Walk the talk: Thomas P. Thomas, C.E.O, Zyxware Technologies

| | 26 min read

Mr.Thomas P. Thomas, CEO, Zyxware Technologies, is a man of strategy and vision, as is evident from his love for the game of cricket. Those who have been in meetings with him would have heard him talk very passionately about cricket. After Lakshya 2015, each team had meetings with him to further clarify on the presentations that had taken place. Our team had one too. After the meeting, we came up on the following conclusions:

  • Every employee must take the cause as his own to fulfil our vision of growing exponentially in the next 5 years.
  • What our people can do to achieve the organization’s vision.
  • Thomas P. Thomas is a huge cricket fan.
  • Why Rahul Dravid was called “The wall”.
  • Why Sachin Tendulkar doesn’t make a good captain.

The message was conveyed thoroughly, but it was explained to us in cricket metaphors and analogous to the strategy of a cricket game, which made it interesting unlike usual business and strategy meetings.

An above average student in school, Thomas admits that his prime source of joy during the time was the game of cricket. During those years, he was a part of his school and college cricket teams. He also took part in district leagues when he was in Kasargod. He was consistently selected into the school and college teams since the 7th grade. I’m sure that if Zyxware had a cricket team, our captain would be Thomas P. Thomas!

He completed his engineering from LBS College of Engineering, Kasargod with “supplis” which were cleared during the time he was preparing for CAT exam. Later, he scored around the 96th percentile in CAT and attended the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), which led him to the Social Initiatives Group of ICICI bank. He worked with ICICI Bank for around 4 years before joining Zyxware Technologies as CEO. In this interview, Thomas expresses his views on numerous topics, as varied as business and politics.

Why did you choose to be an Electronics and Communications Engineer? How did the transition to management happen after that?

I drifted into engineering, so I can’t say that it was a thought out choice. At some point, I did nurture the ambition of being a lawyer, but then I was particular that I would pursue that only if I got into NLS, Bangalore. That did not happen, so engineering it was. During the second year of engineering or so, I started getting restless; the way engineering was being taught, my own ability to relate to it and concerns about my future as an engineer. Whatever I had heard as an engineer’s career choices, didn’t seem very appealing to me.
Also, apart from my first year, every other semester I had at least one back paper (suppli) and I would clear that the next semester and so it was a vicious cycle. So, when I passed out of college I suddenly felt skill-less, my self confidence was a little shaken, I had no idea what to do in life and to top it off, I had one more paper to go!

Somewhere along the third year, I felt very strongly about the idea of working in the development sector. At that point the only organisation I knew was the United Nations and so I’d thought I’ll try to get into the United Nations. This made me realise that I needed some kind of a skill set and engineering was not going to get me there. This was not because engineering was irrelevant but because I was not a good engineer. This was when the idea of management had come to my mind and I started preparing for CAT because CAT, with all its might and glory, was the prestigious exam to be cleared for pursuing an MBA. I cleared CAT in about the 96th percentile while also clearing the remaining back paper.

A friend hearing my interest in working in development area, suggested that I consider IRMAA (Institute of Rural Management, Anand). I joined IRMA and I think those were the two best years of my life. It was fulfilling personally as well as professionally. Unlike engineering, I could connect with it instantly and it was a very happy experience for me. It was inspirational to just be there. On one hand you had the persona of Dr. Verghese Kurien, the father of white revolution and the founder of IRMA, the success and impact it had on Indian economy and the farmers in Gujarat and beyond, and on the other hand to hear a lot of stories and to be introduced to a lot of perspectives, for example, how do you look at business as an organisation; economic thought, issues of gender, social structures etc. All of that was a very happy experience for me.

How did the transition from ICICI to Zyxware happen? Are you happy with the transition? Was it a step down?

When it came to placements, my options were very clear. I had to join some kind of development organization. SIG, ICICI Bank was one of the preferred options and I was lucky to get in. The vision of Zyxware was always there. Even as I joined ICICI, I knew that Zyxware was always on the cards and I was always prepared for the transition.

