Soroco’s Murty carves a niche distinct from his famous father and brother-in-law Sunak

The AI-based enterprise software company’s billionaire founder seeks to be more than a nerd

Mr Rohan Narayana Murty is founder and chief technology officer of the artificial intelligence-based enterprise software firm Soroco. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

Bespectacled, 170cm tall and with tousled hair, a backpack over his shoulder, it is easy to look past Rohan Narayana Murty when he enters a room, or jogs by on the street.?

Another scholar looking for the comfort of the nearest library, you might think. A quintessential nerd who glances at his watch ever so often as though to see how many steps he’s taken this day, and how many calories drained.

Looks do not always deceive. The 39-year-old Mr Murty, founder and chief technology officer of the artificial intelligence-based enterprise software firm Soroco, is all of that.?

The first book he remembers reading was at age eight when his maternal uncle Shrinivas Kulkarni, the famed astrophysicist at California Institute of Technology, gave him a biography of the late Nobel-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Early in his life, he reportedly read 14 books on Byzantine history.

After the late Marvin Minsky, considered the father of artificial intelligence (AI), Mr Murty was only the second from the field of computer science to get elected to Harvard’s Society of Fellows – possibly his proudest achievement – rubbing shoulders at weekly dinners that began at 6pm and ended at 4am the next day with the likes of Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Wally Gilbert, and other luminaries such as the science historian Peter Galison. Harvard also was the university from which he received his PhD.?

It also happens that his father is a living legend, NR Narayana Murthy, the founder of Indian IT bellwether Infosys, whose other child – Rohan’s older sister Akshata– is married to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The Bangalore-based Infosys, the first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq, has a market value of more than $100 billion – exceeding that of DBS Group – and the younger Mr Murty’s stake of about 1.7 per cent in the sprawling firm makes him a billionaire.

I asked Mr Murty, who spells his surname differently from his father, whether he felt pressured to be as successful as his parent.

“My PhD was earned,” he responded, alluding to the fact that his father’s various doctorates were bestowed by universities. “I come from a family which deeply values scholarship; my maternal uncle is Shrinivas Kulkarni and my father would have done a PhD himself if family circumstances had not forced him to seek work when his father died.”

The older Mr Murthy, who counts Mahatma Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew as his heroes, had enrolled in a PhD programme in Israel but then moved to Paris to work on the IT operating system of Charles De Gaulle airport’s cargo terminal.

Nerd as he might be, clearly Murty Junior wants to be more. He says he came to found his company, along with some Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon friends, through a series of fortuitous accidents. Although he loved teaching and research, he was always conscious that his audience would be very limited, while he wanted to express himself in a broader way.

The result was Soroco, which has an AI system that looks at how humans and machines interact, and then reverse engineers the underlying pattern of work. In short, moving office work to the realm of science and data.

“Of course, you can hire consultants to do the same thing but we have turned it into a data problem,” he says, speaking to me on the sidelines of the recent Forbes Global CEO conference in Singapore.

Scout, its flagship product launched 3? years ago, uses AI to “discover” workflows that teams are executing across software systems, documents, spreadsheets and so forth. It does this by generating a map of how the team gets work done. This map is called the “work graph”.

Mr Murty describes how it functions and compares it to the way people once used road maps and analogue methods. In today’s era of global positioning systems and digitalisation, those old ways of navigation are unimaginable.?

What is more, from Google maps for driving directions, the world has moved to using the software to multiple other uses including booking flights, tables in restaurants and the movies.

In a Harvard Business Review article he co-authored in October 2022, Mr Murty explained his thinking on a key aspect of office work – measuring productivity.?

He argued that in the post-Covid-19, work-from-home era, monitoring individual employees isn’t the way to boost productivity. Not only is it oppressive and intrusive if done from inside the home or inside offices, such monitoring is often a poor proxy for actual productivity.

Managers are often attempting to juice productivity within fundamentally broken environments – full of fragmented or non-standardised processes and tasks, user-unfriendly IT applications, poor user experience design, and other factors that complicate work and slow it. No single employee controls these variables. Rather, they are subjected to them. Therefore, not only do these productivity tools fail to fix what is broken, they don’t even surface the real issues.

