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.)

Madhya Pradesh government committed to embrace IT: Kay Brown

It seemed promising earlier too but India began capitalizing on this new buzzword only in 2001. Flustered after the dot com carnage Bio-informatics was the next big thing for the VCs. And their decision has never been more apposite. The biotech industry in India touched $2.5 billion in 2001, and is expected to proliferate to a $20 billion industry by 2005. Among the leading players in the field is a company from Indore, which has been in Bio-informatics “from its inception.” Among incessant debates over the ethics of human cloning, manufacture babies using genetic engineering Debashish Chakrabarty asked Ms Kay Brown, founder of Indore based Apticraft Systems, about Bio-informatics, her company and her future plans.

Ms Brown received her Master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Bombay and studied Physics at the University of California, Berkley. She has worked as a semiconductor design and process engineer with Fairchild Semiconductor, Philco Ford and IBM. After working in magnetic bubble technology and acquiring several patents, she went back to school to earn an MBA from the University of Santa Clara. She was appointed the CEO of Intrix, a manufacturing and accounting software development and was heading it until she decided to found a new company in Bioinformatics, PREMIER Biosoft International, in the summer of 1994 and Apticraft Systems (P) Ltd in 2002.

Kay Brown
Kay Brown
What is bio-informatics? Is it already a mature science? Do all kinds of biological computing come under this science?

Bio-informatics is an interdisciplinary research area that applies computer and information science to solve biological problems. However, this is not the only definition. The field is being defined and redefined at present, and there are probably as many definitions as there are bioinformaticians.

The field is in its infancy. All kinds of companies think of themselves as working in bio-informatics, from companies that host vast amounts of biological data and analysis tools like Double Twist Inc. to companies that develop algorithms to solve specific problems such as protein folding.

Tell us in brief about your company and your products. How and when did your company decide to venture into Bio-informatics?

PREMIER Biosoft International (PBI), based in USA was founded in 1994 with the mission to develop intuitive, fully featured tools to accelerate research for the molecular biologist. PREMIER Biosoft Indore Pvt. Ltd., the company dedicated to fulfill the development needs of PBI was founded in 1996. Apticraft has now taken on this mission.

Our company did not “decide to go into Bio-informatics”, it was there from its inception. We believe that this emerging field is currently the most exciting area and is expected to make unparalleled contributions to human health and scientific achievements over the next 20 years. We consider ourselves privileged to be working in such a field.

How do you foresee the usage of Computers in bioinformatics? What according to you would be the share of Indian Software companies in this?

Biological sciences are developing new high throughput techniques and generating vast amounts of data at an unprecedented rate. Computers are an indispensable tool to glean biological meaning from this effort.

Historically, Indian companies have participated in new and exciting fields by becoming the development arms of or by supplying human resources to foreign companies. But we see a new trend emerging now. NRIs are coming back home and are establishing companies that innovate and produce new products in biological fields to be sold directly to end users. With its strengths in software development and highly educated work force, India is poised well to make significant contributions.

Computers gathering data and presenting to the researcher to draw conclusions; what’s the role of the human factor vis-à-vis that of computer here? Is it only a tool or is it also doing our science for us?

It is most certainly only a tool. How we wish it could do more!

How are advances in computer technology contributing to the progress in Bioinformatics? Does this advancement ever pose as a limiting factor for the advancement of bioinformatics?

Currently, the computer technology seems to be able keep up with many common demands of the biologist, though there are specific areas of the field that find the current compute power inadequate. Several companies offer specially designed computer hardware and software to overcome this limitation. The progress in solving certain analysis intensive problems like protein folding is hampered by these limitations. Companies like IBM are building massively parallel computers to tackle such problems. With the availability of new high throughput protocols and micro fluidics, the rate at which data can be generated is accelerating. We are sure to run head on into the limitation with this explosive growth in the available data.

What technologies are being employed and would be used in future to manage bio-informatics databases? How important are the graphical visualization tools?

Many technologies including Java, Applets, Swing and CORBA are being used. Many research organizations are collaborating and sharing data to solve challenging biological problems. It is essential to connect and communicate among large numbers of experimental, simulation, and theoretical communities flung across the world. Tools to enhance such communications and analyses are becoming increasingly more important.

Some of the biological data is graphical and is stored as images. Novel, fresh methodology to analyze this data is needed and is being developed. The graphical needs extend beyond visualization tools, into analysis tools.

How would the Human Genome Project, or bioinformatics, affect the average person?

The impact is expected to be enormous. Cures for previously incurable diseases seems to be around the corner, improved diagnostics, detection of genetic predispositions to diseases, gene therapy, drugs tailored to the individual and much more. And this is a partial list of health related impact. Then there is the impact of genetically engineered farm animals and crops… I could go on and on.

