Earlier this year, Radha Shelat left her high profile job as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Symantec to steer the engineering operations of a small startup. In the process she took a significant cut in her compensation.
For her, this is the start of another trek. She is preparing for the tough road ahead, which holds the possibility to experience the exhilarating sense of victory. But unlike the visible peak waiting to be conquered now, her initial professional goals were not clearly defined.
That did not deter this statistician from working her way up in the IT technical ladder. A year back, the India Development Center (IDC) at Veritas Software (now Symantec), developed 30 percent of its total patents: a testimonial to the team that Shelat was leading. She had contributed significantly in the effort to build this thousand strong team and in the process, made the two-product company, a 30-product organization. As a leader, this was her moment of victory. After thirteen years of scaling the heights, she had reached the peak.
How she got there
It was an exciting journey. She had stumbled into the world of computer science, while pursuing her doctorate in Probability at IT BHU. This landed her in a small and somewhat run down office at Frontier Services. But the steadfast and inquisitive mind soon found her goal hidden within the UNIX space and Systems files: A goal to enhance her contributions in the technical sector.
She was convinced about the technological potential in India. So during her six-month learning stint on File System in the U.S., she hit upon the idea of running similar operations from India. It haunted her till she decided to exorcise the ghost.
Her enthusiasm earned her the role of the Head Esngineer on return. It came with the responsibility both to establish a world class team in India and also the responsibility of quality deliverables that would meet the expectations of the much more experienced counterparts in the U.S. A strongly worded feedback from a senior engineer, brought to light the importance of quality. It was the first serious lesson in her capacity as a leader; it made her determined to create a team that was at par with the team in U.S.
Shelat overcame this obstacle with a strategic plan when Veritas acquired Frontier. There were all the initial issues to deal with—her lack of experience in a startup, dealing with communication problems, remote team issues and building a team that would be able to deliver on a leading file system product.
The testing times helped her evolve her goal. Personal contribution was passé. It was now about contribution of her team to the company. With assistance from a fellow IITian, she created a team, recruiting from IIT-B and IISc, to work on File Systems, who were trained for three months in essential coding, quality expectations and reviews.
“File System on Solaris was very exciting. As a team we were eager to have work on a new platform,” she reminisces.
And deliver they did!
In what she describes as the most satisfying achievement in her professional life, her team released the first product from the IDC: the File System on a Solaris platform. But Shelat did not get carried away with this success neither did she let her team relax.
Her motivation and patience egged them to their success. The team also actively contributed to her professional growth.
The parallel road
Shelat’s career graph ran predictably till then. Being in the same organization all her life, it was just a matter of time before the management ladder came beckoning. By then she had moved out of File Systems (after adding the release of a new Cluster File System to it) and been the India General Manager once. This experience confirmed that although she was a successful manager but saw more value in contributing to a technology-focused role. “I knew that I could contribute better by sticking to the technical ladder and dabble more with technology,”—she offers.
Her goal evolved again. Now the focus was on raising technical leaders in the country.
She wanted to increase contribution to overall technology advancement from the country and believed that she was among the more suitable people to do so. “An outsider is not expected to come and start these operations. It needed someone who knew the system,” she firmly adds.
Acting on the plan, Shelat pioneered the Advance Technology Group (ATG) within the organization. She pooled in the crème de la crème of her techies, worked with them towards creating inventions that solved business problems.
In this system, senior techies were geared to contribute to new technology that will eventually translate into business. She also created a tech forum where techies could interact. Thus, the ATG raised the benchmark of technology standards in India.
Like her goals, every major decision in Shelat’s career came after a studied thought. Be it her decision to stick to the technical ladder or her reason for accepting the position of CTO. She says: “What the Indian IT industry needs is progress in technical maturity and market knowledge. In India, the senior technical heads go abroad instead of working from India. I decided to stay back and contribute to the growth in technical leadership,” says she.
She applied the same logic while leaving the company after its acquisition by Symantec, refusing the offered position of CTO Asia Pacific. Walking away from one of the most desired posts for any technical officer was not easy. But for Shelat, her contributions mattered the most.
“I was on my own in the remote center with no peers around. It became difficult for me to assess my personal contribution to the company. I was not sure if I was growing professionally,” she says.
Having been driven by challenges all through, the comfort was unnerving. Her innate restlessness and desire to take on a challenge was back. And when she received a call from an old colleague about a new company, she had found her next goal.
Today, Shelat is busy at EverGrid Software. As the Vice President of engineering, she is building a team that would handle very challenging technology issues and come up with products that will contribute to company
revenues in a short period.
Like her many trekking expeditions, she has reached another base camp in her professional life. She has no intention to rest. This time, bundled up in her rucksack is tons and tons of experience.
Shelat is ready for take two!