24/08/2016 3:22 PM IST | Updated 24/08/2016 5:36 PM IST

Indian IT Industry Will Always Be In The 'Front Row' Of Tech Trends: Kris Gopalakrishnan

Itihaasa, an app launched by the Infosys founder, traces the history of the Indian IT industry.

Kris Gopalakrishnan
Kris Gopalakrishnan

When it comes to Information Technology in India, Kris Gopalakrishnan has seen a lot. From the arrival of the first smart computers in 1955 to co-founding the pioneering IT company, Infosys.

Gopalakrishnan was the CEO of the company from 2007 to 2011. After that, he served as the executive vice chairman of the Infosys board. In 2014, he served as a non-executive vice chairman of the board before taking up an advisory role.

This April, he launched an app, called Itihaasa, that captures the history of the Indian IT industry. The app features over 600 videos and profiles 44 big names in the industry. In addition, there are articles on different topics such as the pre-liberalization era and the Satyam Computers fiasco. HuffPost India spoke with Gopalakrishnan about Itihaasa, the rise of the Indian IT industry, the technological challenges it faces and the new startup culture.

You can learn more about Itihaasa on its website.

Why did you embark on the Itihaasa project?

The Indian IT industry is an untold story for outsiders. Even if you are in the industry, there is a lot to know. I felt this was something in dire need of documentation.

We have provided different sections and videos that are tagged with relevant phrases. The app has many options for traversal.

Manish Swarup/Associated Press
Former Executive Co-Chairman of Infosys India Kris Gopalakrishnan

If we were to divide time into three eras -- pre-liberalization, post-liberalization (the 1990s), and the smartphone and startup phase, how has IT in India evolved?

There were too many difficulties in executing projects before liberalization. Getting an Internet connection, approvals for projects, legal restrictions, and many other things. It was hard to dream big.

But it was a learning phase for us. There was the technological challenge as well on how to deliver solutions to projects. Also, [how to] bootstrap the company to grow in the coming years.

In the 1990s, we started to think big. There were many avenues in sales, marketing, systems, overseas investments. We were able to ride the Y2K and dot-com bubbles. Technology also grew and fell in place for us to be able to provide the solutions.

Then the smartphones came along. Again clients had to reinvest in IT solutions. That allowed IT industry to grow steadily at more than 30 percent rate. In 22 years, from 1993 to today, the industry has grown from $150 million to $150 billion.

We grew 1,000 times in terms of revenue and 40 times in terms of manpower.

We are seeing many startups in India. New engineers are opting to join startups or starting out on their own. There is a different work-culture all around. Do you think the IT industry needs to change its way of working?

Yes and no. The industry has been continuously evolving in terms of work culture. We have changed the working a lot since the 1980s. Now, you can work from home with mobile devices and laptops. Most companies allow flexible hours.

I dare say that some of the best work environments are to be found in Indian IT companies. In fact, some of the best practices of the IT industry have been adopted by the startups. I am glad that the next wave of entrepreneurship has been rising in India. That will help the IT industry's momentum as well.

Recently, we have seen attrition rates rising. Is that a worrying sign?

Since the industry was growing fast, it always had a high attrition rate. It was always in the mid-teens [percentage wise]. BPOs always had an attrition rate in the high 30s. The BPO rate has gone down and IT has gone up. There is a lot of competition. A new company is coming up every single week.

And they will recruit from the industry. That's why the [attrition] rate is high. But these are just cycles. In fact, some people are cautious about joining a startup because of what has happened in the past six months.

The new generation startup is working with the latest technology. The service industry is still relying a lot on projects that use obsolete structures. Will that hamper engineers and India's talent pool in the longer term?

This is a harsh reality. We have to work on technology which our client uses in the services industry. Some clients don't want to retire old architecture. On the other hand, we also have people working on a newer architecture such as IoT [Internet of Things]. As a company, you should be able to service a client across generations of technology.

If I were a software engineer, I'd concentrate on concepts of how the technology works. I should be able to work on a new technology quickly by applying the knowledge. One should know the algorithms, the software which it runs on will keep changing.

As an industry, we should retrain people in newer technologies. We should keep them aware about at least two generations of tools.

In IT organisations, awareness about tools available to us which are free to use, and the technology surrounding us, is not very high. People work on their respective technologies but as an industry, we are still not talking and learning everyday technology.

As a software engineer, you should be aware of what changes are happening around you. As an organization, you would only stay relevant if you are keeping up with the technology. Even today, I read about tech and play with tools to be up to date.

This is something fundamental. You have to be comfortable with everyday tools. Tomorrow you should be able to present a video to a client or even a podcast.

20 percent of the people are enthusiasts and jump on to the newest tech. Other 70 percent follow their lead. And there would be 10 percent, adamant about sticking to old practices.

Technology disrupts happen because of the 10 percent as well. And at the end, they are forced to switch to a newer generation of tools. The 20 percent are the first ones to be called in an organization when there is a new technology to be tried.

"Developing a consumer mobile application is not a technology or capability issue for an IT company. It is a business model issue."

The Indian IT industry has a great pool of engineers, but we are still very focused on services. What about products and contributing to the Open source?

Both are perceptions of a kind. We don't own the brands but we contribute to it through services. We are developing versions of SAP and Microsoft Windows behind the curtain. At Infosys, we had a large group of people contributing to the Open source. We had created the extension for Linux, we ported the operating system to mobile phones.

Three leading products in the banking sector have come out of India. We have created several solutions in application areas. Leading airports across the world use Indian made software for baggage handling.

In systems area, we are lagging a bit behind. You will find fewer examples, such as InMobi which competes with Google in the mobile ad sector.

They can't leave the services sector behind as it is a huge business opportunity. New companies have a chance to grow because they don't have any legacy.

The Indian IT industry is running very old projects which are worth billions of dollars. They can't suddenly turn into consumer-facing product companies.

India is in the smartphone age. We are second now in terms of smartphone shipments and Internet users. We are in dire need of an ecosystem and apps which would cater to our local audience. How will the IT industry contribute to this?

We do a lot of work at the back end. A part of UC Browser was developed in India [Note: UCWeb is a Chinese company that developed the UC Browser]. A lot of payment apps are Indian. Big companies such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro will remain service companies.

Even Google is a service company. We provide service with manpower, while Google has automated it. We have a dynamic ecosystem of IT in India and new companies will emerge.

We as an industry provide the interface to app makers to develop. For instance, if a metro system is to be developed, we will create the back end and the front end will be created by someone else. Apps don't bring much revenue to bigger companies. So they avoid developing them.

For instance, Infosys is developing the GST project. But the front end apps will be created by someone else. It is not a capability or a technology issue but it is a business model issue.

Where do you see the Indian IT industry in the next 5 years?

Revenue wise, we will see a steady growth. Technologically, the focus will be more on mobile, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, and more upcoming technologies. The industry is also working on big data, AI and machine learning. We have the second largest base of IT engineers. So we would be in the front row for anything which is happening in the IT industry.

(Minor edits were carried out in the interview for clarity.)