Q/A With Kalyan Banerjee At Awakin Talks- Baroda

Posted by Jaimit Vaidya on Feb 1, 2020
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[We had the opportunity to be part of an inspiring conversation with Kalyan Banerjee who was the co-founder of Mindtree, Pro VC at Centurion University and is known to pioneer technology with values along with Audrey Lin who is a visionary behind kindspring's 21 day challenge and laddership portal and Siddharth Shah who have been doing kindness circles with school children at Awakin Talks, Vadodara. Here is a briefly edited transcript of the conversation.]

Audrey: Wonderful. I came all the way around the world just to talk to you (laughs). It is an honour to be here, to be in a space like this where everyone has come to listen and share in the space of stories and transformation - Thank You!

Knowing your background, from getting a masters in computer science to different businesses to organizational management to education to social work, it sounds like you have done everything in a way. So we thought we will start a little bit further back and ask you that, after studying in computer science, how did your journey evolve into businesses and then education and then, social work? How did you make those turns, and at what junctures?

Kalyan Kumar: I have not really done too many things. I have focused on computer engineering after college specifically operating systems and I worked on UNIX and as the demands of the industry and changing times happened, my interest also moved more towards people and their motivations. And within the corporate world, I was focused more on people, motivation and learning issues and at appropriate time maybe I made a transition full time into education. So I wanted to clarify that there are only very few things that I have done.

After completing my masters I joined Wipro R&D. It was in the 80s, and it was focused on the Indian industry. Here we created computers for Indian enterprises so that's where I worked and most of my experience was on design and implementation of operating systems specifically UNIX and we worked with customers in the Indian context. Sometime in the nineties, it changed and with the opening of the industry and we became a global organization and I changed along with that. So that was the first transition that happened.

With this came the need for people in the industry. We started talking about it somewhere in the mid-nineties that a lot more people were required because we became a service-based organization and then we said that we did not have enough people, and then came my experience into educating people in the corporate context. Now, while at MindTree, we tried a number of ways to teach and learn. One thing that I wanted to mention here is that we started communities as a way of learning and that was an extremely effective method. And communities was a grassroots effort. It was not guided by structures and schedules from the top. The company only gave its time and resources and when I see these Awakin Circles now, I realize that you are also a community, and far bigger and across the world, so I can resonate with that.

Siddharth: I remember having a conversation with you earlier, and there was this question that arose about leadership. Seeing his background he might be a leader and a mentor for many young individuals and many people around him. So I had asked him what does leadership mean to you and maybe I will ask the same question. I remember his answer at that time which was a wonderful saying by Lao Tzu, philosopher 2,500 years ago. He said that the leader is one who completes the task and the team feels that they have completed the task. So I just wanted to ask: how has this idea of leadership evolved for you in your journey?

Kalyan Kumar: It is a good question that how did it evolve. First, when you become a leader you want to do things yourself and you want to be better than others. But with time, one realizes that, that is a limiting factor. If the leader has to be better than others in the team than the team doesn't grow and the mission doesn't grow. So the leader really has to create more leaders. But how does that happen? After a while the leader becomes redundant and other people take on the mission. So that's where the true success of a leader comes in and how do we create capacity. Things run in different ways and probably in ways that I did not think of and I should be okay with it.

Siddharth: Can you share an example of how you had not imagined how this role might have taken you and as you said that the leader's role is to create more leaders, can you share one story in that context.

Kalyan Kumar: There could be many stories but maybe I will begin with some part of my journey. Now there is a certain stage when I was working in MindTree and I felt I needed to move full time into a university and teach operating systems. I saw that nothing much happened here. So then I moved out. The University that I went to had a whole lot of people from the deprived section of society and I was not really acquainted with them. This is when my personal transformation journey started. I thought that I knew everything about education. I thought that I knew everything about India but this was really my opening to India and there could be many stories on that but I want to answer your question specifically. So with time, my interest evolved from teaching operating systems to teaching programming, because if people don't know programming they can’t do operating systems. Then came programming but people were not interested in programming. They were interested in getting a job, and to get a job they had to pass the aptitude test, so it came to teaching them English and Maths so that they get a job. If they get a job, and if they believe that they will get a job by spending time with me, then they will learn other things also, including programming.

