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The tech world's other Nadellas

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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By Rajiv Rao, Contributor on
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1 of 6 Rajiv Rao/ZDNet

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.

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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.

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Sanjay Mehrotra, Sandisk

Being the head of a flash memory outfit can be a hair-raising job—the economic fundamentals of storage move so fast that before you blink, you could be irrelevant. Over the past twenty-five years (or 18 chip generations) a 4 MB chip has scaled to a 128 GB chip—essentially a 30,000 times increase in capacity.  A 20 MB solid state drive in 1991 that cost around US$1,000 is worth only a couple of cents today.

Anyone remember the floppy drive? Those were rendered obsolete by Sandisk's chips.

It is in these perilous waters that Sanjay Mehrotra choses to swim, having founded Sandisk in 1988 with two other immigrants like himself (Dr. Eli Harari and Jack Yuan) after a career as an engineer and an engineer-manager at Intel Corporation, Seeq Technology, Integrated Device Technology and Atmel Corporation.

So, it's a good thing that Mehrotra—with B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley—is steering the ship at Sandisk, having successfully registered more than 70 patents earlier in his career. His only regret, says Mehrotra, is that the rigours of helping manage the company in the last decade hasn't given him enough time to do more of it.

sandisk

 

Nonetheless, Mehrotra says that his inventor's background has proven invaluable in leading the company. "It's helped me a great deal in understanding the capabilities of our techology, and in assessing the complexities of the challenges ahead," he told Forbes.

It seems to have worked well for Mehrotra. In 2013, he was named CEO of the Year by the Entrepreneurs' Foundation of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). In 2012, Thomson Reuters named Sandisk as one of the Top 100 global innovators

Today, the US$19 billion Sandisk with revenues of US$6.34 billion is flying high as its flash memory, sold in over a 100 countries, is seemingly embedded in every fast-moving technology product you can think of—from smartphones to laptops—allowing them to be lighter and faster, year after year.

Now, it just has to make sure something else doesn't come along and do to it what it did to the floppy drive.

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Shantanu Narayen, CEO Adobe Systems

Hyderabad Public School (HPS) located in the city of Hyderabad, the capital of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, is most famous today for producing Microsoft's newly anointed chief, Satya Nadella. However, one of the school's lesser celebrated alumnus is equally respected by many for re-inventing a global tech outfit, albeit in relative anonymity. 

When Shantanu Narayen took over the reins at Adobe Systems, one of the pioneers of desktop publishing, the world—and the US economy—was just about going to pot. It must have been a rude shock to see his company's shares plummet by 60 percent, to a six-year low, within just fifteen months of taking up his new job. 

Then came one of the more famous spats in tech history, when in 2010, Steve Jobs publicly criticized Adobe's Flash (its web software for video) as being a flawed product and declared that the iPad would not support it—ignominous for Narayen, considering he had spent eight of his early career years at Apple.

To have the reigning demi-god of the tech world publicly diss your product must have been traumatic, but the reportedly understated Narayen kept his nerves and decided to take this opportunity to redraw the map at his company.

Adobe Photoshop
Adobe's Photoshop

He did two things that have become exceedingly unpopular to legions of old-timer Adobe fans but has propelled his company firmly into the future: He deep-sixed Flash altogether; he also started plotting his company's transition to the cloud before many of his peers.

Both caused an outrage amongst the developer community but none more so than the decision to stop producing software in a box since small developers and individual users tend to ignore the annual upgrades. Now they will have to fork out money every year to use Adobe software, although they will have access to the entire range of products instead of just one for the same price.

Moving to the cloud meant putting at risk the US$2 billion cash cow that is Creative Suite—but Narayen's decision seems to have paid off. Its 1,844,000 cloud subscribers are already up by almost half a million from the end of last year and over half of Adobe's revenue is being generated from its cloud-based subscription services. 

This graduate of Berkeley's Haas School of Business (who also did an M.S. in Computer Science from Bowling Green State University when he came to the US for the first time in 1984) made another smart strategic move. He snapped up Omniture which helps in tracking and measuring digital campaigns—bread and butter today for e-commerce firms—in 2009 for US$1.8 billion making it an instant leader in the digital marketing space.

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Dinesh Paliwal, Harman International

Today, chances are that when you think of hi-end audio equipment, the Indian name Bose will invariably come up. However, it is another one, Dinesh Paliwal, that has made industry watchers sit up and take notice.

