First Commencement Lecture

Being a Professional

by Subroto Bagchi
Vice Chairman, MindTree Corporation

9th Sept 2010

It is a great feeling for me personally that I am here to deliver the commencement speech today. I have been involved with your Institute from a stage when there was nothing and the Government of Odisha had just decided that we needed an Institute of this calibre. There was a committee which was working voluntarily on this project and I was part of it; subsequently I was a part of the selection committee to look for a most appropriate leader who would create a memorable Institution.

We are fortunate to have Prof. Gopal Nayak. With him, the IIIT started in the OCAC with an office space perhaps one tenth of this room. Today we have this expansive Institute which, I am sure, would become world class in the future.

It is a tribute to the personal vision and commitment of Prof. Nayak. Sir, I thank you and congratulate you on behalf of the Governing Board.

Today, I want to talk about what it takes to be a Professional. You have not just joined a professional engineering programme but you are starting your journey towards becoming a Professional. You will join the Technology Professional community. I will tell you about what it takes to be compared with Narayan Murthy or Nandan Nilekani, and leave your mark on the society.

A professional requires three base qualities. Without these qualities, you may be professionally qualified and yet not be called a Professional. I also want to talk about need for self-awareness to be called as a true professional. Then, I will interact with you and answer your questions.

What does it take to be a true Professional? The basic qualities are three fold.

One is to be able to work in an unsupervised manner. If you require supervision to do your job then you are not a true Professional; you are an amateur. In our country, you would find that most people require supervision. If two people are digging a road, another one is supervising them. Occasionally, the supervisor is supervised. The whole social structure has the notion that you can produce something of value only when you are under supervision. This is a colonial and old-world mind set. In the global world of trade today, nobody has the time to supervise and that is particularly applicable to the white collar workers and the kind of work they do. Sometimes you are so super-specialized that it is impossible to find out if you are working or not working. You may be a doctor, engineer, teacher or artist;  to become a Professional, you need to develop the discipline of working unsupervised.

The second important quality of a professional is that he or she can certify the quality of his own work. Let me explain this idea a little. You are going to write a piece of software code. Who on earth can say that you have given your best to it? Only you can say that. Only you can say that this is a perfect piece of code. If you look at Konark, Lingaraj or any temple which makes this State so proud, no one can say that there is an imperfection in the sculpture. It is because, they were created by people who could certify the quality of their own work and that it is complete in every respect and  can be handed over. Just as the Sculptor knows when his work is completed, if you look at the work of a painter like M. F. Hussain or a poet like Sachi Routray, only the painter and the poet would know if the work is truly ‘done’. A true Professional is like the sculptor, painter and the poet. He can and he does certify that his work could not have been done any better and what passes his hand is truly the final piece.

The third thing that is important to be a Professional is Integrity. Without integrity you cannot be called a professional. What differentiates Ramalinga Raju from Narayan Murthy is, Integrity.

I will tell you four simple things, which if you follow, you will not be on the wrong side of Integrity in this Institute and outside. I have picked up these four things in my life as a Professional and tell my people in my company to follow these four things and when you do, you would not have any regret in your life.

To follow the principle of integrity in your professional and personal life, the first thing to do is follow the rules. Follow the rules not just in words but also in spirit. When the rule says don't this or that; don't download software and put it as a part of your code or don't lift last year’s project report and claim it is your own or don't infringe intellectual property rights, the rule is black and white and easy to follow. You must follow the rules when they exist.

However, in our work, in society, the rules cannot be specified for everything and every time. When there are no rules, the important thing to do is follow fair judgement. Every human being has a conscience. We choose to awaken it or shut it down. By your age, you exactly know how to get in touch with the conscience. The conscience will tell you in your moment of conflict, what fair judgement is and what the right thing to do is. So, when the rules are stated, follow the rules. When they are not, you must follow fair judgement. Ask the question if I were a parent, a teacher or head of an Institution, what would I do? Immediately, invariably, you will get the right answer and the inner voice will tell you what the right thing to do is.

When you are in doubt, seek counsel. Don't go ahead and do it and then lament, 'Oh my God! I have done a complete mistake'. Sometimes people make mistakes which are irreparable, make mistakes which ruin their professional lives; make mistakes which hurt other people's lives, make mistakes which take their institutions down with them. All these could an act, would have paused, picked up a phone or walked up to a friend and asked 'I am going to do this. Is this the right thing to do?'. In most cases the other person would tell you 'May be not'. Seek counsel from somebody before committing something; seek counsel from someone you respect and trust and you will find very few things that cause you regret in life.

