Rajendran Dandapani – TRANSCRIPT
Good afternoon. So all morning and afternoon, we’ve been hearing inspiring tales of how people have conquered and overcome Murphy’s Law. Here is my own humble submission to the jury. So, I have titled it ‘The Son, The Holy Spirit, and The Father!’
And there are three interesting stories where I encountered Murphy’s Law, not once, not twice, but thrice in my life and how I kind of overcame it or sidestepped it — you can’t overcome Murphy’s Law. The Son. It’s actually the story of my un-graduation at IIT. So, I was a smart and hardworking young boy, like many of you here, I am sure. First rank boy, I was called. Class topper. Every month, every annual exam, I was the topper. I was the school topper. I was a hobby musician on the side, a prize-winning essayist, and popular orator. And, in fact, I even learned Hindi and Sanskrit at a time when, down South, people were frowning upon these Devanagari languages. And I was placed in the top 2% of the +2 Board, and the feeling was ‘top of the world’, and 129th AIR was my JEE Rank in ’89.
And I took electronics and communication, like many of our friends – earlier speakers here. And nothing can go wrong, right? So 1989 was the year, and I had no idea of the slump I was going to face very soon. Murphy’s Law says, ‘If something can go wrong, it will.’ But there’s an atrocious extension to Murphy’s Law many of you don’t know. It goes, ‘When something just can’t go wrong, that’s when it most certainly will!’
So, I started bunking classes, I failed courses, I don’t know how many of you know this lingo, it’s called cups at IIT; a cup is when you get a U grade. I started collecting cups like nobody’s business. I was rusticated from the Institute. The Institute wanted to teach me a lesson. They said, ‘Stay away from the Institute for a semester’, as if that’ll help. My girlfriend wanted to teach me a lesson. She dumped me. My father suffered a stroke, and he never recovered from it. He passed away two years ago on this very day. I was kicked out of IIT — I was unceremoniously asked to leave, with no degree or paper certificate to show for the years I had spent there. I even contemplated suicide. It became a family secret — till today.
I have never gone public talking about this. Sorry, all friends and relatives with us, to whom they don’t really know what exactly happened in those years at IIT. But Murphy’s Law of Exponential Gravity actually helped. The higher you rise, the harder the fall, right? That’s exactly what happened.
But you know what, the year was 1995, and I had actually hit rock bottom. And two other laws helped me there. One is Thompson’s Bounceback Law. It says, ‘When you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is UP!’ Anything you do, can only make you better. And not just that, there was another law by a friend called Oswald. Oswald says, ‘Whenever you fall’ — That’s what is happening here — he’s picking something up. ‘Whenever you fall, pick something up.’ When you learn that little lesson, that’s going to stay with you for a very long time. That’s what happened. I learned all sorts of hacking — computer hacking. I learned about how to overcome failures, how to come back — the art of comebacks.
And I learned to work with people, because when you don’t know something, you should at least know about people. Working with people is still helping me, even today, managing a team — working with people, it still helps. And I learnt the very important lesson of not relying on paper credentials. I had none. I couldn’t rely on paper credentials. In fact, when I applied for a job at Zoho, I didn’t go there with my printed resume, I went there and said, ‘Here is a website I designed for you. Do you like it? I programmed it, designed it, created a logo; do you like it?’ That’s how I went to them. I showed them a demonstration of a game, a PC game I had built — a vocabulary game; that’s how I got into this famous company.
So this is the lesson I learnt in the first one-third of my three Murphy’s Law encounters. People are much, much more than just the paper qualifications that they hold. This lesson helped me in the second chapter of my life, which is The Holy Spirit. It’s the founding of Zoho University. I had become an employee at Zoho, I had started managing people, I had started recruiting, looking for talent across the length and breadth of the country, and the year was 2004. There was this gap that kept hitting me. Students who came out of college saying they had done engineering or electronics or computer science and so on, when we started giving them the interview, the test, there seemed to be a huge gap — they seemed to have no idea what we were looking for; and what they said they knew, they actually didn’t. And what they were actually good at, wasn’t really relevant or necessary at all.
There was this gap that was coming. ‘What did they learn? What were they taught?’ were the questions that started coming in our minds when we started looking at these new applicants at our company. In fact, we even ran a poll in our company. We asked them how useful was college education, all that you learned at college? To the employees we ran this poll. We asked them how useful was it when you actually start working in this company. And the red indicates it was not really good. Only the green says, ‘Yeah, it was useful.’ So we said, let’s run a small experiment. We realized it was because people were learning without context. There was no context, only con text, perhaps, and all these gaps.
So, we said let’s run an experiment. And we actually learned from Aristotle’s Law, which says, ‘What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.’ So you can’t learn computer science mugging through books. You can’t learn to do software, you have to learn by actually doing. Bernard Shaw also had a message. It says, ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.’
But … serious, respect to all teachers here — Serious respect to all teachers here, but the point is, if you are a software guy or a woman, and you are looking for making good money, you don’t actually sit down at a college and teach students. You go to that big MNC that’s giving you a seven-figure salary. That was the problem we were trying to solve. So we said let’s run an experiment. We went to a nearby school; we recruited six kids. They were probably not going to anyway get into engineering or medicine because of the exorbitant costs involved. We put them in a room, we gave them two faculty and started what we call Zoho University. We just chose three subjects: English, software, and mathematics — basic mathematics, not the higher meta-mathematics, basic mathematics.
And when I said we chose faculty, it’s not, we went to a college and recruited people, we actually looked at people within the company, good software engineers who were very good at what they did, and also had the passion to share, to care, and to pass on what they knew — passion for learning, but actually very good at what they did inside the company. The classroom was a very good place to learn, but also was Wikipedia, also was the flipped classroom, the videos of Khan Academy. Coursera — they were asked to sign up for online courses. They were asked to contribute to open source tools like GitHub, and they were asked to take up challenges of programming puzzles and challenges in sites like HackerRank.