The story of how Western India Vegetable Products morphed from a disorganized agriculture-based manufacturing and distribution company into Wipro, the third biggest global tech services provider (behind Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys), is fairly well known in India.
In the summer of 1966, when Azim Premji was 21 and about to graduate from Stanford University, he was called home to Bombay to take the reins of the family business after his father’s sudden death. Premji first modernized the vegetable oil business he had never wanted to run. Then, as opportunities presented themselves, he expanded. When IBM left India in the late 1970s, he saw the opportunity to get into the computer business. When the Indian economy began to open up in the 1990s, he started to build up what would become a global Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) powerhouse.
Steve Hamm tells the story of Wipro in Bangalore Tiger: How Indian Tech Upstart Wipro Is Rewriting the Rules of Global Competition. A senior writer and the software editor at BusinessWeek, Hamm has been a business journalist for more than 20 years, has followed the tech industry for a little less than 20 years and has been chronicling the emerging tech services industry in India since 2001.
The intertwined stories here — those of Wipro, Premji, India and the evolving worlds of commerce and technology — are important and worth reading.
A Good Face for Brand India
Azim Premji, whom Knowledge at Wharton has interviewed, comes across particularly well: intelligent, creative, focused and flexible. His zeal for understanding, rationalizing and then constantly tuning and improving systems — perhaps, in part, a product of his education as an engineer — is clearly one of the cornerstones of Wipro’s success. The fact that “India’s Bill Gates” is a Muslim burnishes India’s multicultural credentials.
One of Hamm’s primary points is that Wipro gives us a view of where things are heading globally, and he phrases this in language with an evangelical caste to it. “Wipro is not just a company,” he writes. “It’s a quest. And, in a fiercely competitive and rapidly changing business environment, no company that is not also a quest can succeed for long. Bottom line: Wipro matters because it challenges other companies to strive for excellence.”
Hamm documents the degree to which this quest has been built on egalitarian principles. Premji and his executives come across as having broader concerns than profit and expansion — from their desire to set a clear moral example, to a commitment to educating their employees and themselves, to a deep and ongoing devotion to transforming India, both economically and culturally. All of those things, of course, redound to the success of the company. They also serve as examples of the benefits of long-term thinking.
Refusing to pay bribes may cost a company business, but a reputation for being incorruptible will likely bring more. It is expensive to educate employees — particularly given the danger that you might be educating the competition when and if they leave — but it is more expensive to lose employees. One can argue about the appropriate role of a company in the larger society — Premji’s foundation supports education, down to the elementary level — but if India is not successful in broad terms, the chances for any Indian company, at home or in the global arena, are diminished.
One of the core aspects of the Wipro story, and of Hamm’s persuasive view of the current and future global business environment, is the degree to which success often hinges on flexibility and planning. The successful entrepreneur or manager is one who, on putting a process or business deal in place — the IT infrastructure of a hospital, for example — understands and accepts that getting things right is always temporary.
You can’t relax even if you feel that things are running “perfectly,” because all that means is that things are running “perfectly” today. Tomorrow will inevitably be different. And waiting to see what happens before considering how to proceed is a recipe for following, not leading, trends. Wipro doesn’t just look at tomorrow, Hamm tells us: The company always aims to be looking three years ahead and preparing for the future.
Starting with the vegetable oil business, Premji consistently brought a higher standard of assessment to his company along a variety of axes. He set a high ethical bar for all employees; he measured what they did and gave them incentives to do better; he focused endlessly on education — both educating himself and educating his employees at all levels — to give people the tools to advance.
“In those first difficult years,” Hamm writes, “Premji established a management style and a corporate culture that formed a solid foundation for everything that would come later. While his father’s top men had based their decisions on tradition and instincts, he brought numerical measurement and analysis into play. And way before it became de rigueur for Western businesses, he benchmarked each of his managers against the others.”
What to Tell and How to Tell It
In 1981, Tracy Kidder wrote The Soul of a New Machine, which chronicled the development of Data General’s Eclipse mini-computer, meant to compete with Digital Equipment’s Vax. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It was an early “glimpse-inside-high-tech” at a time when computing was just beginning to penetrate the public consciousness in the U.S. as something other than “Back Office Big Iron” — invisible mainframes that were abstractions to most people.
