Ranjit Tinaikar Transcript

Clint Betts

Ranjit, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's an absolute honor and a pleasure to have you. You are the CEO of Ness Digital Engineering. Tell us about it. What is Ness Digital Engineering?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Well, thank you, first of all, Clint. Thanks for having me and it's a pleasure to be here. Well, Ness, the best way to describe it is, I could use a lot of words, but the best way to describe it is, where did we start from and who we are, what do we do. So we started in 1999 in Israel as, what they used to call then, OPD or Outsource Product Development, which in simple English means we used to build software products for software companies.

We used to serve companies like Microsoft Office and build their product, IBM Tivoli with parts of it were built by us and so on and so forth. And even today, that is our core DNA.

The only difference is that in addition to serving software companies, we also serve non-software companies who want to build proprietary software products. For example, manufacturing companies are building a lot of software that's embedded in there, along with their products to drive their revenues.

Or you have media entertainment companies or financial services companies who build their proprietary products. So we are a lot more diversified now than we were in 1999. The one thing that we have done in addition to what we used to do, besides diversification, is we have specialized by industry and there are four industries we focus on, financial services, tech and software, media entertainment and auto manufacturing.

Then there are a few digital competencies that did not exist in 1999, like cloud and data and machine learning and experience design. Those are the three, four areas that we actually have built on top of our core product engineering DNA. And if you were to ask me in one word, who are you? We would say we are a pure-play digital engineering specialist, and if you were to walk into a Hilton hotel room and turn on your set-top box, that video streaming software was built by us. If you're parking your car in New York City, that NYC parking app, which looks at your position and the parking meter and allows you to pay automatically, was built by us. That's the kind of cool stuff we do, so here I am.

Clint Betts

That's incredible. How did you end up as the CEO?

Ranjit Tinaikar

That's a very interesting story. I am not from this space. I'm not from IT services as an industry. I am from financial services and I used to run FinTech businesses prior to this company, but we used to sell subscription products. But while I was in FinTech, I joined Ness as a board member and this was in late 2019. It looked like a fantastic company, but it wasn't growing at the same pace as the market was growing. So I went around the industry and spoke to a whole bunch of people, competitors, customers and frankly, management within Ness. And I said to the then private equity owners, "Guys, you're sitting on a nugget of gold. If we just did these three things, we could actually create a whole new company with a much higher performance and growth trajectory."

And they said, "Well, that's a great idea, Ranjit. Why don't you do it?" That's how I became the CEO. I've been with them for the last three and a half years.

Clint Betts

I want to ask you some personal questions just around... I mean, not super personal questions, let me be clear, but just around how you lead yourself, self leadership. That's been a big topic in our community for a bit here. Particularly, we had Reed Hastings at an event recently, who's the chairman and former CEO of Netflix, he said something along the lines, "If you can't lead yourself, how could you possibly lead others?" I wonder how, when you hear that, what do you think, or what have you noticed in the realm of self leadership in your career?

Ranjit Tinaikar

I have to tell you, until you become a leader with some significant responsibility, for many people around the world and therefore their families, leading yourself, you don't appreciate it as much as I do now in the last five, six years. It's not an end state, it's a journey is how I see it, because you always aspire to get better at it than you are today. But let me give you a few areas where I personally focus a lot on in terms of leading myself.

One is, as a human being. I have some responsibilities and Ness is one part of it, but I also have a family and I have my parents and my brother and my friends and family and I have some responsibilities there and I want to make sure I find the right balance between my professional and personal commitments. So that's one thing.

The second is, how do you use your time to actually ensure that you are able to be an effective leader to the people you lead? But you can't do that without making sure you carve out time for yourself and not just think time, but health time and eat time and all of that, and that's the second theme.

The third is, you have to find something that is more than just the job. What is your purpose? What is the purpose beyond your job and beyond Ness that you feel like you'd like to give back to society? Where I have been extremely privileged with all the breaks I got, but I'd like to give back in some way and for me that is education and healthcare. So those are the three areas that I think eventually boil down to leading yourself, because if you are focused on finding the right balance between your family and your job, on managing your time for both yourself and your commitments, and then on the social realm, that's when you can truly focus on who you are and what your core values and beliefs are. And leading myself, to me at its core is, being very clear on where your ethics, values, and beliefs lie.

