There were two big changes in the transition: 1) in top-tier consulting, you almost never have to motivate people because everyone is a self-starter and self-driven, and 2) getting work done in the “real” world involves working through people who may have different motivations or drive in comparison to your own. At McKinsey, I rarely had to follow up on any action more than once, and that’s not quite as true in the real world. On the other hand, people in the real world are always juggling a number of priorities, and for them to pay attention to what you need necessitates a re-juggling – it requires you to practice your influencing skills to the utmost.
With regard to a startup versus a large company, it ultimately comes down to your ability to tolerate risk, and the kinds of actions for which you want to hold yourself responsible. It’s possible to be entrepreneurial even within a large company – you have a better support system, and don’t have to worry about payroll, for example. Conversely, the rewards are more limited, and you have to play by rules set within the larger organization which can be frustrating at times.
You were on a fast track at McKinsey but left after three years at the firm. Did you ever consider the Partner path?
Not really – I’m more of a doer. I was trained as an engineer, so McKinsey was by far the best way for me to learn about business, but I’d never considered myself a career consultant.
How has consulting helped, or in any way hurt, your career?
On balance, it’s been a positive for my career. In consulting, you gain clear communication, the ability to synthesize vast amounts of information, comfort communicating with the C-level, and wide exposure to various types of businesses and issues – all which can translate well in the corporate world.
There are certainly some pitfalls to avoid when making the switch, however. For a consultant who aspires to get into an operational role, the biggest risk is analysis paralysis. As a consultant, you aim to be data-driven and analytical, whereas in business situations you frequently have to make a judgment call with the best data you have, even if it’s nowhere near being enough. The other big risk as a consultant looking to transition to an operational role is that as a consultant, you’re often paid to be the smartest person in the room. As an executive, that’s often the kiss of death – you could miss out on the best constructive advice because you have created an environment where your teams cannot disagree with you. You also have to pay a lot more attention to understanding what motivates people and how you achieve results.
Being the CTO of the largest division SunGard Availability Services must be a pretty exciting role. Is it what you expected? What do you like best, and least, about your role today?
I’d never been a CTO before, and the only CTOs I knew were really good speakers, so my greatest fear was that I would just turn out to be a talking head and not be sufficiently operational. I’m glad to say that hasn’t been the case at all!
What I love about my role is I get to define the future – what trends to care about, what products to bring to market, how can we differentiate against the competition, and where can we take the business in 3-5 years. It’s especially thrilling when you launch new services and products that take off faster than anything the company has seen in over a decade. That’s just rewarding!
What’s been enormously difficult in my role has been bringing about the necessary culture change at SunGard, because we hadn’t innovated for a very long time prior to 2009 (when I got here). Within my first six months, it became clear that a number of the teams were not a good fit for where we needed to take the company, so we had to make the tough decision to let many of them go. Even though it was the right business decision, I just didn’t like it – and still don’t.
What would you say is the most important skill that got you where you are today? What did you take specifically from consulting that makes you successful in your current role?
I think I’ve been very lucky. For specific skills that have helped me get where I am today, I think one is tactical composure. I perform best when my back is to the wall, stay calm in stressful situations and can lead my teams through them. The ability to assimilate information and change my view / opinion has also been a factor – as a consultant, you are hypothesis-driven, but when you make business decisions with little to go off of, you have to be able to confirm or dismiss your theory and change your course of direction if needed. A third skill is being able to distill problems into essentials, without getting too distracted by other unnecessary elements surrounding it. This was enhanced by the classic 80/20 training at McKinsey, but was something that came naturally and is inherent in how I assess situations.
From consulting specifically, I think learning to acknowledge my mistakes, and surrounding myself with exceptional people who can complement my skills, have both been essential to my success. One of the principles I learned at McKinsey was the “obligation to dissent” – you should always speak up if you disagree with a conclusion and engage in the debate. Going along with an answer when you don’t believe in it is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Having held major leadership positions in product development and management at multi-billion dollar technology firms, and in a CTO role at a multi-billion dollar division within a PE portfolio company today, what’s your next target in terms of personal progression and development?
I’m still having a very good time, but at some point in the future I’d like to run my own show, preferably in a CEO role. I want to start something and build a company that can last – not a 20 person firm that grows to a $100mn, but bigger than that. I want to grow a company that can survive me.
As a CTO, part of your job is to know the market and define a vision for your company. What is the most exciting part of the tech scene for you today? What would you recommend for consultants looking to get into the technology space?
This is a really exciting time in technology – it feels like the pace of innovation has never been greater. Cloud is clearly transformational and Big Data is going to change how business decisions are made for years to come.
The biggest challenge consultants run into in technology is being perceived as excessively glib and smooth-talking. As any Dilbert reader knows, engineers have little patience for the MBA who comes in and is excessively smooth, utters all the latest buzzwords, but hasn’t got a clue about technical feasibility of any of the concepts. Being able to listen and understand the customer pain is one of the biggest values consultants can bring to any startup venture.
You stayed in relatively the same area throughout the majority of your career. Did you ever consider any international moves that would bring you back abroad? How did growing up outside of the U.S. have an impact, if any, on your approach to your career and experience?
I haven’t considered any international moves seriously, although I’m looking forward to spending time in Europe and / or Asia over the next 10 years in my career.
As for growing up in India, there was a tremendous focus on math and science at a very young age, so I had a focus on those from the start. I also grew up in an environment where there was an appreciation for things that matter more than money. You really need to enjoy what you do and have a passion for it – it’s not just about how well it pays, and if you’re not passionate about something then it is not worth doing.
Which of the skills that you gained in consulting has added the most value to your life outside of work?
I’d have to say time management here – as a consultant, you really have to learn how to juggle a million priorities. As a good mentor used to say, “the client comes first and family is the first client.” A bit of a cliché, but you understand the concept! Having clear “work time” versus “family time” has been essential to maintaining some sort of a balance between work and life for me.