technology

Inside India’s Coder Boom

Code lead

Amid the deafening hype around billion-dollar tech startups, India is quietly counting down to a massive milestone: It will soon have more software programmers than any other country. Here’s why that’s not good news.

NASHIK, HOURS BEFORE SHAHI SNAN, the royal bath, an especially auspicious day at the Kumbh Mela. Ten million pilgrims are expected to turn up this year, 25 lakh of them for the holy dip. It’s an unfair burden for the bamboo barricades and police bandobast at one of the most hazardous mass gatherings anywhere in the world. More than 40 people died in fires and stampedes and close to three lakh went missing during the 2013 Allahabad Maha Kumbh. The Haridwar Kumbh of 2010 saw seven stampede deaths and two incidents of drowning. Nearly 40 died in the 2003 Kumbh, again in Nashik. Farther back, the 1954 Kumbh in Allahabad left close to a thousand dead by some estimates. None of this includes the toll taken by assorted infectious diseases at every edition.

A few kilometres from Nashik’s bathing ghats is City Centre Mall. A group of young people with backpacks is making its way to the grand ballroom on the mall’s top floor. Once inside, they take out laptops from their bags and fall into groups. They will spend the rest of the day writing code.

This is the mission command of Kumbhathon, a weeklong innovation camp run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in association with, among others, Nashik’s engineering colleges, a couple of IITs, the Maharashtra Police, and a bunch of companies including TCS, Google, and Xerox. Where most see chaos, Kumbhathon’s coders see data. The kind spewed by the behaviour of massive shifting crowds, or germs. The idea is to use the data to unravel urbanisation’s most complex  problems. The ultimate goal: “Build multimillion dollar companies” that will solve those problems, and “improve millions of lives”.

In one corner of the room is the team that built Epimetrics, an app that tracks fast-spreading diseases and predicts epidemics. It’s been only a few days since its launch, and the app has already helped the city administration prevent an outbreak of malaria.

Two tables away, the crowd steering team is monitoring heat maps lighting up a Google Maps feed. The maps show the real-time movement of crowds at the Kumbh, data for which is pulled from mobile phone towers in the area. The team passes the data through a visualisation algorithm that converts it into an easy-to-read spectrum from green to red, signifying ‘not crowded’ to ‘chock-a-block’. The police use it to control the flow of people and prevent overcrowding in any one place.

Ingenuity of this kind has its limits; crowd-control tools couldn’t stop the ghastly death of over a thousand during the Hajj last month. But in Nashik, Kumbhathon is helping host the safest Kumbh in years. No one has gone missing. Barring stray reports of drowning, no one has died.

BENGALURU, A SUNDAY MORNING IN EARLY FEBRUARY. Ola, India’s largest cab aggregator, is hosting a 24- hour hackathon in its office. Most of the 200-odd coders are twentysomething men, carrying laptops plastered with Game of Thrones, Incredible Hulk, and Green Lantern stickers. The night before there was unlimited free food and Red Bull, a DJ, even an impromptu birthday party. Now, with hours left, everyone’s manic. The best coders will land jobs in the company that’s said  to be worth $5 billion (Rs 31, 585 crore). There are also cash awards.

The brief: Build anything that improves user experience.

Non-coders will be thrown by the vagueness of “build anything”. But if you want to rev up coders, you could think of worse problem statements. Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at MIT Media Labs and one of the brains behind Kumbhathon, would tell you it doesn’t matter whether the task is to prevent stampedes or make cab rides safer, as the Ola hackathon winner set out to do. To code is to change the world. “The biggest cab company in the world doesn’t own cabs. The biggest media company doesn’t own media. People are going to schools without buildings, transacting without cash. Soon they will grow food without farms,” Raskar says. “All this amazing transformation is because of code.”

There’s a profusion of ways in which others have paid tribute to code. Here’s Steve Jobs: “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” Tech news portal ReadWrite calls coding “the core skill of the 21st century”. Don’t trust geeks? Take it from former British education secretary Michael Gove, who unleashed the biggest reform in the country’s education system last year by making coding lessons mandatory in schools for kids aged 5 upwards. “Teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word-process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence [is] about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin,” Gove reasons. “Our new curriculum teaches children how to code … not just how to work a computer, but … how to make it work for you.”

Silicon Valley prophet Marc Andreessen sums up the urgency: “Software is eating the world.”

It’s the kind of futurism that feeds the “coders love Star Trek” jokes. Shailesh Nalawadi, former project manager at Google Maps and Streetview and co-founder of Mavin, a company that wants to provide cheap Internet in developing countries, says that’s because Star Trek is coding utopia. “Spock is the prototypical engineer. In his world, you don’t fight for money. You explore for the sake of exploring.” The job and the cash are incidental. The true coder says, I got into this because I can build anything. “Larry [Page] and Sergei [Brin] always asked us to solve the 10X problem,” Nalawadi reminisces. “Don’t improve by 20% or 40%. Make it 10 times better.”

"I just wanted to be part of something that has purpose." - Shashank ND, co-founder and CEO, Practo

“I just wanted to be part of something that has purpose.” – Shashank ND, co-founder and CEO, Practo

You don’t have to begin with grand visions. Shashank N.D., whose love of code grew into the health-care startup Practo, says all he wanted was “to be part of something that has purpose. I thought it was ridiculous that I could order a pizza in 30 minutes but not monitor my health records online in that time. Someone had to build a smarter algorithm.”

Now that he has a business to run, Shashank misses coding. He stays in touch through hackathons, like the one Practo conducted in March. “Congratulations @RahoolGads on kicking ass at Practo Hackathon. A brilliant hack on the Practo Tab. Can’t wait [for] the next hackathon!!” he tweeted afterwards.

That’s not just nerdy excitement: Practo Tab—a device for doctors to manage patient data and spare patients the bother of filling lengthy forms—is one of Shashank’s big bets, the kind that has got investors queuing up for a piece of his seven-year-old company. In a recent funding round, a group led by Chinese behemoth Tencent pumped in $90 million. Ola, which has coded critical new passenger safety features into its app since the February hackathon, is reportedly raising $500 million.

THE DELUGE OF FUNDING FOR TECH STARTUPS may have lionised the coder at the heart of it, but not everyone is chuffed. Bhavin Turakhia, 35, learnt to code when he was 10 and was so good that his teachers were soon taking lessons from him. At 18, Turakhia started a web-hosting business with his brother, which grew into a conglomerate of 13 companies, “all profitable”—without raising a penny by way of funding. Last year, he sold three of the companies to a Nasdaq-listed firm for $160 million. And yet, chances are you’ve never heard of Turakhia or his company Directi in the noise around big bang deals.

