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  India   All India  18 Aug 2017  Charisma and controversy: The Infosys years of Vishal Sikka

Charisma and controversy: The Infosys years of Vishal Sikka

Published : Aug 18, 2017, 5:45 pm IST
Updated : Aug 18, 2017, 6:58 pm IST

Sikka’s resignation ends a 3-year experiment of the IT bellwether with an 'outside' manager.

Three years and three weeks after  his surprise appointment as the first CEO  and Managing Director of Infosys, who was not  a founder, Vishal Sikka gives up his post. (Photo: PTI)
 Three years and three weeks after his surprise appointment as the first CEO and Managing Director of Infosys, who was not a founder, Vishal Sikka gives up his post. (Photo: PTI)

Bangalore: Three years and three weeks after  his surprise appointment as the first CEO  and Managing Director of Infosys, who was not  a founder, Vishal Sikka  has given up his post. 

Yes, he remains with the company as Executive Vice Chairman but that is merely a transitory appointment. A statement from Infosys says “he will hold office until the new permanent Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director takes charge, which should be no later than March 31, 2018".

Sikka's resignation, announced at the start of business hours on Friday, ends his brief run at what media cliche has always dubbed a 'bellwether" Indian technology company with a global footprint. It has been a run that was a combo of charisma and controversy -- neither entirely of his own making.

Read: Infosys committed to Vishal Sikka's 'strategic direction'

He came to Infosys in August 2014 -- at a time when the company was at crossroads -- not sure which way it was headed. In the three decades since it was started  in 1985,  five of the  seven co-founders had their  round-robin stint heading the company. They were ready to take a back seat -- and hand it over to a professional outside manager. They chose Sikka. 

It needs to be stressed that he was anointed with the full blessings of the founders --  and the lavish praise of the Infosys' Bhishma Pitamaha and conscience keeper,  NR Narayana Murthy -- because they were the ones, who two years and a bit later, started the  murmurs, seemingly questioning his suitability and style.

SAP days

Sikka was something of a poster boy for IT when he joined Infosys -- after 12 years with the Germany-based global leader in enterprise software -- SAP. Oracle and SAP were the neck-and-neck contenders in the top end of enterprise data base solutions. One carved out the US as its core market; the other, Europe, but both had global ambitions. Sikka, who became SAP's Chief Technology officer in 2007, just 5 years after he joined the company, is credited with helping SAP take on Oracle on its home ground in the US. Indeed Sikka almost throughout his career and even after joining Infosys has been mostly based in the US’ Silicon Valley. He was also the chief driver and evangelist of SAP's agni astra or secret weapon, HANA, a rather cool database platform that works within the memory and in its own niche has revolutionised real-time analytics and real-time application development.

Read: Sad to see a 'good CEO' like Vishal Sikka leave: Mohan Reddy

I remember, every year, attending the SAP TechEd annual event at the SAP Lab's Whitefield campus in Bangalore, during Sikka's heyday. Some 5,000 engineers gathered to hear him address them -- always by video conference link. He rarely bothered to come to India even for this annual conference -- though Bangalore represented the largest of SAP's overseas R&D labs. Sikka's video addresses never lasted for less than an hour and 97% of it was about HANA. This may have been OK at SAP; but I think Sikka made a tactical error if he thought he could do this sort of remote control piloting at Infosys, a company with a vastly different culture.

Culture clash

Yes, finally it all boiled down to corporate culture. Sikka is credited, probably fairly, with bringing a new and more aggressive work style to Infosys. From his vantage point in the US Bay area, he perhaps had early warnings that the Infosys model of manpower-intensive, service-centric software had to adapt to the garam hava of Artificial Intelligenc (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) -- or die.  He is, in all probability, the brain behind the announcement that Infosys would hire 10,000 engineers in the US, even if it meant retraining most of them. It may have been the savvy thing to do -- to avoid a Trump-style backlash. But the timing was unfortunate -- coming on the heels of large-scale retrenchment at Infosys' India end. It led to the impression (right or wrong) that Infosys was firing in India and hiring in the US.

It also came at a time when mishandled announcements at Infosys suggested that senior management received pay or severance pay that ran into millions and represented annual hikes of 30-50%, when the average employee raise was limited to around 7%. The Infosys Old Guard has been profoundly discomfited by such an adverse image for a company which was founded and run (by them) on some old fashioned values and a deep rooted belief in ethical management that today's  more pragmatic managers have no use for. 

Mr Narayana Murthy in particular has not hid his displeasure at the new dispensation and most tellingly on the same morning of Sikka's resignation, a leaked e-mail from him, carried in some media suggests rather revealingly, that Sikka was always considered by some of the founders to have been   CTO rather than CEO material. 

The swirl of controversy in recent weeks, was perhaps too much for Sikka to take and when he saw more attention to the style rather than the substance of his contributions to Infosys, he seems to have decided to leave.

That still leaves moot, the question of which route Infosys will take; whether its core values and its belief in taking all its employees along, is sustainable in an increasingly competitive market; or whether it will evolve its own path to progress where hard -nosed business can co-exist with a broad humanity.  

In an earlier era the world saluted something called the HP way, a less commercially crass, more humane way, of doing business that was pioneered at Hewlett Packard by its co-founders William Hewlett and David Packard. It no longer survives -- though the company, albeit split, does.

Perhaps the 'Infosys Way' will prove more resilient and may end up as an exemplar of an Indian corporate style of working. If so, the Sikka Years may be just a short lived, but brilliant blip, in its career graph.

Tags: infosys, narayana murthy, vishal sikka
Location: India, Karnataka, Bengaluru