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The Man Who Walks the Talk

If the Japanese tea ceremony is anything to go by then one ought to know that there’s no point in hurrying them – especially when it comes to shaking hands on a deal, and even more so if that deal happens overseas. For Shashi Tharoor, MP of Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his battery

If the Japanese tea ceremony is anything to go by then one ought to know that there’s no point in hurrying them – especially when it comes to shaking hands on a deal, and even more so if that deal happens overseas. For Shashi Tharoor, MP of Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his battery of officials, it took several video conferences, one-on-one meetings and correspondence over email before the Japanese auto major agreed to come to the State capital to set up Nissan Digital Hub. For Kerala, this marks a watershed moment, one that surely deserves a pat on the back, considering its history that was often frowned upon as ‘unfavourable’ for industrial growth.

But cut to the present, the one man who played a central role in clinching the deal is Anthony Thomas, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Nissan Motor Corporation. Fondly known as Tony among friends and colleagues, he is an alumnus of College of Engineering Trivandrum. After he took on the mantle at Yokohama, Japan in October last year, He has been instrumental in steering the automotive major to Kerala. Where many deals fail to see the light of day after rounds of negotiations, Nissan Digital Hub started operations in Thiruvananthapuram within a year of the idea being pitched.

Anthony Thomas, Chief Information Officer, Nissan Motor Corporation, reveals what is in store for the State as the motor giant begins operations at its new Digital Hub in the capital

“We knew from the start that we were going to make it happen. What we didn’t know was how it would materialise, what steps needed to be taken and how long it would take,” Anthony said while in Thiruvananthapuram recently. All said and done, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Nissan and the Government of Kerala was signed on June 29 to set up a state-of-the-art facility in the capital city. It took less than 180 days from then for the Nissan team, led by Anthony and Suja Chandy, Managing Director, Nissan Digital India, to set up a temporary space of 25,000 sq.ft. at Yamuna building in Technopark Phase III. “Infosys, a good partner of ours, offered space, so that we could start operations. Then Hrishikesh Nair, CEO, IT Parks Kerala, also offered a temporary space inside the Park. In the meanwhile, we also got some space at the Yamuna building in Phase III,” Anthony said, before euphorically adding, “And here we are in less than six months.”

According to the helmsman of the Nissan project in India, the hub will be a one-of-its-kind for the company. The global automotive sector is fast undergoing major shifts. Competition among the stakeholders are veering towards electric and automated car domains. These changes are largely enabled by technologies like AI, Machine Learning and Deep Learning. In the last financial year, spending in automotive R&D has picked up substantially with Volkswagen leading the way. With Toyota also ramping up investments in this part of Asia, it was only a matter of time before Nissan Motor Corporation, with a manufacturing legacy of more than nearly eight-and-a-half decades, started looking for cost-effective and smart destinations.

Touching upon why investment in digital R&D was important for the company, the CIO observed, “The most number of R&D investments are going into the auto sector. Google, Amazon and similar corporations are focusing on automotives as an industry. If you look at the consumer products and solutions available nowadays, pretty much everything is centred on automotives,”

Of course, such a facility also required the talent to match. While Anthony was convinced about the availability of talent within India, he wasn’t very sure about whether Nissan would succeed in finding all the skill sets required for the R&D facility. He now admits that the anxiety did not last long. “We have a lot of extremely talented folks with us who are from other parts of India. They have moved to Thiruvananthapuram. Some of them are quite experienced while others are youngsters from the best universities in the country,” he says.

Nissan Digital India hopes to directly recruit 3000 personnel, including software engineers and data scientists by the time its main facility in Technocity is up.

Retaining the Millenials

Even as Anthony praises the prospects of Kerala as a destination for multinational investors, he also, like other technocrats, reiterates the importance of having outlets that will engage the millennial workforce outside of their work environment. It has been a recurring recommendation in their presentations to the Government of Kerala. Anthony points out that lower attrition rates among the millennial workforce will attract more companies to establish a base in the city.

“Youngsters who come here from the other parts of the country still feel that options that allow them to socialise are limited. When you attract more companies, you have more revenue. It’s all about building the right ecosystem for the future,” he opined.

