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Offering products in a services model
Keerthana Venkatesh
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Ever tried changing the tyres of a car in motion? Professionals at Symphony Services are trained to essentially do just that but for the customers’ software, says Dr. Ajay Kela, COO and Managing Director of Symphony Services. Kela loves to narrate this success story through real life examples and metaphors. Anchored in the plush new Bangalore center, Symphony Services has been holding up the beacon in the relatively unexplored world of software product development.

Cut back to the nineties: With the global economy heating up and product companies mushrooming in Silicon Valley, there was a rapid assimilation of talent from across the globe, especially from India. With the Y2K boom, when several of these companies were looking for talent, India continued to be a favored destination. Then, with businesses seeking high-quality talent, companies like Symphony Services saw the niche early on and made inroads. As the market for India-based services developed, Symphony also managed to attract some of this talent back to India, Kela being a leading example.

In fact, there has been a paradigm shift in the way business is done in the software product industry. The mountain has finally come to Muhammad and more companies from North America and the rest of the world are finding it attractive to develop their software products in India where there is technical talent and deep domain expertise available. The ecosystem of mentoring, venture capital and enterprise is coming together.

A product development outsourcing company, Symphony Services, set out to find innovative ways to help commercial grade software companies succeed in competitive, fast-moving markets. Ranging from product management, product engineering and e development, to QA, support and professional services-Symphony is shipping off a new release every week. The company has 70 clients, about 35 percent of which are emerging technology companies, to its credit. In a short span of four years the company has recorded $100 million run rate and 170 percent CAGR.

Where intellects meet
1830 hrs to 1900 hrs IST. Engineers at Symphony (India) are busy blogging the day’s innovations and concepts on Wikipedia. At 1900 hrs their U.S. counterparts, fresh from their morning coffee, sync with them. Discussions happen at a rapid pace. Thoughts fly from one end of the globe to the other. Comments zip past and ideas pump the brain, resulting in collaborative innovation. This is the boilerplate at Symphony day after day.

“Co-creation is the buzzword at Symphony that helps engineers’ think-out-of-the-box and enhances products with the team in the U.S.,” says Shirish Deodhar, Senior Vice President Engineering and Pune Services of Symphony. With nearly 620 product releases since inception, techies at Symphony hold a Partnership-Relationship with their clients. “Given that we work with competing brands in the same building, one often wonders about securing intellectual property (IP). We are virtually an IP bank with strict policy procedures and are open to security audits without notice,” says Gordon Brooks, CEO and President, Symphony Services. Focus on a higher degree of excellence being their hymn, Deodhar says, “IP means Intellectual Property for our clients but means Innovation Partnership for Symphony.” Co-creating and equally contributing to the client’s IP through active participation in generating ideas to enhance the product is the saga of Symphony’s engineers.

Centers of excellence (CoE), the brain house of Symphony, are where co-creation and innovation takes place. A center that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but enhances it into tyres and a steering wheel. “We have invested significantly in our CoE’s because we see them as incubation centers for our product development methodology. The CoE’s are always trying and testing new ways that can benefit our customers. They also look at technologies that our customers might need ‘tomorrow’,” says Amitava Roy, President of Symphony’s India Operations.

Bringing more focus into customer service may be the idea behind the center, but Roy has a different tale altogether. “Customers needn’t have to look for such expertise outside our center. We offer a package of innovative technology, time-to-market and product maturity.” Added to this, techies in the CoE’s at Symphony haven’t one client to work for but nearly 70!

One such area of expertise lies in automated testing procedures. With techies serving a large clientele and an even larger set of products, harnessing this rarely used technique is an added advantage of technological usage to Symphony. “We use highly scientific elliptical methods to reduce the usage of testing components. This productionizes the process and makes the final delivery successful,” adds Roy, something that might be an expensive affair for many companies but is a key ingredient at Symphony Services.

Startups versus the big daddies
“Aggressive and adventurous techies prefer startup companies where they share the excitement of experimenting on new technologies and seeing them reach the first 100 customers,” says Deodhar. And these techies can also work on developing products for clients like Autodesk and Oracle and take pride in delivering innovations that count amongst superior software products. “We work across technologies and across the industry. There’s a larger challenge for a techie to do more in this area,” says Kela.

Four years ago, when product companies were more uncertain about safeguarding their IP, Symphony stepped in to win their trust and contribute to their innovations. Today, Symphony’s techies can boast of work that has been wooing customers from larger competitors. Employees at Symphony have the unique dual opportunity to work on the product and services side, as well as work with technology startups and software giants alike. Informs Kela, “If you really look at some of the big product companies in the West today, they are probably doing as many commercial product releases in a year as we are every month except that we do them for a number of clients, mastering the art of product development.”

This probably explains Symphony’s more than 90 percent customer retention rate. Adds Kela, “The 10 percent who left us did so primarily because they were acquired.”

From dosas to mughlai: all under the same roof
“Olympics in the tech industry is a race for survival, and those who produce quality goods fastest survive,” says Kela. With 35% of their clients as emerging technology companies and with IT giants like Oracle and Yahoo! adorning its client list, Kela foresees an emerging wave of next generation products. “We entered the market with a 100 percent product-oriented DNA and we teach our employees to think and breathe products,” says Kela.

