March - 2007 - issue > Woman Achiever
Learning to love technology
Vidya Balakrishnan
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Kalpana Margabandhu wanted to be a banker ever since she could remember. A nine to six job at the bank was satisfactory for her. A sudden change in plans saw her studying BTech. at IISc, at a time when computers and engineering were not in vogue. The thrill of getting into the institute ignited in her an interest for technology, something she feared, as it was a lesser-known subject for her. Into the middle of her first year, she got an offer to be a banker her dream job. It was an obvious choice but even to her surprise, she opted to stay at IISc. “I always aspired to take on difficult projects so I could prove they were not beyond me. If someone were to tell me ‘you can’t do it’, then I would make sure that I could,” she says.

Today Kalpana, General Manager IBM India Software Labs (ISL), is narrating the successful story of her 24-year journey as a techie. She is steering one of the largest Product Development Labs for IBM worldwide as it develops products, technology and solutions for IBM Software Group. Her periodical halts as Consultant Software Specialist to Program Director ISL strongly back her decision of letting technology take over her career graph. To add to her kitty of technical expertise, she also leads the WebSphere Mission (ISL) as its Program Director, where she overseas techies work on Architecture, Design, Development, Maintenance and Testing of IBM WebSphere.

For a lady who never aspired to be a techie, her achievements speak loud of her capabilities. Her motto ‘learn and deliver’ served as common thread connecting the steps in her climb towards professional success. And she won’t shy away from her achievements. “When I started off, I was not very good with technology. I learnt to nurture a love for it, the inspiration coming from within,” she says.

The lesson held good at her very first job at PSI Data Systems in ’82. While the rest of the country was just awaking to the prospect of personal computers and Internet applications were unheard of, a young Kalpana was busy with C (language), Compliers and operating systems. Working as the menu editor, she was creating an application combining the three that would enable building user interfaces. Back then PSI was among the very few companies attempting to help build such an interface thus making the project highly significant for the organization and more so for first-timer Kalpana.

However, the names appeared foreign to her and the processes seemingly distant. She was hesitant but soon delved into the subject matter learning the technology while working along with it. “The PC business had started during that time so there was a lot of experimental learning that we did on our own. It was equivalent to solving a problem,” she says. Utilizing existing technology and exploring options with newer ones, her team was able to pull off the project successfully.

The motto steered her through all her future endeavors but she was exposed to its actual evergreen facet nearly two decades after imprinting her first success. She was faced with a similar dilemma when asked to help set up and head the operations of the ISL as Lab Manager. “We had to start by defining a lab to the techies here, before moving on to leverage any kind of technical competence,” she recollects. She was with the team that formed the processes, where the delivery mechanism meant integration with IBM’s worldwide product labs.

Though experienced in a managerial role, she had done nothing on a large scale that required her to be adept with managing administration, finance and HR. Suddenly, after all these years, Kalpana felt like a first-timer again. For her, it was akin to setting up a small company. She was hesitant; unsure if ready for such responsibility, but diving into the lesser known was what probably motivated her the most. Her hesitancy transformed into passion for product development and guided by her motto, she successfully saw through the debut of the Software Lab in 2001.

The confidence boost it gave her was enormous. She grew alongside the Lab, as it transformed from a small size to mid-size to its current status thanks to that one principle she had decided to follow. “It taught me that love and passion for technology can be nurtured,” she remarks, a need she feels that requires immediate attention. “Engineers have to be taught to foster a love for technology, this is the only way India can leverage its pool of technical talent,” she says.

Probably why she has no qualms calling herself a role model. Twenty-four years in any industry is a mighty weight to carry on one’s shoulder. It adds value if you have been in a single company for most of the journey and even more so if you have been a leader for the larger part of the time. Often stopped by juniors who look up to her for inspiration as a role model, she accepts the post with pride and humility. As Chairperson of the Indian Women’s Leadership Council (IWLC), started for IBM employees, and member of various other leadership councils, she is busy fulfilling her duties as a leader by guiding and inspiring her team towards a fruitful career. “Today, when I see the people, whom I mentored, being honored and recognized globally by IBM for being technical innovators and leaders, it gives me immense pleasure and satisfaction,” she beams.

Furthermore why the Linux Technology Center at ISL is her fondest project yet. Seeded under her leadership, the development center reflects, in many ways, Kalpana’s efforts in nurturing technical competency. Here developers create and add their contributions to many Linux projects hosted on SourceForge, the largest download repository of open source code and applications. Terming it as an opportunity for the techie to increase their technical caliber, she is confident that with the establishment of such centers, it wont be long before passion for technology and product development is nurtured in the country.
As a leader, Kalpana has seen the other side of the glass spectrum. “Being technical you want to get into the depth of every product but being a leader you should not lose track of the over all picture of the portfolio,” she says.

Sure she misses technical roles, but for her overseeing products, understanding the technology behind them right from their blueprint stage to final delivery is worthwhile. “Also, it has helped me be involved in setting up products and technologies for the future,” she remarks adding that it has also helped her come closer to her people and help them be technically competent.

From a wannabe banker to one of the most important technical managers in the country; Kalpanas’s journey has not only been worthwhile but also inspirational. A journey, that began by a simple first step of overcoming her fear of technology to discovering untapped potential while on her way to the top.

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