Business Management

Corporate India & the US: Cisco CIO Explains the Difference

V C Gopalratnam worked in the US for 17 years but returned to India in the year 2000. Kathryn Cave catches up with him to talk about returning home, witnessing the growth of Bangalore and what will happen next in Indian IT.

“Talk to any Indian on the planet; they will all say they came back [to India from abroad] for family reasons,” V C Gopalratnam tells me over the phone from Bangalore.  “[This is certainly] true in my case.  [But] more than that, it was the opportunity to be part of something different. I came back [in 2000 when I was] with GE [General Electric]; one of the first companies to embrace the globalisation paradigm. [This meant it] was an opportunity to be part of a movement that was going to go places.”

“When we came back in 2000, Bangalore was almost like a sleepy town,” he continues. “You could get from one end to the other end in about 20 minutes [or about that].” But IT changed all that. “[As the saying goes] you come for the cost but you stay for the quality.”

“Labour arbitrage was the first reason that all [the international companies] came here. However, once they were here they were pretty impressed with the intellectual property. [And] they figured out it was a great opportunity to leverage [our] talent because we do have a fairly good history of putting out IT professionals.”

Differences between India and the US

As Gopalratnam has worked so extensively abroad I’m interested to get his perception on the differences between India and the US. “Everything that you do in a corporate setting mirrors wider society and in India the population is going to have the biggest middle class segment anywhere in the world. That middle class has huge purchasing power and huge expectations on quality of life… that translates directly into work expectations,” and is likely to have a big impact.

At present however, “the way US has developed [means] there tends to be more of a sense of independence. People tend to be more self-starters. People tend to work [well] on their own. As a result the culture in the organisation has evolved along those lines. Whereas if you look at India - because of the way our society is structured - it is a very collaborative environment.”

“People tend to work better in teams,” he continues “and the younger generation coming in makes this [even more pronounced] because everything they do is collaborative. That impacts how work gets done in a US environment vs. an Indian environment.  There is a stronger sense of community in India than you would see in a western context. [I think] that is the single biggest difference [between the US and India].”

“India [also] has had more of a services mind set [with] customer service firmly in the DNA of people.  [A] start-up [culture] is just starting to kick in. [But] people [still do] gravitate to more established lines of work.”

This said as a lot of people have been gradually returning to India over the last few years and bringing back an altered way of thinking. “[This means] that a different kind of culture has permeated our society.  You can definitely see more of a start-up mentality now [for example]. [From] what have been taboo 20 years ago and [this covers] different age groups too - it is not just limited to generation Y.”

The Changing Role of the CIO

The changing role of the CIO has been well documented around the world. Yet some might argue this has more significance in India than other markets because local CIOs tend to be more technically minded than in other places. Gopalratnam explains this is because most CIOs started out as IT professionals and have grown through the ranks. “In India a lot of people spent a lot of years with one employer [and] if you spent 20-25 years somewhere you’re likely to progress.” 

However, Gopalratnam does not think this tendency towards a technical background necessarily makes it harder for Indian CIOs. He believes that things are maturing gradually and “the new business models and globalisation” mean that “some of the influence [from people who have been based overseas] have come into our ecosystem.”

What Next for India?

 “IT is at a tipping point between being a services economy and shifting towards a product economy [and] start-up culture,” he says. “The results, quality and output from India over the last 12 years stand on their own. The question will be how much more value can we deliver from this part of the world and how can we grow [our] talent to take on global roles.”

“More importantly there is a feeling that technology can be leveraged to transform the country overall. How do we bring talent from rural parts of India? How do we deliver healthcare and get everyone connected.”

“From an IT standpoint there are some things the country needs to do. We clearly have to develop a more product development mentality - we’re very services orientated. We [also] need to be able to balance between services and product development R&D for IT.”

The international press may be full of doom and gloom about the Indian economy but he believes the “the future is very rosy.”

“The economy is very vibrant. Yes, we have our challenges like the rest of the economies around the world, but the point is we are powered by the next generation of workers who are coming into the workplace - India is a truly Gen Y economy.”

“I think people need to understand,” he concludes “that India is not just about talent or cost. It is actually a business opportunity.”


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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