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Interviews Technology

Strong infrastructure a must to market MP as IT destination: Avinash Sethi

India’s software industry is reaching its adolescence and facing challenges from several directions. While the main appeal of quality and low-cost service remains in place, price does not remain the only issue now. Customers are demanding more sophisticated services from their Indian outsourcers.

At the same time multinational competitors like IBM and Accenture have been nipping at their heels. With easy gains becoming a thing of past for the software organizations here Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Avinash Sethi, co-founder of Indore based software firm Infobeans to know the challenges a middle-sized company based at MP faces.

An Electrical Engineer from SGSITS, Indore Avinash began his stint with Tata Consultancy Services as a trainee. In 1998 he joined Intel Corporation, Oregon. The very next year he returned to Indore and launched e-Infotech along with his friends Mitesh Vohra and Siddarth Sethi, fulfilling the dream of building a software services organization of their own. In the year 2000 e-infotech was re-introduced as Infobeans.

Tell us in brief about Infobeans and its products. How would you classify the products and services?

Avinash Sethi
Avinash Sethi
InfoBeans is a dream conceived by 3 young enthusiastic entrepreneurs during their college time. We are a web-based solutions provider catering to the corporate needs of Fortune 500 companies.

It took shape in the US, where all of us were working there and wanted to do something together for Indore and at Indore. While working for our respective companies in the US, we started AaapkaIndore.com, a web portal dedicated to Indorians all over the world. Since its inception this e-Commerce portal has been immensely popular with the NRI community and helps them in staying connected with the pulse of Indore. Our other products include QGen, a questions paper generator software and RMS – a resource management system aimed at small and medium corporate.

As of now, Mitesh is taking care of all business development activities of InfoBeans in the US while Siddartha came back to Indore in 2002 to help the company get on the fast track.

What technologies is Infobeans currently working on? Is it easy to find trained manpower in these areas?

We have been working on varied technologies involving .Net Framework, J2EE and XML technologies for client server and web applications as well as Windows CE and Blue-tooth environment for wireless applications. It is certainly not easy to find right candidates in above skills in Indore. Recently we had to hire candidates from Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai in order to meet our growing needs.

As a long term solution to this scarcity of quality manpower we are planning to offer training focused on industry needs. This would be open for everyone who is interested in learning from experts in the trade. This is based on our belief that the skills that our company has gathered over the years should be shared with budding software engineers of the city. Our training programs would assist them in getting acquainted with the real world problems in the software engineering space.

Talking of your portal, how do you evaluate the challenges in terms of the size of Internet advertising market in India and bandwidth issues?

At aapkaindore.com we learnt to face the challenges of constantly changing customer requirements and maintain ease of use with increasing complexity while keeping the security implementation in mind. Internet Advertising is not that significant in India owing to the low Internet usage. Internet does not come that cheap and at the same time it is hopelessly slow. Bandwidth thus would be the next step in Internet revolution in India. Ample bandwidth is a must if one intends to meet the growing needs of users.

Performance of most of the IT companies last year, including the top players like Infosys, was insipid if not dismal. How tough is it for medium sized companies like yours to survive in these turbulent waters?

It is equally tough. A distinct edge that we have over large corporations is that we can address changing client requirements quickly and efficiently. Our customers work with us because we are always there to help them in their hour of need.

Many domestic software players have got into the business process outsourcing domain, does InfoBeans have any plans to follow suit?

Yes we have plans to venture into BPO. We shall float a separate division as it’s a different business altogether.

What sets InfoBeans apart from its competitors?

Our vision – Customer’s success defines our success. We want to go beyond just customer satisfaction. We want to help our customers succeed in achieving their goals.

Your marketing base is in US while the workforce is based here in Indore. So how does the information flow in terms of data and material happen?

Internet! It is such a wonderful channel for information flow. In case of urgency the telephone is always there. Visits to the US are also required for requirements gathering, client interaction, and product deployment.

What advantages and disadvantages does Indore have for a software development company?

Talking of advantages I might include a peaceful and friendly social environment, low cost of living and a good telecom infrastructure. Among disadvantages – scarcity of trained manpower, poor power infrastructure and lack of IT initiatives both from Government and local IT forums.

How do you compare the IT initiatives of MP Government to those of other state governments say Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka? What are your expectations?

