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Issue of September 2004 

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The color that changed his life

He's became a GM in just ten years thanks to his managerial skills, a great work environment, and hard work. “Eventually someday I have to manage business, and this is the route I've taken. So far it has worked for me,” the confident P Rambabu, GM Systems, Asian Paints (India) Limited tells Deepali Gupta

In his ten-year tenure at Asian Paints (India) Limited (APIL) Rambabu has seen three waves of technology deployments. First, a proprietary Unix-based application on a C architecture, followed by a Sybase RDBMS, and finally packaged enterprise applications.

Today, across all its locations APIL runs SAP R/3, SAP data-warehousing and SAP CRM system, plus a host of systems to support extranet activities, with a framework for system support. It's this setup, that Rambabu has headed as GM Systems since 2000, and he considers it one of his finest achievements.

“Given that we set up this infrastructure from scratch, I'd say three to four years is a phenomenally short time because these are massive implementations and are all live and working systems,” exclaims Rambabu. This infrastructure should last the company for at least 15 years without any major structural changes. Such a large-scale rollout “Calls for a lot of planning, strategic thinking, and pain value in implementation,” says Rambabu.

The catch

Although APIL has been a savvy user of IT, the challenge is to assess the business cycle and integrate the appropriate technology from which the business will actually utilize and benefit. It's fairly simple to see a sample setup and implement it, but “To take the paradigm of IT and use it for better business capability is the catch,” Rambabu indicates.

A CIO has to think two steps ahead, anticipate the business-specific problems and be ready for change: an essential to stay ahead of the pack.

“At Asian Paints we are never more than one year behind the contemporary technology,” says Rambabu. The maintenance cost of old technology becomes 'unduly' high. He cites the example of the Sybase system. The business requirements were becoming larger than ever before, and therefore the time spent on the legacy system increased as a consequence.

Redefined role

Apart from being accountable for the delivery of IT, Rambabu being the GM of his department, has to be part of the business process team. “I have to look after the financial aspect of IT, ensure that service deliveries happen, and continuously and proactively bring in business value.” These were traditionally not the responsibilities of the IT team head.

According to Rambabu, this is a problem faced by many organizations with their CIOs. An IT head needed to be an expert at technology. The more tech-literate he/she was, the better he would be appreciated. However, once the technology is engrained in the organization, professionally the managers' value reduces drastically.

“Every CIO needs a sound knowledge of the business process. And that's the thin line that differentiates the CIO from IT Manager,” explains Rambabu. Now the role of the CIO is more of an overseer.

“As outsourcing becomes the order of the day, the interface between the company and the outside entity will be the CIO. Naturally, he should know all aspects of running a function,” Rambabu continues.

So, although he does intensive reading about new technology, none of it is about the new programming languages, but rather pertaining to the new IT trends.

The management guru

“Without an iota of doubt, my education at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A), has given me managerial exposure, and endowed me with the techniques and rules of management”.

Rambabu has patronized what he calls the three aspects of an organization: people, process and technology. As a computer engineering graduate, he was comfortable with technology from the very beginning. Thanks to the MBA he is not at a loss when faced with business jargon. And people-skills are something he picked up due to extensive travel.

Indeed, Rambabu enjoys traveling footloose with his friends-although lately the job and family obligations do not allow it. He goes to study different cultures, practices of people. Even the possibility of a lack of facilities does not deter him. “Such interactions allow me to remove the limitations of my thought. I can appreciate people's aspirations and problems,” Rambabu philosophizes.

Humanity rediscovered

Rambabu remembers the one time he was traveling with friends through Andhra Pradesh. They miscalculated the time it would take and were grossly off schedule. They reached a town in the late hours of the night. They were forced to knock at a door and hope the people would take them in for the night.

“In Mumbai we would have been chucked out.” But in this town, not only were they welcomed, the lady of the house served food to the 'tired travelers'. “It wasn't fancy, but we appreciated the concern,” he says.

In the executive work environment human values are important. Nevertheless, nothing is as important as hard work. Rambabu clarifies his stand: “If you cannot deploy your capabilities to benefit the organization, you may have an MBA but, it is not even worth the paper on which it is written.

Sum and Substance

Rambabu is a man of many interests. He played cricket and badminton as a student. He was also an ardent collector of stamps, but the hobby that has persisted is photography. Now that he can sustain it, he tries his hand at professional photography. However, his practices do not cut into his quality time with his daughter on Saturday afternoons, and domestication efforts with his wife on Sundays.

He grew out of his college days pretty quickly, and although he regrets not having enough time, he has a long and arduous road ahead before he plans to head business. For now he is grateful for the platform APIL has given him. If he does leave them for a better opportunity, he will leave a contented employee.

Shades of the CIO
  • As a management graduate from IIM A he joined Asian Paints 10 years ago
  • Moved up the ranks quickly and became GM Systems in 1999
  • Reconstructed Asian Paints' IT infrastructure almost from scratch
  • Having seen a lot of places, he likes to travel footloose
  • Visiting Tirupathi gives him an intangible strength
  • For peace of mind he enjoys treks within a hundred kilometer radius of Kodaikanal
  • As a child he “wasted most of my money” on collecting stamps
  • He finds his five and a half-year-old daughter's shopping requirements “not funny!”
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