There are differences obviously, between the two organizations. For instance, when I had called someone up for an interview and I say I’m calling from Zyxware, they don’t even recognize the name. They had applied and yet they had forgotten the name! (laughing) That was a bit of a shock to me, because earlier my visiting card could open a lot of doors and today nothing would happen! Then I realized that there the brand was built by someone else, and here I have the opportunity to build the brand myself. So that was the motivation at that point, but it wasn’t a step down, definitely not. I’m the C.E.O. of a company!

There are different aspects to it; On one hand I get to shape the agenda of an organization as I see fit and that is tremendous. I never had such an opportunity there. But on the financial security front, I was leaving something which was more secure and comfortable there. Also, because of the ICICI brand, I had access to a very interesting set of people in the academia, in the senior levels, in various private organizations and so on. All of them were suddenly shut! So, those kind of things I knew I will have to earn those things now.

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Do you ever see yourself leaving Zyxware?

Getting back into the development sector is always something I would want to do. But for now the commitment is to see through the Zyxware 5 year plan. The way I see it now and how I have communicated to Anoop is that once the five year plan is implemented, I would be looking at a PhD. There is something about using money intelligently for development issues and not just throw money at problems and hope that it will solve the problem. A PhD would help in building that ability further. There are limits to how much that can be acquired through pure experience. My plans after the Ph.D is undecided. I may come back for Zyxware Foundation.

As a C.E.O. what were the difficulties you faced? This is the first time you are in such a position. How did you handle the challenges? What were your contributions to Zyxware?

So, when I came in 2011, I only knew that C.E.O. was a pretty important position, in a business organization. And when I put in my papers at ICICI Foundation, I was not supposed to be the C.E.O. of Zyxware Technologies, I was supposed to be the C.O.O. of Zyxware Technologies, because that was what was discussed between Anoop and me. As a C.O.O. I would not be responsible for strategy, I would only be responsible for operations. So, the C.E.O. reports to the board and I report to the C.E.O. That was the initial plan. One of the reasons I was comfortable with that was because operations was a role I felt I could’ve managed; Getting things done. But the question of what was to be done, was the C.E.O.’s headache! At that time, Cherry G. Mathew was the C.E.O. and by the time I came here, Cherry had left and I was asked to fill his position. So that was a bit of a challenge for me, because I was coming from a career that had nothing to do with engineering or Information Technology.

So initially I was a little worried, whether I’d be able to fit in or manage such a role. At first I had to do a lot of administrative tasks, things that were not in place at that point in Zyxware; The PF registrations were not done, there wasn’t a good system for understanding whether people were performing or not, there was no explicit communication as to what was expected out of different roles and so on. In short, all of them were developers and expert developers. At that time, it wasn’t a model where scale could be achieved and I quickly realized that this wasn’t the way things should be run. There were 22 or so employees when I joined Zyxware and at that scale it was OK, but growing further did not seem feasible with that kind of a system. So I tried to put in place all these things; I got all the necessary registrations done, then I started thinking as to what kind of a workplace I want this to be and I had my own vision about that and so I put together the employee handbook. Initially I had conversations with some of the senior members of the organization as to what their experiences with Zyxware were and how they would take things forward and so on. So the first piece was to put things in place and since this is an IT company and the primary resource is people, it was pretty clear to me that building the culture in the organization was immediate issue. And so we decided to look at the HR piece, and lets look at how we’d go about building career ladders for people in the organization because these are things that employees want to know, as to where they would want to be one year down the line and what were they expecting so on. Now, I could not go about spending all my time on that and that’s when I decided to get an HR person on board the company and that is how I began. That was my first big decision as the C.E.O. of the company.