Nothing compared to what you see in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Indore can become a IT hub. To do that, the government must market MP as THE IT destination while providing uninterrupted power supply, direct transport connectivity with major IT cities in India and by building state of the art IT park.

Tell us something about your growth plans, investments proposed and any interesting upcoming project.

We have identified three areas of growth for InfoBeans for next 2 years: Software services, BPO and IT Training. Presently we are working on a Conference Management Tool for Deutsche Bank. It is going to be used in huge conferences hosted by Deutsche Bank around the world.

Lastly, your comments on the current Indian IT scenario.

I’m positive about the overall IT scenario. India plays a significant role in global IT outsourcing and would continue to do that for decades to come. Post 9/11, IT spending was adversely affected. Today, almost two years later, both global and US economy seems to be back on track. Companies are looking at IT as a growth driver and IT spending is again looked at as a wise investment.

BPO is the next big thing that is catching up fast in India. That is another IT opportunity that would generate employment for millions of college going crowd. In cities like Bangalore and Mumbai a graduate in any stream gets to the tune of 10-15k per month as starting salaries in call centers. No other industry can offer this kind of salaries and glamour to a non-professional graduate.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 14 July 2003]

Categories
Interviews Technology

Infrastructure improvement should be top priority of MP government: Arun Maheshwari

Not many Indorians may be aware that Indore is home to one of the largest software and services companies in the world 25% of whose sales go to the US Government. A CMM Level-5 company, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) India Pvt. Ltd., ably steered by its Managing Director, President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Arun K. Maheshwari, has been awarded the best software exporters award by M.P. government many times.

Dr. Maheshwari has studied at IIT, Mumbai and IIM, Calcutta. He holds a Master’s degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, a Business degree from Columbia University (MBA) and a PhD from Wharton School of Business. His enviable career spans association with McKinsey, Reliance Insurance and Continental Insurance. He has also taught at Temple University, Wharton School, New York University and Bajaj Institute. In 1996 Maheshwari laid the foundation of Policy Management Systems India (PMSI) at Indore, a subsidiary of Mynd Corporation, the world leader in insurance software. In January 2001 Mynd merged with CSC and PMS India became CSC India.

Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Dr. Maheshwari about his company, its future and other issues.

Please tell us in brief about your company and its strengths.

CSC is one of the world’s leading software and services company with about 65,000 employees worldwide. It reported revenues of $11.3 billion for the 12 months ended Dec. 27, 2002. CSC specializes in consulting, systems design and integration, IT and business process outsourcing, applications software, web and application hosting. It is head-quartered in El Segundo, California.

Dr Arun Maheshwari
Dr Arun Maheshwari

CSC India is a wholly owned subsidiary of CSC and operates out of its state-of-the-art centres in NOIDA and Indore. CSC India has successfully completed software projects in many countries including USA, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia. We have excellent domain expertise in Property & Casualty Insurance, Life Insurance, Baking and Health-care Industries.

Please tell us about your products in various verticals.

CSC is a leading software and services vendor in many verticals such as life insurance, general insurance, banking and health-care. We have multiple product offerings in each of these verticals. Some (of these) are being offered in India also. In fact, CSC India does not have any different product for the Indian market.

How has the merger of Policy Management Systems (PMS) India in to CSC affected your business objectives and performance?

CSC acquired PMS India in December 2,000. Since CSC did not have an office in India, PMS India became CSC’s face in India and was renamed CSC India. All PMSI employees are today a part of the CSC family and have benefited tremendously from the global policies of CSC. CSC has grown in terms of qualified resources as a result of the acquisition of PMS India.

Having ambitiously begun the Noida centre, we heard about your plans for another development centre at Hyderabad. What are the growth plans for your India operations in general and Indore in particular?

CSC India is planning another centre in Noida, which should be operational by the 2nd quarter of next financial year. The company is also planning further expansion in Noida and a centre in the South but the exact location has not been finalized as yet. CSC grew by more than 70% per year in the last 2 calendar years. Plans for CSC India call for equal or even more aggressive growth in the next couple of years at least.

The BPO business sector has seen major upheavals; Spectramind sold to Wipro and CustomerAsset to ICICI; many other big and mid sized companies like Infosys, Cognizant and Polaris are in the foray too. What in your opinion prompted these companies, including yours, to virtually transform the BPO business in to “big boys game” ousting the venture-funded BPO start-ups?

