The tech world's other Nadellas

The tech world's other Nadellas

Summary: Satya Nadella has hogged the limelight for being chosen as Microsoft's new CEO, but there are a few other Indian-origin heads of companies out there who also deserve a mention for their remarkable success


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  • Satya Nadella

    When it comes to Indians and CEOs, the headlines in the past few months have been primarily hogged by Satya Nadella, the newly-appointed CEO of Microsoft.

    Now that the dust has settled on his appointment, this is a good time to see who else out there are the relatively unheralded 'Nadellas' of the tech world—Indian-origin CEOs who may have made their mark at well-known outfits but who may not have received the kind of overwhelming public adulation that Nadella has recently.

    ZDNet unearthed five of them who warrant mentioning, not just because they were the top dogs at their companies, but because of what they did while there. Four out of the five have been turnaround artists, responsible for salvaging the fortunes of companies that were either rapidly tanking or whose futures were in some peril. Almost all of them took risky, counterintuitive bets that made these turnarounds possible.

    All of them were the quintessential 'Engineer’s CEOs.' Armed with advanced degrees in engineering from well-regarded institutions both in India and overseas, a few were even owners of significant industry patents. This allowed them to forge a sense of camaraderie and fellowship with their engineering work forces who were often low on morale.

    The CEOs in this round-up were all heads of product companies and often in fields such as semi-conductors where technology cycles can be disruptive and volatile. Almost all were entrenched in a world where yesterday's solutions could easily be discarded onto tomorrow's dustheaps, necessitating a continuous search for cutting-edge innovation and risk-taking.

  • Sanjay Jha, Globalfoundries

    Globalfoundries, owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, is one of the youngest chip makers in the world, born in 2009 when it acquired Advanced Micro Devices’ semi conductor fab. It operates in an industry that would give any prospective CEO the willies considering its potentially destructive cyclicalities that require massive and frequent capex injections for equipment upgrades.

    It is also an industry that is notoriously difficult to make money in as the Chinese have found out, where stuff like a delay of a few minutes in the production process can bleed million of dollars. So, it's not altogether surprising that this semi-conductor fab has chosen Sanjay Jha as its CEO.

    Jha, who replaces fellow Indian Ajit Manocha, is most famous for his rescue act at Motorola, a dominant force in mobility in the 1990s in the US, and manufacturer of the iconic Star Tac (at the time the most

    He also presciently ditched Symbian and every other kind of operating system the company was in and put all its chips on Android 


    popular phone in the world). Back then it had a healthy 60 percent share, but as the years passed, with few products (other than the Razr) that caught the public’s imagination, the company quickly lost its sheen causing its share to plummet to a puny 7 percent of the market in the mid-2000s.

    According to Forbes, when Jha arrived as co-CEO in 2008, he found a company on its last legs and its organization in tatters, largely because Motorola had somehow missed the bus on every important trend in mobility (Nokia, Blackberry, does this seem familiar?) and was poised to miss the smartphone wave as well.

    Described as an 'Engineer's CEO,' Jha, who has a BS in engineering from the University of Liverpool and a PhD in Electronic Engineering from the University of Strathclyde rolled up his sleeves and began working side by side with his fellow techies in order to boost the morale of his battered organization.

    He also presciently ditched Symbian and every other kind of operating system the company was in and put all its chips on Android, offering Verizon a chance to salvage its sinking fortunes  in its battle with the AT&T-iPhone union.

    Apparently, Motorola Droid sold faster than the original iPhone, precipitating the US$12.5 billion buyout by Google—roughly double of its worth at the time that Jha joined the company.

    The Bhagalpur, Bihar-born Jha's legacy has even played out in his home country where Motorola’s latest success, the Moto G, has proven to be one of the most successful phone launches in recent Indian history, having already caused waves in other parts of the world before arriving here (the company is now owned by Lenovo).

    He may need to muster all of his previously exhibited acumen if he wants Globalfoundries to successfully compete with Industry behemoths Intel and Samsung.

Topics: Tech Industry, India, Leadership

Rajiv Rao

About Rajiv Rao

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi who is interested in how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India.

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  • Who Cares?

    Who the f... cares about national or racial origin? Maybe except those with low confidence of themselves? Imagine a piece on the French or Germans or Canadians "who also deserve a mention for their remarkable success". Vain much, Rajiv?
    • Re: Who Cares

      Dear ReadandShare:

      Well actually, I do think it’s relevant that a country that is exceedingly poor, colonized for much of the last 300 years, and with many of its political leaders and an education system that are/is largely s..t has produced so many of these people.