When you are clear on those and you believe in those, then all of these three things that I said are a lot easier to do.

Clint Betts

How do you decide where to spend your time?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Some through rules, and not everything can be planned, and some through values. Some of the rules that I set for myself are every morning at 6:30 in the morning, Viprika, that's my wife and I, we have 30 minutes carved out for having a cup of tea together and that's an important event, and it happens on weekdays as well as weekends, but it's a great time for us to just connect. That's important.

Making sure that I take time out, fixed time, on my calendar for going to the gym or going to the park or listening to music, those are important things. So some of these are literally carved out on my schedule, so nothing encroaches in them, but not everything can be planned because sometimes you're on a flight and that's because you have to catch that flight to get to where you want to be. So in those situations, your values are important.

For example, whenever I travel, I make sure if I'm traveling, maybe I'm meeting clients all day, but I find the afternoon or the evening to go meet the people who are in those locations, not just clients, because I'm in the services industry and people are just as important as clients and so that's my value system that helps me figure out time.

Another piece is, there are lots of fires that hit your itinerary, a particular client, a particular person, and there again, you have to constantly prioritize what would be the most valuable for you as a CEO to spend time on. Actually, this is where you have a tendency to avoid doing the stuff that's uncomfortable, but frankly, at the level that I work, I have to confront the uncomfortable things before the comfortable things and so that's a value system that allows me to focus my time on things that are most burning. So I guess it's a combination of formal time management and also values-driven time management.

Clint Betts

You said something really interesting there about tackling the uncomfortable before the comfortable. What does that look like to you? If you say you get into the office, what comes first? Is it the hardest things, or the uncomfortable things? Is that what you mean by that?

Ranjit Tinaikar

I don't mean it in a very logical sense, but at any given point in time, there are 10 things that I need to spend time on. And some of them are things that I'm very comfortable with, and you always find excuses to say, "Well, maybe that one I can delegate," or, "That one we can handle next week, because it's not urgent." And those are the ones that you have...

For example, I'll give you an example. A particular client is not particularly happy, but I know in my heart, it's something that should be addressed at the level of the CEO. I could say, "Listen, why don't I delegate it to somebody, see how it goes?" But if I'm convinced that it's a CEO level dialogue that would address this, then I need to put that on the front of my schedule, not move it out to the next. That's what I meant.

Clint Betts

How do you stay motivated?

Ranjit Tinaikar

I like what I'm doing now. I really do. I wouldn't do this if I wasn't really enjoying myself. I think what motivates me is, I say this all the time, the financial value creation is an important part and I'm not going to act that that's not important, but what truly motivates me is building Ness into a company and this is the vision that we want to be known as a top five digital engineering specialist.

There are a number of IT services players there, but there are very few pure play, high-end, digital transformation specialists. That's the legacy I want to leave behind. That's what motivates me. When you look back at what you've done, that's what you would feel proud about. That's one piece of it. I also have certain passions outside of Ness that motivate me, but for the purpose of this call, I thought I'd focus on Ness.

Clint Betts

Given that, how do you think about building your team, recruiting and leading your team, given that's the goal? Ness is already this incredible company, so you've already done a lot of this. What do you think about that, when it comes to the team and inside of the company, both recruiting and leading the employees you have?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Listen, you'll hear me say this all the time to my clients and my teams. In a services business, we don't have a large balance sheet of assets and liabilities like a bank does. We don't have software IT like a software company does and we don't have large manufacturing bases to manufacture products.

Our only IP is our people and the true core competence of our business lies in being able to attract, grow and retain high quality talent. If I can solve that problem, all the other problems will be solved. Frankly, that's the one thing that I, and frankly, my entire leadership team have internalized.

A few examples of what that means. It doesn't matter what the economy is, we make sure that we are very clear on what talent it is that we want to continue to invest in. Even during the slowdown that many of my industry colleagues and myself saw relative to the last three years, we continue to invest in high quality talent. We will not compromise on that.

But it's not just investment. The second point is how do you recruit that talent? We keep the bar very high and I personally, even if that role does not report to me, will often get involved in recruiting, not because of the technical skills or competencies, but because of the cultural fit and the alignment with our strategic vision. I personally am very engaged in ensuring that the top 50 leaders in this organization are not just smart and technically competent, but there is cultural and strategic alignment with where they want to go and where we want to go. That's second, the recruiting investment. A significant portion of my time goes on that.

