Beckoning the unknown

Date:   Saturday , March 31, 2007

Motorola and Quality are the two words that go synonymously with Sarala Ravishankar,. Way back in 1991, when the rest of the country was grappling with product development, the former Quality manager at Motorola India Electronics Ltd (MIEL) embarked on a silent journey to hunt down the best processes in Quality. When she learnt of SEI CMM Level 5 standards, the highest certification then, she was confident that applying those processes in her own division could spur countrywide and industry-wide consequences. The challenges were many. The first being to influence mindsets and align people at all levels. They had to be convinced that the project was plausible given the infrastructural and other constraints within the country. Then it moved on to finding ways to encapsulate the theoretical aspects of the quality models into practical everyday execution processes and ensuring the execution was sustainable by means of systems and automation.

Just two years in the making and her optimism and hard work paid off, as MIEL became become the world's first commercial software organization to achieve SEI Level 5 maturity in 1993. It put her in the limelight and she made it to the top of the 'risked and successful' list. She was applauded for attacking a yet to be attempted certification, virtually unknown and something many thought impossible, but she was clear in her head that it was not a Herculean achievement. "I knew my math," she notes, explaining that all the way, she knew exactly what she was doing and success was undoubted. She labels the achievement as 'a milestone that was waiting to be crossed'.

The confidence, not to be mistaken for lack of modesty, follows a simple principle of every problem having some underlying logic. "India was in no way lesser talented in Quality than the rest of the world, we just had to tap into the resources," she reasons. The confidence has been an endearing charm of her professional life and very necessarily so, she quickly adds. Sarala enjoys, as she likes to put it, 'attacking' the unknown. It gave her a great thrill to venture into nascent fields in an attempt to mould them into new settings and something like that would call for a tremendous amount of confidence and passion. The same love for new fields ensured that she let her 'babies' go and prepared herself for the next attack in succession. "I let go when they mature and have stable foundations to grow further," she says tracing an imaginary path of her career in air - computer science, Quality, SEI CMM at Motorola and now customer base in HP - all victims of her watchful eye for emerging fields.

Was she never nervous about her quests? "Possibly, but never deterred." It all started when she was pursuing Masters in Physics in the `80s, dreaming a future caught in the web of quantum math, with definite plans of a PhD. Nearing the end of the course, she suddenly discovered the Indian IT industry - a toddler then, looking for adopters. "There was a question mark in people's mind about the future of this so called 'IT industry'," she recollects, "and that uncertainty was my drive to perform." The plan for intellectual achievement took a back seat as she completed her second Masters degree, this time in Computer Science.

The uncertainty pushed her to choose lesser-known Quality when product development was the fad. Her six-year stint at Wipro as Systems Administrator found her leading their first testing team, as they wanted a techie who had tried their hands in development. The unexpected detour was exactly what Sarala was looking for - a shot in the dark. What got her all the more excited was the overall understanding it gave her - of the pressures and priorities of manufacturing, inventory management, and product management and ensuring an engineering development and release plan that fit with the overall product launch. It helped her understand what it took to test a product before it hit the market. It pulled her away from 'developer's perspective', which restricted thinking within a limited boundary. She was suddenly challenging her analytical mind with the complex dynamics of systems thinking. When Motorola was set up in India in 1991, the challenge and intuitiveness to find out what Quality functions were followed in an MNC known for six sigma and five nines availability made her sign up as a Quality manager there and the rest as they say is history.

However, apart from the complexity the role offered, Sarala took refuge in Quality because it let her manage and interact with people. She enjoyed being a leader and calls herself a born manager. Not surprisingly, her idea of an ideal leader constitutes one who knows where the future is heading and can prepare the team in that direction.

Quite like how she has been leading herself through the unexpected detours in her career and knowing where exactly her future was headed. After 24 years in the industry, she is still craving for the unknown. "I will continue to work and see where it will lead me," she says stating she wanted to work toward uplifting the content of contributions from teams in India. The country, she feels, is poised to step up its game in the global marketplace. "We have a lot of talent and opportunity and viewed logically, nothing is impossible."

Today she is doing what she loves the most: Customer management. Trying to find out what it takes to make a customer really happy, through technology. And while on the quest, this techie veteran is bound to influence a lot of people. However, talk about being a role model and she slinks away into a shell of modesty.

"It scares me," she admits of the phenomenon of having people draw inspiration from her career. "I just followed the challenges that came my way with a drive, she says. Much of her professional life, Sarala has been a light, beckoning the uncertain with a quest to delve into their potential. Sitting in her quaint little office and behind the peaceful smile, her eyes are constantly roving in the search for her next quest. Quietly she says, "When the learning never stops, why should the hunting?"