So we expect him to be upset when we ask him about the zeitgeist in Indian tech. He is, but not why we thought. “It’s annoying and frustrating that China, Canada, even Poland, beats us year after year,” he says. The reference is to India’s plight in the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), the world’s oldest and toughest competition for coders. Indian coders have struggled to break into even the top 50.

Turakhia says coding is a life skill in a world where people communicate more with smart devices than with other people. Not everyone needs to be writing complicated algorithms. But if, as Michael Gove says, you want to make technology “work for you”, working knowledge of its lingua franca is a must.

“Millions of people are getting access to intelligent and completely programmable devices. If they learn how to maximise their potential, they can fundamentally transform the economy,” argues Turakhia. Going by the ICPC results though, revolution via coding is a far cry. “Nasscom keeps touting that India is a software powerhouse,” Turakhia says. “There’s no way that can be true if we can’t beat countries 1/20th our size.”

NASSCOM’S CHEST-THUMPING ISN’T BASELESS. India is producing coders like never before. In 2013, California-based market research firm Evans Data Corporation estimated that by 2018, the country will have 5.2 million coders—by far the highest in the world. Rishi Das, CEO of Bengaluru-based recruitment firm HirePro, says India’s population of software professionals has jumped fivefold in the past decade alone, driving a technology and services industry that is on track to hit $225 billion in revenues by 2020 and $350 billion by 2025, per a report by McKinsey and Nasscom. They also fuel the Prime Minister’s catchy marketing campaigns—Digital India and Startup India—which seemingly wowed Valley mavens during his recent tour.

But here are the other numbers you ought to know: Over 90% of Indian computer and IT engineers have poor domain knowledge, says talent development firm Aspiring Minds, meaning that they lack “the ability to apply basic principles of engineering to real-world problems”. Little wonder that not even 2% of the glut of Android apps built in India make it to the top 1,000 globally. That’s actually a benign problem compared with what recruiters have to face: a shocking 3% of India’s engineering graduates are employable (read: job-ready) in IT product roles, less than 8% are fit for design roles, and about 18% for IT services roles (see graphic).

To be sure, warning signs for the Indian software industry began with the slowdown in outsourcing, which can no longer absorb lakhs of coders in low-end testing and maintenance work, leading to oversupply.

"I just wanted to be part of something that has purpose." - Bhavin Turakhia, co-founder and CEO, Directi

“It is very annoying and frustrating that China, Canada, even Poland beats us year after year.” – Bhavin Turakhia, co-founder and CEO, Directi

The legendary cost arbitrage of the Indian coder is also on the wane. Compounding matters is the tidal shift that has IT firms everywhere scurrying: Legacy expenditures—think infrastructure, traditional application development, and packaged software—will see a 20% to 25% cut, as demand soars in newfangled areas like the Internet of Things, analytics, and cloud.

“The software market is becoming increasingly crowded as large, multiline firms transform their portfolios to focus more on solutions that have a direct business impact,” says C.P. Gurnani, vice chairman, Nasscom, and CEO and managing director of outsourcing major Tech Mahindra. The upshot: an urgent need to upskill 5 million-odd people.

Aruna Jayanthi, CEO of IT consultant Capgemini India, argues that in terms of pure programming skills, Indian coders are on a par with their global peers. But being competitive today is not only about writing code—“a programmer must be able to visualise how scalable the code is, and in what environments it can operate”. Truly good code is the result of holistic thinking, Jayanthi says. She finds support in American economist Tyler Cowen, whose book Average Is Over talks about the future of jobs. “Take Mark Zuckerberg who, of course, has been a great programmer,” says Cowen on learning portal 99u.com. “[But] there is much more to Facebook than that. It’s appealing, it gets people to come back, and he was a psychology major. It’s that integration that’s important.”

underengineered

India’s bias for rote learning and lack of application orientation leave little room for such thinking. “Even when we recruit engineers from the best colleges, it sometimes takes months of retraining before their skills are up to speed. That’s far too long,” says Chandan Chowdhury, former dean (academics) of the National Institute of Industrial Engineering and managing director of Dassault Systèmes India, a subsidiary of the French industrial behemoth. As a contrasting case, Chowdhury tells us the story of his daughter who went to Stanford for a computer science degree. “They were asked to learn a new language and deliver a project in a week,” he recounts. “It’s not about learning a specific language, which will anyway become obsolete. It’s all about learning how to learn.”

THERE’S A SENSE OF DÉJÀ VU in any story on India’s ramshackle skill situation. By the government’s own calculation, only 2% of the workforce goes through any kind of formal skills training. The rest turn to jugaad, the peculiar Indian skill of getting by. But the failure to gear up for a whole new world, ruled by specialised software that is expected to do dramatically new things, could be setting India up for its worst-ever skill disaster.

What’s scarier: The jingoism around our tech prowess—Indians head Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, after all—could be blinding us to it. The danger is more than just economic—it’s psychological. The narrative of post-globalisation India relied heavily on its rise as the world’s technology vendor. More recently, the country has been in the throes of an image makeover: a cornucopia of tech startups with Valley-esque aspirations. The degradation of programming skills blows holes in that image (and adds heft to what haters have been saying in anti-outsourcing forums).

It also signals a potentially huge missed opportunity: For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says there will be 1,240,600 programmer jobs by 2022, a 22% jump over 2012—double the growth rate of any other job. The uptake of programming as a career among Americans, on the other hand, is slowing. “The shortage of engineers is a global crisis, and India’s large engineering population could be a big hope,” says Naomi Climer, president of British industry body The Institution of Engineering and Technology, “provided there is committed focus on quality and professional standards.”

unskilled india

For the media, the quality of coders is far too abstract a subject compared with funding or valuation. But from time to time, the malady outs itself. In May, Snapdeal co-founder Rohit Bansal spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the company’s travails with local programming talent. Flipkart’s Sachin Bansal tore into him on Twitter: “Don’t blame India for your failure to hire great engineers.” The episode was a cue for the tech press to start a meaningful debate, but few went beyond bluster.

Meanwhile, at least one aspect of the market speaks to Rohit Bansal’s point: Salaries for employable coders have  gone through the roof. Peeyush Ranjan, Flipkart’s chief technology officer and head of engineering, gives it the usual “investment in talent” spin. Shashank of Practo acknowledges spiralling wages but says it is only fair. “Coders have been underappreciated. If you are writing products that can change the world, you better be paid for it.” Even legacy companies not known to be generous paymasters have had to increase pay for freshers, and keeping up is becoming onerous if you don’t have access to big money, says a Bengaluru-based early-stage entrepreneur.

