Set up in 2002, Symphony Software Services delivers more than a thousand products to customers worldwide. Ajay Kela, the MD and COO of India operations, says that the technological innovations his engineers bring to the table are pivotal to the existence of many of his clients. At Symphony, IT breathes life into the innovation process and is instrumental in keeping innovators on the cutting-edge. As the industry moves into newer, more profitable areas, Kela believes that innovation must run deep and wide - both in and outside of IT.
How does Symphony use IT and where is it heading as a company?
After the dotcom bust, huge amounts of fibre deployments and software that couldn't be paid for, drove India's BPO industry. Today, we believe that software development will go the way of manufacturing. A few decades ago, manufacturing was dominated by companies in the US and Europe. Then, components started going offshore and today, an IBM laptop is just an assemblage of components from different parts of the world. The same thing is happening to software development.
Most companies that get funding in the Valley do not have the resources to do their own engineering. They are major outsourcers. Twentyfive, out of a 100, of our clients are earlystage companies for which we form the engineering base. We are responsible for their entire product development - right from the whiteboard stage all the way to shipping. In five to 10 years, all engineering will be completely outsourced. It's a very high-end market and India is moving up in it.
Symphony operates in this high-end technology market. We do IT services for internal applications, and for BPOs - we are their revenue generating component. In our industry, IT is very crucial due mainly to three things. The first is IP protection. We own client IP, or at least have a very broad access to it. IT helps secure that access to keep compliance and anxiety levels in control.
Collaboration is another, because our work is so dynamic that our teams need to collaborate all the time with teams at another end. I'm not only taking about project managers - we have 500 people for one of our clients sitting here and they all have to interact with the client. There's a huge need for collaboration. The third thing is visibility. Because our clients send their revenue-generating activities to us here, an enormous nervousness builds up. These companies cannot afford a mess up here, so we have create visibility for their CEOs. Given the amount of concern our clients have, we have to provide complete transparency. Since they cannot keep coming here, IT helps. We have to rely heavily on technology.
What sort of compliance issues do you face and how do you deal with them?
There are massive compliance issues, all tied to access to IT. Most are IP-related. To protect that IP we have ISO27000 certification that enables us to get the best global best practices to be implemented in the organization. It provides mass information access to our client - access to very sensitive information, the framework has a security provision, so it's not violated.
You are entering into an agreement with Optimal Engineering. How will this benefit Symphony?
Our business is in three areas, first is independent software vendors (ISVs), like Autodesk or Oracle. Then there is a second segment around e-commerce companies where software is mission critical. The third market we entered into recently is embedded software. Today, hardware devices are all being commoditized and software is the differentiator. Optimal had a very strong practice in the embedded space. In their segment they have a lot of expertise; it will be a strong relationship.
Symphony promises to create value via innovation, collaboration and operational excellence. How does IT help?
Innovation is the bread and butter of our clients. The innovation our employees create keeps the companies of our customers in business. If our people fail to innovate, the companies our clients run will collapse. Innovative thinking needs exposure and this is where IT helps. Collaboration is also extremely core to our business.
Our teams seldom work in isolation; our work is a continuously interactive process. Since our staff has to interact with other teams - and each other - collaboration is a key component to ensure quality deliveries. E-mail is okay, chat is better, but face-to-face is the best. Although we have exchange programs, face-to-face is not a scaleable model. So we turned to IT to create a face-to-face from the desktop.
Where operational excellence is concerned - no company can bring its products to the market if they are not actively using IT to optimize costs. Today, we have been very successful as a service provider. But it is hard to do software development from two buildings apart, let alone being separated by thousands of miles. You can only get that kind of expertise through knowledge management systems and best practices.
Today, we produce like a factory. On an average, a software company ships one product release a year. Microsoft, for example, has one new release every four years - we had 1,000 releases this year. We have so many clients, many of whom are early-stage companies that cannot wait and e-commerce clients who update their websites on a weekly basis that we need to be much faster and more voluminous in our production. From an organizational perspective, I can safely say that we are far better than many others.
Our organizational excellence is helping us break new business ground. We have an increasing amount of business from captives, who are asking us to handle their operations. Today, we have about 1,000 people who have given up their captives to us.
In an industry dogged by attrition, how do you tackle staffing and other HR challenges?
In our industry there is mostly low-end work doing internal applications. Once you've implemented a SAP or an Oracle application for one client, doing just that can become monotonous. Senior people tend to get bored and begin to question the value they bring. Club this with the late hours people keep at BPOs, irate customers, and you have attrition rates in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent. However, we are very fortunate that we work on some of the world's best products. If you are a software person, working on technology that is the crème-de-la-crème is encouraging.
Today, we build the world's best CAD product with Autodesk, we are partners with leading ERP providers like Oracle. The top two e-commerce companies are our clients, so our employees are working on worldclass products and enormous amount of satisfaction is derived from those brand names. And from the perspective of our employees, the freedom to innovate helps. Since they have to think of new ideas, they are not replicating their work everyday. That's a key driver in our quest to keep talent here. And because we need to stay competitive, we identity our top performers to do cutting-edge work for our clients - about 25 percent of our people.
Plus, we create a classy environment that replicates the environment of our US counterparts. We have five-star work environments including desk area that is far higher than the industry average. We also need to have a lot more freedom. We have an open culture and have monthly beer bashes followed by dancing where even I participate. All this to create an environment where employees are free to create and innovate.
How do you use IT to tackle the HR needs of your employees?
We need to eliminate irritants at work, and the best way to do that is to provide all the necessary tools on an employee's desktop. We have completely automated HR functions. The more these activities are automated, the more mind space our people will have to think. We also pushed hard for work-from-home because of time differences. Of course, our clients had issues with their IP being accessible from people's homes. So, we provided network access control protocols that limits their exposure.
What steps is Symphony taking to strengthen its disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities?
Within a city we have multiple sites, so if disaster strikes, we can rapidly replicate and move on. Most IP is stored in servers worldwide. So that doesn't suffer. But if something happens to an entire city, we have presences in Bangalore, Pune, and Mumbai and we can switch over rapidly - including shipping out our employees. We are moving into a multi-country set up so that, if say, there's a nuclear war in India, business can go on. At the employee level, critical staffers have succession planning - this extends to the individual level, the building level, the city level and the country level. Data is actually replicated.
Does Symphony use Open Source for development? Are your clients using it?
We use Open Source for many developments and at many levels. I think Open Source is being embraced today, certainly by early-stage companies and across the board, operating systems will be Linux, middleware application servers on J-Boss, and so on. Many early-stage companies don't want to invest in commercial software. We provide full support for this aspiration and we have a center of excellence around Open Source. Whenever our clients need to find out if Open Source or Linux can work for them, they use our expertise.
What role does your CIO play, given the company's focus on innovation?
Our operations can succeed only if engineers can freely innovate and the CIO is key where this is concerned. All software companies thrive and survive on the next bright new idea. For that to happen, for our engineers to innovate, they need to have access to clients as well as users. They need to get under the skin of the client. We need technology to provide that access.
Examples of this include video-on-demand, chat interactions, work-from-home, knowledge management tools. We have a program built around IT called Symphony Orchestra. We have knowledge access management on a portals and we created portal on it for our clients. This is where we store documents, provide an environment for light discussions and a search engine to look through various portals. That's also how we capture best practices.
We are also working around virtual management; this includes many-to-many chats and IPTV. Again our clients treat our employees no different from their own, so they have online meetings where they talk about their product roadmaps. We also have broadcasted meetings. The CIO is crucial to all these development and activities, and as our business expands and technology moves on, he or she will play an increasingly important role in our business processes.