The secret to a successful career? One tech mogul shares his story

Technology Eye | Sept. 09, 2016

How do you become a billionaire? Some argue there is a magic formula : start a business in a monopoly-ripe industry, expand as quickly as possible, and maintain a high percentage of control over your company stock. That certainly sounds like how Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates did it.

But Kris Gopalakrishnan, a billionaire co-founder of IT giant Infosys, claims the road to riches can essentially come down to two much more mundane aspects: chance, and a pat on the back when you need it most. That at least is how he explains his success.

Gopalakrishnan's lesson to others is therefore to let life take you where it takes you, and to focus on helping others who are struggling.

Today, Infosys is an IT outsourcing giant, with revenues of almost $10 billion, and a worldwide employee base of almost 200,000 people. But in 1981, it was a tiny start-up that only survived the first few years of its existence because its founders worked virtually for free, and the one computer it possessed was leased out to other ventures during the most productive hours of the day. So what made Gopalakrishnan part of this start-up, and what made this start-up the behemoth it is today?

1. A pat on the back

As a high-school graduate, Gopalakrishnan had initially hoped to become a doctor instead of an engineer. Sadly, he had to let go of that pursuit when he failed the entry exam. When I interviewed him (as part of the research for my book, Before I Was CEO ) he told me he considered it the greatest failure of his life, a huge personal disappointment for his parents, and a setback he could not have bounced back from purely on his own.

“It took me three years to get my confidence back,” he said. In those three years, he studied physics at a local college in Kerala and slowly got back on his feet. He eventually regained his self-confidence, thanks in large part to his maths teacher, C C Philip. “He saw me and believed in me when I did not,” Gopalakrishnan said. “He told me to try again, this time with his help.”

It was the push he needed. After three years at the local college, he applied again for a more prestigious school, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, and passed the written engineering entrance exam. “Overcoming that hurdle was a turning point to rebuild confidence,” he said. “It showed me that I have what it takes to succeed. It confirmed to me that I had the ingredients for success all along.”

Surprisingly, at the end of the application process, Gopalakrishnan faced the same situation: although he passed the written exam, his limited knowledge of English meant he failed the oral interview and wasn’t admitted to the university of his choice. But it didn’t matter as much to him this time. He carved out a plan B: a Master’s degree in Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology. It might not have been his preferred choice, he explained, but it opened the door to co-founding one of the biggest Indian companies of our time: Infosys.

2. Leaving it to chance

“Looking back, chance, coincidence and luck played an important role,” he said. “It’s difficult to anticipate the future – 35 years back, I could never imagine being where I am now.”

So what was the turning point? “When I was working on my master’s in physics, I took an optional course in computer programming,” he said. “I got passionate about it, and switched to computer science. It was pure chance. I did not say: this is where I need to have the big breakthrough. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

He certainly was. Gopalakrishnan started studying computer science in 1977, the same year Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne founded Apple. He was working in his first job, at Patni Computer Systems, in 1980, when Bill Gates won the IBM contract that led to the development of MS-DOS, and eventually, Microsoft Windows.

One year later, in 1981, Gopalakrishnan and six others left Patni to found an IT company of their own: Infosys. It was a tiny venture – their starting capital was $250 – and the first 10 years was about survival. “It was about making enough money to get around, and grow slowly,” Gopalakrishnan said. “We cared more about doing things right than about doing things fast.”

But then, things finally started to work out. In 1990 the founders resisted a buy-out. In 1993 they successfully brought their company to the stock market. In the following years, the internet happened, and Infosys grew at a breakneck speed. By 2000, Infosys was one of the 20 largest companies listed on NASDAQ. By then, the company was steady enough to get through the dot-com crash relatively unscathed.

Looking back at his success and how it came about, Gopalakrishnan takes away two important things: one, you shouldn’t brag about success, as much of it is due to chance. And two, if you want to have a lasting impact, give others a pat on the back.

He puts his own learning into practice. When I wrote to him this summer, he told me he had recently retired from Infosys. “I am now helping start-ups and have set up an incubator called Axilor,” he wrote.

As you build your career, how will you help others along the way?

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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