Britain introduced coding to kids who can barely spell, partly as a response to tech firms spooked by the talent crunch. We ask Geoff Smith, head teacher of Kehelland Village School in Cornwall, what schools are making of it. There are big challenges, Smith says. The curriculum isn’t based on the latest industry practices, teachers are at sea, and infrastructure is a concern. But the policy “will hopefully leave children with skills that will be valued in the industry. Children also seem to take pride in the coding projects they have completed,” Smith adds. Codecademy, an American startup that is helping British schools build capacity, calls it a visionary move. “Change can be frightening,” the company’s 25-year-old CEO Zach Sims tells us over Skype. “But if you think of coding as the backbone of the modern economy, the return on investment is huge. Even if all those kids don’t become programmers, problem solving through coding can make them better at whatever they choose.”

In India’s schools, computers occupy a limbo. “Most parents are fixated with making their children software engineers. We are forever talking about software being the future. But our education boards relegate computers to just another elective,” says Arghya Banerjee, an IIT-Kharagpur and IIM-Ahmedabad graduate who founded The Levelfield School under the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in Suri, a tier III town in West Bengal. Data from code-learning and competition platform HackerRank shows that a little over 20% of CBSE students at the Class 12 level opt for either of the two electives, Computer Science or Informatics Practices, with an overwhelming absence of non-science students. (In a rare piece of good news for diversity votaries, the number of Indian women enrolling for computer science courses at the college level has been inching up, but that’s the subject for another story.)

“Programming is a fundamental skill and you have to start in school.” – S Ramadorai, chairman, National Skill Development Corporation and National Skill Development Agency

The lack of preparation hurts industry. “We recruit people from different streams, not just computer science, and sometimes we find that the fundamentals are not very strong with people from these other streams,” says Jayanthi of Capgemini India. Compulsory computer lessons at the primary level, before a kid is pigeonholed in ‘science’, ‘commerce’, or ‘humanities’ silos, is one way to correct this, but that isn’t even a conversation. To break free, Banerjee’s school, which has won awards for its focus on skill building, is thinking of dumping CBSE and enlisting under an international board.

MATCHING STEP WITH technological disruption is a hairy problem for most governments. India has the right person for the job: The guardian bodies for skill development in the country—the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA)—are chaired by S. Ramadorai, former CEO of TCS, India’s No. 1 software firm. “Programming is a fundamental skill for everything from industrial prototypes to cybersecurity, and you have to start in school,” Ramadorai agrees. “But we can’t copy-paste solutions from elsewhere without ensuring critical infrastructure like broadband.”

The hope is that kids will train themselves once they are given the infrastructure. “These days there are so many online tutors. Not all learning needs a classroom,” Ramadorai says. What about making programming a part of the skill development framework, often accused of being stuck with old-world technical skills? “In all honesty, things are still in the early awareness stage,” he says.

NSDC’s managing director and CEO Dilip Chenoy says programming is only one piece of the puzzle. “More critically, we need to train people on using what the programmers build, from smart grids to smart homes to smart cars.” That also means upskilling vast numbers of professionals—electricians, plumbers, mechanics—who were the product of a blue-collared paradigm of skilling and may find themselves left out in the cold.

The private sector is getting a move on. Turakhia, for instance, funds CodeChef, which he claims is India’s largest code contest website. In five years, CodeChef has signed up over 2 lakh users who have submitted 6.5 million solutions to all sorts of challenges. Now Turakhia wants to make CodeChef part of the curriculum in colleges. The plan is to run a year-round skill assessment programme in the college and score students at the end of the year. The college can convert that score into credits. “We tell them that students with better algorithmic skills end up earning four to five times more than the rest. The good news is, anyone can get better at it, just like languages or math. Colleges have been very receptive,” he says.

Then days before we went to press, American online education company Udacity, founded by Stanford professor and the inventor of the autonomous car, Sebastian Thrun, announced that it will bring its Nanodegree courses in Android development to India in partnership with Google and Tata Trust. This is Udacity’s first overseas venture. What will help such programmes gain momentum among people from all backgrounds is programming itself getting less geeky. “The last few languages that have been launched read like English,” points out Harishankaran K, co-founder of HackerRank.

HackerRank also represents the growing breed of coder-discovery platforms that help companies locate talent. The premise: Many coders are self-starters who may not be found through traditional recruitment channels. “Also, pen-and-paper tests don’t work here”, says Hari. “A resume can only state that this person knows Java, it doesn’t tell you how good and clean the code is.” HackerRank has placed coders in companies like Facebook and Palantir and raised some $20 million for its troubles.

BUT WHAT IF THE FUSS AROUND CODERS in idealistic startups is just selection bias? Where’s code in our primordial industries, we ask Chowdhury of Dassault. Couple of months ago, Chowdhury had visited the Fortune India office to showcase Dassault’s 3D technologies. The pièce de résistance was the Living Heart, a giant 3D simulation of the human heart. Doctors can walk inside it, study and predict problems, and prescribe personalised treatments. Dassault says this kind of computational modelling is the future of medicine and the end of luck and intuition. Now, Chowdhury tells us about a different world where luck and intuition loom large: mines.

Most mine owners are clueless about the capacity of their mines or the quality of their reserves, because mines, typically located in remote areas, offer terrible visibility, Chowdhury says. “Worse, many miners don’t know the boundaries underground and get into trouble for encroachment.” That’s when they get caught. When they don’t, it costs the country thousands of crores. Ask the Shah Commission, which is investigating rampant illegal mining across states.

In spite of the mess, which has led to the industry being portrayed as “lawless” and “out of control”, mine owners have had it good. Labour is dirt cheap. Prices were on steroids. “Most of them would be happy to spend millions on earth-moving machines rather than efficiency-enhancing software,” says Chowdhury. But then came the crash in prices and the slowdown in China. Suddenly, everyone is chasing efficiency. Dassault has just the thing: 3D, of course.

“Someday our programmers will model the planet.” – Chandan Chowdhury, MD, Dassault Systemes India

“Imagine if you could make a mine completely transparent. You could see exactly how much coal you have, and of what quality. You could predict safety issues—before you build the mine. You could avoid breaking laws. Imagine how that could transform the industry.” The pitch is working. The who’s who of the trade, from Tata Steel, NTPC, and Reliance, to Lafarge, ACC, and UltraTech, are clients of Dassault’s mining software, Surpac for iron ore and Minex for coal. The company’s Indian R&D team, which forms the majority of its 2,000 employees here, plays a key role in such projects, cutting through one of our last dark industries. “Modelling mines is the start. Someday our programmers will model the planet,” Chowdhury tells us. “Imagine that.

