Bespectacled, 170cm tall and with tousled hair, a backpack over his shoulder, it is easy to look past Rohan Narayana Murty when he enters a room, or jogs by on the street.
Another scholar looking for the comfort of the nearest library, you might think. A quintessential nerd who glances at his watch ever so often as though to see how many steps he’s taken this day, and how many calories drained.
Looks do not always deceive. The 39-year-old Mr Murty, founder and chief technology officer of the artificial intelligence-based enterprise software firm Soroco, is all of that.
The first book he remembers reading was at age eight when his maternal uncle Shrinivas Kulkarni, the famed astrophysicist at California Institute of Technology, gave him a biography of the late Nobel-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Early in his life, he reportedly read 14 books on Byzantine history.
After the late Marvin Minsky, considered the father of artificial intelligence (AI), Mr Murty was only the second from the field of computer science to get elected to Harvard’s Society of Fellows – possibly his proudest achievement – rubbing shoulders at weekly dinners that began at 6pm and ended at 4am the next day with the likes of Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Wally Gilbert, and other luminaries such as the science historian Peter Galison. Harvard also was the university from which he received his PhD.
It also happens that his father is a living legend, NR Narayana Murthy, the founder of Indian IT bellwether Infosys, whose other child – Rohan’s older sister Akshata– is married to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The Bangalore-based Infosys, the first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq, has a market value of more than $100 billion – exceeding that of DBS Group – and the younger Mr Murty’s stake of about 1.7 per cent in the sprawling firm makes him a billionaire.
I asked Mr Murty, who spells his surname differently from his father, whether he felt pressured to be as successful as his parent.
“My PhD was earned,” he responded, alluding to the fact that his father’s various doctorates were bestowed by universities. “I come from a family which deeply values scholarship; my maternal uncle is Shrinivas Kulkarni and my father would have done a PhD himself if family circumstances had not forced him to seek work when his father died.”
The older Mr Murthy, who counts Mahatma Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew as his heroes, had enrolled in a PhD programme in Israel but then moved to Paris to work on the IT operating system of Charles De Gaulle airport’s cargo terminal.
Nerd as he might be, clearly Murty Junior wants to be more. He says he came to found his company, along with some Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon friends, through a series of fortuitous accidents. Although he loved teaching and research, he was always conscious that his audience would be very limited, while he wanted to express himself in a broader way.
The result was Soroco, which has an AI system that looks at how humans and machines interact, and then reverse engineers the underlying pattern of work. In short, moving office work to the realm of science and data.
“Of course, you can hire consultants to do the same thing but we have turned it into a data problem,” he says, speaking to me on the sidelines of the recent Forbes Global CEO conference in Singapore.
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