Hardbound

Wipro's No to Narayana Murthy: A Rejection That Changed Indian IT Sector’s Face

Before he set up what was to become one of Indian IT sector’s biggest success stories, Narayana Murthy was rejected by Wipro chairman Azim Premji. The Infosys chairman later found out that Premji considered this one of his gravest errors of judgement. In her latest book An Uncommon Love Story, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores little known facets of Murthy’s life and the influential role his wife Sudha played in it

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Published 25 days ago on Feb 01, 2024 6 minutes Read

Mumbai was a whole different world and a whole different lifestyle for Sudha and Murthy. Because of their new jobs and their new responsibilities, they both became busier than ever before. While it was an exciting place, Mumbai was larger and more confusing than any city they had lived in until now – and it was a commuter’s nightmare. For Murthy, especially, the workday was very long. 

The PCS data centre was located at the computer centre of the Associated Cement Company (ACC). PCS was allotted two time slots for their use of the DG computer system there: 6–8 a.m. and 8–11 p.m. Murthy and his team also had to provide software support to ACC and other PCS domestic data centre customers during normal office hours. Because of this, Murthy would leave for work at 5 a.m. and reach the office in time for the morning slot for software development work. He stayed at work all day and then worked through the late-night slot, which was devoted to solving problems for international clients. He would reach home exhausted and get only about four hours of sleep before his workday started again.  

To add to their difficulty, the apartment they had rented – the only one they could afford – was all the way across the city in Santacruz East, next to the railway line. It was tiny and cramped and up on the fourth floor. There was no lift. But at least it had its own bathroom, something their first flat didn’t have. However, the Mumbai trains ran past their windows till 1.30 a.m. and started up again at 4 a.m. The noise of the trains kept waking Murthy up, and as a result he was always tired. He found himself getting short-tempered, which was unlike him. He was also losing weight. Sudha grew worried as she watched this punishing schedule beginning to take its toll on her husband’s health. She wondered aloud whether he should start looking for a different job with better hours, one which would allow them to move into a better flat, hopefully something closer to work.  

As providence would have it, right around this time their old friend Prasanna got in touch with them. He had done very well for himself since moving from Pune to Mumbai and was now the HR head at Wipro.  

‘I think I might have something at Wipro that will be just right for you,’ he told Murthy. ‘Why don’t you and Sudha come and have dinner with me, and I’ll give you all the details.’  

Sudha was excited at the thought of a better opportunity. She was also impressed by Prasanna’s flat on Nepean Sea Road. It was in a lovely part of the city, with wide roads and high-rises and parks from which you could see the ocean. Being a movie buff, she was particularly taken by the fact that it was close to the luxurious Malabar Hill area, where many Bollywood stars lived.  

Over a sumptuous dinner, Prasanna told them that Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro, was planning to start a technology division and was looking for someone to head it. Prasanna suggested that Murthy apply for the job. ‘You’ll be perfect for it,’ he assured Murthy. He promised to get him an interview with Premji.  

Sudha was excited by the idea. She said, ‘If you get the job, maybe we could move into a noise-free apartment.’  

Soon Prasanna scheduled an interview with Premji for Murthy. Murthy did not have any formal wear; nor did he think such attire was necessary for a technical interview. He showed up in a clean shirt and a pair of brown pants. Premji, who was immaculately dressed in an expensive suit with a foreign cut, was very polite, but he was clearly a little taken aback. He took Murthy to the Willingdon Club for a luncheon interview. Murthy had never been inside such a fancy venue in India and was a little awed by his surroundings – including the many pieces of cutlery arranged beside his plate. He could see that his world was very different from that of Premji, who was clearly from a very privileged background. He answered all of Premji’s questions accurately and smartly, but perhaps Premji sensed his unease with his surroundings. Perhaps it made him feel that Murthy would not fit in with the other sophisticated heads of departments. He did not offer Murthy the job.  

Years later, Murthy would learn that Premji regretfully referred to this decision as one of his gravest errors of judgement. 

Luckily the management at PCS recognized how Murthy’s living conditions were impacting his health. They also realized that if they did not do something about this unsustainable situation, he was likely to take up a job elsewhere. Therefore, they allotted him a company apartment in Bandra West. To Sudha’s delight, it was a far quieter place, with its own bathroom, and not far from the sea. It seemed the ultimate luxury! Their new home was certainly an improvement, but Murthy barely saw the place since he came home primarily to sleep. Apart from taking care of his own work, he spent a good amount of time training his team. He had already recruited a talented group of engineers, but he continued to add more people to his team. Within a couple of years into his job at PCS, he would have over a hundred people working with him, including many graduates recruited from IIT Bombay – most of them not computer engineers – whom he would train in the basics of computer science and software engineering.

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