What do you think entices the MNCs into sending their genomic and proteomic data to India for analysis? Is it the cost? Is it the availability of skills? Or is it something else?

I think it’s all of the above. India produces the best skill sets in an individual. Sharp minds, right training, technical skills and the ability to read and write English, many reasons to be attractive to MNCs.

There are many big players like Satyam, Kshema technologies, IBM, BigTec in Bioinformatics arena. How do you see your company’s position among these?

We stay clear of where they play. We develop software for individual scientists to help with the needed analysis capabilities for specific assays.

How good has been the role of the state government in granting incentive to the software companies based at Indore? What do you think should the state government do to ensure further investment?

Indore is declared an IT city and the government is taking several steps to help the software industry. An excellent example is the Gyandoot project. It shows that the state government is committed to embrace the information technology. The state governments has set up an STP and created an STPI nodal agency in Indore. These activities demonstrate the forward-looking, modern attitude that is essential to nurture the growth of our industry.

Bioinformatics requires a highly skilled work force. Do you get the required trained manpower at Indore or do you source them from outside MP? What should the profile of an ideal candidate be to enter bio-informatics?

We currently source candidates from MP. Bio-informatics is new and it is difficult to get candidates with experience in the field. We, therefore, recruit highly intelligent, motivated people who would like to make a career in Bio-informatics. We have designed comprehensive training programs for all major job categories and require new hires to go through them in the first few weeks of employment with us. Our major job categories are software engineers, bio-informatics scientists and business development managers. We look for postgraduates in appropriate disciplines with a proven academic record and outstanding communication skills.

Tell us something about any interesting ongoing project at Apticraft. What are the future plans of your company?

After the successful completion of the human genome sequence, the era is moving from genomics to proteomics. With the release of Xpression Primer and Protein Networker, Apticraft is taking its first steps into the emerging field of proteomics.

Apticraft will be moving into the new facilities under construction at the electronic complex this summer. We plan to almost double the staff size by year-end. We have several new products on the drawing board for both the genomics and proteomics areas.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 21 April 2003]

Madhya Pradesh still invisible on country’s IT map: Praveen Kankariya

“We are very different from other software services providers”, he quips. This couldn’t be far from truth for his is one of the few companies who were successful in bringing technology focus on Indore. Foraying from software services to R&D to BPO Impetus Infotech (India) Pvt. Limited was formed in 1991 by Praveen Kankariya, now its President & CEO. In 1996 he established Impetus Technologies Inc. in the U.S.A. He has also founded a service supply chain optimization software company- Servigistics, in Atlanta. Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Praveen about his company, his vision and his future plans.

With over 15 years of experience in developing large distributed systems, Mr.Praveen was awarded a Masters degree in Computer Science from the Michigan State University and holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Engineering from S.G.S.I.T.S., Indore.

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

Praveen Kankariya
Praveen Kankariya
Impetus is an outsourced software R&D provider to leading software companies. We build cutting edge software products used in diverse environments employing emerging principles and methodologies like component based design and design patterns.

Unlike other software services providers like Infosys and Wipro who derive bulk of their revenue from building custom software applications and implementing packaged applications for end-user organizations bulk of Impetus’ revenue comes from building software products for other software product companies.

Tell us about your products.

We have been working on software products for various domains, applying a variety of technologies, and addressing different techno-business requirements such as Supply Chain planning system developed for Dell and Toshiba. A variable annuity management and trading platform that we have developed is being used by some of the largest insurance companies of the US.

We have also studied HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and developed our own HIPAA Data Enabler, which is a XML based product facilitating generation of HIPAA compliant health care claims and enquiry formats. The solution is already in use in some of our clients’ applications.

Impetus has evolved a Product Development Maturity Model (PDMM) on the line of Capability Maturity Model (CMM). Tell us about it.

Impetus’ PDMM is not on the line of CMM. It’s not a quality assessment model, though its dimensions do affect the quality and performance of the software developed. The PDMM is basically a well-researched model of factors that are critical to the successful design and development of a software product. A good analogy is designing and building a house. A good architect will factor directions of sunlight, traffic flows in a household, ages of residents, climate, permanent wind directions and other such parameters in the design.

Through the application of PDMM, we are better informed about all possible significant aspects that could affect a software products’ performance, applicability, usage, maintenance, etc. PDMM helps us address commonly found issues upfront rather than as an afterthought.

Please tell us something about the research work done by Impetus and about the internally developed component suite. How has the partnership with companies like Sun helped Impetus?

We have developed frameworks for the routinely needed components of web applications, internally called IBIZA. These components provide a head start in any new development activity, since we don’t need to start from scratch. This also leads to a shorter development time on any project, leading to cost savings for the client. Also, since these components are well researched and tested, the risk level reduces substantially.