Talking about strategy, there was always an assurance at that time that it was being taken care of. Although I was responsible for the strategy, I was a bit diffident about the same because I was not a technology person, I knew nothing about technology and it was only in conversations with Anoop and Vimal was I able to understand technology better and realized that strategy had less to do with technology and there was something else involved here and then it occurred to me that I will have to combine with them to get the strategy right. So then I slowly began to take ownership of strategy inside the organization. The first couple of years, I didn't do anything formally, I just spent time understanding what was going on the IT industry, is it good to stick with just one technology, is this something which has a potential, what are the things other companies are doing and so on. Even then I was involved in a lot of conversations regarding the HR policies, slowly building a sales team (the first person to join was Govind), defining the sales process, accounting was another issue that I had to sort out because till the time i had joined, accounting was not really there. Anoop was more of a person for whom, if there was money in the bank account, we are doing well, if there isn’t we are not doing well! We still have miles to go in terms of finance but I think right now we have a pretty solid accounting system. Accounting is like checking the pulse of the company and finance is what we understand and decide based on the pulse rate. We will need to build our finance capabilities.

Now that we have the basic systems in place and a strategy that we are committed to, the next phase is about executing against that strategy. That I think is going to be a bigger challenge. We are already underway and it has been good so far. Looking forward to the days ahead.

“Zyxware Technologies was born out of a vision to contribute to the formation of a compassionate and just society”. Do you think such a vision is possible? Do you share this vision? In the current scenario, do you think we will ever be in a position to contribute to such a change?

I don’t see it being impossible, because there are too many models of that kind. You’d be blind to deny the existence of the TATA Trusts or The Ford foundation or The Rockefeller Foundation and so on.

All these foundations were built after their respective organizations were extremely wealthy. Do we have that kind of reserve?

Yes, that’s true. We don’t have that kind of reserve, but we can do what we can at this moment and grow to be in that league after which we can do what we want. I think it is possible for us to grow to the level of Infosys or TATAs and have a Zyxware Foundation.

Personally, I do have that ambition, I think I am a person whose vision is very much aligned with Zyxware’s. If you look at my background, that is the kind of role I would like to play, and that is the reason I worked with the ICICI Foundation as well. But it has to be a stagewise thing and I keep telling Anoop that what I am designed for as a person is for development sector. I do see the value in building the Zyxware brand before getting into those areas. Anyhow we need to know how to build an organization. If we can build this organization well, then we do have the skills and the credentials, to take up other challenges. That’s how I look at it. In the last 4 years we have tripled in size, I’m 32 now and by the time I’m 35 or 36, if we achieve the goal of 100 crore, then I think we can play a fairly catalytic role in this kind of social change initiatives.

When I was in ICICI Foundation, we had a very small budget of 10 crores a year, but even with this amount there was a lot we could do. We had to be very strategic about it, in terms of what kind of projects were to be done and so on. So, now I can say we did play a very important part in building the public sector education in Chhattisgarh. It’s something even the state acknowledges; ICICI Bank’s involvement in it. It was not done with big money, it was a well thought out strategy and of course the brand does help. But money per se does not solve any problems, it has to do be done intelligently, it has to be carefully designed. So, those abilities I think we need to build, and once that ability is built, then we’ll have enough surplus to make an impact.

Generally, do you think the employees are satisfied with the pay scale here? We have a very high attrition rate. Do you think this has anything to do with it?

We have attrition at different levels, in some designations we have a higher value. I think in the last 6 months, we haven't seen much of an attrition, the year before was fairly messy because that was a year we weren’t doing very well in the sales front as well. By June, the leads on the website started coming up and we were more financially stable then and we were able to give a fairly more significant increment to the employees. If we were to benchmarks ourselves with the industry standards, it is again difficult to do so, because the industry standard is quite vague. If you compare yourself with a fresher joining Infosys, then yes we do not give as high a package! But that will change and it should change. When people join Zyxware, we are able to give a 20 to 30 percent increment in most cases. That is against an ever increasing base line. That will continue to go up.

