- My biggest learning Focus on what you are good at and nail it. Get great teams to execute what you are not good at
- My greatest achievement What I am going to do tomorrow
- Eternal quest To create massive impact
- What I like Strategy, spending time with clients, partners and building teams
- What I don’t like Long meetings which I strongly believe are the death of speed
- Best friends My MIT batchmates
- Biggest influences Ranjit Pandit, Michael Dell
- Testament of a good leader Not what he does when he is leading but how the company performs after he leaves
- Things I would have done differently Probably joined McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office and joined Google in 2003 before the IPO!
- My mantra Make the most of every single day
- Most relaxed When I am with my family
- Best decision I’ve ever made Joining Google
Dad was just such an incredible sportsman. Every New Year’s Eve, I just couldn’t wait to see what world record he was going to break next. A world-class swimmer, he swam the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka to India and back in 51 hours, a feat that got him into the record books. At one point, he had the maximum number of individual Guinness World Records — non-stop cycling for 187 hours, balancing on one foot for 33 hours, doing 165 sit-ups in two minutes, walking non-stop for 159 hours, treading water for 80 hours, non-stop twist dancing for 128 hours and there were many more. So, I grew up in a household filled with optimism where everything was possible. That really was my first life lesson — nothing was impossible!
My brother inherited my father’s sports gene — he got on the diving board and boom! He was a national champion at the age of 13. He didn’t even have to train. How do you not play sport in a household like this? So, I did and I was passionate about it. I even enjoyed my time on the field, just that I sucked at it! I tried my hand at everything on offer — cricket, rugby, soccer, swimming. You learn winning is important but I realised trying to win when you don’t have the skills is very difficult. It meant you had to work really really hard! And boy, did I slug it out.
Many years later, my cricket coach told me the only reason I was on the team was because he felt bad for me as I was trying so hard! I would train for about four-five hours every day and would be the last kid coming off the field. I could pick any sport but I was never going to be awesome. That didn’t faze me then. I was this self-driven kid. The closest I came to being successful was the time I came first in one of the 100 metre races in school, which clearly didn’t have the best sprint team in town. That became very evident when we got killed at the inter-school competition held soon after!
Dad never once told me, “Maybe sports isn’t your thing”. I guess he wanted me to discover that on my own. I was heart-broken when dad passed away in 1984 trying to cross the English Channel. By the time I was a teenager, I figured out that sport isn’t my cup of tea. That’s when I learnt my most important lesson, one that would guide the choices I make all through my career — you have to figure out what you are good at and nail it. When you are good at something you are more likely to succeed because it starts getting easier. Since you are winning, you also begin to enjoy what you do. So, you have to focus on what you are passionate about and good at. I was really passionate about sports but I would have never made it to the Sri Lankan cricket team. Was playing sports the best return on investment on my time? Probably, not. But I was having fun hanging out with my buddies and back then we had limited options. There was no plan B. Had we had the internet, maybe I would have started a company. I didn’t know them to be as options. Those days, it was only academics and sports and, luckily, I aced one of them. The ethnic conflict had broken out in Sri Lanka and anybody who could leave the country was doing so.
In 1987, it was my turn to leave the country for higher studies. My school counsellor suggested I apply at Cambridge, Oxford, MIT and Harvard. I got into the first three but MIT was only one that offered financial aid. It was immediately clear where I was headed for college.
Damn! America is nothing like how it is shown in the movies. Where the hell are the convertibles, beautiful people and the parties? It’s nothing like what I had in mind plus it’s freezing cold in Boston. But there was no going back. As a student on financial aid who came to the US with no money, I had to work 30-40 hours a week if I wanted to have a life beyond classes and even back then I knew I wanted to have a life. So, I took up almost every job I could find — I worked at the cafeteria and the museum, taught classes, graded papers and even tested tennis rackets. By junior year, I was done washing dishes at the cafeteria and discovered that testing rackets paid slightly better. So, every Sunday, I would measure the performance of various rackets against various metrics for three to four hours. Chances are that all the best tennis racquets in the world manufactured between 1988 and 1990 were tested by me.
