This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Dr. Mathai Joseph: Past Executive VP for Tata Consultancy Services, Internationally Renowned Executive, Researcher, Technology Advisor, Distinguished Computer Scientist. Mathai shares his deep insights into computing, research, careers, trends, roles, life lessons and experiences, and much more.
Education: B.Sc. (Physics, 1962), M.Sc. (Physics, 1964) at the University of Bombay; Post-Graduate Diploma in Electronics at Welsh College of Advanced Technology (1965), Cardiff; Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, U.K. (1968).
Academic: Fellow, Senior Research Scientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai (1968-1985); Professor of Computer Science at University of Warwick, U.K. (1985-1997).
Visiting Appointments: Visiting Professor, Carnegie-Mellon University (1980-81); Visiting Professor, Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands (1990-92); Visiting Professor, University of Warwick (1997-98); Visiting Professor, University of York, U.K. (2001-2004).
Industry: Executive Director at Tata Research Development and Design Centre, Pune and Executive Vice-President at Tata Consultancy Services (1997-2007).
BYWAYS & SELECTED PUBLICATIONS
“The first computer I saw was in 1963. It was the TIFRAC, built at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. I was studying for an M.Sc. in Physics with Electronics at the University of Bombay (now Mumbai) and a fellow student who worked at the TIFR invited two of us to see ‘The Computer’. Getting into TIFR was easy: he had told us to nonchalantly get onto the TIFR bus at its first stop. The bus took us to the back of the building and we asked our way up to his office. He looked pleased, self-important and slightly embarrassed to have us in tow as we walked towards ‘The Computer Hall’. I had expected to see something vastly complex but self-explicating, that announced its capabilities to those like us who enquired. And there would be scientists waiting to tell young postgraduates all we wanted to know about the computer. What we saw instead was a room full of open racks packed with circuit modules, wires hanging out here and there and a few people too busy to answer questions. ‘You want to see computer? There it is’, said one as he walked away urgently. I wanted to know more but there was not even a hint I could take away to think about. If he wasn’t going to tell us about the computer, I needed to find out for myself….” For more see http://www.stephenibaraki.com/cips/v109/mathai_joseph_profile.html for a list of Publications and a full BYWAYS profile.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
It would be fascinating to get an insider’s look at one of the most significant computing contributors today. Please profile a month in your very busy life.
“….The activity that occupies most of my time now is planning for a big new campus for Tata Consultancy Services – for whom I used to work and for whom I am still an advisor…..Our aim is to create a workplace for over 20,000 employees that will provide an exciting environment that is also energy efficient and low cost….”
Mathai outlines his prior roles and provides key lessons from each of those roles.
“….I learned that very little of the effort of building software systems is actually worth talking to anyone else about. It is the little 10% that is experimental that may be new that could be of interest to a few people and then only if it succeeds in doing something really new….I learned that the adolescent of the first year became the questioning student of the second year and the mature, well-rounded adult of the third year….I learned to navigate through university committees. I discovered that the people who were most successful in these committees were those who first made simple things sound extremely complicated, and then allowed the others to congratulate them on finding a solution, so it was very important to mimic them to get anything done….I learned the need for speed. If something could be done in two weeks, the challenge was to see if you could do it in one….I think the most important lesson I learned in my last role was dealing with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people over whom one had some kind of responsibility….”
You’ve had the opportunity to mentor graduate students when you were teaching and then through your research work at the university, through your consultancy work and through your research work at Tata as well. Can you comment on this?
“….I think it is such an important part of learning to be able to talk about things and to have other people talk about what you are doing, and to accept the odd nudge here and there saying ‘perhaps there is a slightly different way of doing things that might help you and might get you to the end a little faster’….”
Do you think that there is tension between the academic world and the world of industry? What would be ways to resolve that and build bridges?
“….I’m not sure one would call it tension, but there are differences and points of view. Real academics and computer scientists see the world in terms of problems that they have to solve to get the science to move ahead. These problems have to be made as clean and simple as possible so they can be solved as effectively as possible. People in industry don’t work that way. They need to build systems that need to be shipped out to people, people will use these systems in all sorts of unexpected ways and these systems have to keep working. Industry is filled with dealing with complexity and when they think they are done, there are a fresh lot of complexities that they have to deal with that has to be incorporated in – it’s a never-ending process….I think these are very different points of view that people on either side find very hard to understand….”
