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November - 2008 - issue > Woman Achiever
No More Glass Ceilings, only Glass Walls
Vimali Swamy
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Women hesitate to take up new roles and responsibilities, often due to the fear that their family life may get neglected or vice versa. Hence, they make a compromise and settle down for less challenging roles and lose track of their career growth. "I too had gone through such a dilemma, but fortunately for me two of the major promotions came my way after I had my children. I was very motivated to come back to work since I had very exciting work to do," she says. For Alka it was the support that her family readily extended, especially the unconditional support her mother provided, that motivated her to get back to work soon after and take up new roles and responsibilities. Significantly, it was her mother who had supported her earlier too, in nurturing her dreams of pursing a career in this industry.

Hailing from a middle class family, Alka was born and brought up in a modern background in Delhi. When in high school, she nurtured the dream of going to the U.S. and pursuing higher studies. No one in her entire family, leave alone girls, had ever wanted to go abroad to purse studies and a career. But Alka's mother, who herself was a workingwoman; encouraged her to live her dreams and pursue her ambitions.

Though on her first attempt she did not qualify for a scholarship, she succeeded in her second attempt and went to the U.S. and obtained a bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from Smith College (Northampton, MA) and a Master's in Computer Science from the University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH). Soon after, Alka landed with her first job at Cabletron Systems, a switch manufacturer, and worked with them for over three years as a software developer, developing network management solutions for their switches. Later in 1996, she joined Cisco and has been with it ever since. She joined as a test engineer, testing new products such as ISDN small office and home office routers. Later she was responsible for performance engineering for the first Internet service provider dial-up modem solution, called Access Path. In the year 2000, Alka joined the ATM switching team as a senior manager and was responsible for the systems and solutions test teams, where she worked with large customers like AT&T to test their large scale data network deployments that included frame relay and MPLS networks. Steadily scaling up the ladder, Alka soon took charge of the global team that was delivering solution releases in the Unified Communications space. The Golden Bridge team, which she formed, worked with multiple stakeholders including systems marketing and field and business units to define, manage, test, document, and support the solutions.

Today, as the Director of Engineering, Alka leads the Voice Technology Group (VTG) product development in India. Handling a team of about 180 people, she leads the software development, test, and documentation organizations for IP Communications BU and Contact Center BU in India. As the VTG lead in India, she is responsible for interfacing with customers, sales teams, and partners to understand and deliver features and solutions for the local and global Unified Communications market.

With over one fourth of her team being women, she now makes it a point to take extra efforts to mentor them so that they do not deviate from their career path. Alka is an active member of Cisco's Women Action Network (WAN) that constantly works towards gender inclusivity and women leadership. "I encourage every woman professional in my team to be part of WAN where they can get a platform to showcase their talent, develop skills, and get adequate mentorship from seasoned professionals," she explains. Apart from this, Alka holds informal meetings with her team members where techies can reach out to her and the senior managers and talk about the problems and challenges they face, professionally and personally, without hesitation. In turn, she and other seniors tell them about their experiences and what they did when they were in a similar fix.

Alka truly believes that in order to grow up in one's life, it is important to move away from comfort zones and take up new challenges. A few years back, when she had just got comfortable in her role as a First Line Manager, Alka's senior manager approached her and asked her to take over responsibilities of higher caliber. She was quite surprised and scared whether she would be able to do justice to the role. "I literally had butterflies in my stomach, but then realized that being in the comfort zone is of no help unless I take new challenges and constantly prove my mettle," she tells. "Become good at one thing, but if you become too comfortable doing it, then it is time to learn something new and rise to a new challenge" is her motto. This is a psychological aspect that she tries to inculcate in all her team members as well. Giving challenging tasks and keeping everyone on his or her toes is what she practices. At the same time, she also says that it is very important that one has fun in what one does because at the end of the day one must be able to look back at what value one’s work brings to oneself and others.

Alka believes that one should have complete trust within the team to be a successful leader. "It is only trust that will get you undivided loyalty,"she explains. It is this trust mixed with her management style of 'collaboration' that has allowed her to reach across all levels in her team. She projects herself as a person who may not have all the answers and thereby encourages her team to work together and arrive at a consensus solution for every problem. This also helps her bring people together and build on their strengths.

As the director of an engineering team, Alka takes enough pains to drive innovation and leadership within her team. She says, "Technology in India has made the single largest stride in recent years. As an individual, some things that always work are leadership skills and being able to innovate." To this end, she has encouraged her team to regularly contribute to the Voice technology group named 'Innovation Council'. This council features a wiki page where anyone can submit his or her innovative ideas. The ideas get reviewed every quarter and the best ones are rewarded and put into practice. Within her own team, she constantly organizes brown bag sessions in order to keep everyone technologically informed and advanced. "I select 2-3 people every time and ask them to do a research on the latest technology that is in vogue. Once they acquire comparatively more knowledge in the subject, I make them share it with others in the team," Alka explains. This also allows her to identify the next level of leaders and groom them by giving them enough opportunities from the start to shine and show their capabilities.

While being focused in her career, Alka has also mastered the art of balancing her personal and professional lives. Once out of office, she makes sure that her family and friends receive her undivided attention. Though Alka has her hands full with her two kids, teaching and watching them learn new things, she still manages to find time to pursue her interests. In leisure, she loves to travel, shop, socialize, and read.

She believes that women have a lot in common and can learn and build a support system for each other. "We all face similar challenges when life-changing events happen in our lives, like marriage and childbirth and we face similar challenges when we struggle to balance family and work. I have always relied on my female friends for emotional support and the bonds that I have with them are in many ways stronger than those I have with others," she explains. This support system helped her avoid a glass wall around her and today Alka encourages others to adopt the same to emerge successful.

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