Nikesh Arora (Electrical 1989) is the most successful alumnus of our institute in corporate world. He is President, Global Sales Operations and Business Development at Google Inc.
Watch interview video (21 min) on NDTV:
* Google Management-Corporate Information
President, Global Sales Operations and Business Development
Nikesh oversees all revenue and customer operations, as well as marketing and partnerships. Since joining Google in 2004, he has held several positions with the company. Most recently, he led Google's global direct sales operations. He also developed and managed the company's operations in the European, Middle Eastern and African markets and was responsible for creating and expanding strategic partnerships in those regions for the benefit of Google's growing number of users and advertisers.
With a background as an analyst, Nikesh's main areas of focus have been consulting, IT, marketing and finance. Prior to joining Google, he was Chief Marketing Officer and a member of the management board at T-Mobile. While there, he spearheaded all product development, terminals, brand and marketing activities of T-Mobile Europe. In 1999, he started working with Deutsche Telekom and founded T-Motion PLC, a mobile multimedia subsidiary of T-Mobile International. Prior to joining Deutsche Telekom, Nikesh held management positions at Putnam Investments and Fidelity Investments in Boston.
Nikesh holds a Master's degree from Boston College and an MBA from Northeastern University, both of which were awarded with distinction. He also holds the CFA designation. In 1989, Nikesh graduated from the Institute of Technology in Varanasi, India, with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.
* Interview with Nikesh Arora in Chronicle November 2006 issue
(Please scroll down near the bottom)
India Express Interview with Nikesh Arora
‘We don’t hire traditional people. We look for raw smarts’
Nikesh Arora, Google’s President, Global Sales Operations and Business Development
‘We don’t hire traditional people. We look for raw smarts’
Posted: Tue May 11 2010, 02:29 hrs
The information revolution in India is powered, to a large extent, by Google—be it search, email or chat. In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Nikesh Arora, who joined Google in 2004 and went on to become president of global sales operations, talks about his formative years in India, Google’s unconventional hiring practices and work ethics, and the importance of information
Shekhar Gupta: My guest today is Nikesh Arora, Google’s President, Global Sales Operations and Business Development. We are in one of your favourite classrooms in Delhi’s Air Force School, Subroto Park.
Nikesh Arora: Yes. This is the classroom I studied in, in classes XI and XII. We sat here and spent three hours drawing, and learning how to draw, electrical things so that we could become engineers.
Shekhar Gupta: The reason to bring you here is to tell the world where you come from because everyone knows where you belong.
Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Nikesh Arora: Well, my father was in the Air Force. So every few years we had to pack our bags and move. I went to various Kendriya Vidyalayas around the country and then I ended up here because we moved here. And my parents saw that I needed some stability, so this is where I spent the last two years of my high school education. I had a great time, learned a lot. Then from here I went to Banaras Hindu University—Institute of Technology, BHU—and I studied electrical engineering, and then I came and worked at Wipro for a year. It was fascinating. It was 1989 and I think for the first time PCs were beginning to get hard disks. And given that I had just come out of engineering school, I was given a job that the earlier sales guy probably didn’t want, which was to sell to the Indian government.
Shekhar Gupta: It must have taken some doing.
Nikesh Arora: Well, let’s say some of those computers ended up on desks and some of those ended up as great props for coffee trays.
Shekhar Gupta: Did the government understand computers then?
Nikesh Arora: The good news is that there were parts of the government that were very keen on computerisation, like the National Information Centre. Then I decided to go to a business school in the US, so I went to Boston, during what was perhaps one of the big recessions in the US in 1992. So it was again a bit of a toil to find a job after going to business school. I ended up working there in a place called Fidelity Investments for five years.
Shekhar Gupta: Fidelity Investments and then Deutsche Telekom.
Nikesh Arora: There was another one—Putnam Investments, where I managed money. But one of the highlights of my time at Fidelity was that we were looking to outsource IT, so I could come back to India and talk to a lot of IT companies. It was 1994-95. And it is fascinating that even then this was the place to come and get outsourcing done.
Shekhar Gupta: But why was this the place to come to?
