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.
This is the second of a two-part series. You can read part one here.