IItians bask in glory of Parag Agarwal’s elevation

Ritu Jha-

“I’ve decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders. My trust in Parag as Twitter’s CEO is deep. His work over the past 10 years has been transformational. I’m deeply grateful for his skill, heart, and soul. It’s his time to lead,”

When Jack Dorsey announced this early on Nov.29. – on Twitter, of course – the news surprised many. But IITians basked in the joy of now having two of their group running large corporations in Silicon Valley.

Agrawal, who joined Twitter in 2011, has been its chief technology officer since October 2017. As CTO, he has been responsible for the company’s technical strategy, improving the speed of development, and advancing machine learning across the company.

Agrawal holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Some high-profile IITians in Silicon Valley told indica that while they were not familiar with the young CEO, they thought their alma mater had something to do with its success.

Kanwal Rekhi, MD, Inventus Capital Partner, and alumnus of IIT Bombay, told indica, “Young Indians are proving that they are second to none. IIT’s provide a great foundation to build on, especially in the tech industry.”

Asked if Agrawal would be able to deal with pressure from governments, including the Indian one, which under Modi has been putting pressure on Twitter, Rekhi said, “Parag has been at Twitter for a very long time. My sense is that he has been very influential and was responsible for shutting Trump’s account. Parag will have to handle pressure from both Modi and Trump — if Trump comes back.”

As far as running the business itself, Rekhi said, he was sure Agrawal would be able to run it well.

“It is really a simple advertising-driven business,” he said.

Arjun Malhotra, chairman of Magic Software, who studied at IIT-Kharagpur, is also optimistic about Agrawal’s chances.

“What IIT teaches you is to survive and succeed in tough environments mentally,” he told indica. “At IIT, you have lots of students who are smarter than you. You must learn to succeed in that environment. You learn to do things and do them differently and have the courage to do that. You learn to adapt to the environment, and you learn to work with people because, as a loner, you are unlikely to succeed. Add all that up, and it is not surprising that we have so many IITians heading companies not just here but in India and elsewhere, too.”

Shailesh J. Mehta, an IIT-Bombay alumnus, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Providian Financial Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, and recently established the IIT-Bombay Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, liked the idea of another IITian alumnus leading a major company.

“We all should be very proud of him,” Mehta told indica and, crediting IIT for picking the cream of the cream, with the best going to IIT-Bombay — where he studied. He added that all IITs were good, before describing how things used to be.

“When we came to the U.S., the world was much different,”  To break that glass ceiling was very tough, but we all did it. We are the first generation of people who not only broke the glass ceiling but also started companies and created Fortune 500 companies.”

Mehta said some of the old challenges had dissipated in a more diverse tech world. He pointed to the success of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Adobe President and CEO Shantanu Narayan, and IBM Group CEO Arvind Krishna.

“The valley has now become a lot more diverse, global and a lot of the old barriers are broken. Now it is a pure meritocracy, without many people throwing obstacles,” Mehta said, arguing against reservations based on gender, race, religion, or minority.

“The moment we talk about bringing in quotas based on other parameters, it has never worked, and it will not work,” Mehta argued. “The entitlement mentality is not going to make you successful it will make you dependent. The idea that I should be selected because of my gender, race, or religion, and not that I am competent is when things start falling apart.”

Mehta said that Indians had suffered their share.

“They (Indians) were kind of considered the back office people. We are not considered smart, we could not play golf, and were not given customer-facing situations,” he said. “It was a world of white people, and they always thought the wealth is with the white people. I don’t feel bad about it, because it was not intentionally done. It was the way business was done then, but we (Indian IITians) proved that it may be good business, but it was not great business.”

Asked about Agarwal’s ability to address free speech and hate speech, Mehta reserved judgment.

“I don’t know what kind of challenges he will be facing, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt (and expect) that he will rise to the occasion,” he said. “The board would not have picked him if they had not seen those qualities. Yes, he is young and may not have all the necessary experience to deal with the complexities of an organization of that size, but … I have seen people rise to the occasion and become quick learners.”


[Parag Agarwal[above photo left], chief technology officer, Twitter, at the 2018 Indian Institute of Technology Bay Area Leadership Conference, held at the Santa Clara Convention Center on June 9.]

[Photo courtesy: Ritu Jha/indica]