      It’s nice of you to equate us with the Germans and the French but I think your comparison is a little shallow. Indians are only just waking up to the possibility that hey, maybe we are equal to the Western (or Far Eastern) world in a few ways.

      So, maybe a little bit of vanity, but more wonderment….as well as an opportunity to figure out what in fact has worked for us on the global stage and hasn't for the Chinese who have domestically dwarfed us in their trajectory(obviously the English language in elite institutions is one part of that answer) analysis of which I hope to post tomorrow if you care to read it.
      Rajiv Rao
    • Re: Who Cares

      I'm quite sure there have been countless articles, even books bragging on the accomplishments of the French, Germans and Canadians. Everybody knows who built the space shuttle robotic arm for instance, and Canadians are proud of it. It's even named the Canadarm, and the name was chosen by a Canadian of course.

      Nationalism can have some very negative effects when it's extreme, but there is a place for national pride and friendly competition.

      The digital revolution gave an even chance to people from countries that missed out on the industrial revolution. It's nice to hear of their accomplishments and of their pride.

      Rajiv: My nephew is doing great things at - a unit of the Vora group, please check them out. Not a manufacturer but very much Indian, high tech, internet and a digital powerhouse.
    • Ideally...

      ...nobody would care where they came from; but we don't live in that kind of world. In reality, first-worlders tend to assume that all third world countries are good for are raw materials and cheap labor (and they come here and "steal our jobs"). So it's useful to remind people that competent professionals and executives can come from anywhere; and lots of them come from India.
      John L. Ries
  • he is

    Nadella is the man! He already did the impossible and continue the improvements of Microsoft organization ..

    I'm very positive about the new changes to come..
  • I'm under the impression...

    ...that there is no meaningful distinction between a company being owned by the government of Abu Dhabi and it's being owned by the Emir of Abu Dhabi.

    Absolute monarchy does, in most cases, appear to be the ultimate in privatized government.
    John L. Ries
  • Who cares?

    Rajiv, I agree with your that much of the Indian educational system may not be great, but I think that is neither here nor there. Let's put it another way: the Indian middle class population -- a small percentage of the whole -- now exceeds the size of the UK (where I live), i.e. you need only a small proportion of the population to be a sizable group, including highly-capable and educated people.

    A discussion about the international success of Indian-born Indians (the refugees from E Africa are another matter) might be interesting, but not in this context here, where I think it is neither here nor there. There are successes in many industries and fields of endeavour, both at an individual level (e.g. Satya Nadella) and company level (e.g. Tata Group, Mittal Steel).

    Colonization by the British (and it did not last 300 years - it took quite a while before the trading companies got government backing, with Britain eventually ruling India). And despite the fact that the British had no business taking over another country (with attendant problems of controlling it) I think it has been recognised it was a two-way street, with India receiving a number of benefits which it might not have developed, or developed much later, three of which are, famously, the railways, a national rule of law and a relatively widely-spoken international language.
    And, being a two-way street, Britain is now dominated by Indians.... :-) The British Indian cuisine now rivals that of India...

    A discussion about the rise of Indians in the world might be more fruitful in the context of the lifting of the dead hand of Jawaharlal Nehru's 'bapu' socialist economy, travel and foreign exchange controls. However well-meaning and idealistic it was, it never did India any favours.

    Perhaps you are too young to recall the old 'good' old days when various governments of India tried to pretend India was a separate, autonomous economy, being able to live without the rest of the world.
    The result was a dual exchange rate, vast waste of resources, shoddy goods and a thriving underground market in goods that were not officially imported.

    THAT is what has changed, allowing Indians free rein to operate wherever and whenever, and to cooperate with whomever they wanted from abroad and within India.
  • Who cares?

    As I am not sure if my post was posted I shall just suggest that a discussion on the rise of Indian-born individuals and India-based businesses (let's not forget those!) is irrlevant in this context and has more to do with the lifting of the dead-hand of Jawaharlal Nehru's well-meaning but hopeless 'babu' socialist economics, foreign exchange controls and import bans.

    The old regime had led to vast waste of resources, inefficient production, shoddy goods and a thriving underground market in goods available elsewhere in the world.

    Even if much of India's educational system is not great, just a small proportion is needed to produce a significant group. Just as an example, India's fairly-comfortably-off middle class is a small proportion of India's population, but twice the size of the UK (where I live).