MIT was pretty intense. It was hardcore engineering and very challenging academically. How do you survive in such an environment when you are clearly not the smartest in the class? When you don’t have options, you have a different mental make-up, you just make things work and I did. Despite going through the ringer when it came to academics and working 30-40 hours a week on campus, MIT gave me some of my life’s best memories and friends. I met my wife, Radhika Chopra, and some of my closest friends there. Radhika went to Wellesley and I spent as much time on her campus as I did on mine. I remember our first date. Things didn’t exactly go as planned. I learned the hard way that you never ask a bunch of nerds where to take a girl on your first date. But I didn’t know better back then and I asked my friends where I should take Radhika. They said I should try a place called Café Algiers. Post a bus-stop mix-up, getting wet in the rain and a subway ride later, we landed up there to find a dark dingy place that didn’t even serve proper dinner and I thought to myself, “Boy! I am toast!” However, I survived that nightmare and swore to myself never to ask any socially-challenged mates for dinner-date options.
But by the time we left MIT in 1991, my friends and I went from being a bunch of nerds to having our own table at the hottest nightclub in Boston — M-80. All through first year we stood in line but never got in. By second year, we figured out we had to tip the guy at the door to let us in and in our third year, one of the guys finally managed to get a membership to the club. Even four years after we passed out, we were still paying off the membership. Mortgages didn’t happen but it was the best investment we ever made.
When it came to grad school options, I wanted to go somewhere warm, less intense and more fun. Stanford ticked all these boxes and plus the campus pictures looked really awesome. I didn’t get a scholarship but I still went. That’s how badly I wanted to go to a warm place. Once I got there I had to convince my financial aid officer real quick that I really was a deserving candidate. On a percentage basis, I would have attended more classes in Stanford than in MIT only because jobs in grad school paid much better and you didn’t have to work that many hours. I studied mechanical engineering at MIT and manufacturing systems engineering at Stanford. The dream was to work for Ford Motor Company when I graduated from Stanford in 1992. America was being attacked in manufacturing and it looked like a good problem to solve. I also didn’t know better. Nobody told me that if I had joined Goldman Sachs, I would make $100 million when I hit 30, but, by the time I was aware of this, it wasn’t important anymore. Kids today can take better-informed decisions because they are aware of all the opportunities available. That’s the power of the internet and information. Also, Silicon Valley in the early ’90s was nothing like how we know it to be now or even what it had become in 1996-1997, which marked the beginning of the internet revolution. Today, if you are graduating from Stanford, you are not leaving the Valley.
But Ford wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have a green card. They refused to hire the top graduates from the best engineering colleges if they didn’t have green cards. Incredible, isn’t it! One of the many reasons companies fail is because they focus on the wrong things. Many years later, I was glad I didn’t land up in Detroit. So, I got into McKinsey. I wanted to work out of their Silicon Valley office but Radhika got a job in New York and I didn’t want us to be on different coasts. There wasn’t an opening in the New York office , but Chicago was on offer, so I took it up. I got to as close to New York as I could.
Those formative years at McKinsey and the people I worked with went a long way in helping me become what I am today. I strongly recommend that everyone get a little consulting experience under their belt since it is a great training ground. McKinsey had just begun hiring non-MBAs for their business analysts and to bring them up to speed, they would put the new recruits through a 30-day mini MBA. So, I went through the course and it was my first brush with business. It was at a centre about two hours away from Copenhagen. I can never forget those 30 days because we were served salmon for lunch and dinner every single day. So much so, that for the next seven years I couldn’t bring myself to eat salmon. Thank God I wasn’t a vegetarian! But it was all good in the end.
