Koppulu's Quest

Date:   Wednesday , December 28, 2005

It was 1987 and Microsoft’s IPO closed a year ago, Bill Gates was already the richest man in the world and computer was becoming a household commodity. But yet a man from India, pursuing masters in computer science at the University of Louisiana, was incognizant of Gates. Forget Gates, it was in fact the first time he was even seeing a computer. If you thought this man is a commoner of kind and skipped him, then you perhaps missed the biggest guy in Microsoft India Development Center—Srini Koppolu.

Koppolu’s shift from mechanical engineering to computer science was paradigmatic when India had few computers in all and he had seen none.

“I was experimental since my childhood in Ongole,” he says talking about his passion for choosing a newer subject like computer science. Ongole in Andhra Pradesh is Koppolu’s springboard for success. It was there he had developed a passion for learning newer things like carpentry, tailoring and whatever came his way; and that passion never made him complacent. However, turned him into a rock solid performer at one of the world’s richest and most popular software firms. But that’s just not it. In Microsoft, it is said, passion for technology comes first to everything else.

And Koppolu was by now not just passionate about computers, but a man with an eye for innovation. “I joined Microsoft purely because of the innovative work happening there,” he reminisces thinking about the development of OS2 operating system in 1989.

After a ten year stint at Microsoft’s Redmond office, handling several projects like COM, OS2, Office 95-97, Koppolu was chosen to head India development center in 1998. India, then still a risky venture with no history in product development was a tough call for Koppolu. However, “it was the time to give back little to my country and I took up the offer,” he says while he believed India could have a fair share in developing world-class products. Being at the helm at the start of any company is not easy, but Koppolu was resolute in making India a strategic development center. “We had a goal and a vision in mind before we entered India. And now had to percolate that among our employees here,” he says.

Microsoft believes that growing is a systematic process; “we take a step at a time and concentrate on our quality,” he says. India center is also one such unit toeing the same principle, which started with just two products—Unix and VJ#. “Our focus was to concentrate on these two, while talking to the customers, understanding their requirements, planning the products and innovating newer versions for Microsoft products,” says Koppolu. All these reflect on the ability of Indian professionals to develop world class products sitting at Hyderabad not just Redmond.

Unlike most management heads Koppolu has no formal education in business management nor holds a MBA degree. He often communicates big technology ideas and brainstorms with his team on newer innovations. This involuntary approach towards anything ‘technology’ has wiped away the fact that he is actually a manager. “I discovered my hidden potential in talking to the team and selling product ideas, designs and architecture forgetting the fact that I was managing,” he says.

“I wouldn’t call myself a manager,” he says, “we don’t track employees, we just contribute as a team and I‘m involved in facilitating. However, the designations are just a reminder of what your actual work is and a means of achieving it,” Koppolu believes in consultative and participative leadership. “We have a free-talk environment where our employees are consulted about the products and participate in giving feedbacks about everything in the organisation,” he says. At the same time, Koppolu also admits to have made mistakes and sent mails to his team asking them to excuse him on that note.

Leadership, according to Koppolu, is more about mentoring, consulting and motivating the employee spirit. “You have to talk about your vision, commitment, integrity and goals constantly with your employees. At the same time drive out any kind of suspicion and biased feelings they foster,” he says.

Koppolu’s experience has taught him great things—first, to keep his communication channels open across the development centre. Second, conducting surveys among employees for measuring different qualities of the organization. And finally, to provide the right infrastructure, promote younger leaders to take leadership roles, without barging on their freedom and allowing them to grow individually.

“Employees are the core source of any organization, hence should identify each one’s potential and assign them work that match their caliber,” says Koppolu. He gives his own example of establishing MIDC and tells how both his organization and he grew by letting each one grow in their respective way. “Don’t ever shun your employees if they are smart, but let them grow. And in turn you grow as well,” he says. Koppolu during the conversation explains how to build successive CEOs for any organization. He calls it the succession plan, and says, “every organization should identify a couple or more people who can replace you tomorrow.” But the toughest call would be identifying star employees—a self evident coterie of people who take an extra initiative on every project they work on, while solving problems without routing it to the company. “All you have to do is promote such people who are like swans: sober outside but paddling hard inside. And ignore people who constantly keep questioning about everything around.”

Its 2005; walk into Microsoft Hyderabad and you will find Koppolu spearheading the software development unit of this $40 billion (revenue) company. In fact Koppolu is the only longest serving Managing Director of all other MNCs in India. His 16 years at Microsoft, serves as an example of Koppolu’s long journey witnessing unprecedented differences from planning software to planning an India Development Center. “Today MIDC is focusing on innovation and incubation of products and technologies. RFID was completely developed here, and we from here have contributed a major portion of the SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and the Data Protection Manager,” emphasizes Koppolu.

It is seven years since he started MIDC, which has grown from 30 to 800 employees. One of his employees walks down the corridor and waves at him. Koppolu waves back and says, “I used to wave at all and call their names until we crossed 150 employees. Now, I just wave.”

Apparently, for a man who’s on the edge for newer things, MIDC is still young. Koppolu is pumping adrenalin down his army of soldiers and every phase in this mission makes him feel new. Oh! yes, he does know Bill Gates better than most of us today and sure follows some of his leadership style.