Innovative work cultures await at the Nissan office here keeping in mind digital natives who are more attuned to the scope of ‘Gig Economies’ where people work for specific outcomes, projects and initiatives. “A lot people do not work on a long-term basis in companies like they once used to. It is not just about the salary or brand. For many technologists, work is about self-actualisation, something we are working towards,” he said.

Nerve Centre

Unlike multinational IT firms which invest in overseas facilities for technology outsourcing, Nissan Digital Hub will function as a nerve centre for the motor corporation. The facility will not carry the tag of an Offshore Development Centre (ODC), but the teams there will be a direct part of Nissan’s global operations. For Nissan’s headquarters in Yokohama, the importance of the facility in Thiruvananthapuram would be second to none. So much so that, according to Anthony, close to half of Nissan’s digital team would be working out of the base in Thiruvananthapuram.

Real-time data for cyber activities at Nissan from across the globe is fed into the state-of-the-art cyber security centre at the Yamuna building. The centre monitors all activities and checks for vulnerabilities in Nissan’s digital assets, including those in offices, factories, warehouses, computers and even the self-driving cars manufactured by the company. “Here, we will also have our largest concentration of AI, data scientists and software engineers from across the globe,” he said.

Hiring at Nissan Digital

Anthony hopes to bring on board 500 employees by the end of the current financial year. Although the company has hired 350 employees, the process cannot be expedited as there are no teams working on specific projects. Nissan seeks to strike a balance between the hiring of fresh hands and experienced personnel. Future hiring will be also based on the evaluation of project outcomes. “This is not a traditional Offshore Development Centre model. Such an example has never been executed in the past. If it is really effective then we can certainly hire more people. Our partners in Thiruvananthapuram though are hiring people here,” he says.

Education & Employability

When asked to rate Kerala’s employable talent, Anthony’s discomfort is evident. Kerala’s curriculum has come under fire in the past for its failure to change with the times. “Technology is upgraded every three to five years. But we have curricula that continue to teach the same old stuff. In that context, what we really need is an academic curriculum that is open to current changes. It is important to create a generation that can think and challenge,” Anthony said acknowledging that there’s no real dearth of talent, only a lack of industry-oriented training. He added that the government and the higher education department are proactively engaged in that direction. “Dr. Usha Titus, principal secretary of the department, is a strong supporter of this notion. The Chief Minister himself is a proponent of improving the way education is imparted here.”

Anthony’s Fix-it Formula

He is working with corporate firms for tie-ups with universities to impart employability skills and values to students pursuing their bachelors and masters in Kerala. “Rather than high scores, we are looking for candidates with the ability to adapt and who possess quick learning skills,” he said.

Mantra for Tech Growth

A major hindrance Anthony finds in Kerala’s job industry is the lack of options available for potential employees. “If you lose a job in Bengaluru, Hyderabad or Mumbai, it is easier to find another one. But there aren’t many companies in Thiruvananthapuram. That could be a dampener in people shifting base,” he said. To prune a promising ecosystem, according to him, there needs to be a parallel growth of talent and investor confidence. “When global brands arrive, more talents will come in.”

Referring to the disruptive hartals that stall productivity and have long remained another deterrent to industries coming to the State, he added, “In a way, we are our own enemies. When in Japan, I check the news to find out if there’s a hartal here. Such activities affect the economy’s growth negatively.” He pointed out that the knowledge industry can be insulated from such vices only if there is a collective effort from the sides of the people and the government.

Collaborative Office Space

Nissan’s office interiors have green and open spaces in a bid to encourage creativity at work. “What we are trying to do is provide one of the best work spaces for our people. Besides, we are adding the latest technology as it would provide the basic framework to operate in the most effective way,” he says. The hub believes in an innovative rather than a prescriptive approach to work. For this, Anthony and Swaminathan T V, Chief Digital Officer, Nissan Digital Hub, believe it is important for employees to be at their casual best. The office space has an integrated cafeteria – again to mix work with leisure.

What’s Brewing at Nissan?

The future of Nissan is digital – from maintenance of a car to its ownership, which means that the hub here develops tools required to engineer and manufacture a car. The hub will make the initial design and look into R&D for new cars using virtual and augmented reality tools. It would aid the designers, for example, in understanding how a new car would look in the deserts of the Middle East, a street in the US or when compared to another car. Nissan also has a financing company to provide monetary support to customers. The hub also serves behind-the-scenes in departments of finance, sales and HR.

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