Bangalore: Dell’s New Development Engine

Date:   Sunday , December 31, 2006

Enterprise systems is a strategic product area for Dell,” heralded Kevin Rollins, chief executive officer of Dell when he visited India early this year. As Dell sees growth in its server and storage shipments, it is putting development resources behind this direction. Its new stop: Bangalore.

At the helm of this India R&D Center is Dr. Vivek Mansingh, the Country Manager behind Dell’s India steering wheel. The enthusiasm in which he speaks reflects the complex work that happens at this center. He walks us through the sophisticated labs explaining with vivid enthusiasm (mixed with a sense of reverence) on how his engineers are working on Dell’s next-generation enterprise products. The Bangalore team is looking into improving Dell’s hardware portfolio—design enterprise servers and storage products. The aim is to come out with an end-to-end hardware server design from India.

Sometime last year, Edward Yardumian flew down to Bangalore and asked the engineers at the Dell India R&D Center, “How many of you are ready to design a two-socket server?” It was a rhetorical question. But to Yardumian’s surprise “all hands went up.” What the Regional Director of Platform Engineering could see in the engineers is the hunger to learn and excitement to work on a challenging task. Since then the Center has added significant complexity to its activities.

Designing an end-to-end hardware system requires the engineers to have knowledge of an entire system. Often engineers are content with the specific subsystem knowledge they possess. “The key challenge for us was to get the engineers in India to focus on the entire system,” says Kefetew Selassie, Director of Enterprise Engineering and the co-site Leader of India center. “Though they have a strong technical background, we are working towards further improving their understanding of the interdependency between components in an enterprise system.”

The Experts
For Dell it was easy to fill the missing gap. It brought a lot of senior talent from its other design centers to coach and mentor the teams. Currently there are eight expats and around 20 returnees from the U.S. who have several years of experience. Along with their deep technical competency and business mindset, what they brought with them was the Dell Methodology of global development and Dell’s best practices.

At any time there are multiple people from the company’s Austin R&D Center who sit with the engineers in Bangalore and enable them in capability building to develop end-to-end systems. Also, several people from the Bangalore design center travel to Dell’s other R&D center to learn new competencies. Nearly 30 percent of the employees in Bangalore Center have spent at least some time in the U.S. A combination of expats and returnees, alongside frequent shuttling of engineers has helped the Bangalore Center to evolve at a rapid pace.

Added to this, engineers at the Bangalore center can tap into the expertise of Dell’s worldwide functional leaders. For example, a mechanical engineer can consult a mechanical functional leader in Austin. This has further helped in enhancing the competencies of the Bangalore Center.

Today at Dell India R&D Center one will find mechanical engineers, thermal engineers, chassis-design engineers, plastics specialist, tooling engineers, acoustics engineers, electrical engineers and software programmers working in synergy. It is this interdisciplinary culture at play that makes work at Dell “absolutely fantastic,” says Mansingh.

The Examination
What you find at Dell in abundance is rigor—engineering activities, performance management and career development. There are a dozen review forums such as engineering review forum and the business review forum. It is in these forums second line and first line managers of a specific activity sit religiously each week to review the activities and cascade through every level of detail. “Inspect what you expect,” says Selassie. And it helps. “These forums also influence the way we work. Interactions with the forum members helps the team get a business perspective and adds customer insight in whatever we develop,” says Rudramuni Basavarajappa, Regional Director, Global Solutions Engineering.

At these forums, Dell’s best practices to resolve a particular issue are discussed. Also, while milestones are set for particular projects, these forums ensure that the level of performance bar for each project is higher than the previous project. “Even though we feel the previous project was the best project we ever did, we set a goal to make the next project much better,” says Salassie.