(First published in the October 2015 issue of Fortune India; co-authored with Nirmal John; illustrations by Nilanjan Das; graphic source: Government of India, Aspiring Minds)

Brilliant Ideas Are Not Enough

Debjani Ghosh, vice president, sales and marketing group, and managing director, South Asia, Intel, reflects on the zeitgeist in Indian tech. 

Debjani

Debjani Ghosh says coming back to India in 2012 unsettled her, since she had just built Intel’s Southeast Asia operations into one of the company’s best-performing assets. “We were having a magical time,” she says. “So I asked my bosses, why India?”

Three years on, Ghosh has established herself as one of India’s most committed technology evangelists, championing programmes like the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM), and now, Innovate for Digital India, to build awareness of technology and its applications ground up. Last month, she was named the first woman president of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology, the apex body for hardware, training, R&D, hardware design, and other associated service segments of the Indian IT industry. Along the way, she has found powerful allies in the government as well as the private sector, which she says is the only way to scale any change initiative in India. “I also had to convince the Intel HQ that they cannot tie us down to quarterly sales targets,” she says. “I cannot project return on investment for market-creation programmes because there are no tangible metrics available.”

What then does she make of India’s frenetic tech startups, which also insist on freedom from RoI, albeit for very different reasons? She spoke to me on this, Intel’s ground-up innovation push, and the value of partnership-driven problem-solving. Edited excerpts:

“In India, we have had a history of sitting back and commenting on whatever is wrong, and placing the onus of change on someone else. But the country is really changing. What our ongoing Innovate for Digital India challenge has shown us is that people have the confidence to speak up and share ideas; they are not worried whether the ideas are good or bad.

The first phase of the challenge, which invited innovators to submit ideas that address ground-level problems, has been fantastic. We got 1,900 submissions; our goal was 1,000. We were pleasantly surprised that the participants did not come from any one predominant group. It’s a healthy mix, though we are yet to crunch all the data. All our partners, from MyGov.in to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), have played a stellar role in spreading awareness about the challenge. Now comes the difficult part: selecting the top 50 ideas. The Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at IIM Ahmedabad is working on that. Following that, the participants will go through an elaborate pitching process, where they will present their ideas to an expert panel. The top 20 from there will go through a three-month mentorship programme in Pune.

I am excited that many of the best ideas are targeted at people who do not speak English, and maybe aren’t even literate. If we can pull it off, these ideas can make a big difference. Most innovation challenges in India end with identifying great ideas. They don’t take the ideas right up to the product stage. We are looking at not just how good an idea is but how solid the productisation plan is. We will make sure that the products are tested and are market-ready before we announce them to the world.

We have taken a lot of learnings from NDLM. From a technology-adoption perspective, India has been a laggard compared to even Indonesia or Vietnam. My bosses told me, “go and figure out why”. One of the things that stood out to me was that if you move out of cities like Delhi and Mumbai, the use of technology becomes more and more superficial. Forget computers, that’s the case even with phones, which everyone in India is so crazy about. If I ask a lady in Indore what she uses her phone for, the maximum she might talk about is watching cooking videos on YouTube. Even the teenagers are restricted mostly to Facebook and WhatsApp. Everyone says IT will transform education and healthcare. But how many people are really using IT for all that? If I am a lower-middle class family, is there a compelling enough case for me to spend money on technology beyond such superficial use? The answer is a big ‘No’.

NDLM’s goal was to create awareness about [what technology can do for you]. The biggest learning was, forget sales, this is about market creation. It is not about brand building and marketing, because then you would want to do it alone. And alone you cannot even begin to make a dent.

That’s why with NDLM, we didn’t even use the Intel name. It was a painful decision, because the company was spending a lot of money on the programme. But I managed to convince my bosses. I also told them that we cannot predict RoI for such programmes, because there’s no existing data to prove it will work. It’s all in good faith. In hindsight, it was the right approach to take. The government took it up in a big way because it didn’t threaten anyone.

It also helped us win the trust of industry partners. For the innovation challenge, for instance, we have partners like TCS, Capgemini, Lenovo, and Micromax. These are all innovation leaders in their respective industries. Top leaders from these companies have committed their personal time to mentor our participants.

A second, and related, learning was the importance of choosing the right partners. The government is the best example. A lot of people say public-private partnerships don’t work in India, but we have had a mostly positive experience. There’s no way to scale in India without involving the government. The challenge is to find the right departments to partner. For instance, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is chartered with innovation. It has great industry partnership models and is a very professional outfit.

[People also say decisions in this government are all driven from the top,] but I think the bureaucrats, at least in DST and DeitY, are quite empowered. They are equipped to react quickly to  new ideas. Innovate for Digital India was a new idea, and DeitY already had its set priorities. But it agreed to come on board and was ready [with the rollout plan] pretty much at the same time as us. DeitY secretary R.S. Sharma has been working on projects like this since his Aadhaar days. Gaurav Dwivedi, the CEO of MyGov, is another extremely tech-savvy leader. I don’t see these people saying no to a good idea.

Yes, the vision is set at the top, but that’s how it is in any corporate setup as well. And you need that: The kind of stature the Prime Minister has, he is the only one who can articulate big goals like ‘Digital India’. Having set the goals he also has to keep talking about them, become its biggest champion. And credit to him, he has been doing that.

There is a lot of buzz about technology in India these days, which is great to see. If you wait for things to happen sequentially, nothing will ever take off. You have to take a leap of faith. But you need to follow certain foundation-building processes. You need to have standards, security, interoperability. This is the conversation I have the most with the government: You have built tonnes of platforms, what if they don’t talk to each other? It’ll be a nightmare. I think the government gets it. The Prime Minister also spoke about these challenges in his Digital India inauguration speech.

An exciting development is, of course, the rise of so many tech startups. But today too many people seem to be talking only about “brilliant ideas”. No one seems to care whether these ideas will ever give returns. It’s all about pushing that next app out into the market. That’s a scary model. I get that this kind of push was needed to stimulate startup growth, but it looks like that stimulus has been going on for far too long. Investment discipline must come back to India.

For companies like us, the challenge is to resist the temptation to do everything, since these days every company is in every business. India is like a toy shop, it is actually some 30 different countries. How do you prioritise where you want to play? That’s going to be one of the toughest questions.”

(Photograph by Bandeep Singh; first published in the August 2015 issue of Fortune India)

Bhavish Aggarwal Learns to Fly

He is hard at work pushing Ola, India’s third most valuable tech startup, beyond its flagship cab business. If he succeeds, he could end up creating India’s first mobile conglomerate. If not, this could be a cautionary tale for our gung-ho startups.

