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The Rediff Interview/S Somasegar, Corporate VP, Microsoft Corp
'Bill Gates is super smart at technology and business'
November 09, 2006
He did not have any great ambition in life. He did not even complete his doctoral programme. But he always wanted to excel in everything he did. And that's exactly what he did after he joined Microsoft's US office.
Meet S Somasegar, the corporate vice president of the developer division at Microsoft Corporation. He also oversees Microsoft's India Development Centre in Hyderabad and was the driving force behind launching the company's research and development facility in India in 1999.
Redmond, US-based Somasegar was in Chennai recently at the invitation of Anna University, which felicitated him with the degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the field of computer science and in appreciation of his technical innovation.
He is an alumnus of the Guindy Engineering College, Chennai.
In an interview with Contributing Editor Shobha Warrier, he describes his nearly two-decade-long stint at Microsoft.
How it all started
I don't think I had any great ambition in life. I just wanted to do my best. Back then, kids only dreamt of becoming either an engineer or a doctor. As I was good in maths, I wanted to pursue engineering. After my schooling in Pondicherry, I joined the Guindy Engineering College, and after graduating from Anna University in 1986 in electronics and communication, I went to the United States to do Masters at Louisiana State University in computer engineering. After that, I started my PhD but did not wait to complete it.
Joining Microsoft in 1989
I had only completed one year of my research work when I got a job offer from Microsoft. There was another reason why I left my research incomplete. I just could not adjust to the extremely cold weather at Buffalo.
At that time, Microsoft was known more for DOS than anything else. Coming from an academic background where UNIX was what you grew up with, I was not sure whether I was doing the right thing by joining Microsoft.
The people at Microsoft cleared all doubts. They were the smartest I had ever met in my life. And soon I realised that it was a great place to work in because you can thrive and learn and grow. I had always been interested in systems software -- systems level programming -- and I got an opportunity to work with the next generation OS (operating system) at Microsoft.
I often thought of going back and completing my PhD, but it never happened. Finally, my dream of taking a PhD came true after 17 years when Anna University conferred the degree on me.
On open source code and Microsoft operating system
I think open source is a good phenomenon, and I personally have learnt a lot from that. At Microsoft, we have a number of shared source programmes. We have a source code and if you are a partner or customer and want to get access to the source code for the right set of reasons, we will make it available to you.
There is a strong vibrant rich community out there and it is this community that makes or breaks open source code. At Microsoft, in the last 5-7 years, we have done a phenomenal job of having a vibrant community around our technologies and products. Then you have to decide whether you want to get the value for your IP (intellectual property) or not.
On the term 'Monopoly of Microsoft'
Different people have different views on that. I want to be judged by the value I provide to my customer. He will pay only if he is happy with what we provide. The customer is the king. At Microsoft, we always say that we should not be satisfied with what our customers said yesterday or say today; we should think of tomorrow. The day you stop providing value to your customer, he is going to leave you. They don't care about what you have done in the last 31 years.
Microsoft has a variety of products and there may not be another player who has all these many products. I can give you a long list of products where we would love to have monopoly. There are many, many products, which are doing better than us. I would love to get some more share for MSN! We are really not the market leader there. So, if you look at segment by segment and business by business, there is healthy competition out there. I don't see any monopoly.
Seventeen years at Microsoft
Sometimes people do ask me, you have been in the company for 17 long years. Why are you still working with Microsoft? I tell them, 'Today, it is even more exciting to be part of Microsoft than it was 17 years ago.'
Though I can cite a hundred reasons, I will stress two. One, the kind of positive impact that we can have on people around the world is phenomenal. There's hardly anyone who has not been touched by our Windows operating system.
Our developer platform technologies and the developer tools, enable Windows to be successful. . . it also enables people to write applications.
I don't know how many other companies can have this kind of an impact. As long as I feel that my little bit (of work) will have a broad impact, I am excited to get up in the morning and do some work.
The second reason is, yes, today we are a large company and we have many people but I still think that if there is one institution that has done a fantastic job of assembling the best talent from around the world, it is Microsoft.