Third, it is my belief that the CEO of a services organization is the primary chief people officer. I am personally involved a lot in the developmental programs, learning and development included, but not just the training programs, in terms of career path decisions, personal mentoring and coaching. If you look at the time I spend at Ness, I would say about 30 to 40% of my time is really spent on all kinds of people and leadership development activities. I think this is the core of services to get right.

Clint Betts

How have you handled the work from home thing, post-pandemic, where companies have like, "Hey, now we're just going to be all work from home, we're going to be hybrid," what has been your approach there?

Ranjit Tinaikar

I think the answer varies from geography to geography. As you know, Ness is in the US, Canada, India, and East Europe. In East Europe, we are in four different countries, Czech, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia. Each of these have very different work cultures, infrastructure and constraints, and also, what we have historically worked as.

Just to give you an example, in East Europe, we have locations in tier two towns, in Romania and Slovakia. In those places, we are the largest employer and our workplaces are within 5 to 10-minute biking or walking distance from where people live. There, the work from home, actually, there is a strong bias to come to work because that's not just a workplace, it's a community where people gather and it's the hub of the local society. So there, frankly, we have more and more people coming into work instead of wanting to be working from home.

In India, on the other hand, in cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, where we exist, infrastructure's a massive constraint and sometimes people have to commute an hour and a half to two hours. So there, what we do is we say, "Hey, listen, work from home is a flexibility that we give you, unless the client really expects you to be at the workplace." That acts as a differentiator for us because in India, talent by and large, has taken on this work from home and it becomes a value proposition from a talent acquisition and retention perspective. US and Canada, listen, it's a strong services economy and we didn't have a huge come-to-work culture anyways, because we have spread out over all parts of US and Canada, but we do try to make sure that the senior leadership gets together often virtually as well as physically. We are very disciplined about that and thoughtful about that. The top of the organization is very connected.

Then I over-invest in communicating to each and every employee in the organization to make sure that this work from home does not create a fragmentation of our cultures. Everybody is running in the same direction. There's the same strategy, same goals, and we keep reinforcing that through our communications. I guess different regions and different parts of the organization have a different strategy for work from home.

Clint Betts

As a service business, how much of an existential threat is artificial intelligence for you?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Existential would suggest negative. I think of it as an opportunity. I'll tell you what I mean. Think of our world as made up of supply of talent and demand for talent. I think most of the questions around how AI could adversely affect the supply side of things are about, "Hey, now technology can do what human beings could do." That's where the question around existentialism comes from.

On the demand side, the question is actually quite the opposite. AI will create demand for a whole new set of new applications. Existing applications would need to be enriched by these tools and techniques. The way we become an exciting place to work in is, the gap between demand and supply.

At the most basic level, I think AI is only going to increase the gap between demand for talent and supply of talent. Since I work in a fairly specialized area of digital engineering, those would not be things that you would automate away in the next five to six years. In most traditional IT services firms, it's a pyramid, where 60% of the headcount is less than six years' experience.

But in my company, actually, the reverse is true. A large percentage, 60% to 70% of my headcount is more than six years' experience. When you have that kind of skill mix, that does not get automated away. So on the supply side, what we're doing is we're doing a lot of experiments to say, "How can we actually take generative AI, develop more productivity-oriented solutions, and go to our clients and say, 'Hey, listen, we could do this for you simpler and faster relative to our competition. Would you be interested?" We are shortly going to come out with a thought piece to say, generative AI can improve supply-side productivity in these situations, but not in those situations. That's the very thoughtful leadership that our team is taking to market on the supply side.

On the demand side, oh my gosh, there's infinite use cases that we could be supporting with our existing clients. For example, the most basic one is we are a product engineering company. We do a lot of product sustenance and support for the products that we build. All generative AI can create chatbots, and that's a whole new service line that we can create for our clients. On the demand side, I think it's going to exponentially grow. On the supply side, there will be some impact, but even less in my world. If we use generative AI to differentiate our productivity value proposition, I'll probably see growth in the next three to five years. It's definitely not existential. I see it more as an opportunity.