People Development
“Our investment and focus on rigor is not just about product development. It is about people development. An engineer’s professional growth and personal growth matters,” says Mansingh. Dell has a well-defined growth path for engineers that join them. Especially in the first three months, there is a structured programme, wherein the engineer learns on the job. No stone is left unturned making sure there is a clear learning curve for every employee. Based on the organizational need and the skill-set, every engineer is trained on a specific functional area. The training acts like a springboard for engineers to start developing what’s expected.

An equal emphasis is laid on conveying to the engineers, the business perspective of what they develop. “Often, engineers are focused on their role forgetting how much was the stake in terms of customers and what revenue-impact will their work have on the company’s bottom-line. Inculcating the business mindset is a big challenge,” says Selassie. “Our experience shows that when business perspective is brought in, it offers a significant challenge to engineers. Our employees are excited about this opportunity.”

Here people are “hungry” to learn. Because of the high level of competition in the talent market, there is a tendency among engineers to learn new technologies. “We educate our engineers to build technical depth and focus on long term career growth. We want to build specialists out of them,” says Selassie.

There are several programs at Dell focused on building leadership skills for the first line managers. They are the ones who deal with people day-in and day-out. Along with being a technical expert they have to be a people manager. The managers are educated to focus on high ethics, core values and principles that keeps the engineers driven towards excellence.

Innovation 101
Right from the top, there is conscious effort to encourage engineers to challenge the status quo in whatever they build. Mansingh, who has to his credits seven patents, mentors, coaches and teaches people on how to do innovation. This structured programme has paid off. Last year there were 140 information disclosures (new ideas) from the engineers. This year the number shot up to 170. In last month’s Innovation Day celebration, the engineer with highest information disclosures was recognized. “Being recognized as innovator in the organization motivates people. Everyone wants to be part of that elite club. Innovation doesn’t happen in sticking to standard work hours of 9 to 6. It happens when you get passionate about what you do,” says Mansingh.

The Commitment
Many large multinational computer companies have software operations in India, but have not designed their main hardware there. The expertise for hardware design is available in India, but has not been utilized, Mansingh says. Last year when the company’s founder Michael Dell visited India, he said, “India produced two lakh engineering graduates in 2005. We see this as a fantastic opportunity for us to attract some of the best and bright engineers for our software and hardware development activities. We have chosen to invest on this tremendous talent in the country.”
Like its engineers, Dell challenged the status quo to pioneer in bringing hardware and complete systems design to India. “By creating the complete system design out of India would help the eco-system of the hardware industry build the link of design, component suppliers and manufacturers,” says Mansingh.

Since Dell’s (Michael Dell) visit, the company has doubled the size of its team from 300 to 600. The Center is today the largest R&D set up for Dell outside of the U.S. Dell has five design centers of which four are in Asia—China, Singapore, Taiwan and India. The center in Taiwan focuses on notebook design with some server design, the center in China does desktop design, and Singapore focuses on designing Dell’s printing and imaging products. The Bangalore Center is focused on building enterprise products. Today, almost all of Dell’s enterprise product that is released have some involvement from engineers in India.

Dell India R&D Center belongs to that rare breed of organizations in India, which provides opportunity for total systems design engineering. Here engineers can look for growth opportunity in a cross-functional way—one can gain experience in different disciplines: software, test, hardware, and solutions. Above all it is the amazing learning opportunity coupled with the interdisciplinary approach that makes the Center stand out from rest of the crowd.

What Dell does in India?
Currently the Center is working on its next-generation server products that would not only enhance the performance but also offer better thermal utilization, easy to manage and deploy systems. The Indian group works on design of the motherboard and the chassis along with tweaking the systems’ BIOS, thermal traits, acoustics, and software porting.

For Dell India, having a hardware design footprint was an important extension of the very successful software development that was already being done for the last five years. Alongside developing and testing the company’s OpenManage systems management software and related software, the center also does performance testing and tweaking of applications, middleware, and operating systems on Dell’s server clusters while testing some of the company’s hardware. Some of the solutions developed in the Bangalore center are at the leading edge. For instance, solutions for high-end clusters are being developed here. Several modules of the recently launched OpenManage server management software, a new service designed to help enterprises plan for future growth in their data centers, were also developed at the Bangalore center.