Nikesh Arora: It is fascinating. You can have a debate about which education system is better, and I think for a majority of us, at least for me, what worked in the Indian education system was the rigour. And now, you talk of other education systems around the world. My daughter goes to school, and there is way too much flexibility. My perspective is it is good to give people options, to eight-year-olds and ten-year-olds, but a little bit of discipline, a little bit of rigour, is a wonderful thing. It goes a long way.
Shekhar Gupta: When you went out, India had begun to change. Until then, almost all IITians used to go out.
Nikesh Arora: A majority of people ended up leaving the country at that point and working abroad. I do feel that trend has, hopefully, stopped, that it is reversing.
Shekhar Gupta: And they didn’t come back as often as you do when you work overseas.
Nikesh Arora: A lot of people who I went to school with, who ended up going out, are coming back to work in India full-time. And a lot of us who work there want to come back and give back in some ways so that we get involved with various things in the country.
Shekhar Gupta: Tell us about how you joined Google. There are all kinds of urban legends. I hear that Larry Page and Sergey Brin interviewed you in the British Museum. You had to go through 19 interviews.
Nikesh Arora: After working in Boston I decided I needed to do something different. So I met the Chairman of Deutsche Telekom who was a friend and he said, why don’t you come and do something for us. It wasn’t quite clear what I was going to do. So, here I was in Germany, I didn’t speak German. I started with the mobile data business and worked with them for about five years. Then I got tired of flying from London to Germany and back every week. I decided to start something again. So, here I was writing a business plan to start a mobile virtual network operator in the UK, France and Germany. And a friend of mine called me and said there was this guy interviewing people for this company called Google, which just went public.
So I ended up talking to this guy and we went to the Google office, which was about 80 people in the UK at that time. It was a small rented office. I had one conversation. The guy I talked to was my boss for five years and he is now sort of retired. He said, I have met 45 people and I would like you and one more person to come back and meet our founders. Sergey Brin and I met at the British Museum and that is where the interview happened, it is true.
Shekhar Gupta: And what is it that struck you about Page and Brin?
Nikesh Arora: They wrote this thing called the founders’ letter, which was written in a sort of way where it challenges tradition. There were things in it, such as, we don’t manage corporate earnings, we don’t have many stakeholders, our stakeholders are users, we will do no evil. And I actually believed it when I talked to them. I think they were 28 when I started working for them and I was 36 and for the first time in my life I was going to work for people who were going to be younger than me.
Shekhar Gupta: I think you said somewhere that what they liked about you was raw smarts.
Nikesh Arora: Yes, they enjoyed the conversation but that is not enough. They felt that to be hired at Google, you have to be liked by a lot more people than just the founders. So, I still had to go to California and meet about 18 people before they would decide whether they would hire me. At the end, the CEO puts his arm around me and says, Nikesh, I really enjoyed meeting you but you do realise that the first thing we want you to do is be head of sales, and you don’t have experience in that field except for one year in India. He said, the people we hire at Google are people who we believe can be sort of multi-faceted in life because we will change many times in the future as a company. So, if we hire very specific people who are fixated with one thing, then we run the risk that we will not be as nimble, as a company. And that thought stayed with me and it stays me with every time I hire. We don’t hire traditional people. We look for raw smarts because we believe it is a good thing. But then we look for passion too.
There are very simple ways of making sure you don’t get a negative. We do end up with false negatives, we end up rejecting somebody who might actually be very good, but we make sure that we don’t end up hiring somebody who is not good because a lot of people come to us. We can check grades, we can check schools, all those things that say you have a good pedigree, that you have done well in the community of smart people. But beyond that, there are two tests that you apply. One is what we call the airport test. I am stuck with this person at the airport, would I be happy spending three hours with this person? Would I be looking for the nearest way to escape? If you hire somebody whom you want to escape from, it is usually not a good idea.
