October 3, 2023

Can India move from providing "bodies" to building products? Yes we can, said Sharad Sharma

Can India move from providing "bodies" to building products? Yes we can, said Sharad Sharma

Sharad Sharma sees himself as ‘a builder of things’ in his own words. It is quite an accurate and succinct description of a man who has built products, then companies, and most recently, built an ecosystem for product-oriented innovation in India. At a time when the world looked to India as the quintessential back-office, Sharad Sharma passionately believed in the country’s potential to make world-class software products.

As the co-founder and governing council member of iSPIRT, a new age think tank, he champions the cause of collectively transforming India into a hub for new generation software products. Previously, he was the Chair of NASSCOM Product Forum and has also held several senior executive positions with leading technology companies like AT&T, Lucent, VERITAS and Yahoo. He is an engineer, an investor, an entrepreneur, an advisor and a disruptor - a conversation with him was fascinating and full of engaging anecdotes. Here are a few excerpts on the role he played to change mindsets and build an ecosystem of product-oriented innovation in India.

Turn adversity into a gift

I hail from a family of civil servants, but following in my family’s footsteps was ruled out early on when I was diagnosed with high-end myopia. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me; it allowed me to freely pursue my passion for engineering and building things, far from the scrutiny of typical Indian families. As I look back, that is the theme that runs through my life – adversity as a gift. When you face adversity, it can either pull you down or it can lift you up. You have to make the choice. If you bring the right mindset to it, adversity makes you stronger.


Journey from engineer to entrepreneur, advisor, investor and disruptor

I didn’t have a career path all planned out; my career has evolved with my passions and my curiosity. Originally what used to drive me was building technology, and that gradually extended to building organisations that would build effective technology. Then, it became about being able to disrupt markets by using technology. Around the same time, I started Teltier (now owned by Cisco) that focused on making it a reality in the wireless infrastructure space. This lead me to invest in companies that were attempting to do the same thing. It wasn’t as if I thought that was the best use of my money, from an ROI perspective, but it was way for me to live my dream through other entrepreneurs with the same vision. In more recent years, this has led to the creation of a bigger ecosystem.

Optimistic about the technology product industry in India

I was always an outsider to the services sector because I saw myself as a citizen of the product industry. I always asked myself, “What can I do to make the product industry more successful?" Things have changed dramatically for India in the last 10 years – the pace of change has accelerated, and we are finally, as India, entering a sort of virtuous cycle. I am very optimistic about what will happen out of India in the future.

Here is an example of the power of technology: In 2004, AT&T was the largest carrier of paid international voice messages. If you had told me then, that someone else would be the largest carrier, I wouldn’t have believed you. But in 5 years, Skype came out of Estonia, and by 2009, it became the largest carrier.

There are exponential changes taking place around us and there’s no reason why something great cannot come out of India.

The tribe is defined by whom you leave out

When you are building something from scratch, then whatever you do is an underground movement. Back in 2007, a group of us came together simply because we shared a belief that was not held by the majority of people back in the day - the belief that innovation in IT services was not the only type of innovation.As Seth Godin says, “The tribe is defined by whom you leave out.”

We didn’t have money for ecosystem building. So we ended up growing the ecosystem through an open source model, something that was not being done at the time. We had people who would give their weekends up to do something, and this was about creating a public good. It wasn’t about evangelizing, it was always about “building something.”

Collaboration is key

The reality is, whatever you want to do is a team sport, it is an act of collaboration. Your ability to understand the other person is very critical to that collaboration. People have different personalities, and when you engage with them in their own way, as who they really are, your ability to collaborate with them improves. It didn’t come to me intuitively, I had to work at it, but this knowledge has played a part in me being an instrument of building a volunteer team of intelligent, talented people, who come together for a cause and to create public good like iSPIRT.

Transformational change is important for the evolution of mankind

As a human civilization, we are dealing with change in a different way from how we did even 100 years ago. For example, technology is offering us a leap to remove illiteracy in 10 years. It is something which hasn’t been done in the last 60 years. It requires radical change. It cannot be done by small changes, it needs orbital change. Today, in any sphere of life, you can dream to do things that were not possible. That is what calls for the need to embrace transformational change.

An exciting future

There is enormous democratisation of technology now. Today, we live in a world where you can develop yourself, you can be discovered, you can attach yourself to a cause that you care for, no matter where you are in the world. So this is an enormously liberating moment in history. And therefore it gives all of us the power to fashion a new world out of this because we can engage with things that we care about.

We can easily go from novice to expert in any field that we like, much easier than ever before. So the question now is, “How can you leave the world a better place?” We want India not to be known for its back-office. We want India to be known for what it can contribute – ideas, a product nation rather than a service nation, and that requires breaking free from its old ways of thinking. We haven’t yet learnt to build a Google or Microsoft – I think it will happen, hopefully in my lifetime.

Everybody should consider transformational change

Everybody should be considering transformational change in some facet of their life – if not in their job, then outside their work. I think the whole human experience is about growth. And that can only happen if you challenge yourself to your limits. If you don’t want to do it as an individual, do it inside the company – be an intrapreneur. Today, there is enough of a safety net – even if you fail, people will celebrate the fact that you tried.

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