I'm a Social Media Entrepreneur, Professor of Digital Marketing, Author of 5 books, Podcaster and an Organic Farmer.


Kiruba Shankar

Meeting Ray Ozzie and a Dream Team of Tech CEOs

Tomorrow, the Diya hall at Hotel Leela Palace, Bangalore will have the highest concentration of Intelligence and wealth per square inch. Thankfully, the Law of Averages in the form of my presence, will ensure that it’s brought down by half!

A select panel of 10 CEOs have been invited by NASSCOM for an exclusive round table with Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect. Or better known as the man who took Bill Gates’ place when he retired.

The invitees are:

1. Sharad Sharma, CEO Yahoo! R&D who is also the Session Chair & Moderator.

2. Ramalinga Raju, Founder & Chairman, Satyam Computers

3. Biren Ghosh, CEO Kahani World Inc.

4. Ashish Gupta, CoFounder and Managing Partner, Helion VC

5. Rajiv Mody, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Sasken Communications

6. Anand Deshpande, Founder Chairman and Managing Director, Persistent Technologies

7. Kiruba Shankar, Blogger, Columnist, CEO, Business Blogging, Founder, F5ive Tech.

8. Mohan C M, Chief Scientist, IBM India

9. Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman and Managing Director, Microsoft India

10. Ram Narayanan, Vice President, Yahoo! R & D

The discussion is going to be on the topic, ‘Is the Rise of SaaS an Opportunity for India?’ To me, the coincidence couldn’t have been any higher. Exactly the day before I got the invite (which was two weeks ago), I had scheduled ‘SaaS’ as the subject for my column in Business Standard for next week. I’ll just advance it now. I shouldn’t have any problem getting the best quotes!

Being a blogger, I’m the natural choice for being the guy who documents the meeting discussion. With such brilliant minds around, I’m going to be one busy ‘note taker’.

The round-table with Ray brings up my memories of a similar meeting with Kevin Turner, the COO of Microsoft. It took place almost exactly one year ago.

One of the big reason why I’m eagerly looking forward to the meeting is because I’ll get to meet 8 of the 10 people for the first time. The only people who I’ve met before are Sharad and Ravi Venkatesan. It’s always interesting connecing up with new people who have accomplished a lot in their life. (which has been the motivating factor for me to start Cerebrate.)

The Brainstorming Meeting with Microsoft’s COO : A Report

Microsoft recently organized a closed room, round table discussion on how Microsoft can better leverage the web space in the Indian context. The meeting was chaired by Kevin Turner, the Chief Operating Officer and whom many rank him as the No.3 key guy at Microsoft, only after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer (CEO). Kevin was outspoken in his vision to see Microsoft move aggressively towards the hosted software and services space. This was a feedback session and Kevin wanted to hear from the folks who have their noses to the grinding stone.

Here are the people who were there in the meeting.

From left to right. Mukul Sood (VP, content & applications, VSNL) , Milind Naik (CTO, Star TV & Indya.com), Jaspreet Bindra (Country Manager, MSN India), Ravi Venkatesan (Chairman, Microsoft India), and Kevin Turner (COO, Microsoft)

From left to right. Kevin Turner (COO, Microsoft), A manager from Microsoft (didn’t catch his name), Tarun Gulati (Director, DPE, Microsoft), Neeraj Roy (MD & CEO, Hungama Mobile), Manish Agarwal (VP Marketing, Rediff.com) and Vibhore Sharma’s hand (VP, Products at Naukri.com)

It was gutsy of the team at Microsoft India to have gotten in some die-hard open source persons and some vocal opinionated individuals. Especially when you have a top boss at the table.

I expected, words like LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySql, PHP) to be taboo but they were brought up in good measure. Vibhore, VP at Naukri.com was blatant in his support of LAMP and candid in admitting that this was his first ever Microsoft related event he is attending. Examples were illustrated why many folks are taking towards Linux and the executive team took the opinion very sportingly.