I went on to work for McKinsey for 11 years. When you work with some of the smartest people in the world, you understand the power of collaboration. I learnt the power of doing the right thing. I was astonished at how consistently senior partners would tell their clients that some of their ideas were just bad ideas. Can you imagine telling a Fortune 100 CEO that his best idea is a really bad idea but they would do it over and over again.! They wouldn’t shy away from telling the truth and that’s what built their credibility over time. While I worked with many great senior partners at McKinsey such as Mark McGrath and Steve Coley, the one person who had the biggest influence on me was Ranjit Pandit, who was heading McKinsey’s India operations. I was working out of India for two years from 1994 to 1996. He was the first guy who taught me what unconstrained thinking was and urged me to think big. Client meetings with him were always a revelation. If a CEO was thinking of scaling his revenue from Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 6,000 crore he would ask them why not Rs 20,000 crore? To a CEO who hasn’t looked beyond India or travelled out of the country, he would ask, “Why not go global?”
I also learnt a lot from Tino Puri. He was intellectually very pure and embodied the McKinsey spirit of seeking and telling the truth. I came back to the US and led the internet practice in 1997-98 in the Midwest where I worked with a lot of companies. John Cook taught me that you can’t do client management sitting in your office. He drove home the importance of always engaging with clients because that’s what builds relationships. I took that to heart. I remember working with one of the largest animal pharma companies in the US. We were working on developing a vaccine that accelerated the rate of growth in pigs. So, I had to talk to large industrial farmers and get their inputs. One day I found myself in Texas with one such industrial farmer. Minutes into the meeting, he asked me if I have ever seen a pig. I said no. He then asked me have you ever gotten close to a pig? I said not really. Before I knew it, he had me out of my suit and in a jumpsuit and we were having the discussion in the middle of a pig mud pit. Did you know pigs are pretty aggressive? You will, if you ever get into a mud pit with them like I did. But it was worth the effort, his answers helped me build a complicated model on how to estimate the productivity improvement in pigs. (Yup, you read that right). I think they call it big data these days. My partners were blown away. They hadn’t seen anything like this before. Thus, began my Texas saga. After pigs, I worked on cows and a whole host of animals. They were a very large client of ours. You get the drift.
I loved building complicated mathematical models. Only there were times I didn’t have to complicate it. Like the time, I was going to build a neural network to improve the efficiency for a large steel company in the Midwest. If there were two things that steel plants did consistently, it was to produce more steel and cut costs. Twenty minutes into the presentation, one of the senior partners gently asked me, “Rajan, how many plants do they have?” I said, four. He then asked, “And how many of them are making money?’ I said none. He then followed it up with, “So, how many units should they be running?” and I responded “Probably, none”. Of course, his idea was not to shut down the plants but to get me to focus on the basics. A company with four steel plants didn’t need a neural network to get them back on the path of profitability. So, the neural network was out the window and we worked on increasing sales and cutting costs, which worked just as well for the company. So that was another thing that was drilled into our heads at McKinsey — keep it simple. The more you complicate the problem the harder it becomes to solve. I also learnt that you can’t take the best management and put them in a structurally challenged industry, the outcomes will never be great. Like it is with the Indian start-up industry, if you can’t differentiate your offering it doesn’t matter what you do. Thanks to my stint at McKinsey, you throw a new business at me and I can quickly figure how it works in a couple of weeks. But my next role would require me to do more than just figure out businesses very quickly.
After 11 years at McKinsey, I decided to leave the firm. I didn’t want to die a consultant. I decided to join Dell because Michael Dell had this practice of hiring senior partners in consulting and turning them into operating leaders. He was the quintessential entrepreneur who managed to build a PC business out of his garage which then went on to become the world’s largest PC company. Just as the PC industry was maturing, he had the courage to take the company private and then go on to buy out EMC which was twice the size of Dell at that time. It was remarkable! I learnt the power of focusing on a few things, how to execute at scale, attention to detail and never give up despite challenges from Michael Dell. After being in the consumer PC business, it is not easy to go out and build an enterprise business. It takes about five to ten years to build such businesses but Michael had this tenacity to stick with it despite all odds.