Bhavish

“That was just too damn hard!” says Bhavish Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO of Ola, India’s largest cab aggregator. He isn’t talking about Ola’s angel funding round—Rs 1 crore in 2011—though he concedes that’s right up there as hard things go. He has since tackled a few chunkier ones: for starters, jetting around to raise another $675 million (Rs 4,264 crore)—$610 million of it between September 2014 and March 2015—pushing Ola into the rarefied world of billion-dollar startups built out of India. Along the way, there’s been the battle with Uber, the world’s most valuable startup and the Big Daddy of cab gigs; testy civic administrators suspicious of the idea of cabs on tap; the  tense $200 million buyout of the No. 2 aggregator TaxiForSure (TFS); a recent allegation of obscenity against a TFS driver in Delhi; and, for good measure, a messy legal tangle containing the threat of a ban.

No, the memory that brings a grimace to Aggarwal’s face is from 2007, long before any of this. That’s when he and Ankit Bhati, just students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, set out on a bicycle tour from their campus in Powai to hilly Ratnagiri in coastal Maharashtra—a good 335 km away. They planned the trip with a rigour only geeks are capable of, trained for weeks. And around Diwali, they hit the road.

The two lads were not even 25, and hadn’t yet dreamt of starting up together one day. Bhati, who is from Jodhpur, studied mechanical engineering and is now chief technology officer at Ola. Aggarwal spent his early years in Afghanistan and Britain—his parents are doctors who were based in the two countries—did his schooling in Ludhiana third standard onwards, and came to IIT to study computer science. They met on day one, shared a mentor, teamed up at tech fests, and worked on freelance coding projects to earn some money. But both think back to that cycling tour as pivotal to where they are.

On the first day of the tour, they crossed Alibaug, 100 km away. Then, they touched Kashid, another 30 km away along the North Konkan coast, and Murud-Janjira in Raigad district, shaving off nearly half the target distance. And then they stopped. “We just came back,” says Aggarwal. A day later, they were on a bus back instead of their bicycles, “but we never tell anyone that”, says Bhati, laughing.

The episode is a reminder for the two: Turning back isn’t an option this time. Not after ‘Ola’ became a byword for urban transportation in India; opened up a whole new world of choice in one-horse towns like Bokaro and Dindigul; built a team of over 6,000; and rose to be the country’s most valued tech startup after Flipkart and Snapdeal—all in the space of five years.

Much of this can be credited to Aggarwal’s product nous and, more important, his instinct for scale. Ask startup watchers anywhere in India to name the digital entrepreneurs they think will remain standing amid the inevitable detritus of also-rans. The first two names are easy: Sachin Bansal, Kunal Bahl. Aggarwal, who is 30 this month, is firmly nudging that list.

Shradha Sharma, founder of the startup news platform YourStory and one of the most sought-after mentors in Bengaluru’s startup circuit, has known Aggarwal from the time he was just another zealous product guy pitching his idea. “He would stand in my office all day, showing the early version of the Ola app to anyone who cared,” she says. “He chose a business that is not for the fainthearted, and never gives in to pressure. I’d say he is among the five most driven entrepreneurs in India, any day.”

Sharma says Aggarwal’s standout qualities are “ambition, aggression, and focus”. Investors love those traits. Startup scouts from Tokyo-based SoftBank and New York-based Tiger Global have locked horns in hot sectors like e-retail (Flipkart vs. Snapdeal) and online house search (CommonFloor vs. Housing). But they seem happily agreed on Ola, and are investors
in the company. (They are also co-investors in Kuaidi Dache, a leading Chinese cab aggregator.) In May, Ola also became a part of Ratan Tata’s Internet investments, joining the likes of Snapdeal, Chinese mobile sensation Xiaomi, and payments leader Paytm.

So far, Ola is repaying the love in spades, if you believe a SoftBank earnings report. It says Ola’s share “based on available or estimated data of registered vehicles” is 80%, with Uber’s a paltry 4%. (The report also says radio taxi pioneer Meru Cabs holds 12%, but most think it will be a sideshow in the war between Ola and Uber.)

You could, of course, argue that every such estimate comes with an equally imposing counter. For instance, to Ola’s claim that it does 750,000 rides a day, Uber says it is set to hit a million rides in the next six to nine months. (Ola’s view of Uber, those latest funders include India’s Times Internet, is standard: “India is a very different market and a templated approach won’t work here, be it in transportation or anything else to do with logistics.”) Then again, you could point out that “rides” is a rather vague proxy for a company’s real health to begin with. A bit like the opaque “gross merchandise value” quoted by e-retailers, which has raised a lot of eyebrows recently.

However, on this there is no debate: With a network of over 200,000 cabs in 100-plus cities, Ola has a handy lead in the cab aggregation business. If all Aggarwal wants to do here on is build a cab empire for the ages, he has to put his head down, keep doing whatever he has done to get here, do it better, and pray—SoftBank’s hulking claims notwithstanding—that he can keep Uber at bay. The big assumption, as it is with all tech startups, is that at some stage his company will actually start making money.

But that’s not Aggarwal’s style. “Bhavish is pure aggression,” says Bhati, echoing an increasingly common description of his cofounder. “He is always dreaming of where next Ola can be, and how fast we can get there. He is impatient at all the right times.”

Ola turns five in September. In startup years that’s plenty old, and sure enough, Aggarwal is getting impatient. His next mission: swiftly launch a series of new businesses, each piggybacking on Ola’s well-oiled technology platform. Think of a consumer goods giant, say ITC, which uses the distribution muscle of its cigarettes business to push soaps and biscuits.

If the plan works, Ola could metamorphose into India’s first mobile conglomerate; in fact, it has quietly dropped “Cabs” from its name. But if it backfires, it will be a cautionary tale for India’s bullish venture-backed private companies, accused by naysayers of chasing high valuations rather than building solid businesses.

The first push beyond cabs came in March, with Ola Café, a food delivery service. (Uber started testing a similar service, UberEats, in the U.S., Canada, and Spain last year.) This is a massive market, estimated at $15 billion, featuring cash-rich players like Foodpanda, TinyOwl, and Zomato. Ola is partnering 100 restaurants across some 30 localities in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, and Hyderabad, and to differentiate itself, it will only offer a restaurant’s most popular dish, say Spaghetti Kitchen’s chicken penne pasta. At any given time, the menu will have five items, each sourced from a different restaurant, and the options will change every 20 minutes between 12 noon and 10.30 p.m. Ola will charge a commission for every order.

In early June came the second launch: Ola Store, a grocery delivery app covering 16,000 stock keeping units, in partnership with local kirana stores and chains like Namdhari’s Fresh. (Again, Uber started Uber Essentials in the U.S. for essential household supplies last year.) This is another sizzling market, slated to be worth $5 billion by 2030, and Ola’s competition include early mover BigBasket, newbies like Grofers and PepperTap, and, slowly, Amazon. Ola is training
drivers and delivery boys for these two businesses, although the exact modalities are still on the drawing board.

