Technology leaders need to be able to adapt to the constantly changing environment around them, sense the change early, and be ready before the change becomes a problem by responding to the change appropriately
This is an exclusive interview conducted by the Editor Team of CIO News with Swapnil Deshpande, Chief Digital Officer at ThoughtWorks.
How did you plan your career path to be a successful technology leader?
Let me break down this question and answer it in two parts. First, “how did I become a technology leader?” and second, “how did I become a successful leader?”
For the first part of the question, let me admit that my journey of becoming a technology leader has grown from many small career dreams I had at various stages in my life.
My very first career dream as a child was to grow up and be a teacher. Being the son of two teachers, I have always had a great admiration for teachers, their knowledge and wisdom, and their ability to impart knowledge and build the characters of hundreds of students.
Growing up further, when I was in my pre-teens, I developed a passion for reading, and I would spend hours and hours reading various kinds of books and novels. Reading would not only broaden my knowledge and understanding of various subjects, but it would also foster a deep respect for the authors’ creativity and story-telling abilities, and their fantastic ability to take readers on a journey through their stories was something I was eager to learn. So, my second career dream was to become an author or storyteller.
Later in my early teens, I got introduced to computers, and it unlocked a completely different world for me. I was fascinated by the abilities of computers and the possibilities they could unlock for the world. Computers allowed me to be creative, abstract, and structured at the same time, and I knew that this is what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. So, my next career dream was to make a career in computers and technology. Thankfully, I stuck to that for the rest of my life.
After completing a formal professional education from NIT Allahabad as a Computer Science and Engineering student, I had work tenures with Cognizant, Tech Mahindra, and Amdocs before taking the plunge to be an entrepreneur and setting up two start-ups. My most valuable lessons about the corporate world came during my days as an entrepreneur. Now, I have almost 10 years of working experience with Thoughtworks.
For the second part of the question, I do not know if I am successful or not. The definition of success is different for different people, so I cannot say generally whether my career is successful or not; I will leave that to others to decide if they think of me as successful or not. For me, “career” is a long-term and evolving part of life. A successful career includes great learning as well as using that learning to help build a positive impact on others. For the first part (my professional life), I believe I have had a reasonable amount of success because I have had numerous opportunities to continue my learning over the course of my two decades of experience. For the second one, I would leave it to the people who work with me to tell if I have been successful in delivering a positive impact on their life and helping them grow.
What challenges you faced in your career path and how did you overcome them?
I have a comprehension issue with the word “challenge.” I find it difficult to treat a specific situation as a challenge; I would rather think of it as an “opportunity” to make an impact or make life better for someone.
A couple of examples I can give are: some people think of the “rapidly changing technology landscape” as a challenge; I think of it as an opportunity to continuously learn and expand the horizon. Another example could be the “constrained financial situation of companies and departments” post-COVID, which may be a challenge to deliver impact, but I think of that as an opportunity to “innovate” the business models.
Looking at any situation as a challenge makes your brain think of it as a problem to be solved or mitigated and responds like that, possibly in a constrained way where the focus is to avoid loss or issues or risks. However, looking at the same situation as an opportunity makes you think across the horizon to find the best solutions, innovative solutions, and sometimes those that do not exist today. The emphasis then shifts to value maximisation and impact maximisation rather than risk or loss avoidance.
Having said that, the real challenge comes when you deal with people and their emotions at work. Understanding human nature and behaviour is indeed challenging, yet an important aspect of leadership. I am pretty sure I have made mistakes in my leadership career; however, it remains a journey of continuous learning.
What are the challenges faced by technology leaders today while implementing digital technologies?
Continuing from the previous theme, rather than outlining the challenges that are likely to be faced by the technology leaders, I would like to outline the situations that the technology leaders are likely to face and in which they will play an important role in steering the organisation forward.
