Tech Guru, Srikanth Nadhamuni on his Constant Search For the Next Big Idea
THREE knee surgeries haven’t deterred Srikanth Nadhamuni, 52, from regularly riding around Bengaluru on his bicycle. He has an abiding love for Carnatic and Bollywood music. He’s also helped computerise the property tax system of Bengaluru, been the CTO of the Aadhaar project and was part of the core team at Intel that worked on a product that even the most tech-unsavvy person would have heard of — the Intel Pentium processor.
A Mysuru boy, Nadhamuni’s interest in computers started early and played a key role in shaping his professional journey. When he was 19, his sister Asha bought him a ZX-81 personal computer on which he wrote several small programmes. He completed his BE in electronics and communication and at about the same time, the IBM personal computer was launched. “One day, while I was wandering around a movie theatre during the intermission, I came across a software company named “The First Byte”. I didn’t go back to see the rest of the movie. I told the folks at “The First Byte” that I wanted to join them. So, they asked me to take a test right then and there. I guess I aced it, as I started working there the next morning.”
He relocated to the US in 1986, after securing a place in the Master’s programme at the Louisiana State University. Silicon Valley beckoned, and his time there included stints with two of the biggest companies of their time: Sun Microsystems, where he was part of the chip development team, and Intel, where he was involved with the Pentium CPU development project. Hired to work on the placement problem in CPUs, Nadhamuni built an auto-placement engine using a fairly new technique of simulated annealing, which was very successful. The one thing that struck Nadhamuni during his time at Intel was the number of talented Indians working there, prompting him to think what could be achieved if all the accumulated education and strong work ethic could be put into solving India’s problems.
Nadhamuni became aware of the influence of technology in our lives, as well as the fact that it can be a great leveller. His wife Sunita, played a key role in getting him involved with social impact projects. “At Sun Microsystems, this girl Sunita, who had just joined the company, asked me out to lunch,” he recollects. “I was flattered, but she had invited eight others to the same lunch. Sunita wanted to help with the aftermath of the 1989 Bangladesh cyclone, and she had asked us to come together to discuss how we could raise money for the disaster relief.” Within a week, they had collected USD $25,000, and Sun Microsystems matched this amount to make it $50,000. The speed at which they had achieved their objective inspired them to start an NGO, Seva, to support projects in India. “Sunita and I got married soon after, in 1992. I was just chasing a girl, but she had grander plans. In the end I guess we both got what we wanted.”
The growing desire to do more than just send money back to India, together with the wish to see their children growing up influenced by an Indian value system, prompted their decision to return to Bengaluru in July 2002. Nadhamuni’s first project upon his return was to design an internet-based property tax system, which was rolled out in all the wards of the city, after digitising several lakh properties. A meeting with Nandan Nilekani, who was heading BATF apart from running Infosys, led to the creation of the eGovernments Foundation, which focusses on building a suite of software products to improve municipal governance in Indian cities. His next project — Aadhaar — was easily the most challenging project he worked on. He set up the Aadhaar Technology Center in Bengaluru, starting off in a rented apartment with two tables and two whiteboards.
“The interesting thing is that the garage startup atmosphere of a few sharp guys working closely is exactly what was needed to design and implement one of the most sophisticated national ID systems. Aadhaar was complex in several dimensions: it was a massive technology challenge, doing a 1000 trillion biometric matches per day; it was a complex administrative exercise involving government and the private sector; and finally, it was a Herculean operational effort to roll it out across a billion people.”
Nadhamuni is currently CEO at Khosla Labs, which he set up with Vinod Khosla in 2012. His goal here is to create teams of entrepreneurs to work on transformational problems and guide them through the execution of the idea, to create high impact companies. So, whether he’s listening to songs such as ‘Iktara’, ‘Yenge Pona Rasa’ or ‘Paani da’ from his playlists, or immersing himself in his love for Hindu philosophy, one thing is sure — he’s always searching for the next big idea.