How a software engineer coped with India’s biggest corporate fraud

Computer Weekly caught up with Sandeep Thawani (pictured) to see how a software engineer coped with the media storm that followed the Satyam scandal.

The man in charge of the UK public relations for Indian IT services supplier Satyam when the company was hit by India's biggest fraud scandal was a software engineer who had only been working in marketing for a few months.

Sandeep Thawani was in the early stages of a new career when he was confronted with the biggest professional challenge of his life. He says his experience in developing software helped him through it - solving one problem at a time.

IT service provider Satyam was thrown into disarray on 7 January 2009 when its former chairman admitted to cooking the company books to the tune of $1bn. In the media storm that followed, Thawani had to act quickly or Satyam faced losing customers and billions of dollars worth of business.

He faced a vertical learning curve. After learning of the scandal in the early hours of 7 January, Thawani says his mind was numb for a few minutes. But he was soon on the phone briefing his colleagues so they could prepare to answer questions from customers.

Computer Weekly caught up with Thawani to see how a software engineer coped with the media storm that followed the Satyam scandal.

Q. Was dealing with the aftermath of the fraud the biggest challenge of your career?

"It was the single biggest challenge. Suddenly, the definition of normal had changed. Nothing I had done in my working life prepared me for what was thrust on us as individuals or as teams with regard to choices and priorities."

Q. How did you feel when news of the fraud broke?

"Nothing at first. The first few minutes were mind-numbing. But then it was action stations, as it was inevitable that we would all have to seize the initiative and manage the situation within our local regions. This constant communication allowed us to respond to rumour, speculation, fabrication and even challenge facts."

Q. Why did you move into marketing from engineering?

"Marketing is something I had not been involved with previously. I thought my understanding of the business and what customers want would stand me in good stead. I felt it would be an opportunity to demystify a role for myself and help prepare me for a general management role in my career in the future."

Q. What training did you do for your career switch?

"Nothing. I just kept an open mind and spent time with my internal customers [sales and relationship management teams] to understand their needs and challenges. Having been part of the same operations teams, I did have first-hand experience, but I also took the opportunity to look at things outside-in."

Q. How did your engineering background help you?

"It allowed me to think objectively; helped me set a goal for the day and solve one problem at a time. Crisis is a great unifier and is also an effective tester of the planning process. Being an engineer also helped me handle personal challenges and maintain transparency of the downsides of the situation with my family. Their support in all this was amazing and it allowed me to effectively craft a personal contingency plan."

Q. What was the first thing you did when you found out about the fraud?

"I called the sales teams and told them what was coming so they would be prepared to handle their customer calls. The news broke at 05.15 UK Time, so we had about three hours to compose ourselves."

Q. As a software engineer you must be used to being challenged to solve a certain problem. Do you think being faced with the challenge of restoring Satyam's good name so early in your new career will make you a better marketing executive?

"I believe so. I often joke and say that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just once in this lifetime would be great - no encores here!"

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