A Conversation With Vishal Sikka

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At the Hilton Union Square in the heart of San Francisco, during Infosys' annual flagship conference Confluence, the chief executive talks about his deeply held beliefs and lessons learned through his journey in the world of innovation and how technology can move us forward.

Dr. Vishal Sikka is a champion of technology, and clearly sees it as an amplifier of human potential. He wants to use software in purposeful ways to address some of the biggest challenges of our times. As CEO of Infosys, Dr. Sikka is renewing existing landscapes to fundamentally drive down costs, for clients, using automation and artificial intelligence, and at the same time bringing breakthrough innovation to help them transform user and consumer experiences, leverage data in entirely new ways, tap into new business opportunities and create new business models. For example, the Zero Distance initiative, which focuses on bringing innovation to every project for every client on an ongoing basis, has set a precedent in the industry for driving grassroots innovation. 

Prior to joining Infosys, he was a member of the Executive Board of SAP. He is credited with creating SAP's breakthrough in-memory data platform SAP HANA, the fastest growing product in SAP's history. He received his BS in Computer Science from Syracuse and holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford.

Where did you grow up?

Well, first of all, I'd like to think that I still haven't grown up, haha! You know, my mom passed away about a year and a half ago and when she was around, I felt like I was still a kid. My brother and I would fight in front of her. But, to answer your question, I grew up in India, When I was 19, I moved to the US. I started my undergraduate education in India, and then I completed it in the US.

When you finished high school, how did you think about the future?

I wrote a computer program to try to help me decide what I wanted to do, haha! And one of the options the program gave me was to be a computer scientist, which my mom always wanted for me to be. I, however, dreamed of being an air force pilot. I was taking some flying lessons in those days. The other option was to be a sports commentator. There was a commentator, when I was growing up in India, who was kind of a hero to me.

If you could give your 20-year old self advice, what kind of advice would it be

My brother asked me this same question a couple of weeks ago. And if I could go back and give myself advice, I would say follow your heart more, trust your instincts more, and do what feels right, feel more confident that it's going to be okay, everything is going to work out. We tend to take things very seriously when we are growing up. Even in life, slowing things down is usually a very good idea.

You embody innovation in so many ways. What does innovation mean to you?

It means a very simple thing. Alan Kay, a great friend and teacher of my life, has this very famous quote - the best way to predict the future is to invent it. I have found, in my journey, there are two types of people and Alan talked about this. There are people who look at the world and see there is something that can be shaped, that can be changed. They look at it as continuously imperfect, and see if something could be done that makes it better. And there are those who will say - I'm just doing my job. I am doing what I am told. Invention, to me, means to not be satisfied with the way things are and seeing if there is some way to improve it.

We have the imagination to see something that can be improved, we have the knowledge to believe our idea is a good one, and the conviction  and passion to make it happen, to make it real.

Do you have a daily habit or routine that makes you more effective and more grounded? 

When I am at home, I try to, every morning, take my kids to school. It means a lot to me to make breakfast for them, and to give my wife some time off because I love her so much. And I also try to do some breathing every day (my father has taught me this). It's an Indian breathing technique called pranayama, which is taught for mindful breathing. I try to do 10, 12 minutes of it every day and that helps me a lot.

Who are some of your heroes, what are the things you learned from them and how do you draw inspiration from them?

Of course, my mom and dad are my heroes. My brother and my wife are also people that I really admire because of who they are. Alan has been a great teacher. I had several teachers in my youth - Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy and I also admire Steve Jobs for his focus, his tenacity, and passion. I was a fan of Joe Montana who used to play for the San Francisco '49ers. But my heroes would probably be scientists -- Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, people like that. And I learnt a lot from Hasso Plattner.

As CEO, there are so many things you have to do. How do you make sure you focus on the right things?

There is the conscious way to do it, and the unconscious way to do it. The fast thinking and the slow thinking. The slow thinking way to try and take time out to think in a deep way every few weeks, every few months. I usually do this on a long flight. Sometimes, I try to bring our senior team together and think deeply about complex things and from there the priorities come. The fast thinking way is to follow your instinct. This is one of our not very understood things. This is what I mean by the advice to the younger self -- generally, if you silence all the noise and listen to your instinct, it will tell you what is important. If you don't have time to think, that is a good approach to identify what is important.

How do you follow your intuition?

You just know when you know. It's the feeling. There is no other way. Like, you know in the movie, Matrix? The articles drew Neo in the Matrix. When you feel it, you feel it. You know. It's like falling in love. You feel it from heart to head.

