Work Around Glass Ceilings

Date:   Sunday , October 27, 2002

I WANTED TO STUDY MEDICINE AND BECOME A doctor. I suppose fate decided otherwise. While I came fifth in the Indian Central Board for medical schools, it wasn't good enough for a system, that sought financial "incentives" to accept students. No, I am not complaining. My father, who was a technical executive at Asian Paints, insisted that I quit "whining" and explore new avenues. I owe a lot to him, for the unshakeable support he lent me. After an undergraduate degree in Physics from Vivekananda College in Chennai (erstwhile Madras), I went to the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI) in Mumbai for an MCA. This was among the first graduate programs in computers, being offered in India, and the computer frenzy was just beginning. Looking back, I am glad that my father drove me to explore this field. I was, in fact, ready to pursue a master's program in labor relations at XLRI, but was fortunately dissuaded.

VJTI gave me a good education and it landed me with a good job even before I graduated. I was offered a job at Tata Burroughs who promptly packed me off to Australia, where I spent a few years on various projects with different clients. I wrote the compiler and IDE for a fourth generation language (4GL), at a company called BBJ in Melbourne. "Today," their language, demanded deep understanding of the inner workings of a system, and I think these first years have stood me in good stead. Typically short staffed, the company pushed people to become familiar with many jobs, and I was grateful for that effort, for I honed my technical skills at their expense. But I did feel that my career wasn't going anywhere in Melbourne.

In early 1989, I joined Raj Vattikuti's CBSI (now Covansys), as one of their first employees. It was so very different in those days, from what they are today, with over 4,000 employees! My extensive systems programming background was put to good use, as I was put on projects with clients such as McDonnell-Douglas, where again I worked on another 4GL, called Pro IV. From there, I moved on to develop applications for the banking industry. One of my first projects was for the First National Bank of Chicago(now a part of BankOne), where I led the development of a lockbox application. This solution helped the bank automate the high-transaction process of registering incoming checks, imaging them and reading them for various data. This was my first exposure to developing a business solution and it gave me a new perspective on how to use technology to achieve competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In the early1990s, I was assigned to a systems integration project at IBM, which was my first exposure to Big Blue, which I still rank as one of the best places to work. In 1994, IBM hired me, and I moved to Columbus, Ohio.. In 1992, I planned to equip myself with another tech degree, with an M.S. or PhD in computer science. I was once again guided down a different path, this time by Brian O'Keefe, my mentor at IBM who urged me to go for a management degree.

The MBA program at the OSU's Fisher School was a turning point in my life. It opened up fresh perspectives for me and validated my beliefs that there was a significant gap between the business and technology worlds. It also helped me develop the guiding principles that technology for technology's sake is meaningless and the role for technology was as an enabler and a source of competitive advantage. This was also around the time when the Internet was taking off. IBM rechristened its services division to IBM Global Services (IGS). I put my new skills to good use, and quickly, I grew to play at the management level as the Chief Architect of the Business Innovation Services unit and finally to the CTO of this $2 billion division.

At the same time, I made sure that I did not get too far away from my true love - technology. Throughout my career at IBM I worked on some of the most challenging and interesting projects including several e-business sites for retailers and financial services companies. I also worked on the architecture for several sporting event sites that IBM sponsored. In 1994, I was made a Certified I/T Architect and appointed to IBM's I/T Architect Board. In 1998, I achieved a rare distinction of being named an IBM Distinguished Engineer, a title normally reserved for people from the research departments. I was one of the first services professionals to be awarded this honor. I was also elected into the IBM Academy of Technology-these hallowed doors have opened to accept only about 250 people, out of the 150,000 technical employees at IBM. These honors have served to only strengthen my belief that a technology professional could easily transform into a senior level decision maker, and yet retain his influence on the course of technology. And then I quit.

Yes. I quit. At IGS, I was very close to customer projects and had an opportunity to work with customers from all around the globe. It was exciting and challenging and involved a lot of travel. Over the last year this travel gave me time to think about my contribution to the IBM bottom line. We were very profitable, and I was a valued executive but yet my contributions were a drop in the bucket at Big Blue. I was asking myself if I was making a difference to the system, or to the level of performance of the company. And I found answers that weren't exactly what I wanted to hear. So I made the gut-wrenching decision to leave IBM, I always thought I was an IBM man and would remain so. I sought to find some meaning to my career. No, I did not have offers on hand, and worse, I was leaving a company that respected me. But I found the search for a meaningful challenge very compelling.

Which brings me to where I am today - Nationwide. Nationwide is a global leader in Financial services with over $11b in revenues, subsidiaries in over 10 countries around the globe, the fourth largest insurance and financial services company in the U.S. I had worked at Nationwide as an IBM Consultant and had a lot of respect for the company and its heritage but what convinced me to come here was the vision and commitment of the senior executive team at Nationwide. The CEO Mr. Jerry Jergensen told me, "Many think of technology as a necessary evil. We need to reinvent technology to be the lifeblood, the competitive advantage for our survival." I needed no second bidding and signed on as the CTO. At IBM, we built solutions for clients and moved on to the next client. We didn't have to live with the solutions we built. At Nationwide, the solutions run the company, and I live with these solutions everyday. Perspectives change.

At Nationwide, I have learned the importance of operationalizing ideas and speeding up the process of implementing them. Ideas by themselves or products in their absolute existence don't create value. This was the foundation of my book, "Patterns for e-business - A Strategy for Reuse" which is being well received in the marketplace. I am also learning new ways of operationalizing innovative business methods using emerging tools and technologies.

Today, I believe I have the skills to head a mid-sized enterprise and take it forward. I think I have developed a business maturity that works well with my technology expertise. I am not sure if I can head a large corporation yet. But Nationwide is providing me with the opportunities to constantly add new skills to my portfolio.

What do I think of Indian techies? I have only one question for them. If they don't defend their ideas, who will? I have noticed many brilliant techies sit back, expecting the technology or idea to defend itself, even sell itself. They should consciously cultivate the habit or culture of presentation skills, defense skills and discussion skills. Sometimes I think this void comes from our culture of modesty and our inherent nature to efface ourselves. This has to change.

And this brings me to another oft heard phrase, the "glass ceiling." I am not sure it exists and I don't spend time thinking about it. Limitations and bias exist everywhere in the world, even in India. It is up to you and me to persevere and work to overcome it. This is where I think an advanced degree from a U.S. school will help. There is no substitute for education. And if you can educate yourself to be multi-dimensional, all the better. At Nationwide, we are now embarking on an effort to spend quality time with IT services companies in India, to understand their IT capabilities and solution development approaches. I know that there is great potential for expanding our relationships beyond staff augmentation and application maintenance and exploiting the true capabilities of the Indian IT marketplace.

Today I am 37 and in a senior executive position at a Fortune 500 company, but I think there is another phase of evolution awaiting me. What it is, only time will tell. I am happy and excited with where I am today. The job is challenging and fulfilling, my family of wife and 2 children give a lot of meaning to my life, yet I feel there is more, a lot more to come. Isn't that exciting?