BPO is a natural area of tremendous competitive advantage for India. The growth should have happened sooner. With the tremendous success of a few pioneers such as American Express and GE Capital, major vendors and companies have recognized the potential of this business and are all trying to catch up. For some, the best way to move forward is through acquisition and for others organic growth. We got into this business before many of the larger IT companies and plan to grow this organically although we are not averse to acquisition if a good candidate comes along.

MP has been trying to emerge as the next IT destination. The e-governance initiative in the state has also received acclaim in the past. How does CSC view this and wish to participate in the process?

We are most supportive of MP and other state governments to improve their services to their citizens with the help of IT. We are not interested in doing business with the public sector at this time although we are willing to contribute on a pro-bono basis to their efforts.

What do you think should be the strategy of the MP government to attract other entrepreneurs and generate more employment for state’s unemployed IT trained manpower?

Improvement of infrastructure should be the top most priority of the state government. Once infrastructure in MP is comparable to those in the other states, the state will have a better chance of attracting entrepreneurs and large companies. Making the companies that have decided to come to MP happy with the government’s support will also help as these companies will becomes the ambassadors for MP.

Please tell us about the “Advanced Software Technology Research and Information Centre (ASTRIC).

With the inexorable advances in technology and processes need for broad-based research to break new ground is bound to arise. We set up ASTRIC for such research work. The objective of ASTRIC is to nurture a research group consisting of permanent and voluntary participation from employees to help the organization with current requirements in research, study of new technologies and leveraging trends in technology and processes, thereby helping CSC improve its processes and methodologies.

Among other activities ASTRIC is involved in knowledge sharing, evaluation of new and promising technologies and preliminary feasibility studies of new projects under discussion with customers.

Would you like to tell us something about any interesting ongoing project and the future policies of CSC India?

CSC India has developed domain expertise in many industries and plans to get into new domains in the future. It has also recently ventured into BPO and is looking at infrastructure support services for the future. In terms of policies, we have excellent customer and employee focused policies. We have the highest-level – CMM Level 5 – software quality certification and we are pursuing the highest level of People CMM, which focuses on the employee side of the business.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 17 February 2003]

Categories
Interviews Technology

E-governance not possible without vernacular software: Vinay Chhajlani

India will have 50 million Internet users by 2003 and at least half of them don’t speak in English.

With DataQuest pegging its potential market size at Rs. 500 crore, local language internet market is destined to be the next big thing. Suave entrepreneur Vinay Chhajlani foresaw this much earlier. In a tete-a-tete with Debashish Chakrabarty Vinay talked about his company and his vision of building a global dot kaum using local lingo.

A graduate in Electrical & Electronics Engineering, topper of 1984 batch from BITS Pilani and MS in Printing Technology from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), New York, Chhajlani is the founder and CEO of Indore based multilingual portal company Webdunia.com.

Vinay Chajjlani
Vinay Chajjlani
You come from a background of newspapers publication. What inspired you to shift focus from print media and start Suvi?

I was always interested in application of technology and did a lot of programming during my engineering. Even in my first job in 1985-87, as a planning executive with Semline Inc. a leading printing company in Boston, in parallel to my job I focused on applying technology to management of paper inventory, machines and schedules. That was the time when IT was limited to payroll and accounting systems. In 1988 when I started Suvi, it was an additional responsibility, we began with MIS solutions made in FoxPro/Clipper. In 1990 Suvi was shifted from Bhopal to Indore. It was not by design, but guided by our expanding customer base at Dewas and Pithampur Industrial belts and other family business decisions.

Was the motivation to venture into Indian language software there right from the beginning or were there other factors that led you towards it?

It came as a wild thought. We simply wanted to do something different, which nobody has done before.I always believed in building a data enabled society and knew that broadband connectivity can go a long way in creating an internet-enabled society and eventually a knowledge society. Products providing data-services with a proven mass utility are bound to succeed. Few years ago getting a telephone was tedious now every other guy on the street has a mobile. Soon we would see internet connectivity with our TV.

Webdunia has invested Rs. 12 crore in language software development till now and committed some 15 crore more. How do you evaluate the current state of Indian language market and your company’s role in it?

