Sridhar Tayur (“Abba”) graduated from IIT Madras in 1986 with B. Tech. in Mechanical Engineering. He remembers his four years in Godav fondly. He is an INFORMS Fellow and has been in CMU since 1991. He holds a courtesy appointment at MIT (Engineering).His companies SmartOps and OrganJet are both subjects of teaching cases (through Harvard Business School) and are used in MBA and Executive Education programs around the world.
I have the good fortune of being a Chair professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a software entrepreneur – as Founder and CEO of SmartOps Corporation, which was acquired by SAP AG last February – and a social entrepreneur – as Founder of the social enterprise, OrganJet, that has attracted attention from many luminaries, including Nobel winner Al Roth who has blogged about it on his site Market Design (marketdesigner.blogspot.com).
Q: Why did you do a PhD in Operations Research (OR)?
A: I fell in love with OR the very first time I saw it at IITM in a class taught by “Mama” (T.T.Narendran). Although I had several fellowships in Mechanical Engineering for graduate school, ranging from CAD/CAM to heat transfer to computational fluid dynamics, I decided to go to Cornell for a PhD in OR.
Q: Why did you decide to join academia?
A: One of the books I had read at IIT was Littlewood’s Miscellanythat gave a very nice perspective of academic life in Cambridge in the 1930s. That description of “professorial” life of research, collegiality and teaching appealed to me. So after my PhD, I joined CMU and have been there ever since.
Q: So how is academic life in America? What is different in a Business School?
A: When you are young, obtaining tenure is an important goal, and is granted primarily based on research quality. CMU is one of the most open-minded Universities in terms of accepting a wide range of research topics and methods—a culture epitomized by Herbert Simon — that was particularly attractive to me. After receiving tenure, one gets promoted to a “Full” professor, and if you continue being a good researcher, you get an “Endowed Chair Professorship.” My title is called Ford Distinguished Research Professor. Unlike engineering departments where there is a lot of pressure to get grants from National Science Foundation (NSF) and such, in a Business School there is a lot of pressure to be a very good teacher at the MBA level.
Q: How did you become an entrepreneur?
A: The reason I liked OR was that one could solve a dazzling array of real world problems using elegant mathematical tools. In my early years, beyond research and teaching, I also worked closely with several companies – such as GE, IBM, Flight Options, Caterpillar, McKinsey & Company. This work got written up in business journal such as FORTUNE, and I started getting a lot of calls from other Fortune 500/Global 2000 companies. I realized that the most effective manner to do all that work was not via consulting projects, but by creating software that can be deployed and used at these companies. It was also the time when the Internet was getting to be mainstream and web-based server side software was being built and technology entrepreneurship was in the air – so I decided to create SmartOps.
Q: What did CMU feel about your switch from being a professor to be an entrepreneur and also be the CEO?
A: They were actually very supportive. America is the land of entrepreneurship and business, and top technical schools – including MIT, Stanford — are proud of successful companies that get founded on campus, by their students, alums and professors, that make a difference in the industry they are in.
Q: What did SmartOps do? Why did SAP acquire SmartOps?
A: Our software is used for global planning of inventories for complex supply chains. We created the space Enterprise Inventory Optimization (EIO) that connects with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Advanced Planning and Scheduling Systems (APS). We are used by over 100 of the top Fortune 500 manufacturing companies, many of them that have ERP and APS software from SAP. So the acquisition was natural.
Q: How is life after SmartOps?
A: Very good! Like many liquid founders, I am now involved in social entrepreneurship, through OrganJet, and want to apply my skills to solve social problems that are not being addressed due to market failures. I continue my research and teaching at CMU.