The fourth thing about Integrity is that the act should not create private shame if subjected to public scrutiny. If you lose your sense of private shame, you can do anything; you can kill someone; you can rob the country; you can roam naked on the streets. The only thing that keeps us civilized or keeps us restrained in the society is the sense of private shame. The worst moment is the moment when you are alone and you really feel bad. All of us go through a feeling somewhat like this: No one is watching me in my act, how does it matter? Let me just do it. The justification here is if I am not seen to have done it, it is equal to not having done it. Confronted with such a predicament, you need ask if someone were watching me at this very moment without my knowledge and the act were to be discussed in public at a later date, would it cause me private shame?

Let me now shift to next set of qualities which make you a true professional. It is about self-awareness. Self-awareness is your ability to know who you are. That is a difficult thing. At my age of 53, I would have difficulty in telling you who am I. Am I the introduction that Prof. Nayak read out before I stood up to speak to you or am I something else? I am a work in progress like all of you will be for many years. In the course of it all, you will find people who are more self-aware than others. I will tell you about 10 qualities of people who are self-aware. Without worrying about what is the definition of self-awareness, let us look at the qualities that make you self-aware.

First and foremost, to know who you are, you need to know where you are from. People who do not know where they come from are unlikely to be self-aware. Prof Nayak would tell you proudly that his father was a school teacher in Ganjam and Prof. Das would tell you about his humble beginning. I was born in Patnagarh in Bolangir District to a small time government servant in a house where there was no electricity and running water. I was raised in small places like Koraput. One day at the age of eight, I came to Vani Vihar in Bhubaneswar and I saw a water tank; I saw water coming from a tap and electricity.

Every day, I am grateful that life has been great despite my beginning and that beginning does not shame me. Let me tell you why I brought my friend Anup Mohapatra, an entrepreneur here with me today. Way back in 1976, when I appeared for my first job interview, I had borrowed a jacket, tie and shoes from Anup and I am proud of that fact.

It is very important that you do not disown your past. Many of you come from vary ordinary background. You come from the heartland of Odisha. Some of you have not studied in English medium schools. It does not matter. These are your strength. We did a survey in MindTree, Philips R&D and Sasken. Thirteen percent of the engineers came from a rural, agricultural background. They studied in vernacular schools. The total material possession of their parents was a transistor radio and a cycle. They had no shame them as they rubbed shoulders with others. The IT industry does not care about their origin but what they carry in their head, between their ears.

It is very important to remain proud of your beginning, lifelong. People who try to hide it are not self aware.

The second important thing about being self-aware is to be authentic. What you say and the way you speak, the commitment you make and the way you make it, you need to be yourself; you need to be authentic. You have no idea that people are taking notice and in a professional world everything is connected to everything else. The downside of being on Facebook or Google is that there is nothing private any more. Just as you can be known all over the world for your achievements very easily through the Internet, if you are not authentic, people would also find out as seamlessly. So it pays to be authentic. You do not become authentic only after you get a job. It starts with your professional education today.

The third important thing to become a self-aware professional is to seek help. We Indians hesitate to seek help and think seeking help is a sign of weakness. Only the emotionally self-confident seek help. One important difference between a world-class professional and an average one is the capacity to receive not the capacity to give. The capacity to receive is important and you develop that while you are here. There is no shame in asking for help from a fellow student or asking for help from a teacher or anyone in the campus or outside the campus. Capacity to ask and receive help is an important part of being self aware.

To be a true professional you should not suffer false comparisons. The problem of being in one large batch of students here today is that you can yourself with so many others. You would find points of differences and commonality in the past and the present. You may compare marks, qualifications and so on and on. It is important to make the right comparisons and not false comparisons. I will give an example. In MindTree, we have 9000 people and we take people from campuses all over, including those from Odisha. I got a mail from someone the other day and the person stated that he had studied in the same school as I did. It was DN High School in Keonjhar. He wanted to meet me to get some guidance, he said. In our meeting I realised that the real reason for him to meet me was that he was managed about to lose his job. St MindTree, we manage ourselves on the basis of a formal performance management system. You lose your job only when you are extremely incompetent or have an attitude problem and you can’t fix it over a period of time. My visitor told me that he was surrounded by people from Kerala and that his boss is a Malayali. In the first place, the young man was not being authentic as he did not mention about his losing job when he sought the meeting. But at this moment, he was suffering from false comparisons by bringing in parochial considerations. As you grow in life make sure that you do not make false comparisons.
Great professionals build a reasonable view of the future. The future will not look exactly like what it seems this evening: perfect, nice and you have arrived in life. The future would be unpredictable. Lots of things might not work the way you expect. That would be true on the professional and the personal front. The sceptic among us think nothing is going to happen and the optimist in us thing the future will have sunshine and rainbows and butterflies. The truth is somewhere in-between. So, it helps to build a reasonable view of the future. You need to understand that neither bad times nor good times last forever. You use the good time to prepare for the bad and in bad times you hibernate and wait for the good times to come back, as they must. Hence, build a reasonable view of the future in good times and bad.

