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Shankar Krishnamoorthy, CTO, Aspire Systems, in conversation with Vandana Sharma of 'i.t.' Bureau, shares his perspective on the process of engineering and the nuances of making products for the global market.
There are three kinds of product engineering companies in India: a) pure play product companies (Independent Software Vendors' ISVs) that develop products and their own IP (intellectual property); for example, Tally, Subex, etc; b) captive centres that are headquartered elsewhere, but have their product development centres located in our country, such as Microsoft, Oracle, etc; and c) outsourced product development companies working closely with ISVs to develop products for them.
As domestic consumption is increasing on the software side, there are a lot of requirements for good, off-the-shelf products. Naturally, the requirement for product engineers is high at this point of time. NASSCOM has estimated that the OPD (offshore product development) side of the business will grow to $12-15 billion by 2015. There are plenty of opportunities around for building niche products that have both domestic and international appeal.
What are the challenges that a tech firm may face when it ventures into this domain?
The awareness of the opportunities in product development is relatively low among young, budding engineers. Our country is generally focused on services. If you look around, all our major IT companies focus on software development services. So people tend to approach software development more from a project's perspective than a product perspective. Therefore, attracting talent to a product company is a challenge.
Besides, developing a software product is quite different from developing an internal application. A product is to be used by thousands or millions of people, whereas an internal application is built for some specific purpose - to be used by a single company, internally. So, the approach to building a product is quite different from application development. Under the hood, engineering skills are very important for building a product that will live for years.
We, as a country, have just begun getting into the product engineering domain, building products on our own very recently. So, availability of experienced product engineers is a challenge.
Do you think India has the talent to come out with products for global audiences?
India definitely has the talent to build products for global audiences. If you look around, the worlds' best ISVs (Microsoft, Oracle, etc) have set up shop here, mainly to tap the talent. And all of them have moved on from the typical maintenance kind of work and started developing products for the world market. There are a lot of Indian companies also attaining leadership roles in product domains, like, Subex, AdventNet, OrangeScape, etc.
On the OPD side, companies like ours (Aspire Systems) have worked with several ISV leaders to build products. Some of our customers are leaders in the areas of education, media management, supply chain management, etc.
While there are challenges with respect to the availability of market-ready product engineers, each company has devised its own way of mastering product engineering.
What is required to productise an idea or a research finding?
Conceptualising the idea into a vision (which can be large enough) is the first step. Then, one needs funding as any product-building exercise is going to cost money. Other essentials include a good engineering team, a good product manager who owns and sets the direction for the product, while interacting with customers to get their feedback, and good process/collaborative systems for all the above to work together.
Hard and smart work!
Both perspectives are important. You need to know what your customers' needs are and also how the market behaves. I would like to quote an example. Let's think of introducing a product like video phones for home users. Now, looking at it from a customer perspective, everyone, you and me, may like to have this kind of gadget at our homes. But, is the market supporting it? Well, not at this point of time. The technology involved is so expensive and unaffordable right now. So, the market is not ready yet.
Thus, the product manager should be able to evaluate both perspectives and then distinguish between aspects like desirability and feasibility, and develop a proper roadmap for the product.
What is the role of R&D in a product development company?
R&D and innovation are very important for a company to thrive in the product development business. Producteers need to think 'out of the box' to solve customer requirements. They also need to be constantly abreast with the latest in business and technology perspectives by continuously doing R&D.
A product company also needs to constantly keep looking at ways of increasing customer satisfaction, and that too, at a lower cost. R&D will help in achieving this and also in keeping the product alive on the latest technology front.
'Innovation' is whatever helps in increasing the product usage among customers, however small a feature. If it is going to help the customer dramatically, I would call that an innovation.
Also, doing things differently... anything that helps in reducing the cost of operations, be it development, testing or documentation, is also innovation.
What kind of infrastructure and resources are required to venture into the domain of product engineering? Isn't it better for tech firms to build their own products when they have the technical expertise in-house rather than taking their idea to an external agency?
Building in-house engineering expertise is a difficult and time consuming task. This will actually dilute the focus of product companies from their core business. At the end of the day, product companies should focus more on product management and on aspects like how to acquire new customers, what the customer is looking for from the product, etc. There are product engineering experts out there like Aspire Systems, who have built several products. It is better to outsource the product engineering to them so that ISVs can focus on product management.
We have recently worked with a start-up, MangoDVM (digital vending machine), a music retail company. Being a start-up, it has limited funds. The team would have found it difficult to attract talent and also a bit too expensive to build the complete engineering infrastructure (team and tools) for the product on its own. So MangoDVM outsourced its product building exercise to Aspire. We have built this product in record time (four months) and the firm is into the market launch phase. This is not possible if you are trying to do things on your own.
While outsourcing is better, ISVs have a responsibility to protect their IP. At the end of the day, that is their bread and butter. It is important that they safeguard their IP through legal and other security mechanisms. All the OPD companies help ISVs by bringing in appropriate mechanisms to protect the customers' IPs.
What are the qualities of a good 'producteer'? Is there a way in which more talent in India could be transformed into successful producteers?
If you are passionate about your product and dream about the ways your product will affect your customers, and do things in that direction, you will become a successful producteer. All you need to do is to walk and breathe the product day-in and day-out. (Refer to the box on this page to check the qualities that make a successful producteer.)
Producteering is an excellent opportunity for young and energetic engineers and provides ample opportunities of growth. Producteers would be a new breed of engineers focusing on specialisation and product building. As a country, this again brings in excellent opportunities for us to move up the value chain. We will have several globally successful, 'Made in India' products coming out soon!