Clint Betts

Yeah, I think that's the right way to look at it. It's got to be an opportunity. The alternative is dark. There's no point even looking at that. I wonder, as I talk to CEOs, they're telling me like, "Hey, 10 years ago, maybe a little over a decade ago, we never had to comment on anything other than our company, now we're being asked to comment on things happening in the world." And I'm not asking you to comment on anything specifically, but I wonder as a CEO, what that's been like, thinking about how you communicate to the rest of the world and weighing in on certain social and maybe even political issues and how you've handled that.

Ranjit Tinaikar

Yeah, I mean, there are different stakeholders and the demands of the stakeholders have evolved, haven't they, over the last 10 years? One is the investor, the second is the employee, and the third, market and clients in general. And we've heard many stories about how the wrong positioning of a company, with any of these three stakeholders, can affect you, positively or adversely. So yes, as a CEO, one has to be a lot more aware and thoughtful about how one positions a company's position. And these things happen more and more often when there's a war, when there's a certain employee related issue. Different companies have different positions to take in these situations.

In my particular case, there are a few things that are perhaps simpler. First is, we are a private equity owned company. The dynamics of a private equity CEO are very different from a public equity CEO, so I can assure you that my heart goes out to all my public equity CEO colleagues who have a much more diverse array of stakeholders to manage. In private equity, the stakeholder group is narrower.

Second, I think it doesn't mean that if you are a private equity company, you do not have these stakeholder expectations. For example, KKR owns us 100%, and they take ESG, which includes gender diversity or the carbon footprint, quite seriously. And so in those situations, one has to be very clear to focus on a few things.

For example, gender diversity makes a lot of sense for my firm, not just because it's the right thing to do. Frankly, it's a good business strategy, if you are able to tap into a more diverse talent pool in my business. So we pick a few spots instead of spreading ourselves thin and go for those.

Then there are these difficult situations where you're forced to take a position. Those are the ones where you really need to get your board and leadership team aligned before you rush out with any comments on social media or in the press.

For me at least, this has happened only once or twice in the last three to four years, but we figured out a way to do that in a way that maintains the interests of the firm without balking at taking a position in the market.

Clint Betts

Yeah. What is it like being the CEO of a private equity owned company?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Listen, I would say it's a little easier than public equity, in the sense that you have a very clear mandate from an investor. You are not beholden to the quarterly earnings cycle that the public equity company CEO has to go through. The employees, the board, and the investors, are all aligned on one particular shareholder value creation goal. I like that, but it also fits my profile in the sense that there are different horses for different courses.

I, in particular, like the value proposition for value creation. I'm not saying I'm the only one, there may be many like me, but others might find that a lot more financially oriented than otherwise. I guess there are different CEOs for those kinds of positions, but I personally like this value proposition.

Clint Betts

Ranjit, it's such an honor to have you on the show and thank you so much for taking the time. We end every interview the exact same way with this question, and that is at CEO.com, we believe the chances one gives are just as important as the chances one takes. I wonder when you hear that, who comes to mind as someone who gave you a chance to get you to where you are today, either in your personal life or in your career or both?

Ranjit Tinaikar

Oh my gosh. I've been so lucky. Honestly, let me see. I think the best chance was... I'll tell you a story from my student years. I had just started at McGill in Canada as a PhD student, and it was the Quebecois movement in those days. I was required to do 50% of my coursework in French. I sort of know French, but not enough to do the philosophy of science in French, where I was learning words like ontology and epistemology, which I didn't know in English, let alone French.

So I was really struggling, and at that point in time, I went and met this university professor at Pittsburgh. I said, "I really love studying what I'm studying, but I really need to go to a place where I can actually learn in English." He gave me a break halfway through the program. I switched over, and it's been a fantastic run since then.

I left academia nearly 20, 25 years ago, but that break put me in a very completely different path, because then in Pittsburgh, I got involved in the Software Engineering Institute. I did my PhD in social networks, and a lot of the stuff that I did took me into a completely different orbit, and so I am where I am because of that break that I got, but it's one of the many others that I got through my life. I really want to use this as an opportunity to thank that gentleman who gave me a break, and many others after that.

Clint Betts

Ranjit, it's been such an honor to have you on the show. Congrats on everything you're building with Ness Digital Engineering. We'll put a link to that in the show notes so people can check out everything else you do. I really appreciate it. Thanks for joining us, my friend.

Ranjit Tinaikar

Thank you for having me.

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