asked about the most exciting moment in his life, the president’s answer has surprisingly nothing to do with his career. “The day when my daughter was born, and when I was holding her in my hands,” he says, with a gentle smile.

“Lots of people talk about work-life balance. I think each person has to find that balance himself … Family influence is a strong support for the profession I pursue, so there are no conflicts or contradiction.”

Looking back, Iyer has been with his two children — his 23-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son — through every important step of their life. “I (accompany) them through every exam, drop them off and pick them up after classes, and consult their teachers for college admissions. As long as you enjoy it, you’ll find time for doing it,” he adds.

Technology has been the savior for this family man with a hectic business schedule with long hours of frequent travel.

“I am on the road 50 or 60 percent of the time. Each month, I am outside my hometown for 20 days,” he says. “My children have grown up with me spending a lot of time at work. But this is a world of Facebook, email and Skype. That’s what we do now,” he says.

What makes his day? Iyer answers professionally without a second of hesitation: “To satisfy a customer in a meeting.”

Then comes the personal bit: “Followed by a relaxing dinner with my wife.”


Vish Iyer
President of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Asia Pacific

Career Milestones:
2010: Becomes president of TCS Asia Pacific
2008: Serves as CFO of global business operations at TCS
2006: Takes up post as head of corporate strategy at TCS
1996: Becomes director of corporate development at IBM Global Services
1991: Joins Tata Elxsi as executive vice-president

Playing golf. The question is not how well you play but whether you enjoy the time. Whatever I do, I enjoy. It’s a great opportunity to meet people.
Business philosophy:
I always believe in ... simple communication with the customer and the employee. There is no point promising things that you cannot deliver. Whatever you promise, you deliver. Whatever you don’t deliver, you don’t promise.
If you were to do one thing differently in life?
I can’t think of one thing. I do things that I enjoy doing.
How to kill time on the road:
I spend a lot of time watching movies on the plane. My favorite stars are Jackie Chan and Amitabh Bachchan, who hosted India’s version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Born: December 8 in a Year of the Snake