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An executive without bonds

Despite having spent 17 years abroad, he still loves Indian curry. Rishiraj Verma talks to Unni Krishnan T M, CTO of Shoppers’ Stop, to find out what drives the man.


Unni Krishnan T M

At 35, he could easily be one of the youngest Chief Technology Officers in the country. But let’s not equate that with inexperience, as he reveals his years of education and professional experience, adding flavour to the conversation with descriptions of his favourite sports, places, books, et al....

Where I studied and worked…

Here, we look at Krishnan's academic background and his first job which was to be a turning point in his life.

Krishnan studied in various schools across the globe—India, Middle East, Australia and USA. He graduated from QUT, Australia, with an MBA in Finance (mathematical modelling of options and futures). He subsequently worked on his second masters, this time in Industrial Engineering (MIS & operations research) at Rensselaer in New York, one of the most prestigious scientific and technical universities in the world. This university is where the ‘@’ sign for e-mail was formalised, and where they are now planning to build the next generation supercomputer (70 trillion operations per second) with IBM.

At 14 he had already taken up his first job at a printed circuit board manufacturing plant where he learned to manage problems in a constrained environment in the licence era. “The first code I wrote was on a 32K machine when I was in grade eight,” he exclaims.

With his studies completed, he started working with the US government at one of their industrial research centres, and helped in managing funds for technology development. Then he joined Nortel as part of their global business process re-engineering team; here he successfully turned around a failed IT project. This acted as a springboard to management consulting. As a consultant he worked for a few boutique firms, and consulted for small and large clients across the world, including some on the famous Fortune 500 list. After this Krishnan went on to the software products world where he joined pioneering teams working on wireless synchronisation technology and B2B exchanges. To add to this, he began his own start-up “in the same incubator where eBay was born” with the aim of simplifying man-machine problems.

FACTFILE
Birthday: Not revealed, Age 35
Family: Parents
Idea of a vacation: Skiing in Lake Tahoe or Whistler, Vancouver, and sailing on a yacht in the Caribbean
Favourite book and author: Wings of Fire, by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam
Likes: The pursuit of excellence
Dislikes: Mediocrity

When I achieved…

When you are at the top of the ladder, there’s always one step which is your favourite. Krishnan tells us about the moments which gave him a sense of achievement, professional and personal.

Krishnan is exuberant when he talks about his ability to turn around IT projects. He has worked in 14 industry verticals. In spite of an education and early career stints in finance, he has been able to take on the technology world.

While at Shoppers’ Stop during the past two years, he, with his team, has been the first to use many new technologies which include wireless point of sale (PoS) machines and the high-performance IBM I550 server in the Indian retail industry.

The team is also the one to use the most advanced replenishment software in India and the largest deployment of 360-degree scanners for HyperCITY in one store. Krishnan with his team uses salesforce.com. Shoppers' Stop under Krishnan has also seen the largest deployment of symbol-based inventory-counting devices in the Indian retail industry.

As far as personal achievements are concerned, Krishnan thinks that being the coach of the Florida Under-16 soccer league is his biggest one so far.

Me, the working professional…

To achieve something and then take a back seat smacks of complacency. Krishnan is anything but complacent as he tells of his current projects and what he plans to do in future.

Krishnan says that he is in the midst of implementing completely revamped technology solutions for Crossword (a bookstore) at Shoppers’ Stop. To add to it, all business units are to get new CRM and data warehousing solutions. “There are other projects too, but they are confidential at this stage,” he says.

Ask him about his favourite IT project in the past and he remembers the creation of the first wireless synchronisation product and B2B solutions that he was involved in pioneering. He rates himself a dizzying high 9.5 on 10 as IT head and says, “Technology is constantly changing, so you’ve got to be on top of things all the time.”

Talking of time, he believes that the biggest turnaround in his life was his stint with the PCB manufacturing plant as it showed him how to manage challenges and push for performance. He is very happy with his current team's performance because of the turnaround they have effected at Shoppers’ Stop in the last two years.

RAPID FIRE

We fired away a set of questions about Unni Krishnan's professional and personal life, and the responses came no slower

  • You've travelled around the world… what's your favourite food?
    Indian curry.
  • Retirement plans?
    Haven't thought about it. I don't have the time to think about retirement. There's too much work.
  • On being single
    Being single has its benefits; it has helped me remain focussed on professional pursuits and not be restricted by national borders. Plus I can take the risk of executing and completing projects in remote parts of the world amidst diverse cultures, nations and industries. For a large part of my career all I knew was airports and hotels. In a lighter vein, I could say my address was 14B United 104.
  • Parent talk
    They had always raised us to strive for excellence in our professional and personal lives. Though we had everything while growing up, they ensured that we understood and related to the lives of people who do not have a basic standard of living. They provided us a well-grounded education in all facets of life and faiths. We were expected to participate in community development, improvement and charitable activities despite a busy school schedule. This helped us relate to people from all walks of life.
  • Strengths vs. weaknesses
    Pragmatism, real-world approach, versatility, flexibility, strong learning ability and the big picture view versus my sometimes-extremely-demanding-on-team and no-time-for-myself nature.
  • Love and hate most about self
    Parents giving me exposure to the world at an early age, making me a global citizen. I'd like to skip the hate part of the question. (Chuckles)
  • Will you put your kids in the same profession?
    Absolutely not! I'm going to let them go out and choose what they want to do, and then they can give 110 percent to it.
  • Miss the most in life
    Playing with my nieces and nephew.
  • Wish the most in life
    A vacation (Chuckles out loud).
  • Favourite colours
    Red and blue.
  • And finally, the one thing you'd like to say to fellow IT heads
    "Let us showcase Indian (domestic-pioneered) IT projects to the west rather than look to the west for examples.

I believe in…

Self rating as CIO: 9.5 on 10
"Technology
is constantly changing.
So you've got to be on top of things all the time"

Even when you’re the number one in what you do, it is never a bad idea to look up to people who have been there and done that. Krishnan talks about the people and ideas he believes in.

Krishnan too, has his own set of people he constantly learns from. He says his list of mentors includes people like Larry Bossidy (former CEO of Allied Signal) and Jack Welch (CEO of GE). The only beliefs he has lie in performance, technology and its user-friendliness. Ask him about his superstitions and his answer comes lightning quick, “None at all. I believe in going out there and fixing it!” With no superstitions bothering him, Krishnan seems to go the science way.

When I’m not at work…

While a usual working day may have Krishnan thinking a lot about IT and business, he makes sure that when he is on a vacation he doesn’t neglect his interests and hobbies.

Sky-diving, para-sailing, para-gliding, indoor rock climbing and skiing are ‘some’ of the things he likes to do when he is not at work. He is also into racquetball and jet-skiing. He has travelled to 27 countries, and spent over 17 years outside India for studies and business.

With the number of hobbies he lists here, one is forced to think of the alternative pursuits he might be able to take up if he ever decides to give up technology. That however, seems only a remote possibility!

 
     
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