Rohan Murty's Tryst with Coding, Mentors and Beyond
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A man is known by his conversations and when you are talking to Rohan Murty you really have to keep up with every word. His work necessarily requires him to split time every month between Boston, London, and Bengaluru. We are meeting at his Bengaluru house. Murty bought this house and reconstructed it. The minimalist approach towards designing the house offers large views of the garden through the sliding glass doors. The drawing room has a small library. His first book was gifted by his uncle, Srinivas Kulkarni, famed astronomer, when he was in class 6; the book still finds a special space in his library. Murty smirks speaking about the book. He thought how fun it would be to become a scientist. There is adventure, curiosity, enthusiasm, and the book changed his perspective about many things. In his family books are the real currency. The gifts I have ever seen my parents give to each other is books, says Murty. “We are very proud of the books that we have. We consider those as true wealth. My father has a library of his own, I have a small selection of my own. We really like reading.”
Rohan Murty is revered for his visionary ideas: Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), white spaces networking, philosophy, history, etc. In the first round of interaction I have with Murty leads to the second round starting from where the first one concluded. We discuss about one major problem he has been trying to solve. And if he does, it will change the way businesses function. In his words, “My quest is to invent software that engenders at least the same degree of trust that humans do, in the modern enterprise.” He knows what he's talking about. This line of thinking is evident in his credentials from the past.
In 2013, Murty started the automation effort at Infosys, at a time when very few people seemed to believe the degree and extent to which automation was possible. But automation, in his opinion, is not about merely just emulating simple steps that people follow. “Humans are much more complicated than that and often don’t get enough credit for the layers of complexity they bring to the table. They have unending ability to generate trust in other people,” Murty adds.
“Therefore I have been thinking about a much deeper problem: how and why do companies come to trust their people and under circumstances will we ever trust machines in the same way?” questions Murty. In the most generalized form this is obviously not an easy problem. But Murty believes in constrained cases, this problem can be addressed well. To solve this, Murty is bringing together several different areas of computer science, mathematics, statistics, and even the humanities to begin to build software that emulates trust.
Computer science excites Murty tremendously. As per him, “I don’t know any other discipline which in such a short span can impact every industry. It’s one of those industries wherein with very little you can do so much. Science excites me; a lot of my choices are guided by this. There are areas in computer science where in I can solve a problem. I like to solve problems wherein I see my training in the past has been of relevance.”
Apart from working on problems in technology, Murty has been involved in other entrepreneurial efforts. “I care very deeply about helping spread information about knowledge systems from India’s past,” reveres Murty. This includes his work on the MCLI, a not-for-profit effort at Harvard, which seeks to showcase the rich Indian intellectual history to the world. “I have similar interests and ideas in mathematics, poetry, and philosophy from ancient India and I have been exploring ways to bring knowledge from these areas to mainstream audience,” shares Murty.
Another area that he deeply cares about is why not enough is known about women artists. Or at least as much as we know about male artists? Delving on the same, he shares, “A friend of mine at the society of fellows (Murty happens to be a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows) and I have been discussing this point – for every 10 famous male artists whose work many people are aware of, perhaps there is one woman artist whose work people actually know of. There seems to be a systemic failure to recognize high quality work by women artists over the ages.” Murty has been spending some time on work in this area as well.
“And I have also been spending some time on how can one learn the intellectual history of the world (physics, mathematics, history, philosophy, etc.) through graphic novels. But this is still work in progress,” adds Murty.
The thing with most of the researchers is once they start building something only they know and believe in the impact, rest still doubt. Same is the case with Rohan Murty. This is just the beginning of his moonshot.
When we ask Murty, if he would be dressed in formals for the photo shoot, he grins, “I have studied for 12 years in a boys school and I had been wearing a blazer and tie throughout, I now wish to give myself a break.” A lover of Indian classical music and also pop, Murty can moonwalk like a pro. This skinny short man, who is fascinated by the world of astronomy, science and research, as a child dreamt of flying like Superman. He is a minimalist in the true sense, from furniture to his wardrobe, we agree with and reveal the real Rohan Murty.
Writing code is …
To me, writing code is a means to solving a problem and a medium for personal expression as well. In this regard it is no different from writing, painting or music.
Who are your heroes?
Richard Feynman, who had a zest, purity, and enthusiasm for science. Carl Sagan, whose exposition of science embodied near perfect poetry and consequently inspired generations to love science. John Carmack, for his singleminded focus and dedication towards software design. Manjul Bhargava, the most extraordinary mathematician (and human being) I have had the personal privilege of getting to know. My father, for inspiring so many people (including me). And my mother, for breaking several norms including studying engineering against all odds in a college which had no bathrooms for women, was the first woman employed in TELCO, and was eventually the very reason for nearly everything good in my family. I half-jokingly tell her that she is India’s most successful venture capital investor!
I also consider S Gurumurthy, a good family friend, to be a mentor. While we may not agree on everything, we have many deep conversations about life and philosophy. I have great respect for his intellect and his life story. Kiran Mazumdar, is a godmother-like figure to me. I have tremendous respect for what she has achieved as an entrepreneur and as a woman. Ideas that influence you? MARK TWAIN: “A discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of human liberty” JOHN F KENNEDY: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” AND MY FATHER: “Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is going against a vast number of naysayers and mediocre people.”
(This article was first published in the February issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)