Different agencies have estimated the market potential variously, as far as the return are concerned we are interested in making a decent profit at the end of year. We do not see ourselves as Software developers, we are an infrastructure player providing language enabled solutions for your hand-held devices, PCs, set top boxes, your name it. If Simputer manufactures want a language framework they will come to us, if Microsoft wants a Hindi thesaurus tomorrow they will have to consider us. Today our turnover is around 10 Cr and I expect that within 5 years we shall be 100 Cr firm.

The scope for quality content development in Indian language is very high. There is utter lack of content in Hindi, 12 terabytes of information on web available in English compared to the trifling 1 gigabyte of Hindi. Consider this example: The world’s largest mountaineering training institute in India but if you search the web there in hardly any content on mountaineering available in Hindi. There is ample scope for language software in the area of machine translation, voice and handwriting recognition as demand for better human interfaces escalates.

You met bill gates during his recent India visit. What transpired?

I just met him to say Hello (smiles) but somehow developing software in Indian language also featured in the discussion. We do a lot of work for Microsoft, in fact, we are one of their largest vendors in India. But we want to go beyond and convert this into a strategic relationship. We want to tell them- look we can advise you on what to do and we can do it together.

Tell us abut the Indian Language research and development laboratory started by GSITS and Webdunia.

The first batch of 12 students are working on projects involving Linux localization and its enabling in Hindi. We are not doing any fundamental research work right now nor are we expecting products of commercial worth immediately. But I am confident that in 2-3 years time this lab will become self-supporting with its own products gaining commercial viability and royalties coming back.

You coined the slogan ‘Jan-Jan Ka Internet’. Isn’t it more of ‘Urban Jan ka Internet’?

I have all alone been advocating that a common Indian can be brought to the net with the help of the language in which he is comfortable. The slogan ‘Jan-Jan ka internet’ entails the desire of making it available for the common people, the benefits on Internet. We have made a big effort to convince various provincial governments aspiring to implement e-governance solution that unless the applications are developed in vernacular language the entire e-governance activity shall become futile. I am glad that our voice is now being heard.

Despite of initiatives, the software Industry in Madhya Pradesh hasn’t been able to rise up to expectations. What are the reasons? Lack of government initiative, Entrepreneurship backlash or poor quality of IT manpower in M.P.?

It’s just that Madhya Pradesh missed the bus initially. During the early 90’s when IT revolution was at its peak the commitment was lacking and the state was never seen as an IT destination. The government is willing for investment now and I have a gut feeling that the situation will improve. The quality of Manpower in MP is good; at Suvi almost 80% of the employees are from M.P. we must soon expect to see big players coming to M.P. situation will also improve after the first STP is setup.

You had recommended the computerization of state’s revenue and Land record departments. You also said that IT solutions must form an integral part of Gram Panchayats. How much has the e-government initiative in Madhya Pradesh taken this into accord?

As a member of the take force I participated in formulation an IT policy for the state. However, I feel the success of e-government projects have not even been marginal. The project concept was good but only as a prototype, not on production-level. If it’s your first, model you need to put in serious money for infrastructure development and if you’re able to raise user awareness then the whole scale of operation could go up, you can augment more service and the customer has the surety of getting his money’s worth.

Not many Indian portals have has the courage to go for the paid-model. What’s your opinion about charging for contents?

It’s still difficult to go for the paid model and I don’t see it in near future. On Webdunia only a small portion, like the astrology service, charges the user; there is no critical mass. You can perhaps charge for value added services like providing data on mobile devices or rendering mandi-rates, matrimonial services or financial advice.

What are your future policies and growth plans for Webdunia.

We will continue with our focus on Indian language software. At the moments we have our hands full and can’t think of anything else. We recently had a retail launch of Windik Professional ,a multilingual word-processor and spreadsheet along with a browser. We see it as a low-cost alternative to using pirated software. NIIT is giving a 180 days licensed version of the software with its course-ware for SWIFT. Apart from Indore we have development centers at Chennai and Trivandrum who are involved in content development for websites in Dravidian languages. We are currently providing technology support and services to various clients including Chitralekha.net, Manorama.com, Dailythanthi.com, Bigcoop.com and Southasiafoundation.org.

(Originally Published in the Free Press Journal, Indore on December 23rd, 2002. Disclaimer: I had worked with Webdunia.com, but that was after this interview was taken & published.)