From Engineering Intern to Chairman of Tata

Natarajan Chandrasekaran seeks tech solutions to social problems

6 min read

Photo of Natarajan Chandrasekaran Tata Sons

There was a time when managing the family farm in India would have been Natarajan "Chandra" Chandrasekaran's path, but his love of computer programming derailed that plan. After returning home from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in applied sciences, Chandra (as he likes to be called) tried his hand at farming but quickly realized it was not for him. His father—who had given up his own career as a lawyer to run the farm after his father died—encouraged Chandra to continue to pursue his passion for computers.

Today the IEEE senior member is chairman of Tata Sons, in Mumbai, India, the holding company for the Tata Group, which encompasses more than 30 businesses. They include chemical plants and consultancy services as well as hotels and steel mills. Chandra chairs the boards of several of the companies including Tata Motors, Tata Power, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), and Tata Steel. The group employs more than 750,000 people around the world.

The Tata Group trading company was launched in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata. Regarded as the "father of Indian industry," Tata had a vision: to create a responsible company that serves the community. Chandra continues to support that mission by helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in India and finding ways to use technology to solve societal problems such as access to health care and education.

Chandra says the ability for his company to make a difference is the single most important thing to him.

"We make an impact on our employees, society, businesses, and—with our huge ecosystem—on the markets in which we operate," he says.

He adds that he enjoys working with smart people and "thinking about the future, whether it is about creating our businesses or making contributions to a sustainable world."

FROM ENGINEERING INTERN TO MANAGER

After graduating in 1986 from Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu, Chandra returned to run his family's farm in Mohanur, located in the state's Namakkal District. After breaking the news to his father that he would rather be a computer programmer than a farmer, Chandra entered a three-year postgraduate degree program to study computer science and its applications at the state's Regional Engineering College in Tiruchirappalli (now the National Institute of Technology).

An internship was required during the last semester. Chandra applied for an opening at TCS, an IT services company, which in 1986 was an up-and-coming firm with about 500 employees. Two months into the internship, the company offered him a job as an engineer after he graduated. He started working for TCS in 1987 and has never left the Tata Group.

During his nearly 35 years there, he rose through the ranks, switching from engineering to management in the 1990s. Since 1997 he has held senior-level positions in marketing and sales. From 1998 to 2007 he helped TCS grow its business around the world, including in China, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In 2009 he was promoted to chief executive. He held that position until 2017, when he was appointed chairman of Tata Sons.

"The company gave me a lot of different roles, and as you do better then you get lucky," he says, laughing. "Most of the knowledge I picked up was on the job and by taking on different projects."

I believe very strongly that digital-physical integration is the way to solve societal problems

He learned management skills from coworkers as well as clients, he says.

"TCS not only has the smartest people working for it, but we also work with some of the best companies as clients," he says. "When you work with smart people, you learn. And when you work with demanding clients, you learn. Things rub off on you. My passion has always been to understand deeply what makes a difference to a customer."

He says he has always been willing to take on new duties but also never hesitated to ask for help.

"TCS has a very supportive culture," he says, "so whenever you have major issues with clients or businesses, you derive support."

GIVING BACK

With India's under-resourced health care system, Chandra says, he knew 2019's novel coronavirus could have a devastating effect on the country. Since April 2020 the Tata Group, including its philanthropic trusts, has committed more than US $200 million for COVID-related activities. That money has been used in a variety of ways, including building hospitals and increasing the capacity of existing ones by setting up COVID-19 wards and intensive-care units.

The oxygen that Tata Steel's mills use to convert iron and scrap metal into steel was diverted for medical use. At one point during the pandemic, Chandra says, the Tata Group provided 10 percent of the medical oxygen required in the country.

Once COVID-19 vaccines became available, the group started a massive campaign to inoculate its employees and their families.

"Helping is in our DNA," Chandra says of the affiliate companies in the group. "All of our CEOs have a culture of doing good for society."

Chandra says he often is asked when business will return to normal after the pandemic. He says it won't.

"We are not going back; we are going forward," he says. "While many things about COVID have been negative, there are many positives. COVID has moved the world forward in multiple dimensions. Number one is digital adoption. Number two: Everyone now recognizes the importance of sustainability, because we experienced how much we can dramatically change things, like air quality, in a relatively short period of time—especially in India.

"The pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of addressing key global existential risks that we may have treated more theoretically in the past.

"Also, the global supply chain cannot be concentrated in any one country. It must be designed for resilience."

TECH SOLUTIONS

Chandra says artificial intelligence and related technologies can help mankind tackle societal issues such as universal access to health care and a quality education. He outlined his ideas in Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology's People Problem, a 2019 book he coauthored with Roopa Purushothaman.

"I believe very strongly that digital-physical integration is the way to solve problems," he says. "Take a country like India—we have a shortage of everything. We have a shortage of doctors, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. We neither have the time nor the money to be able to build all the capacity we need."

For example, about two-thirds of India's citizens live in rural areas, he notes, but most of the doctors are in cities.

He says the solution is to use AI, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing to create a network of services that can be delivered where they are needed most. That would include telehealth and remote learning for people in rural areas.

Poverty could be reduced dramatically, he says, by using AI to increase the capabilities of low-skilled workers so they could perform higher-level jobs. He estimates more than 30 million jobs could be created by 2025. To help make that possible, in 2019 the Tata Group unveiled the Indian Institute of Skills, a joint initiative with the Ministry of Skills Development and the Indian government that provides vocational training.

The Tata Group also offers programs that encourage students to pursue STEM careers around the world, and it has launched worldwide adult literacy programs. There are also programs focused on encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs and enter the tech field.

Chandra says he is concerned about his employees' well-being. An avid runner, he was the inspiration behind the company's Fit4Life program. It encourages employees to be physically active and give back to their community.

"One is for the body, the other one is for the soul," he says.

CAREER ADVICE

Now is the most exciting time to be an engineer, he says.

"There are so many opportunities," he says, "because the pace of change is huge and technology development is huge."

He encourages those starting out to "go after what you're passionate about and what excites you. People will live longer, so careers are not going to be over at the age of 60." What's more, he says, "people will probably have two, three, or four careers in their lifetime, so it's a long game. If you're going to work 30, 40, 50 years or even longer, you should enjoy the process."

The top skill he says everyone should have is the ability to continue to learn. That's why he renews his IEEE membership, he says.

Chandra became a member in 1987 because TCS required its professional employees to join a society. His colleagues recommended IEEE because, they said, he would become more knowledgeable about engineering and cutting-edge technology by reading its publications.

"Even reading just one article could go a long way," they told him.

He remains a member, he says with a laugh, "because I still have to learn."

"It's not about just learning what skills I need," he says. "It is about opening up my mind."

The Conversation (2)
Ashok Deobhakta 09 Oct, 2021
SM

Wonderful article, very inspiring!

Chithambaram Ganesapillay 16 Sep, 2021
M

Truly inspiring story.

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