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In the 21st century what are the possibilities you see with technology?

The biggest one is human amplification. Technology is helping us become better, and better able to see better. Last night, Al Gore was here and he talked about this. Being able to observe complex, large scale, phenomenon. Our eyes are not trained to see global climate change happening. Our bodies and our minds are not trained to see things like diabetes or obesity. We become fat and one day we realize, holy cow, when did I become this fat? It happens because there is only a spectrum of things that we observe. Unless things are in that spectrum, we tend not to see them. Yet we know things exist outside of that spectrum. Technology's role, as an amplifier of our ability to see the stuff that we cannot see, is still underserved and I see that as the big opportunity. Education, learning, personal amplification are all big areas where we need to see progress in this century.

Since you've become CEO, what's the most important thing you've learned?

It is this idea about getting people to become proactive, to see something that is not there, to be able to change the future, to be able to see that instead of being just that somebody that is doing things that are being told.

Being part of the world, you can influence... how did you learn that?

When I first came to Stanford, I went to see my advisor Michael and asked him what he wanted me to work on. And he said, I have no idea. I told him, come on, you have to give me a problem. And then I work on it. This is how it works. He said no, you find your own problem. And we judge if the problem is good enough, then you solve this problem and we judge if the solution is good enough. That is how it works. If this is not what you had in mind, then this is not the right place for you. It put me on a spin for three-four months. I then went to a talk where John McCarthy said, articulating a problem is half the solution. I had never thought of such a thing as problem finding or articulation. And then, I went to another famous professor, Bob Floyd. And I repeated to Floyd, what McCarthy had said. And he said oh, not only do you need to understand the problem, you have to solve it, then you have to go back and see if the solution makes you want to rethink the problem. And then you solve it again until you cannot improve the solution anymore. And he told me that Floyd's algorithm was based on this idea --it took 7 iterations to get to it. And so, the ability to look at the world and see something that is not there and say, there is a thing missing here, is crucial. We are not trained to see what is not there. All the time we focus on what is there. We still live in times where innovation is this somewhat mystical thing. But, in reality, the act of innovation is the act of seeing something that is not there. I think people can be taught that.

Is that how you think of innovation?

Yes, the act of seeing something that is not there, and to imagine that if was there, how it would make things better, a desirable thing --and how  we might make it feasible to do so and viable economically. 

If today you graduated from Stanford, how would you think about your career with all the changes that have happened since you started?

I've always wanted to travel for one full year. I would first of all make sure that I'd do that.

Where would you like to go?

Around the world. Africa, I haven't been there yet.

What is a book that you would recommend or give to other people to make them a better thinker, to help them to think in a more structured way or to think in some ways the way you think? Is there a book that inspired you?

No, I would not want them to think the way I think. I would want them to find their own path like Siddhartha says in Herman Hesse's book. But yeah, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse -- that would be a book I'd share. There is a fantastic book around systems called Living Systems by Miller -- James Miller. I don't think that is available anymore. There is another very nice book that I used to give to people as a gift when they did something amazing and it's called The Simple Science of Flight. It's by a professor from the Netherlands, Hendrik Tennekes. I love that book. It is a fantastic book not only about flying, but part of it is about how the 747 was built and how it is a beautiful machine that's lived for so long. So those are 3 books that come to mind right now.

And how did you find your purpose within technology? Was it a process? Was it something you felt over time?

Again, it's following your instinct, following your passion, you just feel like it appeals to you. So, I like getting people inspired to the point where they see they can affect the world around them, they can improve the world around them -- that is a powerful notion.

How do you make sure that you not only think about the long term but build a road where the long term gets built, prioritized, and unforgotten?

Fortunately for me it is the other way around. For me, the long term is always more important so it is impossible for me to not prioritize the long term. What ends up happening is my life, There is too much focus on the operational 90 day rhythm and so on. But because my mindset is fundamentally geared around the long term, I try to make time for it.

And how do you build that vision?

It is not easy but you have to find yourself enough time to do that.

What are you most proud of?

I think I am yet to do the thing that I would really be proud of. Of course I am proud of my children, my family, the friendships and the personal loyalties, but the big thing is yet to be done.

If you had to come up with one word that embodies all of your spirit and values -- is there anything? 

Being humble and being open to new ideas. Having an open mind. Always believing that we can make our own future, we can change the world, but always being humble that we are a very small piece in the grand scheme of things. Having that reality is always a good idea.