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All's well that ends well

V K Magapu never had time for exploring IT till he broke a leg and was stuck at home with a notebook. Today he heads the IT operations of one of India's largest corporate houses, Larsen & Toubro. Deepali Gupta chronicles the life of a man who believes that hard work and integrity will always make a mark—come what may.

If you thought that a CIO is a person who is obsessed with IT, somebody who got involved with IT deployments as a systems engineer or analyst in the 1980s, and, as he or she progressed, adopted a leadership role that incorporated business analysis, we have the exception who proves the rule.

You are about to encounter a CIO who is the antithesis of the stereotype. V K Magapu graduated as an appliance engineer from IIT Madras in 1966, and has been an all-out operations man at L&T till date even though he today handles the portfolio of Senior Vice President IT and Technology Services and Member of Board L&T as well as Chief Executive L&T Infoctech.

Free to learn

Four years after he joined L&T he went to the University of Belleville, Canada, to do a masters in mechanics. His reason for going? “Everyone wants to go abroad for studies.” And why Belleville? “I went where they gave me the biggest scholarship,” Magapu quips. He would definitely have had the opportunity to settle abroad, particularly because he had completed his education there. However, his reason for returning was twofold. He was bound by a lien to L&T, and in his four years he had gained a notable position of authority. None of the offers he got in Canada offered a matching portfolio.

In 1972 Magapu returned to India, but ten years later he went back to Canada to study the thermo-dynamics of a gas tanker on fire and analyse the conditions that cause a tanker to explode and the patterns that create the explosion; he used computer-generated simulations in this endeavour.

Magapu could have tried to do an MBA, but he did not care much for that degree. Unlike engineering, which he believes liberated his thought enough to perceive anything as possible and endowed him with the ability to learn, “In those days I didn’t think an MBA was necessary for survival.”

From less than scratch

When he returned from his second trip to Canada in 1985, Magapu was assigned the task of setting up L&T Hazira’s factory in Surat. He was there for seven years, building the factory “from less than scratch” because the first step was to drain the marshland. “We had to set up a factory, man it, get it certified and train our people to run its operations,” Magapu says.

The first staff members recruited were mostly youngsters fresh from school. “You may be establishing a factory, but what’s important is that you are launching every employee on a highly rewarding career,” he explains.

Among other things, he oversaw the IT infrastructure of the factory. Nevertheless, during his tenure there, he never really used a computer. “I had a desktop that sat in the corner of my table, and it was the cleaner’s job to prevent it from collecting dust,” says Magapu. Not that he was intimidated by it, or was ignorant of its functions, but using a PC was simply not a priority.

Surat also became a base for Magapu’s family. 1985 was the time his children started school, and that is where the family remained till both kids passed out of school in 1998. Due to the academic environment in Surat, Magapu’s children did not require tuitions. This allowed the family to spend quality time together.

"I finished my fiction reading by the time I was 15. Now I only read if someone recommends a book and also gives me a copy. I can't remember the last novel I read."

"Capitalism has to prevail, because at the end of the day life has to be about survival of the fittest. A non-capitalist society can only exist to set some imbalance right."

"Once every two or three years I go on a spree to lose weight then I put on again. If you don't gain then how can you lose?"

"Exercise, I have been able to avoid till date. I do yoga in fits and starts, and if you don't do it regularly, the results when you do it are spectacular."

"My hobby is to listen to music, but otherwise I like to explore neuroscience to learn about which I spend time on neuronets."

V K Magapu

Tipping point

In 1993, shortly after L&T established a policy that all senior staff would be provided with laptops, Magapu broke his leg in an accident. For a while he had to work from home, and not only did this mean he had to use his laptop, it also meant that for the first time he had time on his hands to discover the machine. “When someone says I don’t understand computers, I sympathise, because you have to break a leg to understand it,” says Magapu.

He started using Word and Excel, but the killer application was e-mail. After that more specialised applications such as ERP followed. Till date, Magapu believes that few have optimised the use of IT systems.

Aerial View of L&T Hazira Works, Surat

Climbing Mount CIO

Towards the end of the millennium, L&T began to explore e-business as a means to further its business. At that time several of L&T’s sections, including the engineering and construction group, required someone to oversee IT deployments. Thus, Magapu became a de facto CIO. He was responsible for the e-business initiative and its underlying IT architecture. Apart from this, he was also handling the power business cluster of L&T that the organisation runs for external clients. In 2000 there was a need for someone to head L&T Infotech, and since he was already looking after IT for more than one group, he was assigned that position temporarily. He has held that position ever since.

At present his role at L&T can be divided into three parts. The first is to aid the maturing of L&T Infotech’s five million dollar business. The second is to assist, push and develop the e-engineering group. Finally, Magapu has the responsibility to take embedded services such as toolroom skills, process planting skills and welding skills beyond the L&T group to external customers.

Making amends

As a CIO Magapu has been overseeing the vast IT infrastructure of the L&T group. Diverse ERP systems have been deployed by the group across its different businesses. “ERP is like laying a good foundation for a building. It is the invisible part of the IT set-up,” comments Magapu. He suggests that most companies are so tired and have spent so much money just deploying ERP that they think about cutting their losses and spend very little on actually using the system. Unfortunately, unless it is used to access and generate the kind of reports it was designed for, ERP is pointless. Only some big American corporates have spent (probably because of their considerable resources) sufficiently on optimal usage to maximise returns on their ERP investments, he believes.

In the past L&T also suffered from budget constraints when it came to IT. “At board meetings we’d ask the CIO how little he could spend. It was great if he didn’t spend anything at all,” Magapu points out the irony. In the recent past the group has been making amends. Not only are they spending more money to optimise the use of the existing infrastructure, but the company has legalised the use of Excel in some cases. “We understand that [some] users need a personalised experience,” says Magapu. L&T Infotech is working on a method that will enable the acceptance of work done in Excel and integration of it into the core ERP system.

Who works wins

Throughout his life Magapu followed a conventional road insofar as his career was concerned. He believes that what distinguished his efforts were a combination of hard work, integrity, motivation, teamwork and the sheer amount of time he spent on the job. As he does not believe in fate, he will continue to play it by the ear in the future—as he has all along.

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