In March 2004, I moved to Delhi to manage the company’s global outsourcing business and in two years we managed to scale the business rather quickly. But I will never forget the advice that Michael gave me when I started out. I was making the transition from being a consulting partner to an operating leader. In consulting, the premium is always on the idea. In an operating business, the premium is always on execution. So the thing I had to unlearn from McKinsey was it doesn’t really matter how many good ideas you have or how smart you are. You need a few good ideas and have the right people to get it done and back them up.
Michael told me that during the transition, I have to figure out a way to have the team come up with ideas. It is very important how you inspire others. You can provide broad directions but the ideas need to come from them because unless they own them, execution at scale will always be a challenge. He was a very good coach that way and like most legendary entrepreneurs had a way with people.
It is never a good idea to go to Michael and say it can’t be done. It is a better idea to go to him and ask him how you can do it, what are the challenges and probe him for ideas. I remember I had just taken over Dell’s India business after my global outsourcing stint. The Indian operations were then doing around $200 million in revenues and I built the team ground up. I also came up with this audacious plan to grow revenues to $1 billion in three years. Everybody thought we were nuts. But not Michael, he was super excited. Not once did he question our ability to get to the target but only asked about the barriers on the path to achieving them and what could be done to remove them. We had to dramatically increase our sales force, invest in manufacturing capabilities, re-engineer the products to make them available at price points that are attractive to the Indian market. Over the next eight quarters we got to $800 million after which I left Dell India as I was looking to go back to the US. But my successor Sumir took the revenues all the way to $2 billion. That gave me a sense of greater satisfaction because, for me, it was a reflection of the team I had built and the position of strength that I left the company in. I strongly believe the true testament of a good leader is not what he or she does when they were in the company but how well the company performs after they leave.
In 2008, I decided to go back to the US. I wanted to go back to the Valley but Radhika wasn’t too keen. A New Yorker all her life she always felt California was a bit odd. By then the financial crisis had imploded, and there were no jobs in New York. Microsoft India beckoned and that’s where I would spend the next two years. Dell and Microsoft were the best places to learn how to meticulously execute and follow-up. But Microsoft was a more established company. We were already market leaders so the focus was on managing a larger business and expanding the market rather than building the business ground up like I did in Dell. We had a fantastic leadership team and won the Subsidiary of the Year at the end of my first year. Steve Ballmer was the CEO at that time. He was a brilliant sales leader. If anyone personifies energy, it has to be Ballmer. He could motivate the 16,000 odd salesmen at Microsoft to walk to the moon and back and that is an extraordinary quality to have. He helped me close my biggest deal at Microsoft India. It was a deal that I was pursuing for two years, and it took him only one meeting to close it. Not that we didn’t try everything we could but I saw the power of relationships and the respect Steve Ballmer enjoyed in that meeting. When the CEO of Microsoft arrives at your office and asks you what it takes to close a deal, not only does your expectation from the deal suddenly become a lot more realistic, you don’t walk away from it without a definitive answer.
It was 2010 and the bug to go back to the Valley started to bite me again. My brother was getting married in San Francisco, so Radhika and I went there to attend it. “San Francisco is not so bad” were all the words I needed to hear from Radhika to kickstart my dream to move to the Valley. But things were set to change once more. I was in the Valley since I had a couple of offers and wanted check them out. Radhika called to tell me that her sister Nandita got a job in India and is moving to Delhi. So, she didn’t want to move back to the US anymore. It was my turn to make the adjustment. She had moved for me to Chicago, Texas then to India —Delhi, Bengaluru and back to Delhi. It was only fair I do the same for her. After two unsuccessful attempts to move to the Valley, I finally made my peace that I am never moving back. At best, we might move apartments in Delhi.
So there I was, back in India, pondering over what my next options were I wanted to buy a tech company and scale it up but the Indian promoters were in no mood to sell. It didn’t make sense buying into those fancy valuations. I kept looking for six months but nobody was in a mood to sell. Shailesh, my predecessor in Google was a good friend of mine. He knew I was planning on leaving Microsoft. He asked me if I would like to join Google India. I had declined it at first since I was set to go back to the Valley. Now that I was back, Google seemed like the perfect option. Joining them was the best decision I have ever made. But not before I went through 15 rounds of interviews including a meeting with Nikesh Arora, who finished my reference check by the time the interview was over.