There is the other aspect in industry of aligning the technology side with the business objective and goals, etc. Coming from both worlds (the academic side and merging that with industry research), did you find that disruptive in terms of your thinking or inline with your thinking?
“….What I found most difficult to understand initially was the fact that industry runs, not by what it decides to do, but what its customer’s want – the initiative for defining what one wanted to do came from somewhere else….In an academic world you look at a subject you get interested in, you find the set of problems and you solve them – the initiative is all yours….Big difference and very important I think….”
With such a long history of international successes and accomplishments, which ones stand out for you as you reflect back?
“….Things that mattered most are the ones that gave me the most personal satisfaction. Simple things like building a good system that people thought could not be constructed, writing a good paper, making a good friend…”
What were the major change agents in your career and what can we learn from your experiences?
“….It was often the things around me that caused me to make changes in my career and not really carefully thought out decisions based on careful evaluations. I don’t know that people really do work things out precisely before they take a step forward or sideways. I certainly haven’t….Perhaps most of my career changes came by accident and luck. Perhaps that is true for a lot of people….”
Can you highlight decisions you made that based upon hindsight, you would do differently today?
“….These are not frivolous examples but they are non-computing examples….I never learned to play the piano or any musical instrument….I would like to speak a few more languages that I do….But I tend not to look back too much….”
What do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
“….We need to learn how to push computers back out of sight. In some ways the cell phone has done that….To be able to provide through computing, levels of security and dependability to make our services as reliable as possible….Use computers and interconnectivity to be able to provide a very true picture of public opinion and public choice….”
What do you see as the top research areas today and what outcomes do you see in the next three to five years?
“….I think the major new research areas in computer science will come from the extension of computing into new applications where the demands are very severe….I think the challenges will come from totally new problems that will emerge as we press on with applications that will be giving people the kind of services that they need….”
Do you see any issues associated with cloud computing from an industry standpoint, in terms of security, storage and other areas? What are your views on cloud computing?
“….What is the extent to which my privacy can be guaranteed and what is the extent to which I must sacrifice it for the greater public good – these are difficult questions….”
Tell us more about your vision and objectives behind your current roles? What do you hope to accomplish and how will you bring this about?
“….I would like to see computer education spread widely among young people of all abilities and economic backgrounds….A proper understanding of computing education, not one that is restricted to use of one set of tools or another set of techniques, but one that teaches them about the important basics of computing….”
What are your insights and predications for the Asia region?
“….We are at the beginning of what’s becoming a big upswing. It won’t happen all at once and it won’t happen all at the same time across the continent, but I think it will happen in a way that spreads across the whole region….I think I see the time that Asia gets the importance it deserves among the regions of the world. No more than other regions but no less either. I really hope the century sees the same thing happening in Africa….”
The Job Migration Task Force of the ACM conducted a two-year study which clearly indicates that to “stay competitive in a global IT environment and industry, countries must adopt policies that foster innovation and improve their ability to attract, educate, and retain the best IT talent.” What solutions do you propose to address the issues raised here?
“….I don’t see that it is so much a question of job migration but a redefinition of the industry which is happening. There will be different ways in which we can produce software and different ways in which we can combine capabilities that exist in different parts of the world to build new software systems very effectively and quickly; and this will keep happening….”
Please make predictions for the future, their implications and how we can best prepare?
“….I would like to see a basic cell phone that costs twenty dollars because that would really spread computers across a very large part of the population of the world….Biometric technologies developing a great deal in the future….If we could build a world without locks and keys…it would change the ways that we look at our lives…..”
Mathai, you are one of the top researchers, senior academics and groundbreaking visionary innovators. How do you wish to continue to shape the world and contribute to the fabric of history?
“….I really don’t have that kind of vision, I see what I have in front of me and I try and work with it and ask myself how we can do this better than it has been done before. That’s always a challenge and that keeps being the challenge even today….”
I have a unique opportunity to drill into the accumulated wisdom from an accomplished executive and thought leader. If you could sum up your life experiences with career tips, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
“….I don’t think I could do any better than to quote Steve Jobs when he said in his address to the students of Stanford that the most important lesson he learned was that if you really want to do something, you really must go ahead and do it….If we could all keep that in mind. I wish somebody had told me that when I was young and as clearly as that….”
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
“….’Why would anyone consider your life to be interesting?’….’Why should anyone read what you’ve written or listen to your podcast in which you are featured?’….”