‘To get to the top, you don’t have to create collateral damage’

Interview of the week: Brian Humphries, Cognizant chief executive

Cognizant chief executive
Brian Humphries Cognizant. His motto is `always strive never settle'.

“Always strive, never settle.” Those are the words that Brian Humphries lives by. The Irish-born chief executive of one of the largest tech services and outsourcing companies in the world has seen his career go from strength to strength over the years.

Appointed to the job in April 2019, the Wicklow man had already spent a good proportion of his professional life living outside Ireland, and had worked with some of the top companies in technology. At the time of his appointment to Cognizant, he was chief executive of Vodafone Business. Before that, he worked with Dell as chief operating officer of its infrastructure solutions group among other senior roles.

Humphries was the outside appointment that would lead a new period of growth for Cognizant, taking over from cofounder Francisco D’Souza. The company is one of the largest IT services companies in the world, with 330,000 employees worldwide and customers that include that include Sanofi, Pfizer, Wells Fargo and ABN Amro. It also has a number of partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, AWS, Google and Salesforce.

Founded as part of Dun & Bradstreet in 1994, as the company’s in-house technology unit, it began serving external clients in 1996. The US multinational came to Ireland in 2019, when it made two acquisitions in quick succession.


The first was Meritsoft, a Dublin-based specialist financial services software company, in March 2019 before Humphries took up his role.

That was followed closely by Cork company Zenith Technologies in June of that year. Zenith was a life sciences manufacturing technology services company based in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork. Among its specialities are implementing digital technologies to manage, control and optimise drug and medical device production – skills that were in high demand over the past two pandemic-impacted years.

Another Irish acquisition linked to Zenith, TQS Integration in Waterford, followed last year, one of the seven global deals Cognizant made in 2021 as it pursues growth. That has seen headcount in Ireland grow from 900 to 1,500 in two years. The technologies and intellectual property that have come out of Zenith and TQS have been used for deals in Switzerland and the US, meaning the Irish operations are having some influence outside the country, despite Ireland’s relatively tiny proportion of the Cognizant workforce.

“When you see successful stories like this it makes you want to help more,” he says. “I’m very open to further acquisitions in Ireland.”

It’s not that he’s prioritising Irish acquisitions because he’s Irish, Humphries says, but the companies fulfilled certain criteria. “In a strange way, Zenith to TQS, it’s three birds with one stone: geographic expansion, industry alignment and then digital prioritisation,” he says.

The strategy has paid off. Since Humphries took over, Cognizant has grown from a $16 billion (€14.9bn) market cap to $20 billion. The company is competing with Accenture and with major Indian IT companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro and Infosys.

These days, financial services and healthcare are its two biggest units, accounting for about two-thirds of the business, Humphries says. Cognizant began the exit of some of its content moderation business in 2019 following investigative reports highlighting the working conditions of content moderation teams contracted to Facebook. According to a leaked email from Humphries published in the media, the company had decided the work wasn’t in line with its strategic vision.

But Humphries says it is still a “cottage industry”, with plenty of room for further development. After two years of a pandemic and its associated chill, he is looking ahead to growth. “There is a huge growing market where there is a tremendous amount of opportunity,” he says. It was partly what attracted him to Cognizant in the first place. “I firmly believe the world is digitising. You might think of Cognizant as a B2B [business-to-business] company, we serve the world’s largest customers. But through our relationship with them, we actually improve everyday life.”

This is Humphries’ first trip back to Ireland since he took over the top job. On the agenda is a meeting with staff at Zenith, and this is his last meeting of the morning before leaving for Cork.

It marks a hectic few months for him. The first year of the pandemic, Humphries didn’t get on a single plane. However, 2022 has seen things ramp up again. He has just returned from a trip to Australia where he crammed in 38 client meetings in five days. Before that, it was the Middle East, where he saw 17 clients in four days.

“I think this year was a turning point for me, post-Omicron, where I’m seeing clients much more open to seeing you in person,” he says.

Despite his hectic schedule, travel these days is more thoughtful, both for Humphries and the entire company. One of the changes he has implemented is the introduction of an ESG – environmental, social and governance – report, and with it has come some changes.

That includes committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, powering all its buildings with renewable energy. The company has cut its travel budget to half of pre-Covid levels, for example, as new technologies provide alternatives.

“Issuing a report, anyone can do that. What I say to people is how you live and breathe It – I go back to our purpose statement, to engineer modern businesses, to improve everyday life. We’ve proved, in the last few years, we can work effectively remotely, we can use technology,” he says. “We’ve also since 2019, committed to ESG, so why would I want people flying around the world as much as before, or commuting as much as before? It’s actually against one of our goals, which is reduce your carbon footprint.”

There is, however, some parts of his job that must be done face to face. “We’re not a manufacturing company, we are a people business, so the CEO being very visible after two years of the world being somewhat locked down, it is really important for me to be able to get out in the world and see clients, employees and partners.”

Still, the pandemic has provided him with the opportunity to take stock, both personally and professionally. Married with two sons, Humphries’ personal life is based in Switzerland; his professional life is on the east coast of the US where Cognizant headquarters are based.

“I spend most of my life on airplanes,” he says.

The past few years have been a different story for him. The pandemic essentially ruled out overseas business travel, so like so many others, he found himself spending large amounts of time at home with his family. Was there a silver lining to the pandemic, both personally and professionally?

“It’s very hard to talk about the silver lining of Covid, because obviously we’ve gone through a humanitarian crisis. Even as a CEO, you can be prepared for all kinds of things, but this time I was getting emails almost on a daily basis, how many employees had passed away. Nothing prepares you for that. It’s not about training, developments or MBAs. There’s a human side to leadership. At the end of the day, I say CEOs are just human like everyone else,” he says.

Putting that devastating impact aside, difficult as it is, there has been one positive side to the past two years. “The silver lining in a strange way was I think a return to roots. It was people rediscovering cycling or walking in nature. I personally enjoyed seeing my wife and kids. And yes, it has been hard to get back in the saddle again.”

The question is now, where does Cognizant goes in the future, in a post-pandemic world?

“We’re a company in transition,” he says. “But we are returning to being a pre-eminent technology services provider, a global company. I took over a company that had very strong Indian roots, and India remains at the heart of it, it has 260,000 employees there. But we are making Cognizant a global company, a global powerhouse. I think the brand has been repositioned, we’re thought about differently these days, as a digital transformation partner.”

Given its recent results, which showed revenues are set to hit $20 billion in 2022, you would think the board that brought him into the company would be happy with his performance. But Humphries isn’t taking anything for granted. He continues to strive for further growth and follows that important advice – never settle.

“It’s very important to me that people are intellectually curious, that they’re not taking embedded assumptions for granted, that they are always challenging, in a respectable manner, to improve things,” he says.

“Do the right things the right way. Along the way you meet a lot of people who help you and what’s important to me is that I actually give back and help people as well. To get to the top, you don’t have to create collateral damage.”