For N.R.K. Raman, running a software firm is like playing a game of golf. “Playing golf is about getting the better of the course and trying to get rid of your handicap. It’s the same in the IT business,” says the chief operating officer (COO) of the Bangalore-based i-flex Solutions.
An avid golfer and an IT-pro, Raman can talk reams on the IT-golf connection. After all, both are mind games and both need playing strategies. And like a game of golf, Raman will tell you that there’s never a dull moment in an IT honcho’s life.
In his 13 years with i-flex, Raman has seen the company grow from a 250-person start-up to a mammoth IT firm with 5,000 employees that services 525 customers in 110 countries. i-flex generated a revenue of $261 million last year. “The company’s banking product, Flexcube, is rated as the no. 1 core banking solution in the world,” says he.
Raman has held varied portfolios at i-flex ' from heading banking product development, and sales and marketing, to being COO. His rendezvous with IT started by chance. While doing his postgraduation in physics at the University of Mumbai, Raman made up his mind to pursue academics. “I was even preparing to go abroad for further studies,” he recalls.
When the budding physicist offered to help install a mainframe on the college campus, it changed the course of his life. “I discovered that I had a flair for programming,” says Raman.
One thing happened after another. Datamatics Consultants came to the campus for a seminar. They asked Raman, who happened to be a seminar co-ordinator, to take a written test. Raman cleared it, was selected and got on board the nascent Indian IT industry.
In the early 1980s, when personal desktops were a thing of futuristic science fiction, an IT professional’s life was not as easy as clicking a mouse. “I had to wait till midnight to get half-an-hour of computer time,” says Raman. Those days, software programmers did hand coding. “Which meant we had to do a perfect job. Programs had to work within one or two runs,” recalls the 47-year-old COO.
There were times when Raman questioned his decision to join IT. He remembers being stranded at a airport in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in the middle of the night. “No one came to receive me. No one knew English. As it was Ramadan time, the authorities locked the airport and left,” says Raman.
Adversity is the mother of learning. And Raman learnt how to innovate. “I flagged off the software project at Sanaa by giving my colleagues a one-week crash course in English,” says Raman.
The Africa experience paid off. When Raman joined i-flex, he proposed that the company get a head-start by doing business in markets like Africa and Asia and not by focusing on the competitive US market. “Today i-flex has the largest presence in Africa among all IT companies,” says Raman.
In 1985, Raman moved to Citicorp Overseas Software Ltd (COSL). “I wanted to work with an MNC,” he says. Work at COSL required a lot of travelling. “We executed projects across the world. I learnt about the business of banking and large global projects,” says Raman.
I-flex was born in 1992 as a breakaway bloc from COSL. “Some of us felt that other banks had similar requirements as Citibank, which we could address. We decided to form a separate company to service these banks,” says Raman. About 250 people left COSL to start i-flex. Raman joined as the head of product development. “It was a risk and a challenge. COSL had job security. But there was a more exciting world to conquer,” he says. “And now, i-flex has grown phenomenally in 13 years,” says Raman. What he likes best being in a young firm is that there are no precedents to refer to. “We set our own standards. And try to emulate international companies,” he says.
Just like he emulates Tiger Woods on the golf course.
As told to Varuna Verma in Bangalore