I still remember my first day at Google. It was Valentine’s Day. I was in the US for orientation. Radhika was upset that I was joining a new job on that day. The orientation in the US was where different leaders spoke about product areas and we learnt more about the company. I meet Larry maybe later that week. He had just taken over as CEO and had called in about 40-50 of the VPs to discuss how to make Google grow faster. Everything in Google, by the way, is fast. We are quick to say yes or no. We believe meetings are the death of speed so we don’t have long meetings. It was fascinating to hear Larry speak for the first time and I was blown away by the things he had planned to make Google grow faster.
Nothing was incremental. Everything was 10x. That’s how Sergei and Larry are. You can’t go to them with small ideas. I was a little crazy before I joined Google, now I am just insane. Here you think big, 10x moonshots. I realised very quickly that when you start thinking big you have to start thinking differently, the traditional path won’t get you there.
India was still a small business and so was the team for Google when I joined them six years ago. There were about 100 million users in the country. We made huge investments in building a large team, focusing on tailoring products for India and launching ecosystem initiatives. All the efforts are starting to pay off now. We came up with ‘internet for every Indian’ two years ago and that is now driving everything we do.
The single most valuable lesson I’ve learnt at Google is that a single person can make a huge difference and a few people can change the world. For instance, take our Internet Saathi programme where we are working with the Tata Trust to help rural women get online. We launched the programme about two years ago and now we are present in 60,000 villages across 10 states and there are 18,000 full-time Internet Saathis who have helped over 2 million rural women get online. All this impact was created by Neha who spearheaded the initiative at Google. One individual changing so many lives — that is impact on scale for you.
Similarly, we have Gulzar Azad, who spearheaded the rail Wifi project at Google. Gulzar was passionate about solving the problem of access. For three years, he was exploring various options that would make the internet accessible to millions. There were times when I have gone to Gulzar and told him maybe we should put you in a different role because this is taking a really long time. But he was passionate about finding a way and was like, “No, There is a way and I am gonna find it!”. Finally, he did. He got into an agreement with Rail Tel, the IT arm of the Indian Railways where they provide fibre and the access to stations and we build out the Wifi network and provide the access to stations.
We launched the programme in early 2016 with the aim that we will cover 400 stations in three years and we are at 110 stations now with over 5 million people who have been on the internet accessing it for the first time every month. We have three people in all spearheading this project at Google. Again all this was the result of an idea that Gulzar pursued passionately for nearly three years — the power of one. As a leader when you work with such super-smart passionate people, all you have to do is support them like crazy, make sure they are focusing on the right things and get out of the way.
We continue to make big bets in Google. Some of them work and some of them don’t. One such idea that worked really well was YouTube offline. It was just an idea two-and-a-half years ago. I always believed that because of the connectivity challenges, India will be a large offline market and we have to figure out a way to make YouTube work offline. Everyone was like what do you mean by offline, YouTube is an internet product so how can it be offline? The team at Mountain View needed some convincing but we managed to take it offline. We have now launched it in 80 countries and it is the fastest growing product in the history of Google. We then took maps offline and Chrome offline. With Chrome going offline, the entire internet is offline. India is now the largest offline internet market but that internet can be offline was just an idea about two-and-a-half years ago!
I am here because I believe internet changes and getting people online creates so many opportunities for them that is life-changing. If I had access to information and internet, I would have never left the Valley, probably built a company, who knows. But information empowers people with more options and I love that we are able to create that massive impact in people’s lives. While I am super proud at the teams that I have built across companies, I believe that my biggest achievement is what I am going to do tomorrow. If there was one thing that the ethnic cleansing taught me was how important it was to adapt. The only reason I am alive today is because I speak both languages fluently. After going through something like that, you focus on the here and now and try to make the most of every single day.