The other one, which is more interesting, is passion. So one of the guys, for example, who works for me, won the Olympic Gold in figure skating. And he has got a regular MBA. So you say, why would we hire him? He must have learned in his life how to sacrifice a lot of other things to spend his entire life in figure skating. So this guy knows discipline, this guy knows perseverance, this guy knows how to win in some context. So, if he knows that, if he can bring those innate qualities to life in what we do, I am sure he’s going to help us. I got somebody who is a poet, I got somebody on the British rowing team, so all these people have done very different things in life. Actually, the most interesting person we hired was somebody who claimed she was the world knitting champion and she had A grades from a top university, but also a passion.
Shekhar Gupta: And then you make them Google people?
Nikesh Arora: No, they make Google. The culture of Google is actually made by the people who work there. We don’t have a bunch of rules that will say this is how you behave. People get together. We try and put as few constraints on them as possible. So, sometimes, we feel like we are living in managed chaos—sometimes it is managed and sometimes it is chaos.
Shekhar Gupta: Tell us about how you are dealing with the China challenge.
Nikesh Arora: We prefer not having to edit our service, we believe in the freedom of expression, we believe people have the right to access information, which is what I am very proud about. And from that perspective, we felt that we would rather not edit our services in China, so we decided to move our servers outside of China. We serve them from Hong Kong and the users have the right to access the information. If the government feels it wants to block access to certain information, it can do so.
Shekhar Gupta: You have worked in so many countries.
Nikesh Arora: Sixty, so far.
Shekhar Gupta: If we just look at the search pattern on Google, they are very similar across countries. They are not uniform but quite similar. You must have unique experiences or unique learnings from each country, but what does India teach you? Because India is so peculiar—I don’t think any other country has invented the missed call?
Nikesh Arora: I think the market here is still growing, so we don’t see the general characteristics of e-commerce that we see around the world. But we still see a thirst for information, we see a lot of search for entertainment and clearly, this market has more English searches than any other non-native English market.
Shekhar Gupta: We are probably the only democracy where a minister has lost his job because of Twitter. What does that tell you at Google?
Nikesh Arora: That means that the country believes in freedom of expression. There are instances where people have lost jobs because of YouTube. What people lose their jobs for is doing something they shouldn’t have done in the first place. I am not sure technology changes the game, all technology does is that it creates a more equal right to information. If you look at it historically, anywhere where people have had more information, the country has progressed.
Shekhar Gupta: And that has begun to happen in India now.
Nikesh Arora: It has. And the spread of information is going to create opportunity.
Shekhar Gupta: You are on Twitter and I notice you follow a lot of film stars—Abhishek Bachchan, Minisha Lamba, Lara Dutta. Are you interested in Bollywood?
Nikesh Arora: I am interested in the brand phenomenon. And I am trying to figure out how people use Twitter. So, I am following a set of people from every segment of society.
Shekhar Gupta: So, this is work too?
Nikesh Arora: No. I guess it’s a natural curiosity for technology. I have a story about Twitter. My father was visiting and I was trying to teach him how to use email. He was like, ‘I am tired, I can’t figure this out, I am okay with an SMS, I am okay with my phone.’ Then one day my daughter walked up to me and said, ‘Dad, my friends are using Twitter, can I use it?’ I said I don’t use Twitter and I don’t think you should be using it. It is a set of flashbacks—my dad can’t learn email, now am I turning into a person who’s going to start saying no to technology because I feel I have enough technology to contend with? That was the day I signed up for Twitter. And then I need to understand how people use Twitter.
Some of these guys are very good at it, they get tens of thousands of people following them and slowly they are using them to sell the movies they are acting in, journalists are using them to get opinions, people are using them to create excitement for their sports. It is being used as a way to get people more and more engaged with the brand. So it is a perfect case of brand engagement.
Shekhar Gupta: You stay engaged with India not just with your Google sales, but also as a board member in Bharti. And you are a cricket buff. You were at the IPL final. Do you see yourself doing more with India, as a Google person and as Nikesh Arora?
Nikesh Arora: I think I have got to a point where I love what I do, but I want to make sure that I give back, and clearly, India is there at the top of my list, right there with my family and everything else. I went to school here, I went to university here, I feel very passionately about India, what happens here and how I want to see more progress in the country. So, clearly, in whichever small way I can contribute, I will try.
Transcribed by Mehraj D. Lone
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Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005, UP