On the other hand, identifying and fixing sources of friction in a work environment leads to more productive teams. Using empathy to understand work from the point of view of the people who are doing it can reveal what in the environment is broken and how those breakdowns affect people.

Mr Murty’s research showed that the proliferation of apps is forcing users in Fortune 500 companies to toggle between apps as many as 3,600 times a day to get their work done.

Hence, the smart questions should be whether inefficient process design is causing the team to do the same work in multiple ways, where does the team need training or mentoring to serve customers better, and is bad user interface experience frustrating and slowing the team’s response to customers, and suchlike.

These questions can be answered with aggregated – and anonymised – team data, so individual privacy is protected. Just like customers, digital workers create volumes of data every day as they work, and employers can use this to build a work graph, or a digital map of how teams experience work, to see where processes are broken and make them better.

“Today, we are able to use AI to figure out where you should invest in it, what AI you should use and then to figure out if the AI is working for you,” said Mr Murty.

The company was started on Mr Murty’s money and has some 300 staff distributed between India, the UK and the US. He says Scout is growing “at an exponential pace” and the firm already has customers “in the hundreds”. Infosys, the firm his father started, is not a customer.

Soroco, which has more than 40 patents, also works with a series of “partner companies”, including Ernst & Young.

Mr Murty also will not reveal revenue figures, beyond stating: “Suffice it to say that we have not raised external capital so far.” Neither does he consider going to the private equity market, or for a public share sale, likely in the near future.

Ideas such as those that seeded Soroco can take time to mature, and that’s possibly one reason why Mr Murty sees no challengers in the space he has entered.?

The business processes research firm NelsonHall reckons that the process understanding market is anticipated to reach approximately US$6.9 billion by 2027.

On the other hand, in the global IT services space, Infosys alone reported revenue of nearly US$18 billion in 2022.?

In some ways, therefore, Mr Murty needs to build the market that he seeks to conquer.

But then, when you run more than 60km a week, you are conscious that not everything necessarily needs to be a sprint.?

Besides, you can never tell when an idea begins to fly; shares in Apple, once in the doldrums, really took off only from 2010 or so, and today it is the world’s most valuable company.

Meanwhile, Mr Murty’s outlook is set to change in other ways; he turns 40 soon and his wife Aparna, and he, are expecting their first child. His father, known for his respect for science, his purpose-filled life and his integrity, clearly remains a North Star.

He declines to discuss Rishi Sunak, his powerful brother-in-law, beyond noting that since his sister and Mr Sunak were students together, long before Mr Sunak considered going into politics, he has known the British leader in a rather different way.

I mentioned that British public school students – Mr Sunak was educated at Winchester College and his predecessors Boris Johnson and David Cameron also went to storied public schools – can be a barrel of fun. He sidesteps the observation.

“My sister and brother-in-law are different from me,” Mr Murty said. “They actually have a life. My notion of fun was to go to Harvard’s Society of Fellows and hang out with nerds.”

Fast facts

The Founder

Mr Rohan Narayana Murty is founder and chief technology officer, Soroco.

He is 39 years old.

Raised in Bangalore, a key technology centre of India, Mr Murty got his Bachelors’ degree in computer science from Cornell University. In 2011, he got a PhD in computer engineering from Harvard, on fellowships from Siebel Scholars and Microsoft Research.

At age 29, he was named a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows,?only the second from his discipline to be elected a Fellow. In 2010, he founded Harvard’s Murty?Classical Library of India with a US$5.2 million endowment.

Mr Murty is the son of Mr NR Narayana Murthy, founder of Indian IT bellwether Infosys. His sister Akshata is married to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

He runs some 64km a week, and enjoys reading. He and his wife, Aparna, are expecting their first child.

The Company

Soroco is an enterprise software company that applies Artificial Intelligence to discover workflows in organisations.

Funded by Mr Murty, it was founded in London, Boston and Bangalore in 2014, and has offices in all three cities. It has a staff of about 300 people.

Its?flagship software Scout is a work graph platform that powers digital transformation. It gives organisations a structured view of how work happens on the ground and identifies benefits from applying a portfolio of change levers, delivering targeted change programs at scale.

Soroco customers, stated to be “in the hundreds”, including several Fortune 500 companies, and operates on a subscription model.?

The company does not provide financial data. Mr Murty says he is not in a hurry to sell shares in the firm.

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