We are reasonably confident about the selection process and we make sure that people who join here are given the opportunity to rise up fairly high in the organization. We also make sure that there is equal professional development among the employees in Zyxware which is why we often provide leadership trainings and knowledge sharing sessions and so on. The people who leave here usually go as either the sole drupal developer in that company or as someone who can lead a team there which means the increment that they are going to get is dramatically high! That means that we are able to provide serious competency in Drupal and that is something we are doing well but we need to make sure that they can attain their professional and financial goals within Zyxware itself without having to leave.

To specifically answer your question, we are getting mixed reviews in terms with satisfaction with the pay. But the general consensus I think is that we are average. We are not too bad but not too good as well.

There were three complaints in general that were noted the last time we took a feedback from the employees:

  1. The salaries needed to improve
  2. The stress levels were high and
  3. We were becoming more and more strict.

On the positive side, they were happy with the training process and the opportunity to learn and interact with clients.

How good is the Zyxware brand? As the C.E.O, one of your core objectives is to enhance the reputation of the Zyxware brand. How is it going?

Brand establishes credibility and that's very important; be it for converting a sale or convincing a potential employee to join the company. Brand is something that we can build easily because we don't have to construct stories, the stories are all there. In 8 years we have done enough to convince people that this organization is interesting. I’m not saying that we are hugely influential, but that we have tried some interesting things in the past. It is something we can say with absolute conviction. But it is important to work on the presentation of it and also take it the people out there and that’s why I end up talking to Yaser and Team quite a bit. It is a part of the larger plan of 1000 employee, Rs.100 crore company, which is why we sponsored the Drupal south in Melbourne. I participated in the Drupal camp in Bombay, George visited the WAN-IFRA event in Delhi and we redid our website. It also had to reflect some of the new competencies we were adding like mobility and social. It is a kind of brand enhancement! There is a good story here, and people need to know about it!

On the note of branding, couldn’t we have done a better job with the Zyxware branded pens we were given? The general consensus was that it writes well, but looks bad!

Absolutely! What happened is, we did not anticipate the whole printing mess. Printing, now I know is a very complex process with a myriad of technologies for different surfaces, different apperances etc. Here in Trivandrum we could get pens only in the Rs.30 - 40 range. I knew a place in Thrissur where we could get it for much cheaper rate. So we decided to take the pens from there. But then when it came to choosing the printing technology, we got that piece wrong. Hence this mess.

Zyxware has unveiled its growth plan for the next 5 years. How realistic is this goal, or is the bar set high on purpose to achieve a certain level of growth?

The bar is not set too high. This has been done before and there are companies that have achieved a bigger growth in the same span. If you look at the Deloitte Fastest 50 number, the companies listed there have grown around 1000 % or so, which is unbelievably high. We are just aiming for a smaller 120 - 150 % growth. At our size that is eminently doable. In the last 8 years, we have built a lot of potential in the organization, and it should help us achieve this growth rate. We are also in a very favourable economy now; it can actually support the kind of growth that we are looking for.

There is this story of how chinese bamboo grows. It first spreads its roots deep and wide, and all the while the stem would not grow as much. But once the roots have attained growth, the stem or the bamboo would shoot up for an almost exponential growth. I think Zyxware has completed the first stage. Our foundation is strong and our roots have spread, from here forward it is the exponential growth stage.

What is your typical day like? What do you do on a weekend?

I come to office at around 10:00 AM in the morning and normally I leave between 9 and 10. The reason for these timings is because initially I used to work from the Marappalam office and there the timings were from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Even though now I’ve moved to the Sasthamangalam office, I stick to those timings. My typical weekday is just work, meetings and such. There is not much of a social life on weekdays. Once the day is over I just crash, but I do like eating out, I do like the sharjah shakes and fruit juices once a while. Lets say I had a rather horrible day, I go to CCD, sit there, and brood alone. (laughs) Sometimes I frequent the restaurants like Kalavara, Curry Chatty and so on. I go alone most of the time. A lot of people actually tell me thats a very unhealthy habit but I think food is good company for me! (laughs again) Once I went to Windsor Rajadhani for a buffet (I went alone as usual) and the next day I met Vasu, I told him this and he asked me “Have you gone mad!?”; I replied “No” and it’s good food, good ambience and I can sit down and think and reflect and just chill out generally. But once a while, I do go out with people as well.

