Corporate America is replete with examples of titans battling it out in the global arena, a merciless winner-take-it-all bid to maximise on market share. If the 90s decade was about the Cola Wars, then the most recent one has been about Samsung vs Apple. And no less intense! Arguably, for the first time we have an Asian giant locking horns with an American one – a harbinger of things to come? Maybe.
If we were to leave the romanticism aside and just focus on what the South Korean giant is doing here in India, it would be an astounding read, no less. An hour-long conversation with Samsung R&D’s CTO proved how right we were.
This is an attempt to capture broadly, Dr Aloknath De’s insights:
- Thank you for giving us time Dr De. Could you please tell us about the early days of Samsung India R&D, and if you could weave in your journey as well?
Samsung started its Indian journey more than two decades back with R&D and Sales & Marketing functions. From a small entity then, today it has grown manifold and is also spread between Bangalore and NCR. Globally, Samsung focusses on three major verticals: Mobility & IT; Consumer Electronics; and Device Solutions. In India, all three verticals are strongly represented.
In the initial stage, the Bangalore unit was predominantly engaged in embedded software development and testing for the parent company. Talent availability changed the situation rapidly, and soon enough significant contribution started pouring in smartphone development. World’s first LTE (4G) phone software was delivered by Bangalore R&D centre, Dr De proudly averred. Today, the R&D function is vertically integrated across the organisation.
Dr De has been with Samsung for about six years now. He pioneered setting up of the CTO office and its charter in India (and first time outside Korea HQ). He steered all activities in two lanes–the Inside-Out and Outside-In; his thinking gained popularity. The former is about internal development and innovative solutions taking to market. Whereas, the latter approach is about working with start-ups and ecosystem players to drive open innovation.
- Please share your thoughts on the ER&D ecosystem in India. What would you say are some of the important landmarks that got us where we are today and what would it entail to make India a global engineering hub? Please lay out the opportunities including challenges.
Outsourcing is age-old, and has been the nation’s traditional strength. This is true for both product and service verticals. Engineering R&D has had a similar journey too. In earlier times, parent companies saw value because of cost arbitrage and set up centres accordingly in India. Over the decades, many have matured and are doing high-end work today. And yet, many more simply got busted because they could not move up the proverbial value chain, only to be outpaced by competition.
In 90’s decade, it was common enough to find R&D units in India focussing on development, based on product specifications shared by the parent. Operating out of a nascent Indian market (ER&D), the focus remained on customizing solutions for US and other developed geographies. But post that period and it is particularly true now, the Indian ER&D arms of MNCs are actively involved in actually writing out specs for some of the most popular products and even contribute to the standard body. This is in line with niche capabilities focussed on hi-tech and in line with aspirations set by Indian centre. In this decade, Samsung India has built a very strong R&D team and the progress is being made objectively by the number of high-quality patents filed, research funding received and impact that the products make in the market.
- What kind of talent do you hire? And, some of the proactive steps that you take to ensure a healthy pipeline – by engaging with colleges (perhaps). Once recruited, please could you elaborate on the process in making them business-ready?
Dr. De classifies talent as: campus hires, lateral hires and niche hires with specialized skill sets. Predominantly, people are engaged in Technology Research, Advanced Development and End-to-End Testing. Matching work portfolio, the kind of talent hired in Samsung R&D is a judicious mix of people from Premium Institutes, Tier 2 colleges and even Diploma Holders for certain profiles. Typically, engagements remain high with ~20 institutes and next-level with another ~40 colleges.
Niche skill-sets are specific to domains which has even birthed the need to recruit doctors, statisticians, linguists and so on. There’s a strong and persuasive need for Design Thinking skills along with all the Engineering expertise. Samsung believes in continuous learning and such emphasis on learnability is met through on-the-job exposure, on-line courses like edX as well as knowledge-sharing sessions.
- Talent that is available in India vs global. Any comparative analysis. Your thoughts on all the fuss being made about the Millennials. Really, what sets them apart?
