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Is Rohan Murty's entry into Infosys justified?

June 13, 2013 08:07 IST

Is Rohan Murty's entry into Infosys justified?

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“There are many traditional business houses in India where you inherit everything and the son steps in, etc. Obviously that's not the case here. It's not what I want to do... In my case, I always feel that whatever I do should be independent of my parents.”


That was Rohan Murty at 22, in an interview to The Times of India soon after his father, NR Narayana Murthy, had stepped down as executive chairman of Infosys. Eight years on, that statement seems steeped in irony, with Infosys announcing not just that Narayana Murthy would be coming out of retirement to once again steer the company but also that his son would be joining him as executive assistant. 

The founder’s return, considered a desperate measure to shore up the fortunes of the software giant that has now slipped to third position by revenue after TCS and Cognizant, has been welcomed at least by certain sections, even though it was sharply at variance with his policy of adhering to a retirement age.

But his son’s entry has raised eyebrows all around, considering Murthy's other stand that none of the founders' relatives should join Infosys. The company and Murthy attempted to justify this volte face on the ground that Rohan would not take on a leadership role, that Murthy had requested the board that his son be allowed to assist him as he had got used to working with him, and that his term would be co-terminus with that of Murthy.

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Image: Rohan Murty.
Photographs: Courtesy, eecs.harvard.edu

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Both of them would also be drawing only a token salary of Rs 1, he added. But these statements have not cut much ice with critics.

To be fair to Rohan Murty, who is still in the US and declined a request to be interviewed, he did seem to have been keen on carving his own identity, starting with the fact that he has chosen to spell his name like his mother, without an ‘h’. 

He has also avoided the limelight, which was not too tough considering he left India after passing out of the prestigious Bishop Cotton Boys' School in Bangalore in 2001. People who know him aver to this.

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Image: Rohan Murty (R) during his school days.
Photographs: Courtesy, eecs.harvard.edu

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“He doesn't seem to like being labelled merely as Narayana Murthy's son,” says a fellow Bishop Cotton alumnus, who requests not to be named. “I know him to be self-effacing and while he may not wear his heart on his sleeve, being of a scientific bent of mind, he is also someone who is willing to work tirelessly,” adds the Bangalore resident. 


Murty still maintains strong links with his school and has been reported to drop in at his alma mater whenever he is in town.

The only other time the bespectacled 30-year-old with the boyish demeanour found himself splashed across newspapers was during his wedding in 2011 to Lakshmi Venu, daughter of Venu and Mallika Srinivasan,  chairman of TVS Motor and chairperson of TAFE, respectively.

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Image: Rohan Murty and Lakshmi Venu.
Photographs: Courtesy, Business Standard.

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Venu, a Yale graduate with a PhD from Warwick, is currently a vice-president at Sundaram-Clayton, the holding company of TVS Motors. Their marriage was also a union of two of the best-recognised entrepreneurial business families in south India, one representing old money and the other, new.

Murty mentioned in the interview quoted earlier that he was not academically strong in his initial years at school, but added that he had always been drawn to computers, having begun programing since he was in the fourth grade. 

After school, though, his academic career has been nothing short of brilliant. He completed his bachelor's degree in computer science from Cornell University  in the US and was the recipient of fellowships from MIT, California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and Microsoft Research.

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Image: Rohan Murty (L) during his school days.
Photographs: Courtesy, eecs.harvard.edu

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Mani Chandy, Simon Ramo professor at CalTech, says the university was so impressed with Murty that they offered him a position in their PhD in computer science programme. “I found Rohan to be very smart, very thoughtful — indeed, unusually so — and very knowledgeable about IT,” says Chandy, over email.

Murty ended up choosing Harvard over CalTech for his PhD. “Rohan is smart, hardworking and excitingly energetic. He is naturally good at writing software. At the time we worked together I could sense he was determined to gain the respect of the research community, so he drove himself hard,” says Victor Bahl, Murty’s mentor in his research work and one of the people on his PhD committee at Harvard. 

Murty also seems to have inherited his father’s famed ability to push himself. Ranveer Chandra, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research who has worked with him on several projects and describes Murty as one of the hardest workers among all the students he has interacted with, recalls one particular incident.

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Image: Narayana Murthy
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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“Rohan once drove more than a thousand miles, all by himself, through forests and in the middle of nowhere, stopping every 6 miles, in order to validate the correctness of his software. This level of dedication and passion is very rare to find in any student,” says Chandra. 

He also describes Murty as “a great people person” - again, one of his father’s strengths and a skill that should stand him in good stead in his new role.

Murty’s research interests, according to his website, include networked systems, embedded computing and distributed computing systems, while his work focuses on architecture for dynamic spectrum access in wireless networks.

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Image: Narayana Murthy.
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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As his school's Facebook page proudly notes, Murty was also selected as a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. The pride is not misplaced. Chandra clarifies that “this is one of the most prestigious appointments for a young researcher.” The selection puts Murty in the august company of people like Amartya Sen and Noam Chomsky.

The time at Harvard was not just spent on research. Murty also initiated, funded and launched the Murty Classical Library of India, with a donation of $5.2 million to Harvard University Press to publish English translations of ancient classics in Indian languages, a project that is also close to his mother's heart. 

His other interests include reading an eclectic range of books, from the works of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to George Orwell's 1984, and Western classical music.

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Image: Rohan Murty.


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In an interview to Boston Magazine, he confessed to spending all his stipend money as a graduate student on season tickets for the Boston Symphony.

Back home, Murty has also been involved in setting up Catamaran, the Murthy family’s private investment fund, set up with a corpus of over Rs 600 crore (Rs 6 billion) from the senior Murthy and wife, Sudha. 

The sector-agnostic fund is helmed by Arjun Gowda, a friend of Murty’s from his days at MIT. Gowda declined to comment on Murty’s precise role in Catamaran.

But while Rohan Murty might have a stellar academic record and the ability to work hard, those need not necessarily add up to the right credentials for the role he has been parachuted into, say analysts.

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Image: Sudha Murty.


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“If somebody else with the same qualifications as Rohan Murty had applied for the job he would not have got it simply because he has zero experience in IT services. His experience is in computer science research. Why not hire a young high-performer from within Infosys instead?” asks Shriram Subramanian, managing director of proxy advisory firm, InGovern. 

The other issue is whether this is just a precursor to Murty being given a bigger role in Infosys, disclaimers aside. “An executive assistant is someone who is groomed for a leadership role. Take any multinational company and you will see that its top leaders have all been executives at some point. So if, like Narayana Murthy says, the person is not being prepared for a leader's role, it's a complete waste of that position,” says Subramanian.

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Image: Infosys campus.
Photographs: Courtesy, Infosys.

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Mohandas Pai, the former CFO and HR head of the company, has been more charitable, saying Infosys was in a desperate situation, and so, could not afford to stand on niceties. “An executive assistant’s post may be one of power but is not one of control, is not client-facing and is not business leading. Don’t read too much into it,” he said in an interview to another publication. 


And then there is the prickly question of whether this sets a precedent for the children of the other Infosys founders to come on board, something that can no longer be ruled out.

Perhaps this was indeed not the path that the young Murty, who holds a 1.38 per cent stake in Infosys, (worth over Rs 1,900 crore at current prices), would have chosen for himself. But now that he is on it, the world will be watching how he walks on it very closely.


Image: Infosys' earlier board of directors.
Photographs: Courtesy, Infosys.

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