The Compulsive Partner
Date: Thursday , February 01, 2007
The next time you happen to call Dr. Nikhil Jain, make sure you take his landline number. If you can’t reach him on his cell that is. Chances are you won’t, especially if you’re calling him after 3-4 months. The maverick Chief Technology Advisor of QUALCOMM India has changed his cell number several times in the last two years in a bid to get the “Real user experience” of services offered by telecom operators in India.
“We work with different service providers, and I want to personally experience the services that each one of them offer,” he says. In a further deviation from the indulgence expected of a person at his position, Jain uses mid-tier and low-tier handsets—the ubiquitous LG’s and Motorola’s.
A large majority of the chips his teams engineer are fitted in entry and mid-level handsets, and he feels that there’s nothing more important than putting oneself in the user’s (people’s) shoes. It helps him gauge the problems they might face, as well as the features that might be useful to them.
Such committed focus on the end-user has helped him develop a good understanding of the Indian market. “While most engineers start with the system, I start with the user,” he states. Building on from that starting point, Jain has been instrumental in his role in creating and commercializing various businesses in QUALCOMM, incidentally the world’s largest fabless semiconductor company. He was the inventor and the lead for GSM1x. In addition, he has worked on the next generation wireless technology based on OFDMA.
He has worked on various aspects of CDMA technology such as: infrastructure design and development, deployment and optimization. Currently, Jain is examining new opportunities for QUALCOMM in areas like healthcare and entertainment.
The biggest handicap in India, opines Jain, is the lack of access to information. The PC penetration is merely 6 million, as compared to the mobile telephony penetration of 140 million. The mobile, he asserts, will drive the information revolution in India; akin to the PC having driven the same in the U.S. Stemming from this conviction is a thrill on Jain’s part—at the plethora of opportunities the mobile space has to offer.
“Telecommunications can change lives and make a huge difference in India. There is so much that can be done with a mobile phone. We can develop applications that can impact lives across rural and urban India. For example, applications can be developed to enable fishermen to access weather forecasts on the mobile, and go out to the seas accordingly. Comprehensive bank-account checking can enabled, as also applications to empower farmers to buy seeds and manure over the cell phone,” he says enthusiastically. For Jain, the 33 percent illiteracy is an enhanced opportunity rather than an impediment. There is tremendous opportunity to drive new products and applications which would impact and change lives. Thirteen major languages (in India) is a huge space, and there is so much that can be done in terms of personalizing content on the mobile phone.
He compares the mobile software industry to an emergent cottage industry. Drawing a parallel, he cites this example: Post-independence, there were hundreds of skilled village craftsmen, but they had no way to sell their crafts. Once the government created the Khadi Gramodyog, the village craft became a thriving cottage industry. Similarly, Jain talks about QUALCOMM’s BREW which provides a great platform for Indian developers to develop applications for both the Indian and global market. Software writing for cell-phones is the next-generation cottage industry waiting to be tapped into.
QUALCOMM will need to partner with developers and fund start-ups to gain a lion’s share in this market. In accordance, the company recently funded A123 Systems—a firm that makes special cell phone batteries, rechargeable in a short time span. Jain played an instrumental role in the process, by identifying, in the first place, the need for such a product, given India’s scarce electricity resources.
Innovate, Execute, Partner
Jain has 10 awarded patents against his name, and 17 are pending approval. About the secret behind his success he says, “The way to do it is simple. Innovate, Execute and Partner.” Though Innovate, Execute and Partner is essentially the philosophy of QUALCOMM, Jain applies to all aspects of his life. The first step is to identify a human problem, and think of various possible ways of solving it. The execution bit calls for analyzing which of those ways will be more feasible, technologically as well as economically, and then comes the partnering phase.
Every company is not good at everything, and based on complementary strengths, they must partner to bring out efficient products. But it is easier said than done, since the most difficult part for any company/individual is to accept what they are not good at. A lot of semiconductor companies that have started in the past few years in India have failed because of the inability to realize and acknowledge their weaknesses, and partner effectively.
The Innovate, Execute and Partner approach is something one must apply at the personal level as well. And the most important part, here too, is partnering. But how does a person like Jain, bubbling with new ideas all the time, bring himself to partner and devote time to all aspects of life.
“Simply by drawing lines around me, i.e. by looking at the number of hours I spend in office,” he answers. “If I have 15 hour work days, and if somebody around is suggesting a smaller work schedule, there may be something that I am not doing as efficiently as it can be done. That’s when I realize the need to partner.”
But merely following the Innovate, Execute and Partner model will not put an engineer on the pathway to success. Running into failures is as important, if not an integral part of it. It helps search for the right answers to nagging problems, and then retrace the way to success.
No man is more intelligent than the other, he notes. Just that the man who is successful tries more than the others. After all, the probability of failure is same for each one of us.
For those that complain of bad luck, and of not being noticed, Jain has advice: You have to keep working at it and keep a positive frame of mind. He recollects a phrase that he once read “I have not failed, I have just discovered 10 ways that don’t work.” In his years of heading teams, he has shuffled people around in various roles. They have often failed, but that has been the stepping-stone to success. “One success looks much bigger than ten failures,” he quips.