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September - 2006 - issue > Executive of The Month
Consorting challenges through passion
Aritra Bhattacharya
Friday, September 1, 2006
As a brash young kid, Sridhar Nallani thought he could conquer the world all on his own. With his energies focused on personal goals, abilities, dreams and performances, he was a victim of the pandemic culture of unilateral stardom. Its tough imagining then that the same man today manages three separate groups at The Washington Mutual Bank (WAMU), one of U.S.’s largest banks, and has two vice presidents reporting to him.

As the First Vice President of WAMU, Nallani’s present job entails overseeing all Systems and Development efforts in building CHAMP (Customer Household Account Marketing Profitability)—a data warehouse that measures over 40 terabytes. Roughly translated, the CHAMP database can hold data equivalent to twice the entire content in the Library of Congress.

Building the 40-terabyte data warehouse at WAMU has ensured some level of paranoia for Nallani, and that is the very ingredient that has kept him on his toes. The magnitude of the task has also meant managing a fairly large team, and changing a few people not suited to the desired role if such an occasion is unavoidable. Yet he did not hurry into the process of a makeover. “When I first joined WAMU, I had numerous one-on-ones, asking people the top five things they wanted to change there, and things they wanted to hang on to.” It was only after about 3 months that he had the answers as to who the right people were and where he needed to make adjustments.

Sector swapping through role-play
Nallani’s career graph would well shoot off at a tangent to how digging in several places never fetches you the water beneath. Straight out of college, Nallani chose a job in New York State (NYS) Health as a senior architect over an offer from Caterpillar Inc., as the former offered him a challenge of working towards his goals within bureaucratic wrangles. At that point, he was still the star in his own right; a quintessential individual contributor.

It was the resignation of one of his leads at NYS Health that helped Nallani graduate to the forefront and take up a lead position. He emerged successful, having led the effort to migrate information in the NYS Health registry from the legacy system to a state-of-the-art Oracle data warehouse. The incident, an inflection point in his career, also helped Nallani make the transition from a unilateral star to a team player and understand the mantra of leadership: Once a leader, it all becomes about others, it’s no longer about one’s own self; it’s about making teammates feel good about themselves, and building on their strengths. Having learnt the ropes of captaining a team and completed the job he had begun, he started looking for better opportunities.

The Boeing challenge
A call from a senior executive at Boeing, challenging him to build an IT team in the mammoth organization tickled his nerves. In the five plus years spent in the company, Nallani built a large IT team from scratch and managed all development efforts. This job also presented him the opportunity to interact with key customers on a first hand basis.
Having reached a saturation point there, Nallani moved to Areva Corporation and was entrusted with developing software for clients like ERCOT (The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas). He was directly accountable for keeping the lights on in 20 million homes across Texas, since the software his team developed powered energy deliverance in the city. In a span of nine months, Nallani’s team had cut down the number of software bugs from 140 to 14, and by 2004, transformed the venture into a six-sigma model project.

The feat fetched Nallani the ‘Turnaround Award’ in Areva in 2004. Coming after numerous leadership awards at Boeing, it spoke volumes about his legacy. While at Areva, Nallani also launched iTech Software Solutions, along with a college mate, to satisfy his entrepreneurial aspirations.

Passionate people
As Chairman and CEO of iTech, he worked with clients such as Accenture, Verizon and Citigroup. Devoting his energy to consultancy in the evenings after a taxing day called for commitment, and that single most ingredient that Nallani believes can make or break one’s career: Passion.

Choosing the right people for the right roles is an iterative process, he says. “The key ingredient that you look out for in people you recruit is passion; that alone can drive one towards learning new technologies and overcome challenges.” The process doesn’t stop there though, he feels. There’s always the need to define what’s expected of them, monitor their performance and check for feedback.

Management mantra
This, according to Nallani, is where the abilities of a good manager come into play. As a leader, one needs to be open to various possibilities. Defining roles should not mean curtailing ways in which employees can contribute to the organization. This throws up a pertinent question in Nallani’s case since he has donned several hats in his career. After all, the revealing of a hidden potential by each new role can harbor the feeling of not having given one’s best on previous occasions.

“Experience has taught me to trust my faculties of having given cent percent to every job I took up; though I keep evolving constantly,” he reasons. Central to his concept of excellence is competing against himself and being the best that he can be. That and some sound advice from a peer in college helped him come through with straight ‘A’s in his Masters at Louisiana State University (LSU). In hindsight, Nallani’s shift from University of Maine to LSU a year into his Masters degree proved instrumental in shaping his career. Had he stayed on in the University of Maine, he probably would’ve gone into the field of teaching since the University specializes in pure sciences, he chuckles.

The shift to LSU to pursue a Masters in application sciences helped him indulge in his interests: artificial intelligence and databases. The shift, way back in 1994, accounts for the young man’s exploits- though in varied industries, they’ve all been built on his background in databases.

Family Values
The so-called exploits wouldn’t have been possible without the value system Nallani’s parents instilled in him. “They’ve been my single biggest influence,” he declares. He learnt from his mother the importance of respecting people for what they are and not what they have, while his father imbibed in him the significance of hard work and perseverance. Lately of course, it’s his wife who has been driving force. A doctor by profession, she has given up her career to focus on the home front. “By having someone who supports every step of yours and pushes you to scale new heights is truly remarkable,” he notes.

The doting family man that he is, the values have held Nallani in good stead. “The principles of integrity and the importance of practicality that I learnt from my father are stronger than ever today,” he says. It reflects in the way he has handled difficulties, be it on earlier occasions, or in his present position at WAMU.

Present may soon become past though. Considering the way Nallani has built his career, yet another adjustment of what defines a challenge to him is in the offing, sometime sooner or later.
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