Now while doing all of this it was three and a half years. Now I realized that maybe India can do with fewer software engineers. So many are not needed and so many are jobless anyway. Somewhere down the line, I felt that maybe school is more interesting. We started Chlorophyll Foundation, where the idea was that we will be teaching outside the schooling system in some remote areas in southern Orissa. We picked that area because seventy percent of the families were below the poverty line, so that was a good place to start.

One of my former students, Siddharth Mishra joined us and today the work has grown so well. Today we are there in 18 villages, 18 learning centres, 350 children out there. He had a whole lot of people behind him and gave him 'advice. But he has been the one doing it. So he really is the leader. And whatever we have achieved there and I am proud of that is because he has done that.

Audrey: Was there a time when your values were challenged, and you were in a difficult situation, and you had to kind of decide?

Kalyan Kumar: Your values will always be challenged but the good thing about values is they give you direction. If you have to choose anything, you have a hundred choices. Someone talked of abundance and that's true you have an abundance of choices. And personally I have seen, and many of you can relate to that, that if you have two or four choices you could logically make the right choice reasonably most of the time. But when you have a hundred choices, the chance of going right, making the right choice is very low and you often go wrong and values help you reduce those choices. From a hundred choices, you will get to maybe four or five choices and then you can make the right choice.

So, if you are a computer engineer maybe there are a hundred companies and if you are a good computer engineer there will be a hundred companies in the country where you can get a job. After that, if you put some more criteria like values, it becomes easier for you to choose. And values, it depends on what your values are. Your values could be harmony or teamwork. You know I would enjoy my day or my six days or five days a week and suddenly you will find a few companies and then it’s ok if you get paid a little less. People these days look for pay ... but I will get a little less pay but there will be fewer politics in the environment. I will be having friends in that place and so it will look like play, not work. So, that's a value which actually helps you guide through life and make a good choice for yourself.

Siddharth: I remember when Audrey asked him about the business, he said, "I was not in search of business, I was just learning." So, I see in him the quality of a beginner's mind. After all these decades, he still has this mindset of a learner. How do you keep this mindset of the beginner's mind -- this learner's mindset of learning how to learn?

Kalyan Kumar: I think many of you must have seen the wonderful Steve Jobs’ Stanford convocation address in which he says stay hungry stay foolish. I think that is a very important dictum in life. Once we think that we have arrived and we are an expert and I know what is there to know in this area, that’s when the learning stops. I don't think that has ever happened to me because I know that a whole lot of things in my domain I don't know and that keeps me grounded and that also keeps me curious. As we have discussed I have also been changing the domains once in a while, so I am into schools from just a few years, and I know that I know a very little in this. So, I have to remain curious and I have to keep learning, that's very necessary. The other thing is because of my job today but it has been through corporate life also I loved meeting young people and when you meet young people, you do really learn a lot because they keep asking a whole lot of questions that we have not thought about and that leads us to reflection because you get unusual questions which becomes a source of learning.

Audrey: As a mentor you mentor a lot of young entrepreneurs, a lot of students, and that leads us to think that you have been mentored yourself. Is there a person or a key influence that has led to a moment of transformation in you? What is a core turning point that you had in your life towards transformation?

Kalyan Kumar: I think I had lots of mentors through my life. The first one was my father and after that were my teachers and then lots of people in corporate life. If this was the first question then maybe I could have taken 20 minutes on this, but I will share a story. He was not my mentor, but my encounter with him was an eye-opener for me and even gave me a direction on mentoring. As I told you my first job was in Wipro, I was there for 13 years and I was a big admirer of Azim Premji. But as you know he was a big man out there and I was an engineer. It was only after ten or eleven years that I got a chance to be just next to him at a workshop where we were standing in a queue. The queue was really long so I knew I had a lot of time with him. So this was sometime in 1997-1998, and at that time one of the goals of Wipro was that we will be among the top three admired companies in the business that you are in. And the business world survey, right now there are a lot of surveys, but that time there used to be one credible survey- the business world survey had come out and it said that Wipro is number sixty-six. So, then I asked him, like how on Earth do you think that we can go from number sixty-six to number three? And I thought that that was a pretty difficult conversation and he will take a long time. And I thought that was a pretty difficult conversation and he will take a long time and his reply was, “You tell me.” (Laughs) So, I think that's a big lesson for mentoring. We don't need to give the answers, we need to spark curiosity, we need to inspire people to find answers.

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