Captaining cloud control, Rackspace MD Ajit Melarkode is a data management pioneer
Ajit Melarkode has always been happy as a pathfinder: someone prepared to take seemingly contrarian routes, and yet fully confident they will lead to success.
He did so by studying economics rather than law or medicine, starting out in an Indian firm rather than a multinational, and, as Asia and ANZ managing director at managed cloud company Rackspace, leading a new world of data management.
In essence, he is quick to explain, there are two types of cloud computing. One is DIY, where in-house IT staff figure it out or download the wherewithal. The other, as offered by Rackspace, is where companies can call in the experts, speak to “real human beings”, receive technical advice and 24/7 support with their migration to the cloud. Managed cloud users include Fortune 500 companies, and an expanding phalanx of ‘born-in-the-cloud’ enterprises.
Rackspace’s Hong Kong office is continuously hiring; a second data centre has opened in Australia; and multiple platforms are available to accommodate customer preferences and support search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine management (SEM) functions. “In this organisation, we are literally inventing the industry as we go along,” he says. “As a result, I can’t honestly tell you what the company will look like in 12 months. But I can tell you the formula for success is changing on a monthly basis and, with innovations like our first non-English control panel for the cloud, we are in a position to invent the future.”
Born in Chennai in 1971 and raised in extended family all living under the same roof, Melarkode has early memories of being allowed to carry his grandfather’s briefcase and sit in his office observing the work of a stockbroker. It turned out to be a formative experience in terms of initial career choice and general approach to the world.
“In some ways, I may still be trying to prove myself to my grandfather who was the head of the family and the biggest influence on my life,” says Melarkode, whose father worked in the car industry. “It became ingrained in my DNA to follow stocks and go into the local library to read up on companies. Also, since childhood, where I grew up in a secure, carefree environment with no fear of anything, my instinct has been to take on ‘do it first’ projects, such as starting a high school newspaper, and even what other people might regard as lost causes.”
In due course, these interests and aptitudes led to a first degree at the London School of Economics and a subsequent return to the city for an MBA at London Business School. In between, he joined one of India’s largest stockbrokers, starting on the sales side and later becoming the head of equity research just as the country’s economy was really opening up. “It was a go-ahead firm and there were no boundaries on what you could cover — industrial, agricultural, IT,” he says. I really enjoyed finding out how different sectors work and understanding the interdependence between, say, a chemical company, cement factory, construction business and a consumer finance firm. “Interestingly too, the questions I hear now about data security for the cloud are similar to what I heard back then when international companies were first thinking about off-shoring and outsourcing to India. It is like déjà vu.”
However, a switch to set up the Indian office for a Swedish mutual fund also led to an increasing sense of dissatisfaction. In meetings with potential picks, he began to see almost instinctively what was wrong with companies – and how to fix it.
“I felt like a finance geek, but wanted to be on the other side, where I could fix problems and get my hands dirty,” he says, explaining the thinking behind his MBA. “That was my transition to the real world.”
While studying an MBA, he opted where possible for evening electives, thereby leaving time to work for two internet start-ups during the day. One helped supermarkets develop online merchandising. The other was a pioneering website for rating financial products and services. This opened the door to roles with EDS launching a technology and strategy consulting practice, advising key clients, and running a board-backed project to reorganise the business process. By the time he reached and later Synechron, by which offered a custom-built capital markets platform, time he had a reputation for getting results that others couldn’t.
“I asked the managing director to give me accounts no one else wanted, so I could turn them around,” he says. “Even now, I’ll do the contrarian thing if it makes money or gives us a competitive advantage… For example, these days everyone is doing digital marketing, but at Rackspace we switched that off and are focusing instead on offline, in-person promotional events. And while the company allows me to explore new possibilities in a groundbreaking business in a fast growing region, I’m not experimenting like a ‘mad professor’. Everything is very focused, with numbers on the table and clear responsibilities to our shareholders.”
When family commitments permit, Melarkode hopes to resume a project started in his student days of visiting as many countries as possible, especially those well off the tourist trail. Destinations like Iran, Libya and Greenland have already been crossed off the list, but plenty remain.
“I tell my son if you want to stand out, don’t make your CV the same as everyone else’s. That’s why, as long as he’s happy, I’d encourage him to learn the erhu or do swimming, and not just follow the crowd.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Captaining cloud control.