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Punjabis and Sikhs Dominate List of Silicon Valley Gurus
A review of The Horse That Flew: How India's Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings by Chidanand Rajghatta.

C.J.S. Wallia, Ph.D., Stanford, has taught at University of California (Berkeley) and Stanford. His editing experience includes major publishing houses, high-technology corporations, and fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. He is the author of two books on computer-assisted publishing, and edits and publishes an online literary magazine, IndiaStar Review of Books.

IndiaStar Review of Books, Dec. 28, 2003

The Horse That Flew: How India's Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings is a highly engaging history of the rise of the information technology industry in India and the considerable contributions of Indian-American immigrants to IT industry in America. The author, Chidanand Rajghatta, a seasoned journalist, is the Washington correspondent of The Times of India, the world's largest circulation English-language daily.

In the introduction, the author acknowledges that some of his friends questioned the timing of his book's publication - after the market burst of 2000-01, but he justifies his choice: 'I am glad it is coming out when it is. The dotcom mania has subsided and we now have a better perspective about the craze that swept almost everyone along.'

The opening chapter, 'The Mouse That Roared,' focuses on the rise of the I.T. industry in India: its growth from an export of a paltry $50 million in 1991 to around $6 billion in 2000-01. The growth during the first five years of the decade was mostly from low-cost, contract, labor-intensive routine programming for major American corporations like Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard. During the next five years, I.T. professionals in India moved beyond writing codes to state-of-the-art applications. Soon Indian companies achieved an enviable reputation for delivering 90 percent of the projects on time, compared to 65 percent for U.S. companies.

The second chapter, 'The Cats That Stalked,' outlines the history of Indian I.T. professionals, who started coming to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s. The foremost among them is the physicist Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, father of fiber optics. In 1960, he founded Optics Technology Inc., in Palo Alto, and made it public in 1967. In 1978, Sirjang Lal Tandon founded Tandon Computers, a highly successful corporation, which supplied disc drives to the P.C. industry.

The names of outstanding Indian-American entrepreneurs in the 1980s and 90s are too numerous to list here. Selecting four 'superstars' among them, Rajghatta devotes a full hagiographic chapter to each.

The chapter on Vinod Khosla, 'The Seer of Sand Hill Road,' presents his stunning achievements: co-founding Sun Microsystems; becoming a multi-millionaire who temporarily retired at age thirty; emerging as a venture capitalist so successful that Fortune magazine, in a cover story, called him 'the greatest V.C. of all time.'

The third chapter, subtitled 'Hot Male: A simple idea + nerves of steel = $ 400 million' profiles Sabeer Bhatia as the 'poster boy' of Indian-American high-tech entrepreneurs. Here's a representative sample of Rajghatta's writing style: 'Sabeer's young age (he was twenty-six when he started Hotmail), the short time in which he ramped it up, and the speed and verve with which he clinched a deal with the world's most aggressive company made him a lodestar for Indian enterprise in the mecca of technology. In 1998, when 'Go Web, Young Man' was the mantra, Sabeer Bhatia was at the epicenter of the Internet revolution.'

The fifth chapter, 'Chip Monk,' profiles Vinod Dham as the father of the Pentium, achieving a 'demi-god status' in the Indian high-tech community. Dham thrived working at Intel, a company notorious for its confrontational management under the legendary C.E.O. Andy Grove, a Hungarian immigrant. Dham told Rajghatta: 'Grove was the most hard charging, hard driving, paranoid man I ever came across. I am a Punjabi, you see. We have always fought and won wars.' During his years at Intel, Dham teamed with fellow Punjabi, Avtar Saini, a logic designer.

The sixth chapter profiles Kanwal Rekhi as 'The Godfather: Don Rekhi, King of the Indian Mafia.' Serving as president of T.I.E. (The Indus Entrepreneurs) Rekhi, who like many Indian-American I.T. professionals graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.), guided numerous Indian-American wannabe entrepreneurs. 'In 1994, I.I.T.ian Kanwal Rekhi returned to India after a ten-year hiatus. A clean-cut Sikh, Rekhi has been traumatized by the 1984 Operation Blue Star. His two brothers, both turbaned Sikhs at that time, had faced mob fury in Kanpur. Infuriated at what he saw as the failure of the state, Rekhi did not step on to Indian soil for a decade. In 1994, the silver jubilee of his passing out of I.I.T. finally gave him a chance to return. The Nehru-Gandhi family, which Rekhi transparently dislikes and blames for India's many ills, had been eclipsed.' Rekhi donated $2 million to I.I.T. Mumbai.

Rajghatta's list of his four superstars in Silicon Valley is 100 percent Punjabi. So are the two pioneers, Kapany and Tandon. The Banglorean Rajghatta has thereby unwittingly dispelled the myth of South Indian dominance of the I.T. phenomenon. Moreover, only two of the six are I.I.T. graduates, dispelling another myth: the dominance of I.I.T. graduates at the top echelons.

After detailing the Indian-American I.T. entrepreneurs, Rajghatta turns to entrepreneurs in India, devoting full chapters of unstinting praise to: N.R. Naryana Murthy, 'The Middle Class Mahatma,' founder of Infosys Corporation; and to Azim Premji, 'The Talmudic Tycoon,' founder of Wipro Corporation.

Rajghatta's book has a few weaknesses. A major gap is a profile of Dr. Kapany, whom SiliconIndia magazine recently hailed as the grandfather figure of Indian-American high-tech entrepreneurs. Also, Rajghatta is wrong in ascribing to Linda Sexanian, a U.C. Berkeley professor of business, 'a memorable observation that when you talk of I.C.s in Silicon Valley, you are not talking of integrated circuits, but of Indians and Chinese.' Sexanian wrote her articles in the 1990s. The credit for this observation goes to the late Perry Singh Wallia, who served as I.C. production engineer in several major Silicon Valley corporations including Fairchild, National Semiconductor, Synertek, Seagate, and Western Digital for thirty-five years, retiring as vice-president of operations at Alliance in August 2000. He made this observation in high-tech seminars as early as 1975.

These points aside, Rajghatta has written a first-rate history of Indian and Indian-American contributions to the I.T. industry.