Technology leaders will face increasing pressures from managing and navigating industry and business model disruptions. They are not only expected to react to disruptions, but also to anticipate and prepare for them in many cases. Markets are evolving fast, and the technology landscape is evolving even faster, so navigating this will be a big thing on the minds of the leaders. On the other side, this presents a wonderful opportunity to disrupt yourself and get ahead of the competition.
Aside from the topic of disruptions, technology leaders will increasingly face constraints on the investment dollars at their disposal. In the post-pandemic, recession-hit world, investments in building new technology or in the use of new technology are getting harder scrutiny. The technology leaders will need to learn how to manage experiments, innovations, and using new technology for generating tangible value without touching their mainstream businesses (that earn money).
The third and perhaps equally important conundrum that the technology leaders will face is to manage the timing of their key investment decisions. When should I invest in developing or deploying technology for commercial purposes? Should we buy technology or build it ourselves? The right decision always lies somewhere in between “opportunity cost” and “cost of missed opportunity.” If you invest too early, you may not get the right value (because the use cases have not matured), while if you invest too late, you may have missed out entirely. Technology leaders will need to always balance their decisions between these two poles.
How can technology leaders overcome the challenges faced?
While technology is important, the people and leaders of the organisations that drive tech initiatives and business transformation play a larger role. For an effective outcome, they need to have the right mindset and be “transformation ready.” I would advise the technology leaders to focus on the following key aspects for preparing themselves and their teams to respond better to challenges and unpredictable situations:
How to think?
The technology leaders need to see possibilities and opportunities beyond the current problems and situations they are encountering on a day-to-day basis. Being buried in today’s problems does not help people have the right mindset to imagine a better future.
How to act?
Because things can get unpredictable along the way and decisions could go wrong along the way, it is important for the leaders to be tolerant of an environment that seems ambiguous and often contains risks. Since the path for each company is unique and unexplored, the teams and leaders need to show a high level of resilience in the face of constant change and constant ambiguity along the way.
How to react?
The path towards technology transformation can be very long, bumpy, and full of unexpected surprises and blockers along the way. Leadership changes, organisational direction changes, business model changes, organisational politics, shifting powers between teams, and the ability to influence are some of the key reasons why the path can be bumpy.
The technology leaders need to be able to adapt to the constantly changing environment around them, sense the change early, and be ready before the change becomes a problem by responding to the change appropriately.
Any best practices, industry trends, or advice you’d give to fellow technology leaders to help them succeed professionally?
Technology is transient and ever-changing, while the business value paradigm is permanent. While some businesses develop new technologies, the vast majority of businesses use technology to deliver business value. I would strongly advise the technology leaders to take a keen interest in understanding the business model of the organisation and the associated nuances. Knowing how the company runs and generates profit or grows is very important knowledge that the technology leaders should possess.
Keep your curiosity quotient high. Go back to the fundamentals and apply first-principles thinking to bring more innovation and impact to your business. Do not be satisfied with the status quo and challenge it continuously.
Finally, taking inspiration from the most successful football teams, another message I would like to give to the technology leaders is to forget about the past achievements and successes and focus on delivering future value. What you did in the past is over and should be forgotten as soon as possible, and your focus should be on the next target. A technologist’s true joy comes from the journey of learning and creating value.
Any other points that you would like to highlight?
Some tips that have helped me along the way are:
Try not to overinvest emotionally at work. Invest in people, not work or products. Your career and journey are much larger than the project or team you are currently on. So, invest in long-term relationships and help each other grow.
Have a passion (or a hobby) outside of work that you are willing to burn your nights for. For me, watching Manchester United play football is one such passion. I tell my team not to be surprised if they see me responding to some chat messages or emails at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. India time. It’s possible I might have been awake watching football.
Take time off. Do not just book time off to fight stress and refresh your mind; take time off to experience new things too. Take care of your physical and mental well-being. The pandemic has taught us how important it is to take care of mental health. Take it seriously and take good care of it.
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