While this was a feedback session, there’s no hiding the fact that there were tiny traces of pre-sales pitch. It’s understandable. The guys present there were key influencers and the companies they are from were potential high net-worth customers. ‘Get honest feedback, and while we are at it, let’s see if we can win a few customers!’ I don’t see anything wrong in it though.

The feedback did have importance. Here are the biggest folks from not just Microsoft India but from the very top as well. So, if there is a genuine feedback, and it has stuck a chord, there’s a really good chance that it might get actioned.

For example, I raised a point about why the successful Channel 9 formula hasn’t been applied to the Indian context, not just for Micorsofties but for the community as a whole. It was an idea that Kevin liked very much and even wondered why it hadn’t been applied already. The team was quick to jot the action item down. The evangelism team at Microsoft is a spirited lot, always hungry for ideas and I’m sure this is just a matter of time before it gets implemented. This is an example of a suggestion getting actioned right there in the meeting room.

But ofcourse, not all suggestions worked. One of the members suggested that Microsoft focus only on Software and not get distracted by getting into other areas like music players (zune), which hardly made a dent into iPod’s market share. Kevin was quick to attack back. He asked, “If we don’t do it, who else will?” obviously referring to Microsoft’s huge deep pockets to take on other deep pocketed rivals like Apple (iPod) and Sony (PS3). He brought out the case of the phenomenal success of xBox and how it got a strong foothold in the gaming market. He said, if they had listened to analysts, they would have lost many such opportunities.

Tarun Gulati, the top guy at Microsoft’s evangelism initiatives, brought out a good point about India being the first country to bring out Shampoo in sachets. This was an example he used to illustrate the Indian psyche of buying when the buying cost is small. Shampoo market grew by a whopping 1800%. In this case, its easy to decide between Re.1 for a sachet and Rs. 35 for a bottle. Many in the room agreed that applying the same principles to hosted software application might work in India. Instead of paying big money for the entire suite of software up front, it must work for folks to just pay a little for the hosted application and pay as they use. Bringing down the entry barrier is the key.

You know Google is definitely a cause for worry for Microsoft when you get a question from its COO, “So, what do you guys think about Google?”. That question opened up a barrage of responses, almost all in favor of Google. Points were raised about Google’s innovativeness, fearlessness in acquiring rising products (YouTube, DoubleClick, Blogger, Writely), Google’s constant innovation and being fast out of the block and its young, sexy image. What I really liked was the spirit in which the team took these. When a bunch of folks wax eloquence about a rival, you expect them to cringe or at worse feel bitter, but the points were well taken. Kevin was candid in admitting that Microsoft should be more vigorous and nimble.

The one hour meeting started off with most members being a bit stiff but folks loosened up quickly. The meeting was punctured with laughter and folks taking a jab at others. By the time the meeting ended, everyone was in high spirits. Kevin looked like he enjoyed the meeting. He even made an on the spot decision to gift everyone an xBox.

Before he left, we got together for a group photo for memories sake. He had to rush to catch his flight back to the states in an hours time. But before he did that, he personally shook hands with every invitee and thanked them. You may be the guy behind the $44 billion revenue, but you need humility and the attitude to care about such small but important stuff.

After he left, we sat down again for a presentation on a few Microsoft products. I wish this presentation was not so formal. After the enjoyable carefree, casual discussion, it was a bit stifling to sit though a formal tight-tie presentation.

This was followed by a brainstorming on Microsoft’s next big event, the TechMela. It’s a huge event that Microsoft is planning to get all the important stakeholders together – the developers, consumers, artists, students together. I have mixed reactions to this idea. On one side, its fantastic to have people from different disciplines together. The variety brings in richness of experience. But I’m not sure about the depth of learning. I always find focussed events best for it. A small case in point. For learning about wikis, a WikiCamp is any time better than attending a session on Wikis in a BarCamp. Get the idea?

But I’d still support TechMela idea cause of the hugeness of the event, both in terms of variety and budget. It’ll make a bigger splash and that’s what Microsoft should want.

The event was held at the fabulously located Renaissance hotel in Mumbai. Loved the entrance to the hotel. Even more loved the view of one of Powai lakes from the hotel sit-out. That’s the famous Hiranandani buildings you see in the background.