On weekends, I go to church. That is the routine thing and I do have a set of friends who I meet often during weekends.

So, you are a religious person. Do you think religion is necessary? Or are you religious because you were brought up that way?

Its a question that I’ve been grappling with quite a bit. What does it mean to be religious is again the question. Do I take my religion seriously? Yes, I do. I am the praying kind, I do attend the church. Initially it was my mother who dragged me to the church, but then there was a long time when I hadn’t seen the inside of a church. Also during my engineering days, I rarely visited the church. I was kind of drifting out, but not because I had any faith issues but more because it was too much of an effort. Then in Pune I again started going to church because a couple of my friends actually encouraged me to get back to that habit. In fact, there was a group of colleagues who were strongly left of centre and was very hostile to the idea of religion and inherently I started feeling that either I reject what i've been brought up into or I need to know more about it, and then decide. So then I spent some time reading up on the bible, history, theology and some philosophy outside that of religion. From this reading I did understand quite a bit about the evolution of religion and history of christianity. So then it became more an informed choice.

On that note, is it because you were born into Christianity that you chose to learn more about it and stick with the principles of the religion? Is that the case with your political views as well? Are you a staunch supporter of the Indian National Congress because of the same reason? Shouldn’t such a decision be based on more logical or rational reasons? Specifically, you had said, “it wouldn't be the worst thing if Rahul Gandhi became the PM of India”. Could you please elaborate on this.

Yes, I do think socialization or my nurturing has been an influence on my political leanings or ideologies. But I dont think that is a bad thing. In fact, I feel quite happy about that influence in my life to the point where I consider it as a blessing. But as I said, I have a view on what the religion is both from its ardent supporters and its staunchest critics. And I have a point of view that I have formed and with which I look at things that happen around me in my life and also the world at large through the years. I am quite happy with what I see there.

Coming to the INC, it is a 120-year old organization and even if Rahul Gandhi becomes the PM of India, we have something called the parliamentary system, where who will be the PM is a decision that is the privilege of the elected majority. In that system, if the elected majority does decide on Rahul Gandhi as the PM, I would be perfectly alright with that. I have a bias towards the INC not to Rahul Gandhi. I respect the politics it has represented through these last 120 odd years and how it has built what we know as modern India, quite different from what existed prior to its existence. It would be unfair to attribute all the progress to INC. But it has been a major factor for sure.

On Rahul Gandhi, I’m not relying only on what we see in the public space, that which is presented as his statements and also views on him. The reason for that is because the way media presents him is not how I understood him from people who have met him. I have not met him in person, but what I gathered from two people who had interacted with him (a close friend and a former boss) is that he is quite a sensible man. They did not seem to think that he is dumb or anything like that. I am not making a claim on his leadership credentials as well here, but if he manages to get the support of the MPs, then I think he becoming the PM is not a terribly bad idea.

So are you happy with the way things are run by the current leadership, BJP?

I’m waiting! Narendra Modi inherited an India which was difficult to govern with all the corruption scandals and the government machinery reluctant to take any decisions on account of the fear of all the corruption allegations, but I do think Manmohan Singh had put in place quite a few things like the basic infrastructure, the legal frameworks. Narendran Modi has had the benefit of the global economy being fairly better in his time. Now he is doing a few things to improve matters. So he did a few things to fix that, like the “Make In India” campaign and that was a good idea. Now the question is whether he can get it done, is this the route to getting it done... if he is going to trample on the rights of farmers through his land acquisition bill, then I will have to take a call. But I think we need to wait. Reviving the economy is a quite slow process. It does not happen overnight. On the communal front, I am concerned, but not alarmed at this stage. But it is something that requires a vigilant watch. As they say, eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.