Nagi Prabhu, another U.S. returnee, is an example to reckon with. Offering services from creating a purpose-built team that can innovate seamlessly with onshore engineering teams through to product-releases, Symphony has gripped the market’s taste. Says Prabhu, now heading the Global Operating Center (GOC) of Symphony’s largest client, Oracle, “A techie is tied to one single product in a captive or product company, while Symphony offers 70 opportunities across domains and different technologies to work on, under the same roof. With such a variety food for thought, which techie wouldn’t relish this type of opportunity?”

This does not however mean that techies can freely walk away from their current assignment into a new one overnight. Says Roy, “We do encourage movement but this is purely with client consent in line with employee aspirations. However, we do not permit employees to move from one client to a competing one. At the end of the day, we are highly committed to protecting our client’s’ intellectual property, ensuring their comfort and delivering excellence.” To this end, Symphony has set up a Talent Management Group that is chaired by Roy himself.

At the Talent Management Group, techies in thread-shore levels are encouraged to master higher levels of competency and assessed for opportunities within Symphony. “While this is used as a methodology to find the next set of top-talent in the company, it’s also a focused method to find techies capable of moving across the businesses of Symphony Services” says C. Mahalingam, Senior Vice President - HR, popularly known as Mali. In fact, Symphony’s goal is to grow to the next level of talent from within the company.

Recognize and rejuvenate
“Symphony is growing and so is our financial standing,” says Prabhu. Wondering if salaries are up-market? Then Prabhu has more to add, “With Symphony’s upward trend, our clients contribute to ensuring that our techies are well recognized for their contributions.” Rewards for innovations and incentives along with onsite travel find techies at this company waving to each other across flights.

Extra incentives for Symphony mid level and senior employees are a norm. “We also encourage and reward innovation,” says Deodhar who also spearheads the company’s innovation program. These innovative programs are used to identify some of the best practices across clients and suggest them to others who do not have those practices, giving Symphony’s techies an edge.

Adds Deodhar, “While some techies are proud of their stock options from emerging technology companies, those that work with bigger companies pride themselves on their innovations that reach potential customers world over. Ultimately it’s the innovation that matters.”

But Symphony’s techies seem happier with their TGIF - an award ceremony held on the last Friday of every month where the company recognizes and awards emerging innovators and successful innovators. “This is the greatest incentive we have because we automatically motivate the non-awardees to work towards it,” says Roy.

TGIF is an “all-fun” evening replete with management updates, prizes and quizzes not to mention food that cuts across barriers in the organization and allows free interaction with the management and employees.

The Pune center
If “Innovation that matters” is the mantra of Symphony’s employees, techies at the Pune center, where Deodhar is based, chant it even more strongly. Along with some larger clients, this center caters to many of Symphony’s startup clients, or as they prefer calling them, emerging technology companies.

Starting off from ground zero, the teams follow the concept of ‘white board to market service,’ collaborating with client teams to conceptualize new products from the paper-pencil format where the client’s idea originated.

T.M Ravi’s Mimosa is an example they rave about. A solutions provider for computer disaster recovery and email storage management, based in Santa Clara, California, Mimosa only had ideas when the company was seed funded. “We worked on and implemented those ideas and developed core, bleeding-edge technologies for them,” says Bhushan Pandit, a Senior Software Architect with Symphony, and head of Mimosa’s GOC. Today, if Mimosa can boast of three Gold Certifications from Microsoft, Pandit and his team have a significant role to play.

Yin and Yang
So what attracts professionals to Symphony Services? If you ask Roy why he quit a leading services company and joined a product engineering outsourcing company three months ago, he says that Symphony strikes a perfect balance; between serving big and small companies, between bleeding edge and established codes, and between the established markets of the big daddies in the industry and those of the smaller but independent and significantly innovative startups. “It’s very unique, retaining the product DNA and at the same time following a global services delivery model.”

Adds Kela, “We goad our techies, churn them and mix them up and they emerge from the process as a strong and innovative team.” Providing products for their client’s customers and working on cutting edge technologies leveraged across all clients adds a golden feather in Symphonians’ (as Symphony employees are called) hat.

Growing from Enterprises to Storage
Though enterprise software occupies a large part of the business and Symphonians are used to brainstorming and improving coding standards based on these requirements, the company stays up to date and is building in parallel, building expertise on newer concepts such as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Software as a Service (SaaS).

The company has also expanded its reach into selected embedded segments and across the storage domain. Early clients like Iron Mountain, BMC Software and Mimosa enhanced Symphony’s standing in the storage domain and the numbers steadily grew. Today nearly 15 percent of Symphony’s clients are in this domain.

The CoE’s again are abuzz with activity to leverage storage, archiving and data protection expertise to integrate software - outsourcing strategies with the client’s product development lifecycle.

The new wave
Product companies in India, though few and far between, have a bright future to look towards. Industry figures predict a healthy double-digit growth over the next 3-5 years. A mature software industry and a highly skilled workforce have given India an edge over competitors like China as well. “The Indian market today is very ripe and must cash in on that opportunity,” believes Kela. And product-outsourcing companies have a greater edge over product companies, wherein techies get to work on different user interfaces and learn much more, all under the same roof, says Deodhar.

“Ten years later you are not stuck with a single-track mindset but get hands-on experience by transitioning among different ideas, being intimately involved in what we create for clients,” says Kela, thus leveraging knowledge-sharing across the company and flowing it out into the clients in the form of finished market-ready products, Symphony has been working towards offering products in a services model.
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