The sixth important thing is that your professional satisfaction has nothing to do with money. This is a very important realization as when you graduate from here, your focus will be on who is getting what kind of placement and what kind of money. Five years from now and certainly forty years from now, you would know for sure that money does not give you lasting satisfaction.

Professionals who are world-class have the next important requirement: of being self-observant. Be an observer whole you are working and when you are not. Right now in this hall, there are people who are sleepy. If you observe you are sleepy, the sleepiness will go. If you observe you are absent minded, your focus would return.

Somebody said very aptly that every saint has a past and a every sinner has a future. Someday we may do wrong things and make mistakes. But the critical thing is to observe your mistake and not make the same mistake twice and have repentance. For that, our mistakes need not be big mistakes; they can be small. Let me share with you an interesting conversation with Mr. Narayan Murthy. He practices self observation every day. He has a busy schedule as the founder chairman of Infosys. He meets hundreds of people. He has the company to look after. At night before he goes to sleep he tries to remember the mistakes he might have made during the day, small ones and large ones. One day, a colleague of his, brought a visitor. There were only two chairs and this meant that his colleague kept standing during the entire meeting. Only after the visitor had left, did Mr. Murthy realize that he did not have the courtesy to offer a chair to his colleague. But the fact that he is relives his mistakes at the end of the day every day, help him not to make that same mistake again. As a true professional, only you can know your own mistakes and if you are self-observant, you can relive your mistakes of the past and through the process not repeat them.

The eighth important thing is your power to receive. Organization Behaviour tells us that the cream amongst you will be no more than 5 percent. Others would do well. But the 5 percent would excel. That is how the distribution curve works. These are the people with the capacity to receive. Capacity to give is not as important. It does not change the world as much as the capacity to receive does. Capacity to receive makes us fill our intellect, makes us acquire powers from unusual sources and makes us create things of lasting value. Let me exemplify with a Japanese story. The Japanese have great respect for their mountains and sometimes they talk about the mind as a mountain. If the mind behaves like a mountain, it becomes egoistic. However much it may rain on a mountain, it cannot hold water. Think of that imagery. A valley on the other hand, receives water because unlike the mountain, it has emptiness to fill. The mind should be like a valley in order to receive. Build your capacity to receive. When you do that you notice people from unusual sources come forward to help you to build a great life.

As a professional -- as an employee or an entrepreneur, even as someone big like Azim Premji or Narayan Murthy, never forget to use your own two hands. If you stop using them, you will never get them back again. You may become a big person, but often use your two hands to do small thing like washing your clothes, or cleaning your room or polishing your shoes. I am very proud to tell you that I really love cleaning my own shoes. I find half an hour every week to clean my shoes. I tell myself if the IT industry were to go to dogs, I have an alternate profession.

My last point is, be proactive in life. I have great respect for the founder director of IIIT Bangalore, Prof. S. Sadagopan. He told me about Sage Valmiki  who illustrated the thousand qualities needed to become a great king in the epic, Ramayana. One of the qualities is being Agrabhasi. When two people meet for the first time, there is always a millisecond gap between the two while raising their hands in a gesture of greeting. The one that raises the hand first, is the Agrabhasi;  this is the one who takes initiative in things, says hello first. Initiative is the sign of a true King. It  shows emotional security and self-confidence, it is the essence of being proactive.  Be the first to be nice, be first to be good, be first to ask a question and be the first to make up.

If you acquire the qualities I spoke about today, you would certainly cross the line of competence, of just a professional qualification and enter the exclusive zone of a true professional.

Thank you very much, good luck and god bless.

Subroto Bagchi is best known for co-founding MindTree in 1999 where he started as the Chief Operating Officer. MindTree is among India's most admired companies across industries. In 2008, Bagchi took on the role of Gardener at MindTree.

In this new role, Bagchi spends one-on-one time with the Top-100 leaders at MindTree on their “personal-professional” issues to expand leadership capacity and build readiness for taking MindTree into the billion-dollar league. In addition, Bagchi works at the grassroots by making himself available to its 45 Communities of Practice that foster organizational learning, innovation and volunteerism within the organization. Bagchi serves the Board of MindTree as Vice Chairman. 

He has written extensively in leading newspapers and magazines, and spoken at industry platforms and educational institutions the world over. His Businessworld column Arbor Mentis and Times of India column Times of Mind were widely read and discussed. Currently, he writes a column titled “Zen Garden” in Forbes India.

Bagchi is on the Board of Governors of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Bagchi has authored three business best-sellers: The High Performance Entrepreneur, Go Kiss the World and The Professional as Penguin Portfolio books. 

Subroto Bagchi is on the board of IIIT bhubaneswar.