He spoke about the talent in developed markets – they mostly maintain a minimum standard in education and experience. However, it is not surprising to see much wider dynamic range of talent quality in India. Though high-quality talent is scarce globally; with strong Samsung brand in market, we have been fortunate in attracting top talents, asserted Dr De. At the same breath, he also stressed on the importance of job creation. Only if the country is able to provide suitable jobs will the talent get an opportunity to grow.
About Millennials, he feels most of them are quite clear about what they want. That’s the smart part. Yet, the impending challenge is about minimising distractions in their lives. The earlier generations did not have as many life choices and perhaps they were not as easily distracted. With technology becoming complex day-by-day, if value add has to be high, then people need to be extremely focussed, patient and persuasive in finding out solutions. Fifty percent of the solution lies in being able to articulate the right problem. This generation cannot be instructed, they can only be motivated to explore that way!
- “Software is eating the world.” A phrase frequently used – your thoughts. How do you see the future to look like from an Indian user standpoint?
Though hardware is the tangible part but software, the invisible but intelligent component is what the future is all about. Embedded software is in almost all devices. But new technologies like Cloud Computing have changed the way we look at the entire IT infra.
Samsung has a strong services component, which he elucidated:
- The Web Browser on Samsung phones has been built majorly in Bangalore lab.
- Samsung Health has been garnering more and more daily active users.
- Samsung Pay that virtualizes credit/debit cards has been recently developed and deployed by the lab in India.
The technology focus is on SMAC and Cognitive IoT, and lest we forget, the strong services component that goes with all these technologies have an incredible future as Dr. De presented.
Hard to resist, we also asked Dr. Alok about the impact of automation on job losses. He said, it’s still too early to predict how deep the linkages are. Is it performance-linked, base-level productivity optimization, reverse globalization? Or is it impact of AI and Robotic automation? Today, significant workforce are getting deployed towards Intelligence, IoT and other cutting-edge technology development. Instead of focussing on job losses, we should explore new avenues of job creation and ensure that our tomorrow’s workforce are better prepared with adequate new skill sets.
- Please share your thoughts on the company’s culture. How are processes laid out / business structured that ensures values are met.
He says that almost all organisations have an enviable set of values like integrity, being people-driven striving for excellence etc. and it was certainly no different for Samsung as well. But, with a little difference.
Change Management is integral to our DNA. A philosophy that is articulated upfront and there can be no two ways about it. Things change, people adapt, leverage its potential and go back to the drawing board to review if further changes are required. An inevitable loop. At Samsung, the pace of change is quite different than I have seen in my previous companies.
The other dimension is about Co-prosperity. This is partly about “being global, but acting local”. How do you customize products specific to geographies? How do you incorporate local culture in your service provisioning? How do you ensure community pain points are addressed through company solutions?
Samsung also strongly promotes Teamwork. It believes in developing people and making “stars” out of them in a cohesive, collaborative and supportive manner.
- Please tell us about your Leadership Mantra. Perhaps you may like to share an instance when you demonstrated the same most effectively. Given a chance, would you have done something very different in your remarkable career at Samsung.
“Be hard on objectives, but soft on people”. He is always driven by challenging status quo to attain higher value in the process. People have their own set of challenges, but it does not mean that goals will be re-calibrated accordingly. Take care of people, but find ways to realize goal. Small goals? NO!
To succeed, it’s imperative that one is competitive. There will be times when people will not be able to function optimally. That’s when the team members should step in to fill in gaps and address the shortcomings. Undue pressure is not created on individuals and they are provided with ample opportunities to deliver on agreed goals.
In last few years, with clear goal, strong teamwork and conducive work environment, we feel a lot has been accomplished. A simple example could be: the highest number of patents have been filed from India, outside of South Korea.
About wanting to do things differently, Dr Aloknath De has a ‘No Regret’ philosophy. A colleague articulated that he believes: Making the rest of my life as the best of my life! We did press on and he ruefully agreed, “Perhaps I should have joined Samsung a little earlier.”
So, that’s Dr De for you. A man driven by the passion to do things differently, set tough goals but always supportive and taking lead in Samsung’s glorious journey in India.
Want to read the other interviews in the series? See them with leader talk