Satjiv Chahil is a consultant in California’s Silicon Valley, where he helps companies take innovations to market and expand globally. In his career of over 30 years, he has worked with iconic companies such as Apple, HP, IBM, Palm, and Xerox. He chatted with BrainGain Magazine recently about his journey from college in Chandigarh to the cutting edge of entertainment technology. Edited excerpts:
You graduated from Punjab University, Chandigarh, in 1971. What prompted you to go to the Thunderbird School of Global Management at a time when few Indians studied abroad?
We always had an international atmosphere at home, so I became interested in international business. That led me to study at Thunderbird, which was then the only US university offering a graduate program in international business. All the international companies used to recruit from there, so I got hired by IBM. At that time, the computer industry wasn’t mainstream as it is today.
Today, it’s very easy to find information to study abroad, thanks to the internet. Back then, how did you decide where to go study?
Thinking back, Indians who went to study abroad had to be very resourceful in finding out about American universities and applying. [Laughs] Now when I reflect back, it’s quite impressive how enterprising all those people were! And everybody rose to impressive positions – you cannot go to a prominent US university without Indian deans.
In your career, you have driven major initiatives at iconic companies where people dream of working. Was this what you dreamed of when you first went abroad to study? Or were you surprised at how things turned out?
Total surprise! As an Indian, the moment you graduated, you’d try to get a job, any job in those days. It wasn’t like today, when you get your pick of jobs in your industry. I was fortunate to get hired by IBM. I’m not an engineer – my master’s was in management, and I was hired for business development. It seemed that the path up would only be for engineers and sales people. And in those days, nobody wanted to hire an Indian sales person, because they thought the people wouldn’t accept that.
It must have been different to be an international student back then – you couldn’t take for granted what kind of food or community you might have. Was it a huge adjustment?
[Laughs] We were adventurous. I wouldn’t have the courage today. What courage all of us had back then, going there with almost no money, working graveyard shifts, and the questions about cows and whether we lived in grass houses. The impression of India was poor at the time. Now it’s the opposite – the highest-income community in the US is Indians. So to go back to your earlier question – I did not foresee an exciting future in the tech industry. I just saw an opportunity to work and earn a living.
You have worked with musical legends such as Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock, and were responsible for the world’s first webcast. I think you were at Apple then, which is known for connecting creativity and cutting-edge technology. Could you tell us about your role there?
Apple gets a lot of credit for things that originated at Xerox. I was [at Xerox] working amidst great scientists… I was responsible for the group that created Unicode, so you could have foreign languages on computers, not just English… Well, the Xerox people ended up at Apple. In those days – mid-80s to early 90s – Japan Inc. ruled the world. [To counter it] Apple needed a special group of people. I was hired from Xerox… I sat in on top management meetings in Apple, where our technology folks would show new capabilities, including moving images and sound. Being in and out of Japan, with its pictorial languages and way of communicating, I thought this was a compelling technology. Many of my colleagues in the States didn’t think so; they wanted their spreadsheets to go faster than IBM’s and Microsoft’s. I became the champion of multimedia. Back then, it took 40 floppy disks to load the Japanese operating system, but I could put it in one CD-ROM. The Adobe software for creativity would become easier… So we focused on the design community, which led to a broader creative community.
To drive multimedia, we needed to work with musicians and storytellers of movies. I had to cultivate these industries to create new examples of what they do. Some people thought I was being disloyal to the company by doing ‘cool things’ that wouldn’t add up to anything. But I had the benefit of supportive bosses and teams of believers. So CD-ROM created the first interactive experiences.
When I first met with George Lucas, he said, “Don’t think of me as a film maker but as a storyteller.” I met with Francis Ford Coppola, and he said, “I want to see how this technology will increase the persuasiveness of my storytelling.” They were all looking at things that normally we wouldn’t know. For Peter Gabriel, it was the music and the imagination, and it had to be perfect. We could not comprehend the importance of the perfection of sound to have the emotional impact, and he would not allow us to compromise. Almost 20 years later, that helped me while introducing Beats headsets.
And how did the webcast come about?
I got the reputation of championing crazy things, so the engineers would just pop into my office… One day, they were explaining the possibility of moving images being spread through the internet. They’d keep explaining compression ratios and technical details, and I’d get a headache. It was too much for my mind to absorb. One day, I said, “What you’re suggesting is like broadcasting over the web.” And the guy goes, “Yeah!” I said, “Then let’s just call it webcasting!” He said, “Makes sense to me!” We had relations with the music industry, and Carlos Santana was doing the San Francisco New Year’s Eve party. I said [to the music events company behind it] “Let’s webcast this”. Nobody had ever done a webcast.
And this was 1996?
Yes, 1995-96. People were responding from Australia and other countries, and we [Apple] were going, “Wow! This is amazing!” It got the attention of the Grammys, and they said, “Let’s webcast the Grammys. But it has to be perfect.” Well, it went flawlessly, and the artists enjoyed the two-way impact of the fans.
Shortly after, we were helping BMW create a website. Nobody knew what websites were. I thought, “Why don’t we turn it into an ad and broadcast it at the Super Bowl?” That sent horrors into advertising circles, because a website was not the quality of a TV spot. But we aired that spot. Next thing I knew, all the companies wanted a website. We ended up with a 70% market share of web creation. Then the film people wanted to announce their films [on the web]. You know, things take on a life of their own.
For many young people, working in an iconic Silicon Valley company is success. As someone who has been there and done that, what’s your advice to students on defining goals for success?
One of the people who came to Apple from Xerox, [graphical user interface creator] Alan Kay, said, “If you want predict the future, invent it.” Earlier, IBM and other companies were on the East Coast. They called the West Coast the ‘Left Coast’ because of the hippie movement. The mainstream thought of it as ‘counterculture’. Actually, it was the biggest positive cultural revolution. The anchors were Berkeley and Stanford – highly educated people who were sick of wars and all that. Whatever they did, they did with a passion to improve the world, not return on investment. You should not think of Silicon Valley as a location, and create an Indian Silicon Valley, or a German one, with buildings and internet, and dish out money. It’s about the mindset: how do I make the world a better place? See your passion, where you want to make a difference, and go for it! Kodak, Sun Microsystems, Palm disappeared – that old way of joining the company is now out the window. You’ve heard the term ‘gig economy’… people get together around their passion. Cloud, big data, biotech – wherever your interests are, you group with people. That will be the most fulfilling, and the best chance to go anywhere.
What courses and teachers would you say were the most influential in your success?
That’s a very good question! I was poor in math, and my parents arranged a tutor, Mela Ram, when I was about 11 or 12. He was actually a photographer. He taught me math so gently, and I got really good at it. And in school, we had a Spanish gentleman who taught English literature, and the way he taught it absorbed my mind. I used to say, study math and English. [Laughs] Now I add: learn coding!