Bangalore: Meticulous is his middle name. For example, Nandan M Nilekani, chief executive officer, president and managing director of Infosys Technologies, the most high-profile of India's software companies, has this goal of ending his day replying to all the emails that have landed in his inbox.
''As a matter of policy I like to leave at the end of the day with zero email pending. I cannot do this always, but that is the goal,'' he responds.
But he exhibits Geminian traits nevertheless - approachable and reserved at the same time. Nilekani, one of seven Infosys founders, is not a person who will open up at the word go. Nor does he have the habit of looking back and musing about the past. It takes a while to make him unwind.
When that happens, one finds this 47-year-old hasn't forgotten his roots. He always describes himself as a person from small-town Dharwad in Karnataka, though born in Bangalore - and shaped by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.
The gawky boy from a small town
Born as the second and last son to Mohan R Nilekani, a manager in Minerva Mills, (Nandan) Nilekani spent his first 12 years in Bangalore. Thanks to his father's transferable job, young Nilekani had to move to his uncle's place in Dharwad for his studies. ''That was the first turning point in my life. At 12, I learnt to become independent,'' he reminisces.
Being good at his studies, in 1973 he entered the portals of IIT-M without much of a hassle. ''Those were the days when the computer was not known. The only near-option available was electrical engineering. Coming to Mumbai was the second turning point in my life. At that time I was a gawky 18-year-old, from a small town - unused to and unaware of the big sophisticated city. I was in awe of everything around me,'' he recalls.
According to him the lessons that IIT-M taught him, which stand him in good stead today both in his personal and official life, are: meritocracy, the foundation of all successful institutions; the ability to work as part of a team, subsuming individual glory to team achievement; unbiased decision-making based on analysis of data; hard work; and the importance of giving back to the society.
Today Infosys recruits only the meritorious 1.5 per cent of the total number of people applying to it for jobs. True to the lesson he learned earlier, Nilekani has donated $5 million to his alma mater for construction of student hostels and other facilities.
''There were enlightened people who had the vision and foresight to create a fair and merit-based system by the name of IIT, which allowed a callow boy from Dharwad to become a confident man,'' he comments. Nor did he forget the small town school he studied in - he has built a science and computer centre there.
Apart from concentrating on his studies, the Dharwad boy cultivated leadership qualities. He was the general secretary (student affairs) at the IIT, organising student cultural festivals like Mood Indigo and participating in inter-collegiate quiz contests and keeping the institution's flag flying high outside.
In one of those competitions he met Rohini, his future wife, who believes in similar values. Quiz him further on his romancing days, and Nilekani immediately goes into a shell.
But Rohini, a former journalist-turned-author of Stillborn, a medical thriller, is a little more forthcoming. ''Nandan and I met when he came to my college, Elphinstone, as part of the IIT quiz team. We had common friends, so our relationship grew steadily,'' she recalls.
Metamorphosing into a software icon
One day after graduating in 1978, Nilekani walked into the cabin of N R Narayana Murthy - then head of the software group at the Mumbai-based Patni Computer Systems - to seek a job. Their chemistry clicked and Murthy hired the young engineering graduate right away. Neither realised then that the relationship would last long and get etched in India's corporate annals.
Three years later the seven founders of Infosys decided to start their own outfit with Murthy in the lead. Their decision rewrote the domestic software industry. ''India was then a closed economy, with many foreign exchange restrictions, and the telecom infrastructure was not good,'' Nilekani recalls. There were a lot of apprehensions about the future. ''Venture capital was not known and the risks were enormous.''
The young Nilekani was also in a dilemma as he had just got engaged to Rohini after sorting out the reservations the two families had to the marriage. ''But Rohini was supportive and I decided to take the plunge.''
''We were so young then, but I remember the excitement. Naturally, he checked with me first, as we were engaged then, and naturally I said 'go ahead'. It was not a big sacrifice to us since we were just starting out in life anyway,'' Rohini says.
So Nilekani, like his co-founders, put in his papers, fulfilled his commitments at Patni, and promoted Infosys. While Murthy stayed in India, the others shifted to the US to take care of Infosys' interests there. Nilekani was the company's marketing face.
''We all drew modest salaries in order to keep our overheads down. The car was pooled. It was tough living there as we had a policy of taking only the salary and ploughing back all the profits,'' Nilekani recalls.
Stabilising Infosys was the primary target not only for the promoters but also for their spouses. Rohini took up a journalistic assignment in the US and in India after the couple returned.
The eighties and nineties saw Nilekani and his team working at a frantic pace to build the company. Infosys' initial public offer, its phenomenal growth, becoming an investors' darling, and listing on the Nasdaq, are all legend now.
Becoming the chief executive officer of Infosys in March 2002, Nilekani has tough tasks ahead. One, he will be constantly compared with his articulate mentor Murthy, Infosys' public face until now. Further, competition is increasing within India.
But Nilekani has proved his mettle earlier. It was he who strongly advocated that Infosys enter the banking domain. Today Infosys is a force to reckon with in the banking software space, globally. Similarly, when the software industry was down in the dumps last year, it was Nilekani who charted out a plan to cope with the downturn, going in for cost reduction and stressing the opportunity in off-shore projects.
A true leader is one who, without any qualms, accepts the responsibility for a failure. ''It was my decision to enter the hardware business in the eighties, and that backfired,'' he says. Speaking of his mentor Nilekani says: ''Murthy has been a great influence in my life. He gave, and continues to give, his feedback so that I can improve further.''
With competition from multinationals like Accenture, KPMG and Electronic Data Systems growing in India, and given the need to be near the client, which raises costs, he says: ''We will follow a combination of activities. Wherever needed we will have people near our customers, while the remaining work will be executed offshore. We have seen the boom and the bust and know how to manage different situations,'' he remarks.
About his management style, he says he empowers people but does sample checking to see whether things are proceeding along expected lines. ''He is a warm person, caring and understands others' difficulties. For instance, during my pregnancy, Nilekani never allowed me to lift any bound books. I have never seen him losing his temper,'' says D Malliga, his secretary.
So how is he at home, as a father and family head? ''Nandan does not think of himself as a family head, I hope,'' quips Rohini. ''It is a joint responsibility between us to head this family. There is nothing I would change about him. Which is lucky, because I seriously doubt if one can change another person, especially a spouse.''
Assessing himself Nilekani says: ''As a son I had a friendly relationship with my parents. As a father (of 14-year-old daughter Janhavi and 12-year-old son Nihar) I am unable to spend much time with them; but I try my level best to improve that by turning down invitations to many social events.'' The one acid test he applies before participating in any social event is whether such participation will benefit Infosys or the society at large.
Giving back to the society
Wife Rohini runs the Akshara Foundation with the goal of helping Bangalore's downtrodden children study in school. ''In the past two-and-a-half years, we have been able to reach 30,000 children in the age group three-to-10 years through our three community-based programmes,'' says Rohini.
As the chairman of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, set up by the Karnataka state government, Nilekani is contributing his mite - ideas and money - to improving the city's infrastructure.
How did he manage the transformation of a middle class employee to a globetrotting millionaire? ''Middle-class values are important. Tempered with the values of global aspirations, they have sustained us.''
Riches haven't changed Nilekani, vouches Ramachandra Guha, historian, a newspaper columnist and a friend from college days. ''Nandan is still what he was 25 years ago. You can still pull his leg - he retains his sense of humour. He is a person who doesn't forget his roots.''