by January 1, 2000 0 comments

We were into the fiftieth year of India’s independence and patriotism was fashionable again, in all corners of the country. Bankim babu’s greatest hit was once again topping the charts, this time with some added help from Rehman and a catchy Maa Tujhe Salaam. So, when Texas Instruments introduced the first digital signal processor
(DSP) designed entirely in India (affectionately code-named Ankoor) in March 1998, national dailies and the trade magazines had a feast. “Hamara Pentium”, “World Class”, and “Unique” were some of the hyperboles used to describe the chip. 

There was precious little coverage on the actual applications of the chip or on the markets that it addressed. The patriotic ramifications far outweighed any possible business or customer benefit of such a processor. We know from Oscar Wilde that the one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Clearly, our team thoroughly enjoyed the proverbial minutes of fame, and was grateful for the generous press coverage. The thought that kept crossing my mind at the time was–“I hope our customers share the same enthusiasm for the product, else, we could all be surfing!”

The caption that captured what we really wanted to communicate from Bangalore, was the one from Economic Times–“It’s easy to assemble the best minds here.” In my career at Texas Instruments, I had the privilege and the experience of recruiting and leading development teams in both Europe and in the US. It’s not easy and it wasn’t easy to do it in Bangalore either, but the unique environment and the electric enthusiasm of the engineers certainly made it feel so. The sheer density of qualified graduates in engineering and software domains measured per square meter is one of the highest in the world, and hence, the entitlement is very high.

The “minds” that we did assemble with targeted hiring, Internet searches from places as far away as France, the US, and from universities, were indeed world class and had the profile of any leading team in the world. There was this “guruji” whose spiritual leadership in VLSI circles was second to none. We had the ever-skeptical doomsday machine–our verification and test expert whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to find mistakes in others’ work, round the clock and with irritating relish. Then there was the cool VHDL and logic synthesis sensation with the passionate belief that thought could be translated into silicon, if we would only let him do it, at least until the test guy caught up with him. The enigmatic artist with his silicon canvas, sizing and routing circuit blocks with all the precision of a brain surgeon, error—free at least until the electrical experts caught up with him. Such characters were many and we had fun. When things went wrong as they often did, we would huddle together to figure out a solution.

These were interesting sessions, very often heated ones, seldom resulting in consensus but always leading to creative action. 

The single-most important thing that a team leader has to do for a large development project is to set an aggressive, non-negotiable, but achievable deadline. The team has to internalize this date and rally around it. Ours, we set for July 7, 1997 for the first major internal release of the design to our team in the US. The date was chosen to avoid any confusion on day and month between the Indian and American notations. I was tempted to set the release date for July 4 (US Independence Day), but this carried little patriotic collateral in Murugheshpalya, Bangalore. Still later, we ended up referring to it as the Pathfinder release, for about the same time we toiled here on terra firma, the Pathfinder robot had landed on Mars. 

Nearly two years on, at the November IT.Com conference in Bangalore (the biggest in Asia, we were told), the newspapers were in full flight again. At the Texas Instruments booth, we had a working display of a PC hard disk drive powered by
Ankoor, along with posters stating—“The first DSP developed in India powers latest high performance disk drives from Seagate”, including a quote from their VP of Engineering saying “the C27
(Ankoor) offered the best cost versus performance trade-off of all the processors we considered”. I’m told that many bemused spectators walked right past it, much like the way people file past relics in a museum, curious but eager to move on to the next item. There was little interest from the press, including the trade magazines. We had used up our fifteen minutes of fame!

One of our team members had the privilege of presenting a memento with the Ankoor chip to the Honorable Prime Minister of India. I’m very curious to know what happened to it—what with the elections and all. Did it suffer the fate of countless other mementos gathering dust somewhere in Delhi? I dream of numerous dignitaries and world leaders observing it on the Prime Minister’s desk and perhaps asking “What is
Ankoor?” It’s only a seedling. The journey from India’s first to world’s best still remains a long one.

I’m relieved to say that the product is proving to be a commercial success too where it matters most, with customers. After the success of the Ankoor project, our team’s grown by another fifty percent. We’re now working in brand new areas in emerging DSP markets. I guess we could say the seedling is now taking root. I do surf, but only to post job openings for new recruits.

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