Also, such regular and continuous focus on research helps our engineers innovate and try new ideas, making way for a challenging and stimulating work environment. Another advantage is that like PDMM, these components (IBIZA) also ensure that we address every element of the software development upfront, which in turn makes the project planning, and management more smooth and predictable.

Impetus is a technology partner of BEA, Sun and IBM. Partnerships with various technology leaders help us by providing access to new and upcoming technology options, which we can incorporate in our development work.

Impetus University aims at the continuing training its employee. Tell us something about it. Do you think the emphasis of other companies in this regard is sufficient?

Technology domain changes at a pace faster than a blink of the eye, and keeping pace with it becomes difficult. We set up the Impetus University to provide an internal medium for continuously updating the technology skills of our engineers, and helping them move up the learning curve much faster. Besides technical training, aspects such as soft skills and personal development are also looked at, enabling both professional and personal growth for the employees.

A lot of companies claim to run internal training sessions, but it is the seriousness and regularity with which such programs are developed and run, that makes all the difference. We at Impetus regard our University with utmost respect and sanctity, and the management is committed to this forum. This is the reason why we have industry veterans, leading academicians and technology experts participating in the University programs.

We have seen that the regions that have the intellectual capital, skills and pricing for offshore sourcing and application development such as India, China, Israel and the Philippines are also areas of high geopolitical tensions. How has the scenario after Indo-Pak tension of recent past and post 9/11 affected the offshore jobs for your company in particular and India in general?

Yes, this does become a concern for our clients since they depend on us. I occasionally get calls when there is a flare-up on the Indo-Pak border. No company can deny that they have not been affected by 9/11. We depend on the US for most of our business. The ripple effect has touched us.

We have responded by increasing the offshore component of every project. We have made substantial investments in our telecom and systems infrastructure during the downtrend. As a result, we are now seeing growth in the business due to a new trend of leveraging offshore development even further by US companies.

What attribute of the Indian Software developing companies bring them offshore and other development jobs? Is it the quality or the price or something else?

Well price is one of the important factors, but not the only one. With judicious use of the offshore process, a US based company can virtually see a 24-hour development cycle and see increased productivity and shorter time-to-market cycles. The Indian software advantage most definitely lies in the quality of work done by Indian software engineers and our long track record in managing globally distributed projects.

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 Impetus view this and wish to participate in the process? What do you think should be the strategy of the MP government to attract other entrepreneurs and generate more employment for state’s unemployed people?

The efforts of the government to usher in e-governance are commendable. Believe it or not, the digital medium will be seen as a poor man’s medium as the cost element is dropping by at least 40-50% per annum compared to other media like paper. The only hurdle is literacy. Our forte is technology and technology alone. We can definitely contribute by letting the government use our IBIZA components to create e-governance applications faster and cheaper.

The government has definitely put significant efforts in promoting IT and IT-enabled businesses. But we still have a huge problem of a lacking positive momentum in any of our cities in the state compared to other cities like Pune and Bangalore. I worry that we might just miss the bus and not be able to develop a significant industry in Indore.

Not a day goes by when we contemplate creating another development center in a metro so that we can scale our company without sacrificing our talent level. We have managed to create a great company using very bright talent that has largely come from the state. But we are concerned whether we will find enough talent of the same level to meet our growth objectives.

Not many people, who do not have a connection with the state, are willing to move to the state from other regions of the country. This is largely because the state is still not visible on the IT map of the country. The state should focus on a very small but high impact steps to create a small groundswell in the local IT industry. This will require very focused efforts as well as leverage the great educational institutions in the state like the IIM.

The BPO business sector has recently 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. Is Impetus in the fray too? Why has this suddenly become a big-boys game?

BPO is an emerging field of business and has the potential to grow into a huge and long-term business option. The Indian IT enabled services market is projected as a Rs. 81,000 crore business opportunity providing employment to 1.1 million by the year 2008. Indian BPO service offerings are graduating from pure transaction-intensive services towards highly specialized services like R&D, customized offerings and domain expertise provisioning.

The established IT companies in India already have some large clients. Getting into BPO for them is an extension of the services spectrum. Also, since Indian IT has already proved its mettle, it is that much easier for Indian firms to convince potential prospects about India’s ability to handle other process and operations outsourcing assignments. Add to that the fact that Indian BPO can improve the value of outsourcing relationships by way of enhanced productivity, reduced cycle time, decreased transaction cost, and improved time to market – and this becomes a win-win situation for all involved.

As regards Impetus, we are looking at it from serving our existing base of clients who are predominantly software companies in many more ways. For instance, we are providing worldwide phone-based customer support on behalf of one such software company. We are trying to leverage the knowledge of a client’s software product and our relationship in ways other than software design and development. This includes customer support, professional services, application monitoring, data analysis etc. In short, we can be said to be providing BPO services, but in niche areas.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 20 January 2003]