In an interview with Anoop, he had mentioned that he would not be found in a company where people are drinking or smoking. Are you such a company?

Oh, I would be seen in that company. I would be seen only in such a company! (laughs) But I don’t drink or smoke. If you take my entire life, I’ve probably had a few beers and maybe a vodka but nothing to qualify as drinker. It’s because I just didn’t get into that habit. My engineering college friends tried very hard but I would not do so because I thought it would affect my cricket. If you have to pick up such a habit, you have to do it when you are in an engineering college. If you don’t do it then, I don’t think it will happen at another phase in your life. People have asked me, how can I be a Malayali Christian and yet not drink.

On a much more personal note, now that Anoop is engaged, will there be pressure for you to get married as well? Why aren’t you not married yet?

The pressure is always there. (laughs) The reason I haven’t been married is that, I am still in the search. Its not that I haven’t been looking, I have been looking around through all sorts of mediums. I do have a matrimonial account, you can find me on m4marry.com (laughs). If and when it happens, it happens.

Would you ever consider an inter-religious marriage?

I have considered that and I don’t think it is going to be easy for me or for the other person. I take my religion fairly seriously and I have been at times very militant about it to my friends as well. Like I said earlier, I had this group of left of centre friends who always used to challenge me on this issue. So, once I asked them “Look, if you can marry an RSS person, then I can possibly look at an inter- religious marriage!“ Then they’ll say thats not a comparable situation. But if they are not willing to adjust to that kind of oppositional ideas why do they expect me to? Having said that, differences in ideologies or philosophies does not matter if you have the patience to work through them. I would want to be that patient. I would say it is unlikely that I will marry outside my religion. But it is not impossible.

You are obviously a person who reads a lot. So, is there anything you’d like everyone in the organization to read?

I don’t read as much as I want to. There is actually a funny story regarding what you just asked. There was a book that I wanted everyone to read and we used to give it to the employees after presenting at the lecture series. We had to discontinue it because there was a feedback to not impose things on people (laughs). The book was Gandhi’s autobiography and I wanted everyone to read it because it was something that was very influential in my life. The first time I read the book I was in 8th or something, when we had to learn excerpts from it in school, and by the time I completed 8th I had already read it a couple of times. Another book that strengthened the impact of this book was “Freedom at midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It contains very detailed descriptions of the events that happened in between 1946 and 1948. The way they treated Gandhi in the book and the other characters and how they responded to the situations; be it the partition issues, the formation of india or the partition of assets. Everything that I had read in Gandhi’s biography was described in detail and the impact it left on me was pretty huge.

When I informed one of my colleagues that I would be interviewing you, he replied quite whimsically, “I think you’ll have to attach it as a PDF!”. Obviously, he was implying that you are very voluble, and once you start talking, there’s no stopping you. What do you have to say about this?

I think that’s a habit that I need to control quite a bit and I think I’ve improved over the last few months or so, but I haven’t reached where I should. It’s something that I am aware of. if you ask me something I take 10 minutes to answer it. I think it is something I need to improve on.

I recently read this book “Beyond a boundary” by C.L.R James which was about technique and politics in cricket and was explaining to Abish and Vimal, that politics and technique are very correlated. Vimal latched on to the politics part and Abish was more interested in the technique part. Clearly both of them were not interested in everything I was saying but only part of it. So, I need to understand my audience and speak.

It was quite an incredible and informative chat with the C.E.O. He is quite a well read and intelligent man. My knowledge on various topics like politics, business, religion, entrepreneurship and so on have increased just by typing out this interview! After the interview was completed I was reassured about the future of Zyxware. He is a man with a plan and he confidently says that he will see it through! There is no doubt in my mind, that under his leadership Zyxware would grow to be a 1000 employee Rs.100 crore organization!