The Futurist Technologist

Khushwant Singh

Gurdeep Singh Pall Corporate Vice President, Business AI, Microsoft Corp.

‘No one goes to Medina village. Why this particular village?’ asked the immigration officer intriguingly at the Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, USA, as he peered through his window, trying to get a closer look at me.
‘I have no idea, Officer, except that this was the address given to me by my host to fill on the arrival form,’ I replied, and distinctly remember wondering what was it about Medina that no one visited it.

This episode took place in the year 2011, and I would get to join the dots as soon as I reached the Medina residence of my host Gurdeep Singh Pall. Apart from being home to Gurdeep and his family, Medina, a small village on the Lake Washington front, also happens to be the address of Microsoft and Amazon founders, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, respectively.

Other than addressing the officer’s concern about me heading to a village that people of my demeanour hardly ever visited, the Medina enigma, importantly, unravelled a lot about my host.

I knew that Gurdeep was a top honcho in Microsoft, but that his story was right up there, I had no clue. Perhaps it was his humility and gentle mannerism that stood like a shield, hiding from all and sundry one of the most fascinating and inspirational journeys from the world of technology. Only to emerge in parts a few years later when newspaper headlines screamed Gurdeep Singh Pall taking over as global head of Skype, the international VoIP (voice over the internet) and Messaging service.

Fast forward to 2017, and I prod Gurdeep to share his life story. Heartily, in Punjabi style, he agrees to my request, and the interview takes place at my home in Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana.

Fascinatingly, the interview, which is highly educative for a technology amateur like me, is in the same city where he was born fifty-one years ago, on 17 April 1966. However, the run up to his birth was action laden, which perhaps nourished the child in the womb with embryonic influences and qualities that separates the men from the boys.

Gurdeep’s father, Brigadier (retd.) Gajindar Singh Pall was then a serving major in the Indian Army, and during the time his wife was expecting Gurdeep, he was serving his country on the battlefront during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. It was obvious that his wife Guddi went through a tense and anxious pregnancy, especially as her husband was engaged in one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles of the war − the re-capture of OP hill on the Jammu & Kashmir front.

Though this capture won Major Pall’s 2nd Dogra regiment the battle honors, undoubtedly those were stressful and tough times for the family.

Gurdeep’s upbringing was no different than any other army officer’s ward. It was a roller-coaster ride that included a change of nine schools and almost as many homes in different parts of the country. Chandigarh, however, was the base whenever his father was posted to non-family stations. In Chandigarh, Gurdeep and his elder brother Gurpreet, who incidentally is also with Microsoft, making the Pall brothers a formidable tech force to reckon with, would live with their grandparents. They were sent to the prestigious St. John’s High school and thereon completed their schooling from La Martiniere, Kolkata, (then Calcutta) where their father served a long stint. Kolkata and La Martiniere were to impact Gurdeep’s thought process significantly. Before Kolkata, his life was very stereotypical, and it was here, in the ‘city of joy’, where his perspective towards life broadened and he started exploring new opportunities. The city offered him an atmosphere and peer group that would constantly discuss ideas, options, and future prospects. It was in Kolkata that he discovered that scholarships for students excelling in academics were available in abundance.

Khushwant Singh
  • Manpreet Singh