Then in July, reports surfaced about a shuttle bus service that would aggregate tourist and chartered buses. There was also chatter that the company is considering carpooling, logistics, and e-commerce, but it denies anything concrete in these areas.

Finally there’s Ola Money—a closed mobile wallet that accounts for bill payments for 40% of all Ola rides, and counts Sachin Bansal among its fans—which can potentially become a full-fledged payment platform underpinning all the different ventures.

Things are still very fuzzy, and it is hazardous to guess how any of these will pan out, but an early pattern is emerging: while Ola Café is just another button in the main Ola app, Ola Store, which has the potential to morph into a full-fledged e-retail platform, gets a separate app and logo. The company says that the new businesses will have separate operations, but the technology platform will remain centralised.

On the face of it, Ola has no choice but to offer more services and increase wallet share, given the small pool of Internet users in India who spend money online: a mere 39 million out of the total Internet user population of 300 million, according to Barclays Equity Research. No one will discuss this on record, but an investor tells Fortune India that while Flipkart may have 84 million web visitors, “I go with the 50 million to 60 million range, assuming not all visits are unique.” A serial entrepreneur adds that while many buyers are lured by heavy discounts, “conversion for convenience”—the holy grail for consumer Internet companies—“is still negligible in India”.

In the cab business in particular, breakout growth is almost impossible: Goldman Sachs says India’s car rental market will reach $1.4 billion by 2030, a pittance compared with $16 billion for air bookings and $18.6 billion for railway bookings. Even if you believe that the market estimate is conservative, the ticket size of a cab ride is obviously the lowest across these categories. Ergo, Ola, with a valuation of $2.5 billion, cannot be content with just cabs.

While the revenue from new launches will be incremental, there’s a far more urgent reason for Ola to do more: keeping drivers happy. Till now, the battle to acquire drivers between Ola and Uber has been all about throwing more and more incentives. (Ola acquired TFS as a hedge.) At the peak of competition last September, incentives were rampant: Uber $10 a ride, Ola $7 a ride, and TFS $2.5 a ride. But as the party winds down—fleet operators in Bengaluru and Delhi say Ola is discontinuing or cutting incentives while Uber isn’t—the only way to hold on to drivers is to help them get more trips and reduce idle time. “For us, it is a great way to solve utilisation,” says Pranay Jivrajka, chief operating office and senior vice president of operations at Ola.

Aggarwal says Ola is in a “network-effects” business. The more customers it signs up, the more it can reduce fares, in turn bringing in more customers. But without loyal and engaged drivers, this virtuous cycle, and indeed Ola’s ambitious expansion plans, will come to nought.

Not everyone is convinced that the time is right. Rishikesha Krishnan, professor of strategy and director at Indian Institute of Management, Indore, says investors in Silicon Valley still reward focus on the principal idea. “It will be interesting to see whether the thinking among investors is changing in India.” There’s also the view that if Ola’s strategy is to outmanoeuvre Uber by spreading out wide, it’s not a particularly wise one. “It is better for a well-capitalised company to build dominance in its core business first,” says a consultant with a leading global advisory, especially if it has Uber as competition”.

But Aggarwal says he was clear from the very beginning that Ola’s core business is not cabs: It is mobility. “We didn’t see this as a taxi business at all,” he explains. “We started with the idea of a customer who thinks ‘I will never buy a car.’ What do we need to build for someone like that? We need cars to be made available in 5-10 minutes.” Now that Ola has ticked that box, he says it can become “the largest company in the business of on-demand consumption”—or instant gratification. “People want their food delivered in half an hour—can we give it to them in 15 minutes?” Aggarwal’s benchmark is Domino’s Pizza. “They have solved hunger [through fast, hyperlocal delivery],” he says. “That’s why they are the country’s No. 1 food-tech company.”

Aggarwal’s choice of food and grocery delivery is a no-brainer; both are large markets built around the idea of transport. He has also experimented with movie tickets, IPL tickets, and Diwali gift deliveries. But it’s an experiment days before we went to press that offers a sharper clue into just how wide he is planning to fan out: From 11 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. on a Sunday, Ola ran a first-of-its-kind fashion-delivery tie-up with Myntra, allowing users in five cities to book a makeover by a personal stylist through the Ola app.

The big opportunity is to replicate that template and become a last-mile partner to all kinds of services, such as in-home medical care, a booming market that can reach $15 billion in India by some estimates. Or hyper-local home services, a sector that caught fire last year with over 70 startups opening shop, per research portal Traxcn.

Many like Raja Hussain, the ex-Silicon Valley co-founder of Chennai-based mobile app marketing startup Airloyal, see a clear imprint of Valley-style aggression in Ola’s moves. “You want to send out a strong signal to the market, and then focus your best resources to grow your user base,” he says.

Raghunandan G., who sold TFS to Ola, echoes that. “If you try to sell a standalone service in India, it takes time to generate volumes,” he says. “But imagine all the services you can get into once you have a captive audience. Merchants will work with anyone who gives them reach.” Equally, entrepreneurs like Bansal, Bahl, and Aggarwal want to be ready before a disruptive force like 4G opens up all kinds of markets. Being unprepared is not an option in the face of competition from Amazon or Uber, known for conquering new markets at lightning speed.

Affinity for speed is the reason why sectors like online retail, search, community content, and messaging have been the dominant investment themes in the U.S. and China, with transport and payment rapidly emerging in recent quarters, says a Bengaluru-based venture capital investor. “The valuation frenzy in India is driven by the race to find the four or five leaders in each of these themes,” he adds. So  while Amazon and Flipkart battle it out in e-commerce, Paytm tops payment, and Ola is seen as the leader in transport.

Ola’s grip over mobile gives it a big edge in this race. Aggarwal and Bhati sniffed the opportunity early, in 2011, when they built a mobile website over a weekend to see if users would book taxis on the phone. The response was encouraging, and in July 2011, it was ready with a consumer app, which it branded aggressively. In contrast, Flipkart was busy building its marketplace model; it started focussing on mobile only in the latter half of 2013.

The early start means Ola is one of India’s few high-scale mobile Internet businesses, a list that includes Zomato and entertainment ticketing company BookMyShow. It claims that 99% of its bookings now come from the mobile app, and it will accept bookings only on the app from September. That’s a vital step in a country where mobile Internet users account for 65% of the online population, against 30% in China and 22% in the U.S.

Ankit Bhati, Ola’s CTO, says the inherent value of Ola’s platform is that it supports experimentation.

