Francisco D'Souza is the chief executive officer of Cognizant Technology Solutions, a global technology and consulting services company. He is responsible for the well-being of more than 78,000 employees in more than 30 countries throughout the world.
He was appointed CEO in 2007 at the age of 38.
To put his age in perspective with his career, consider this: Forbes magazine spotlighted him among quite a select group: America's Powerful CEOs 40 & Under—21 Chief Executives No Older Than 40 Who Run U.S. Public Companies Worth At Least $500 Million.
Cognizant is publicly traded on Wall Street, grossed more than $3 billion in 2009 revenues in a challenging economy, and currently has an overall market capital value of more than $13 billion. Impressive numbers to be sure, but D'Souza, sitting in his temporary office at the firm's Teaneck, N.J., headquarters, doesn't seem overly impressed with himself. "I'm a technologist who happens to know a little bit about running a business," he says.
Around him are bare white walls; framed artwork of various shapes and sizes rest along the baseboards, waiting to be hung in permanent locations. The upheaval doesn't bother him. Given his hectic travel schedule that borders on frantic, he isn't in town often enough to mind, anyway. "Right now, I'm traveling about 60 percent of the year," he says, also noting that a 9-to-5 workday doesn't apply to him, even on weekends.
He smiles when asked what drives him in business; his youthful, cherubic face lights up beneath a healthy head of salt-and-pepper hair. It's clear he relishes his career—meeting with clients, keeping tabs on the sales force, staying on top of the latest software trends, streamlining operations.
There are no surprises when delving into how D'Souza (TPR'92)—a member of Carnegie Mellon's Board of Trustees—has so successfully and so rapidly climbed the business ladder. He reveals motivations that are classic textbook variety: Risk. Reward. Passion. Nationalism. Lineage. Hunger. They're all there.
Ask Rajeev Mehta, and he'll tell you all about them, especially that last one. A classmate of D'Souza's at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School, Mehta (TPR'92) recalls how his friend did what was necessary to meet the academic load. "He could get away with very little sleep," says Mehta, Cognizant's chief operating officer, who joined the company at D'Souza's behest 13 years ago. "I was always amazed at how he'd take these power naps of 10 or 15 minutes. ... They'd always freshen him up and he'd be ready to go."
For D'Souza, who came to Carnegie Mellon sight unseen at the encouragement of alumni while living in Hong Kong, success at the graduate level was not a guarantee. "My first year was absolutely brutal. I learned a lot from the professors and so forth, but I also got a chance to interact with people for the first time in an academic environment where—I hate to say this—virtually everybody was smarter than I was. There were times when I called my parents and thought I wasn't going to make it. Even the brightest and smartest people get pushed to the limit. [The Tepper School] is a pressure cooker, and you start to see your own cracks. You find out about your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But the good thing is, you also find out your strengths. They're all magnified."
He persevered, earned his graduate degree, and clearly has thrived ever since. D'Souza, though, doesn't like to dwell on his accomplishments. He says, particularly now with the struggling economy, this is no time to sit back and enjoy the view. "I still don't feel like I've made it," he explains. "It's a constant journey for me and our company. We're only 16 years old. There's always somebody around the corner that's going to eat your lunch. The world is so hyper-competitive these days, you have to be the absolute best at what you do. When you're competing against IBM and Accenture as we are, being ‘good enough' is no longer enough."
He's always wanted to be more than good enough, even as a freshman in high school. In the early 1980s, living in New York City, D'Souza recalls when his school received three new Commodore computers ... for the entire student body. "The rule was: The seniors got to use them first to finish their homework because they were the ones taking the computer class," he says. "Only then could freshmen use them. So I used to help the seniors get their homework done, so I could get them off the terminals and have time to practice my programming."
And who helped him learn to program? "No one," he says with a laugh. "I read the manuals."
New York City wasn't his only childhood home. The son of Placido D'Souza, a career Indian diplomat for 34 years, the younger D'Souza grew up in eight countries—many of them in the developing world—the family hop-scotching across the globe roughly every three years for each new state assignment.
The home addresses may have changed regularly, but there was one constant—his parents' influence. When D'Souza speaks of them, it's almost in a reverential tone. The achievement bar was set very high. If the son brought home a B on his report card, why didn't the son get an A? If he earned an A, why wasn't he taking a more challenging class?
The expectations didn't intimidate D'Souza. They fueled him. "I consider my father a Renaissance man," he explains. "In today's world, for a variety of reasons, he is a dying breed. He was a diplomat by profession, but he is also an extraordinarily accomplished self-taught artist. He would sketch world leaders during his travels and have them sign his work after they met. He was a writer and a journalist/editor, while serving as a diplomat, and remained so for many years after he retired. He was good at a lot of things across the board."