Dinesh Paliwal, unlike fellow Indian Amar Bose didn't invent a sound system, but he did stage a remarkable rescue of another hi-end audio company, Harman International. Harman was founded by Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon in 1953 and burnished its reputation by pioneering separate audio components such as receivers and amplifiers that were regarded as the connoisseur's ultimate purchase.

However, in the mid-2000s, Harman was in trouble. They were being hammered by competition, were struggling to meet delivery schedules and costs had sky rocketed while R&D had almost ground to a halt. Things were so bad that LBO kings KKR and Investment bank Goldman Sachs decided to walk away from an $8 billion buyout of the company, saying that they found financial conditions inside Harman too appalling to warrant a green light.

Harman

The new man in the hot seat was Dinesh Paliwal, a graduate from Indian Institute of Technology (Roorkee) who received a full scholarship to pursue advanced degrees in Engineering and Management at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  

A 22-year veteran of power and automation Swiss-Swedish giant ABB, Paliwal was largely responsible for turning around the fortunes of the company before he arrived at Harman, thanks to his former neighbour and fellow ABB colleague Indira Nooyi (who went on to become Chariman and CEO of Pepsi.) "Indra told me that all this consumer sales and marketing was fun. And that I should try it at least once. So I decided to give it a shot," Paliwal told Mint.

Paliwal's experience with ABB made him realise that being a niche, hi-end player focused on western markets was not going to eventually bring in the bulk of Harman’s bacon. The real opportunity lay in tapping developing markets exhibiting scorching growth—like China and India. Lesser names like Pioneer and JVC had entrenched themselves in a booming auto market and Harman was missing out on all the action.

Paliwal enacted a double play—using the company's labs in India and China to reverse engineer existing Harman products for their markets, but which were equally suitable for the developed world. The end result was a slew of slick solutions in the areas of navigation, connectivity, internet and telematics for premium auto brands such as BMW and Audi at half the price they would once command, ensuring that Harman would continue being a force in audio equipment in the years to some.

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Abhijit Talwalkar, LSI Corporation

If Abhijit Talwalkar's work at resuscitating LSI Corporation is any measure of his abilities you will be hearing a lot more of him in the near future.

When Talwalkar—who received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University in 1985—left Intel as the head of its Digital Enterprise group and arrived at LSI in 2005 it was in a mess.

Once dubbed the 'ASIC king of Silicon Valley' in the 1980s, this manufacturer of custom semiconductor chips went onto to dabble in system designs and tools as well as a whole host of business lines through its acquisition of a dozen different companies. The cyclicality of the semiconductor industry makes a business in this space notoriously difficult to run so having unfocussed disparate product lines didn’t help any.

LSI had other issues. The dotcom bust meant that there was a marked decrease in the demand for telecom equipment that contained LSI chips. Its chip fabricator was increasingly making little financial sense in a world dominated by a handful of goliaths such as Intel and Samsung. By the time Talwalkar got there overall revenues had taken a dive.

This Pune-born Indian who moved to the US when he was five did two things that brought him a reputation as a turnaround artist. Unfazed by the fact that LSI had gone off the rails due to a previous acquisition frenzy, he nonetheless embarked on one—eight of them to be precise—along with a bunch of divestitures. He snapped up Agere Systems for US$4 billion so LSI could enter the network processor and DSP space, critiqued at the time for being a chancy move. He also ditched the company's semi-conductor fabricator and took LSI fabless.

LSI Corp

Talwalkar also flogged storage system company NetAp—again a controversial move at the time since the segment was one of the company’s high growth segments. He also picked up SandForce whose products gave LSI a firm toehold in the rapidly growing solid-state storage market. By 2008, his efforts seemed to have paid off as LSI grew from US$1.9 billion to US$2.7 billion in 2008.

Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was in predicting the tsunami of digital content via smartphones and tablets and the lack of infrastructure to manage it. He re-positioned LSI to ensure that its products became an integral part of this wave, playing a role in datacenter storage and enterprise and mobile networks.

Some would argue that his piece-de-resistance was the December acquisition of his company by Avago Technologies for US$6.6 billion but the effort was marred by a Florida Pension Fund that has sued to stop the buyout, stating that the maximum value was not obtained.

LSI shareholders apparently approved of the buyout on April 9th which means that struggling tech outfits have one more unemployed former turnaround artist to lure so he can fix things at their company.

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