The mobile bet will yield bigger returns as and when Ola expands its fleet in the non-metro hinterlands. Currently, such regions account for only 10% of its cabs. But with mobile commerce expected to be a $19 billion bounty by 2019 according to market research firm Zinnov, predicated on a consumption boom in tier II and tier III towns, that number might change.

Phanindra Sama, who founded India’s first online ticketing company redBus in the presmartphone era, says mobile is also a game changer in managing productivity. “We had to hire a 20-member team to convince bus operators to come to our platform. There was an elaborate backend to deal with customers.” But with smartphones, inventory procurement and customer care can happen with much less resources, and in real time. Sama adds that Ola can launch multiple services because “it has the distribution”—and the routing algorithms—to predict and optimise the use of its cabs.

If Ola can master this model, it would have created a whole new kind of company. Think of it as a conglomerate tailored for the burgeoning on-demand economy, which can rapidly expand into scalable businesses off an agile technology platform. The inherent value of Ola is that platform,” says Bhati. “If it cannot support experimentation, then it’s not much of a platform.”

A caveat is necessary here. A classic conglomerate is often made up of businesses that are unrelated but feed off the parent brand. Take TCS, Tata Chemicals, Tata Motors, and the Indian Hotels Company, which are part of the Tata group and took decades to build. “In the digital world, Amazon is a great example,” says Krishnan of IIM Indore. It started with
e-retail and moved into videos (Amazon Prime), devices (Kindle, Fire), and cloud computing (Amazon Web Services). Seen through this lens, Ola would appear to be merely diversifying, that is, extending into related businesses.

But Krishnan points out that this homogeneity is true of even a pioneering, listed Internet business like Info Edge (flagship: Naukri.com launched in 1997), which is recognised as a bona fide conglomerate with interests in education (Shiksha.com), executive search (QuadrangleSearch.com), matrimony (Jeevansathi.com), and real estate (99acres.com). Most of these businesses were built on the same core domain: classified ads. This holds good for other early starters, including People Group (shaadi.com), which built real estate portal Makaan.com (sold to PropTiger), and Consim (BharatMatrimony.com), which started IndiaProperty (hived off as a separate business in which founder Murugavel Janakiraman has a small stake). Krishnan says this is where Internet companies are different from, say, the Tatas, and closer to ITC’s model of building a conglomerate of contiguous businesses.

There’s another, unobvious parallel rooted in history. Many of India’s bellwether conglomerates were born as the only way to outgrow the production caps imposed across industries during the licence raj. Dwijendra Tripathi, retired professor of business history at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, writes in The Oxford History of Indian Business that the Birla group, for instance, steeped in textiles and composed of 13 major companies in 1947, had swelled to 200 companies by 1985. Similarly, the licence raj saw the Bajaj group grow from sugar mills to electrical appliances and two- and three-wheelers. The limitations on growth that Ola is facing with India’s small base of online buyers—and the pressures on it to break free—resemble those odds. With Ratan Tata on board, it is tempting to assume that Ola is getting a crash course in conglomerate building. But Anand Subramanian, senior director for marketing communications at Ola, says most of the company’s discussions with Tata have revolved around “the future of mobility, and how Ola can impact it. We also delved into the kind of socio-economic impact this would have on driver entrepreneurs.”

The trouble is, Ola’s grand plans have coincided with big challenges in its bread-and-butter cab business. First: tackling a regulatory can of worms that has lain open since the alleged rape of a female passenger by an Uber driver last year. The incident, which ended up revealing that cab aggregators cannot be regulated using the existing frameworks for radio taxis, led to the spectre of a blanket ban on aggregators. While Uber has been hit the hardest, Ola too is battling a possible ban in Delhi for running diesel cars in contravention of rules.

Subramanian says as a self-regulatory move, the company is investing in driver training, verification, and extra layers of GPS tracking in its cabs. It also engages regularly with road transport officials and state transport ministries. “We want to be proactive in industry practices as regulations for the digital economy take shape,” says Subramanian.

The digital economy is currently a blind spot for the government, as evidenced by its reported troubles in even locating the Uber office in the National Capital Region after the rape. “The government shouldn’t notice Ola for the first time because of a bad incident,” says Pallav Singh, CEO of TaxiForSure and senior vice president (operations) at Ola.

Then there’s the question of retaining drivers without incentives. An independent fleet operator in Bengaluru says, “Both Uber and Ola have brought in customer convenience, but drivers joined them only for the incentives. The moment that stops, drivers leave.” To compensate, Ola is helping drivers with medical and accident insurance and has tied up with State Bank of India to offer them car loans, but “many drivers are moving to Uber because it is giving better deals,” says the operator. Uber also offers lower fares than Ola in many cities. However, Subramanian says Ola has at least a two-year advantage because of its headstart over Uber.
When Singh discussed the new ventures with drivers in January, they were surprised. “Their questions ranged from ‘Why are you doing this? Ola is a taxi service, isn’t it?’ to ‘What’s in it for me?’” Ola’s effort is to get drivers more engaged and loyal to the brand. But that might be a tall order, given old habits. It also has to find a way to deal with hostile taxi unions that see cab aggregators as a threat. In July, taximen in Mangaluru protested before the city administration, alleging Ola was trying to monopolise the business. In fact this is one thing that unites it with Uber, which has been flayed by angry cabbies across the world, from London to Paris to Mexico.

In the near term, Ola faces another daunting ask: filling a slew of new management roles. It can learn from Wipro, one of India’s early conglomerates, which transitioned from making vegetable oil (in the ’40s) to consumer products and industrial hydraulics (’70s), before entering the personal computers market—eventually growing it into the IT services flagship—in the ’80s. “We had to explain to everyone what we wanted Wipro to be,” recalls Pratik Kumar, CEO of Wipro Infrastructure engineering and former group HR head for Wipro. “The top managers had to chase a new breed of talent—entrepreneurial persons who could take ownership and run. Chairman Azim Premji himself spent a lot of time hiring managers across levels,” recalls Kumar, who finishes 25 years at Wipro next year.

Ola’s journey to build a management team beyond its founders has just begun. In February Aggarwal poached Sunit Singh, head of design at ClearTrip, a company he admires for its user experience. He also snagged Amit Mathur as head of talent acquisition from VMWare to focus on tech hires, separating it from business staffing under Rohit Munjal who came from GE Healthcare. Both Mathur and Munjal report to Yugantar Saikia, an experienced hand from software analytics firm FICO. Then there’s Arvind Singhatiya, formerly of Metro Cash & Carry, who joined as head of public policy, government relations, and legal. Another star hire is Sundeep Sahni, former managing director of Lazada Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s top e-retailer.