D'Souza interrupts himself in mid-thought, adding that his father was honored last August when dozens of his sketches—featuring the likenesses of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, and current United Nations Secretary—General Ban Ki-moon, to name but a few—were displayed in an exhibition titled Portraits of Power in the United Nations Building.
Portraits of Power, and the younger D'Souza's selection to America's Powerful CEOs 40 & Under both happening in the same year. Coincidence? Or does it depict an upbringing that would catapult D'Souza into leadership?
At Cognizant, he believes he is doing more than leading a company; he is pushing an agenda to make sure his clients in the United States, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere can compete in global markets. "We help our clients become stronger businesses," he says. "No question in my mind. Stronger and more vibrant." Cognizant offers:
- Business consulting
- Application services
- IT infrastructure services
- Business process outsourcing
The services are available for an array of industries—financial services, healthcare, manufacturing and retail, and media and entertainment. "We are giving corporations around the world the means to be extraordinarily competitive, because it allows them to bring products and services to market more quickly," says D'Souza.
He is aware of outsourcing criticism but believes it's misguided. "One department gives way to allow another to grow. When you have strong, thriving businesses, that leads to employment. That leads to economic growth."
As he discusses this topic, his boyish aura gives way to a serious demeanor that befits a CEO of any age. "There's a tremendous thirst for scientific and technological manpower in the United States. Part of the reason I'm on board at Carnegie Mellon [as a trustee] is because I believe it's an issue of national importance. The competitive advantage of nations is going to be determined by their ability to have access to the best scientific and technological manpower in the world."
Although he admittedly works in a nerve-racking business, D'Souza has a playful side, too. On his desk, a yo-yo sits near a stack of mail. "I like toys," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "I like working with my hands."
To that end, D'Souza—who learned Morse code and spent time as a ham radio operator as a teenager—is fascinated by old technology. "In my basement, I have a room that's just for me. Even my two children [ages 5 and 3] and my wife, Ines, aren't allowed in because it's a mess," he says. "I have all sorts of things in it, like a whole collection of old brass telegraph keys that are anywhere from 50 to 150 years old. I also just got a miniature Sterling engine kit. I love this period; the days of Morse, Marconi, and Edison—and the beginning of electronic communication."
But D'Souza only allows himself to look backward for so long before he sets his sights on the road ahead. A firm believer in meritocracy, he is a pragmatist who knows that what you've accomplished—in your job and in life—is what counts most. "I've been reading Andrew Carnegie's autobiography," he says. "There's an interesting theory that says people should spend the first one-third of their life learning as much as they can; the second one-third earning as much money as they can; and the last one-third, giving it all away.
"I think in today's world, that approach is still very relevant. I'd change it slightly, though, because I think learning is a continuous exercise. I think being philanthropic is something you should do your whole life."
To that end, D'Souza is committed to helping raise the standard of living in India and other parts of the world where Cognizant has a presence. He is motivated, in part, because of the efforts of his father, who joined the Indian Diplomatic Service in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence. "My father's generation was extraordinarily passionate about the country," he says. "It was an exciting time. They worked hard and with dedication to build a new nation. There was a tremendous feeling of patriotism." Although there have been no nations to liberate in quite the same fashion during his lifetime, D'Souza—who became a U.S. citizen in 2002—is helping provide employment opportunities in the country his father's generation helped found. This has been true from Cognizant's beginnings in 1994, when D'Souza was an up-and-coming staffer at Dun & Bradstreet [http://www.dnb.com/us/]. As part of the firm's exclusive fast-track management development program, the recent Tepper School graduate was asked to establish Cognizant as a project in Chennai using its software infrastructure.
"I worked out of my hotel," D'Souza remembers. "I had nothing. I just checked in and got started setting things up. I lived like that for a year ... flying coach every two weeks, going back and forth from New York and India."
"He was willing to do anything," says Mehta, his Cognizant colleague and former classmate. "Francisco rolled up his sleeves and put in cable for the PCs when he had to."
"I was single at the time and lived on adrenaline," says D'Souza with a chuckle. "I was willing to take a risk. That's why it worked."
Cognizant soon became its own company, which generated employment worldwide, including India. Although it would be well within the jurisdiction of Cognizant's third CEO to treat himself to a little bit of the high life, he remains focused on others. Want proof? How many CEOs give themselves a mere two weeks of vacation? Or try to crack open and repair the family's broken coffee maker?
Further proof comes from D'Souza's father, who says his son long ago surpassed his achievement bar. "My son is a successful businessman, but the thing I'm proudest of most is the way he has retained a common touch in what he does," says the elder D'Souza. "He hasn't forgotten his family or where he came from."
Chris A. Weber is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to this magazine.
Editor’s Note: In May 2011, D’Souza was named CEO of the Year by the South Asian MBA Association, which connects South Asian MBAs and business professionals worldwide. SAMBAA membership is open to all South Asian MBAs and business professionals with interest in South Asia.