Kidder’s book was largely focused “down in the trenches” with the project engineers. Their concerns and their view of both business and technical processes were functional and direct. Hamm spends more time talking to and quoting higher level managers and executives.
Their concerns often boil down to promoting the brand. That is not to say that what he relays often seems wrong or dishonest. Rather it feels largely beside the point and often repetitive. There is limited use in hearing people repeat that the company seeks to be efficient or honest or forward looking. More interesting and important is how these things are accomplished. More interesting still is hearing about how a company deals with setbacks. That’s the situation in which stakeholders of all kinds show both their strengths and their weaknesses, and where readers often learn the most. The Wipro executives, understandably, don’t tell us much about what hasn’t worked.
As a journalist, Hamm is working in a venerable tradition. In business schools, students pore over case studies; they learn about business practices and strategies by dissecting concrete examples; they follow the data. Longer-form narratives like Bangalore Tiger serve a related but slightly different function. They come at the subject from another angle.
The numbers are the numbers. One can map Wipro’s corporate structure (as Hamm more or less does), which provides a fascinating and useful overview. But that map only shows what the company has done. It doesn’t tell how it was done. “How” is a matter of information but it is also a matter of story. In some ways, Hamm does a good job of telling the story of Wipro; in other ways he falls short.
The advantage that a journalist has in this situation is the benefit of a sustained and intimate inside view of a company. One of the disadvantages of this approach is that it often disinclines us from taking a more critical perspective.
Throughout the world and throughout history, there has been no shortage of companies that prospered by paying bribes, exploiting their workers and their customers, and selling inferior goods or services at over-inflated prices. It is the rare modern business seminar, however, in which these methods of operation are extolled as the sure road to success. To say that success is built on ethical conduct, respect for both workers and customers, and selling a high quality product at a competitive price — variations of which Hamm repeats throughout the book and quotes any number of Wipro executives as saying — borders on the trite. Google, with perhaps equal measures of humor and seriousness, boils business ethics down to a pithy three words: “Don’t Be Evil.”
The book also feels as if it has been assembled in large part from smaller freestanding pieces. There are places where the seams show, where set-piece bits of information are reused or where information is sequenced in a manner more confusing than helpful. In one section, for example, Hamm writes: “Rather than sell a British-based bank only software programming, [Wipro] can also sell the bank IT consulting, manage its desktop computers, and even run its consumer credit card accounts receivable department.”
One wonders immediately how it is possible to outsource the management of desktop computers. Further down the page, Hamm notes that “It’s primarily done by employees in India, but some of the work is performed in the client’s offices,” which mostly deepens the mystery. It isn’t until some 17 pages later that we are told, “Wipro has created a portfolio of automated monitoring and maintenance software and process [sic] that allow it to perform 90% of the work from India and only 10% on-site.”
Finally, there are places where it is hard not to at least question Hamm’s interpretation of facts or history.
The reader and the writer need not always agree, and being forced to consider something from a different and unexpected point of view is one of the benefits, and pleasures, of seeing something through someone else’s eyes. Authors make choices all the time, in the examples they include or discard, in what they focus on and what they make peripheral. Given Hamm’s long immersion in the subject matter dealt with here, however, it is jarring when he hits off-notes, making assertions or assumptions that seem dubious and undermine his authority.
For example, very early on, in the book’s introduction, Hamm points to Mark Andreessen’s designing the first web browser in 1993 as one of the crucial pivot points that would eventually facilitate the explosion in remote computing on which the core of Wipro’s business has been built. “Andreessen’s browser, called Mosaic, democratized the Internet,” Hamm writes. “It was an easy-to-use doorway to the Net that made it possible ultimately for anybody in the world with a computer and Internet access to connect with anyone else.”
Fair enough; that’s a good description of what happened on the consumer side. But business had been using remote computing of various sorts for decades by then. Businesses were not held back by the network interface. It would make more sense to point to bandwidth, which, from the 1980s on, became ever “fatter,” cheaper and more ubiquitous as satellite access became more common, microwave links helped bridge areas where cables were impractical and fiber optic networks were built out to the point where there was a large surplus of bandwidth, which drove transmission costs steeply downward.
These criticisms aside, Hamm knows the landscape he is writing about. Wipro and Premji are an important and interesting story and the information provided here is valuable; it would have been well worth editing more carefully.