The Infosys years of Vishal Sikka were characterized by charisma and controversy

18th August 2017
The Infosys years of Vishal Sikka were characterized by charisma and controversy
Outgoing Infosys CEO, Vishal Sikka

The resignation of the Infosys CEO and MD, ends a 3-year experiment of the IT bellwether, with an 'outside' manager. 
Bangalore, August 18 2017: Three years and three weeks after  his surprise appointment as the  first CEO  and Managing Director of Infosys, who was not also a founder,  Vishal Sikka,  has given up his post.   Yes, he remains with the company as "Executive Vice Chairman"   but that is merely a transitory appointment. A statement from Infosys says he "will hold office until the new permanent Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director takes charge, which should be no later than March 31, 2018."
Dr Sikka's resignation,   announced at the start of business hours   on Friday,  ends  his  brief run at  what media cliche has always dubbed a 'bellwether"  Indian technology company with a global footprint.   It has been a run that was a combo of charisma and controversy -- neither entirely of his own making.
He came to Infosys in  August 2014 -- at a time when the company  was at some sort of crossroads -- not sure which way it was headed.    In the  three decades since it was started  in 1985 ,  five of the  seven co-founders had their  round-robin stint heading the company.  They were ready to take a back seat -- and hand it over to  a professional  outside manager. They chose Sikka. 
It needs to be stressed that he was anointed with the full blessings of the founders --  and the lavish praise of the Infosys' Bhishma Pitamaha and conscience keeper,  NR Narayana Murthy -- because they were the ones, who  two years and a bit later, started the  murmurs, seemingly questioning his suitability and style.,

 SAP days
Sikka was something of a poster boy for IT when he joined Infosys -- after 12 years with the Germany-based global leader in enterprise software -- SAP.   Oracle and SAP were the neck-on-neck contenders in the   top end of enterprise data base solutions. One carved out the US as its core market; the other, Europe, but both had global ambitions.  Sikka who became SAP's Chief Technology fficer in 2007, just 5 years after he joined the company, is credited with helping SAP take on Oracle on its home ground in the US. Indeed Sikka almost throughout his career and even after joining Infosys has been mostly  based in the US Silicon Valley. He was also the  chief  driver and evangelist  of SAP's agni astra or secret weapon, HANA, a rather cool database platform that works within the memory  and in its own  niche has revolutionised real-time analytics and  real-time application development.
I remember, every year,  attending the SAP TechEd annual event at  the SAP Lab's Whitefield campus in Bangalore, during Sikka's heyday.  Some 5000 engineers gathered to hear him address them -- always by  video conference link. He rarely bothered to come to India even for this annual  conference -- though Bangalore represented the largest  of SAP's  overseas R&D labs. Sikka's video addresses never lasted for less than an hour and  97% of it was about HANA.   This may have been OK at SAP; but I think Sikka made a tactical error if he thought he could do this sort of remote control piloting at Infosys, a company with  a  vastly different culture.

Culture clash
Yes, finally it all boiled down to corporate culture.  Sikka  is credited, probably fairly,  with  bringing a new, and more aggressive work style to Infosys. From his vantage point in the US Bay area, he perhaps had  early warnings that the Infosys model of   manpower-intensive,service-centric software  had to adapt to  the garam hava of  Artificial Intelligenc (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) -- or die.  He is, in all probability,  the brain behind  the  announcement that Infosys would hire 10,000 engineers in the US, even if it meant  retraining most of them.  It may have been the savvy thing to do -- to avoid a Trump-style backlash. But  the timing was unfortunate -- coming on the heels of  large-scale   retrenchment at Infosys' India end. It led to the   impression ( right or wrong) that Infosys was firing in India and hiring in the US.
See Image of the Day spot for   Tweet praise  and pans
It also came at a time when   mishandled announcements at Infosys suggested that senior management received pay or severance pay that ran into millions and represented  annual hikes of 30-50%, when the average employee- raise was limited to around 7%.  The Infosys Old Guard has been profoundly discomfited by such an adverse image for a  company which was founded and run (by them) on some old fashioned values and a deep rooted belief in ethical management that today's  more pragmatic managers  have no use for. 
Mr Narayana Murthy in particular has not hid his displeasure  at the new dispensation   and most tellingly on  the same morning of Sikka's resignation,  a leaked e-mail  from him, carried in  some media suggests  rather  revealingly, that Sikka was always considered by some of the founders to have been   CTO rather than CEO material. 
The swirl of controversy in recent weeks, was perhaps too much for Sikka to  take and when he  saw more attention to the style rather than the substance of his  contributions to Infosys, he    decided to leave.
That still leaves moot,  the question of which route Infosys will take; whether its core values and its belief in taking all its employees along,  is sustainable in an increasingly competitive market; or whether it will evolve its own path to progress where hard -nosed business can co-exist with  a broad humanity.  
In an earlier era the world saluted something called the HP way,  a less commercially crass, more humane way, of doing business  that was pioneered at Hewlett Packard  by its co founders  William Hewlett and David Packard. It no longer survives -- though the company, albeit split, does.
 Perhaps the 'Infosys Way' will prove more resilient and may   end up as an exemplar of  an Indian corporate style of working. If so, the Sikka Years may be just a short lived,   but brilliant blip,  in its  career graph.
Anand Parthasarathy
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