But luring talent is a relentless, high-stakes game where Flipkart and Snapdeal have proven hard to beat. And unless Ola can build a continuous stream of leaders for the new services, things will slow down. Already, the rollout has been fraught with delays. In parts of Delhi, for instance, the Café button on the app has been promising delivery in “15 minutes” since its launch, but upon clicking, you are told that the service is still not operational.

These concerns segue into the core competence vs. diversification debate. In the startup world, the sacred norm is going after a niche rather than spreading too wide. That’s why Internet pioneers like Info Edge launched new businesses years after strengthening their main business. In an unrelated interview, Intel’s South Asia managing director Debjani Ghosh sums up the risks. “India is like a toy shop” for tech companies given the sheer number of addressable challenges, says Ghosh. “How do you prioritise where you want to play? That’s going to be one of the toughest questions.”

To be sure, Ola is not the only startup on an expansion spree. Far smaller ones, like grocery-delivery players BigBasket and Grofers, have started dipping into niches such as electronics and personal care. The closest comparison for Ola is possibly Paytm, another five-year-old unicorn. Founded by Vijay Shekhar Sharma and backed by Alibaba, it claims 80,000 users in its mobile wallet business, and forayed into m-commerce last year. Sharma says as of June, users bought goods and services worth $1.5 billion in gross value from 9,000 active merchants.

“All this was not possible in 2011-12 when investors were not pumping in money at the same pace,” says an investor who doesn’t have a stake in either Ola or Paytm. “While Paytm has been dominant in payment, its attempt to crack e-commerce was seen as a crazy move less than a year ago, but not any more. Similarly, over the next few years, one successful experiment could give a quantum boost to Ola’s growth.”

In fact investors in mature public companies seem to appreciate the idea of cross-pollinating businesses. The philosophy: It’s better to re-invest money than let it idle in times of growth. For instance, last July, when Info Edge announced that its board had approved a qualified institutional placement (QIP) worth Rs 750 crore to invest in 99acres.com, the share price closed at Rs 697. A month later, when an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders approved the QIP, the share price had inched up by 12.24%, Rs 782.51. And finally, on the date of the QIP announcement, the share price closed at Rs 888.11—a juicy 27.39% higher than July and 20.02% higher than the QIP issue price.

What does Aggarwal make of all the frenzied attempts to predict the future of his unicorn? From his boyish countenance, it is difficult to say if he takes any of it seriously. “We are still a startup,” he says matter-of-factly, “we need to do many more things.” The memory of the aborted cycling trip should keep him in line.

(First published as the Fortune India August 2015 cover story; coauthored with Kunal N Talgeri and Rajiv Bhuva; photos by Bandeep Singh.)

How Much Do You Spend on Technology Every Month?

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Is all that money spent on fancy new tech going down the drain? (To know more about this picture, read till the end.)

This post is inspired by a TIME Money poll that asks people how much they spend on technology every month. About 37% of the participants so far say they spend over $200, including their cellphones, Internet plans, streaming services, etc.

It got me to calculate my tech spend, and to this post. In fact LinkedIn is one of the first purely technological entries in my monthly expenditure spreadsheet. I have a “Premium” account here, and have been paying Rs 1,400 for it the past couple of years.

Then I have an Airtel 8 Mbps/80 GB connection, for which I pay Rs 2,299. (Well actually my wife pays that bill, but it’s part of the same spreadsheet).

My mobile bills are actually pretty low, thanks to a sucky Vodafone service that mostly keeps 3G down to a very anaemic 2G. I spend about Rs 800 a month for that. I seldom download paid apps, games, or content.

We recently upgraded to a TATA Sky HD set-top box and have a channel package that costs Rs 924. (I am not including the EMIs I was paying till last month for our new Sony Bravia HD LED TV.)

On average, I use Ola or TaxiForSure to book cabs at least 3-4 times. The tab is anything between Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000. (These are trips that I would have otherwise made on the Metro, costing me a fraction.)

A small but regular technology premium I end up paying is for booking movies on BookMyShow. In “convenience charges” alone I pay an average Rs 200-Rs 300 a month.

Finally, I have a Maruti Alto K10, for which I shell out an EMI of about Rs 9,000. (It maybe a bit old-fashioned to include a car on a tech list, but for whatever it is worth, it is a gadget all right.)

Put together, I spend about Rs 17,000 on tech every month. These are more or less fixed spends; I am not including things like the hyper-inflated electricity bills we pay during the summer months thanks to non-stop AC use.

I have not included e-retail either because it’s a non-regular category for me. I also don’t have data to prove whether I spend more on Flipkart etc than what I would have spent at physical stores.

Now the question is: What’s the RoI from this sizable spend?

LinkedIn: No perceptible change in my status before other LinkedIn users, just because I am a “premium” member. InMails, one of the key attractions of the paid subscription, have had at best a lukewarm reception. In fact their periodic mails telling me I have been “unstoppable this week!” are a great annoyance, because they have nothing to do with my actual usage of the site – which is not deserving of such encomiums.

Airtel: Generally trouble-free, but I have experienced agonising throttling with a new video-streaming service. Now, this has become a subplot in the larger Net Neutrality debate in the country.

Vodafone: Pathetic experience. Constant call drops, barely any 3G coverage at home.

TATA Sky: Mostly OK.

Ola/TaxiForSure: I used to be a big fan of these services, but since relocating to Delhi from Mumbai, there’s been a sharp drop in the quality levels. My last four rides on Ola have been pretty bad, and I noticed that now the company doesn’t even reply to my complaints on Twitter. It is quite possible that as users like me form a habit of booking cabs using their apps, they will stop feeling the need to give us good service – which was their key differentiator against local taxi services when they started out.

BookMyShow: Pretty flawless experience.

Maruti: Nothing against the car, except I am not much of a lover of cars and don’t enjoy driving on the manic roads of Delhi and Noida, where I live and work. In hindsight, the EMI for the car is a pretty pointless drain, because I hardly ever use it except to drive to work and the rare weekend eating-out trip.

So there you have it. On a monthly spend of Rs 17,000, I’d say my RoI is not more than Rs 5,000. That’s less than 30%.

The math is pretty eye-opening. But the biggest thing I learnt from this experience: It is unlikely I will stop any of these wasteful expenditures. I am caught in a tech-spend inflation bubble, and even if my money fetches less and less, my addiction/need to spend on tech will only increase.

What’s your experience? Does this pattern fit your tech life too?

The photo attached to this post shows a Japanese commode that recycles waste water, if I remember right. I shot it during a Japan trip four or five years back. I have no doubt I will snap it up in a heartbeat if it ever comes to India. Even better if it’s available on a subscription model.