Designing end-to-end system calls for significant investment. Over the years, Dell has set up four specialty labs with more than 1,000 servers, a rich set of storage systems; and keyboard, video, voice over Internet protocol (IP) capabilities. There is a robust lab-to-lab connectivity between the Bangalore Center and the Austin Design Center enabling the efficient execution of test engineering.

Designing a server is a humungous task. Typically, engineers focus on what they are best at. An ASIC engineer focuses on components such as BIOS and firmware components. But the system being developed includes several other mechanical components and boards that are interconnected. Added to this there is the operating system and other software applications. At any time, there are numerous interactions between components inside a system. Hence debugging of any issues becomes a particularly complex task. Added to this, for a typical server design there are anywhere between 80 and 100 teams across Dell R&D centers worldwide which are involved in the total system design. Resolving a technical issue requires interfacing with teams across geographies and also having the knowledge of the entire system apart from specific subsystem knowledge.

Dr. Vivek Mansingh, Country Manager, Dell Product Group
Steering a global workforce is a challenge. Leading engineers of diverse background and culture, calls for global leadership. Talking to Mansingh you will know he has competencies of a global leader.

Leadership, according to him, is the ability to inspire teams towards achieving a goal, and motivating them to do their best even in adverse circumstances. It is the ability to build leaders at various levels of an organization that eventually determines the success of that organization.

His secret sauce for successful leadership lies in identifying the pulse of the employees. “Once you get the pulse,” he says, “evangelizing the team to take that extra mile needs communication.” Mansingh’s leadership practices fountains from his conviction that consistent communication yields success while creating a value system unique to that leader.

“I’ve always encouraged my managers to become leaders. I consider my job is to carve out leaders inside the organization,” says Mansingh—a hard act that needs demonstration from Mansingh himself to inspire and empower his managers. During these incubating times, he not only categorizes his managers based on their strengths and weaknesses, he mentors them to emphasize what their strengths are and how they need to build on them while constantly thriving to iron out their weaknesses.

Interestingly, whether it is building ones strength or overcoming weakness, Mansingh always takes a role of bibliographer inside the company. His library of self-help books, he believes, will assist most of his managers to clear their roadblocks to success. “Be it for lack of effective communication or attentive listening, my management style has been to offer them self-enhancement books,” he says. The mentoring doesn’t stop there; he often gets into those “subject matter discussions” in great details of each other’s understanding to reach the desired goals at a faster pace.

It is this process where managers increase their effectiveness manifold eventually becoming effective leaders, he thinks. “A group of successful leaders means nothing but a successful company at the end of the day,” says Mansingh. “I have sincerely tried to lead my teams rather than managing them. A manager can tell his team what to do, but it is the leader who makes them want to do it.”

Mansingh’s Mantra
Building trust is a key leadership competency, which is critical for any leader and the organization. However, it takes a lot of time and effort to create an environment of trust. To earn people’s trust, they have to know who the leader is and what he/she stands for. Therefore, connecting and communication with employees becomes a key. “Leaders touch the heart before they offer a hand,” says Mansingh.

At Dell, every Friday Mansingh’s door is kept wide open for any of his employees to walk in and converse about anything concerning them and the organization. At Brownbag days—a weekly event where employees are randomly chosen to discuss issues that concern the organization—Mansingh tries hard to connect with people and put himself into their shoes. “Basic competency of connecting to people is having transparency, humility and sincere care for people, he says.

A humility that doesn’t revolve around work or workplace only but transcends to even candidates who have been weeded out (due to poor performance) or rejected during recruitments. Some candidates, who get to know Mansingh during the process of recruitment or even rejections, always try to keep in touch with him. And that he believes is true leadership—irrespective of company, place and time.