It is a continuous learning experience for me at Microsoft.
Role as the vice president of the developer division
We at the developer division ensure that there is a two-way dialogue with our customers from inception to delivery to post delivery.
The developer audience is the most strategic. Ever since its inception, Microsoft has been a platform company. And we expect our platform ecosystem -- the software partners, the hardware partners, the solution providers -- to build on our platform so that we have a rich offering to the customers. From that point, the developer segment is super, super special to Microsoft.
Satisfying the entrepreneur in him
A couple of years ago, we saw that there was a growing customer segment, which we call the creative professionals or professional designers who are becoming super critical to software development. More and more people are thinking how we can use it for business advantage. The user experience is created by professional designers. Historically, we haven't had any products targetted at them.
I, then, had this idea. I thought maybe we should develop some products. Literally it was like a start up. I spoke to Steve (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer) and Bill (Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) and they said, 'you can take a few heads and try it out.' They saw something interesting in the idea. We started with less than a dozen people.
It's a family of products called Expression. It is putting out data and early community technology previews. Over the next 6-9 months, the first version of products will hit the market.
Today we have a fairly large development group working on four different products. It has been a fun road. This gave me a chance to show my entrepreneurial skills and create business.
Decision to start a Microsoft development centre in India
I am involved with the Microsoft India Development Centre not from Day One but from Day Zero. Our product development was greatly centred in Redmond, US but then we knew there are super smart people who do not want to be in Redmond.
I used to have this conversation with Bill that we should have a centre in India. In 1997, Bill came to India for the first time and came back to say, I didn't know there are so many smart people there (in India). In the next six months, I tried to figure out what we should do in India. In 1998, we decided to start the IDC in Hyderabad. From 20 people, we have grown to 1,200 now.
Quality of Indian software engineers
Quality of the software engineers working in Hyderabad is no different from the engineers working at Redmond. We have filed over 100 patents from Hyderabad.
India's advantage in the field of IT
The availability of talent pool is the biggest reason why companies are flocking to set up R&D centres in India. Our grasp over the English language is also another advantage. For centuries, we have focussed on maths and science and it is reaping fruits now. Indians actually have an inherent advantage.
We also got into the IT services industry long before the rest of the world. There is a lot of IT awareness and IT knowledge in India. China's IT services industry is 5-7 years behind India but they are trying to catch up. But India is in a unique position. If you think the last few years were great, my strong hope and optimism is that we have just scratched the surface.
India in the next decade
In services, we will continue to be the leader. But we are transitioning from services to innovation. I think we are making good progress. We definitely have the potential and opportunity to get to the top. Things are happening in the right direction at the right pace.
But we have to make sure that we don't falter. If we can continue building on the momentum, nothing can stop us.
What India should do to be a leader
One problem area, according to me is that people get to be project managers too soon. After that, it is very hard to be technically focused. So, we struggle to figure out R&D experts in the middle and senior level. That is one area we have to focus on as an industry and figure out how we can nurture technically strong people.
I am also not sure about the quality of students across India. Whatever we can do to improve the quality of the students will be fantastic.
Working with Bill Gates
I am fortunate to have interacted with him for so many years. There quite a few people who are super smart from the technology perspective and there are those who are super smart from business perspective. But very, very rarely do you come across a person who can take both the roles and be excellent in both. Bill, I think, is one such guy. He is very passionate and you can learn a lot from him. He always wants to do the best for the company and the customers.
He may be the richest guy in the world but when you talk to him, he is as much focussed as anybody else. The first time you meet him, you may feel the aura but not after that. Now he is doing a fantastic job with his wife on the (Bill and Melinda Gates) Foundation.
Till he was the CEO, he was focussed on both the business side and the technology side. Now, he is the key influence in the technology direction. It is more like connecting the dots. These days he spends a lot of time on product reviewing and technical discussions.
The journey so farSometimes I have to pinch myself to see that this is not a dream. I never dreamt of or aspired to do anything; I only did my best. If you give your best shot at whatever you are doing today, and if you follow your heart and passion, right things will happen to you. Yes, it has been a fantastic journey so far.