Phaneesh Murthy, the CEO of iGate Patni, is one of the most recognisable faces of the IT industry. He graduated with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1985, and completed his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad in 1987. Before joining iGate, he had worked in Sonata Software, a start-up and also served as a Director in Infosys Technologies Limited. Early in 2011, he anchored the Indian IT industry’s biggest acquisition: a $1 billion buy-out of Patni Computer Systems.
Excerpts from the interview by Anand Rao and Tanmai Gopal.
Life and Education at IIT Madras
Can you recall for us some of your most memorable moments in IITM? What did you take back from your time here?
There are various things I can think of – I will try and do multiple snapshots. The first few things that I recollect are the awesome campus, the deer, the environment etc. The second thing, and honestly the most memorable thing about IIT Madras is the kind of friends that I made at that age. Now, I am just in touch with one or two people I have known before IIT. But the people I met during IIT and post IIT are really the ones with who I am constantly connected, especially the ones I met in my hostel! So that was a huge part of my experience and learning in IIT. And the third thing, I think, is the amount of individual freedom and choice one gets in terms of choices of subjects, curriculum, etc. The kind of facilities in IITs is unparalleled (at least in India). I think the combination of these things, especially the people that I interacted with; have stayed with me for life, whichever way you look at it.
Every individual in IIT is unique in some respect. So what do you think set you apart from your peers?
I think I definitely did a lot of things in IIT, which were quite unique. At one time, I was participating in seven games for my hostel at the inter-hostel level and in one of them for the institute. I think it was crazy, I mean, it might just be my level of mediocrity in multiple games! (laughs) I actually was one of the organising committee members when we split our cultural festival in those days, Mardi Gras, into formal events and informal events, where I used to run the informal events. We had to get our prizes and sponsorships on our own, and the prizes used to be cakes, chocolates, dinners for two, trophies and shields, while the whole emphasis was on the participation of the average IITian. So if I look at my overall exposure, I think I got really the best of what IITM has to offer – a good dose of academics, a good measure of sports, and a good exposure to social skills. I have really taken advantage of everything that IITM had to offer, rather than just a single dimension.
On the academic lines, how has your academic education at IIT been helpful in your career? Has the impact been direct, or indirect?
I think there are three kinds of education in IIT if I look at it from an academic standpoint. One is, the problem solving capability or technique that teaches you how to approach a given scenario. And that is, in my opinion, imbibed into all the engineering stuff you do. As an engineer, you basically try to figure out how to solve a problem, right? That’s what I mean.
The second thing, I think, is the hard skill – the concepts I learnt. I was in mech, so it would be some particular concept in heat transfer or another in applied mechanics etc.
And the third thing, as far as I’m concerned, is confidence building. I came into IIT when I was 17, so building confidence over the next 4-5 years, I matured into an adult.
I think the first thing is huge, as I use it every single day. Even now, the problems I face in my office everyday are very similar to what I learned in IIT – breaking it down into smaller problems, solving them one at a time etc. So the broad problem solving skill set that I learnt in IIT is absolutely huge. The harder and the more technical skills are useful in some fields but not in all fields. The confidence which comes from getting into an institution like IITM, competing with peers with excellent academic credentials from anywhere, holding your own against them, and being able to debate openly with teachers, is huge again. I would say the first and the third thing I have learnt in IIT are absolutely big for me. The second one – useful in some areas, but not in those I am involved in today. But that’s only because of the choices I’ve made in industry.
One of the frequent debates among the students in the institute is the relevance of academic education in the industry, as some feel it is overkill. Is that true? Do you think we must focus on other things and not just academics?
There was a research project carried out that analysed data 10, 15, 20 years after graduating from the institute that tried to draw a correlation between how somebody performed in the institute and how successful they have been after that many years, which is a reasonable period of time. And I don’t think there’s any correlation.
I came to IIT being number one in my class, just like everybody else was before coming to IIT. In IIT, I was probably in the top 40%, not in the top 10% or 20%, but I do believe that what I got out of IIT was huge in terms of the overall rounding of my personality. As far as I am concerned, given the fact that you have got into IIT or any top institute (and this is what I tell my son who is doing Computer Science in Berkeley), you automatically earn certain amount of respect when you come out. With respect to academics, it is what all else you gain within that time, which makes you a better human being for the future. So I absolutely believe that 100% focus only on academics will not get you any further. Actually I would argue (even the research seems to have borne that out) that when I look at people and I want to hire them it’s not purely on one dimension as the world’s problems are multi-dimensional.
Recently Mr. Narayana Murthy had commented about the falling standards of students in IIT, and how coaching seems to be one of the main reasons. Do you have any opinions on that?