October 2005

Adventurer ahoy!

Jim Thomas, vice president (IT Analyst Relations), Tata Consultancy Services, has had more than his share of thrills and spills — and he's game for more

On a death-ravaged battlefield in Vietnam, a 23-year-old second lieutenant crystallized the philosophy he would live his life by: never walk away from anything saying, "I wonder what that would have been like". That may explain why Jim rushes headlong into situations that ordinary mortals strive to avoid.

Mr Thomas brings his experiences alive — describing, emoting, mimicking, gesticulating, and even rising out of his seat to demonstrate — in a storytelling style that is masterful, with an endearing candidness and a joie de vivre that is as infectious as it is uplifting. "I am a bit of an adventurer," says this vice president (IT analyst relations) with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). That is an understatement.

Many of Mr Thomas's adventures have happened in India. On his maiden train journey in the country, he did something most first-time visitors to the subcontinent would not: he abandoned the comfort of his luxury coach to lean far out of the door. He just missed having his head knocked off. The dangers and surprises India had to offer probably played a part in Mr Thomas's feelings for the country. "It was love at first sight," he says.

Mr Thomas's initial encounters with TCS happened before he made his first acquaintance with India. While at IBM, the company he was employed with for 25 years, he asked a colleague about using TCS's services for an assignment. "He had three things to say about TCS: they work 23-hour days, have strong ethical principles, and they are cheap. And I said, 'I can live with that!'"

When Mr Thomas came to India in 1988, it was as a client representative. On his first morning at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai he risked a long walk by himself near the Gateway of India. "I was accosted by beggars, some of whom looked really destitute," Mr Thomas recalls. "I couldn't resist giving them some money. Before I knew it another 20 had appeared. I had to run back into the hotel."

Years after he had joined TCS, as vice president of marketing, and also as the first non-Indian not employed in an administrative capacity, Mr Thomas found that even a simple salutation was not free from peril. In a New Delhi garden he came across two politicians deep in conversation, surrounded by four armed guards. He walked up to them with a greeting, only to have the guards jerk their heavy-duty weapons at him. "Luckily, the guys smiled and asked me how I was. I told them I was enjoying their country," he says.

Mr Thomas possesses the adventure-seeker's knack of being at eventful places. When the Express Towers in Mumbai caught fire in 1999, he was nearby. Then, exactly four days later, when the famous Kolkata book fair went up in flames he was there as well. Mr Thomas, who is trigger-happy with a camera, went up to the terrace of an office building and captured a picture of a fire engine trying to control the raging blaze.

Mr Thomas has been to many Indian cities, but Pune remains his favorite. He has had his adventures there too, this time in an auto-rickshaw that came close to going under "one of the biggest trucks ever". But that was not enough to scare him off Indian roads. On a bus ride to Agra, when a fellow passenger was getting the jitters, he was quick to pacify him. His reassurance turned out to have been misplaced because, soon after, their driver made an ill-advised overtaking maneuver that nearly led to a head-on collision.

While Mr Thomas has had many a narrow shave, he has not always come out unscathed. Once, while doing something seemingly innocuous — taking pictures of the TCS facility in Trivandrum — he fell into a 4-feet-deep ditch. "In order to protect the $500 camera, I rolled it to my chest; I severely injured myself in the process, but the camera was safe. Colleagues still tease me and say they have put up a plaque at the spot, saying, 'Jim Thomas fell here!'"

As Mr Thomas sees it, the falls and the thrills have been par for the India course. He has taken the soft with the hard, the highs with the lows to carve a niche for himself in a company as adventurous as he is. The one, it seems, suits the other.