Archana Vemulapalli is the CTO and General Manager of Infrastructure Services offerings, IBM Global Technology Services. Prior to this role, she was the Chief Technology Officer for Washington, DC. She also worked as a technology consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte Consulting, and Lucent Technologies. She has received numerous awards such as the Washington Business Journal’s C-Suite Award, The Washingtonian Tech Titan Award, StateScoop’s Golden Executive of the Year Award & Top Women in Tech Award.
In this interview, Ms. Vemulapalli talks about how to use technologies to add value to organizations, how to build effective teams, how respect and humility have guided her to learn and thrive, and how we can make technological fields a more inclusive environment.
Wei Zheng: Welcome everyone. Thank you so much for coming. I see some familiar faces and some unfamiliar faces as well, welcome to the third event of our Women Leaders in Technology Interview Series presented by the Stevens Leadership Portal. My name is Wei Zheng and I’m an Associate Professor of Management and Richard R. Roscitt Chair in Leadership.
So the Stevens Leadership Portal is a new initiative at our School of Business. What we’re trying to do with it is connect people to stories, cutting edge research, and learning communities through our web-based knowledge portal. Our purpose is to provide you with resources and fresh perspectives to tackle the problems and intersections of leadership technology and inclusive at. Our web portal is targeted to go live next month, so during this semester we have had our live interview series featuring six top-level women leaders in technology.
It is my great pleasure now to have a conversation with our Archana Vemulapalli. She’s the CTO and General Manager of Infrastructure Services Offerings at IBM Global Technology Services. In her previous role, she was the Chief Technology Officer for Washington D.C.. She also worked as a technology consultant and Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte Consulting and Lucent Technologies.
Wei Zheng: She has received numerous awards such as the Washington Business Journal’s C-Suite Award, The Washingtonian Tech Titan Award, StateScoop’s Golden Executive of the Year Award & Top Women in Tech Award. So welcome, Archana.
Archana Vemulapalli: Thank you again Wei, it’s absolutely a pleasure to be here and just a big thank you to everyone for making the time.
Wei Zheng: Thank you. So let’s get started. Could you start by telling us how you got interested in technology?
Archana Vemulapalli: I was always born a very practical person, and all engineers notice they’re essentially very practical in trying to solve problems and get meaningful outcomes. I think because I have a natural affinity, I always knew I wanted to be in science and engineering in some way, shape, or form. I think starting in third grade with the ambition of wanting to be a scientist and ending up in engineering, I didn’t stray too far from the band.
Wei Zheng: Are there important people in your life who helped shape this interest or are there problems that you noticed that really got you interested in wanting to solve with technology?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah I think one, if you look at technology broadly, it’s very empowering because the ability to solve problems exponentially at an exponential pace is so easily that most of the times we actually don’t adopt technology because we are caught up in processes and structures that are much lower. Technology is actually leaps and bounds ahead in terms of what it can deliver so that’s the fascinating aspect about what it can do and I think that inherently part of me is also impatient, so I think the fact that I can do something faster also probably is what motivated me in the space.
I also had a very supportive family structure growing up, so for me it was more than having a person tell me, “Hey you need to do this.” I just had a group of people that said, “You could do anything you want it,” so I think it was more about me finding the interest that I had and instead of delving into it more.
Wei Zheng: Wonderful, thank you for sharing that. So let’s jump ahead and fast forward to now in your career, could you tell us a little bit about what your current role involves? What are your priorities and what would your performance dashboard look like?
Archana Vemulapalli: Sure, so I have the privilege of being in IBM Global Technology and it is probably one of the most recognized brands so being part of an organization like that you always walk into a culture and tradition and sort of a structure that’s very well respected. It’s a massive organization that’s over 109 years old. We have a footprint of probably one of the few companies that does both products and services and so it’s an expansive lens of how you drive product development as well as services and actually make sure clients actually get to the right outcomes.
I am in the services side of the house, so I have the entire offerings portfolio and offerings that are essentially products for being on the service world. I have the CTO mission as well, and this business is about a $20 billion business that’s in about 120 plus countries and so we drive massive impact in terms of scale, and this is also the business that we recently announced this will be spinning out right so it’s going to be its own company in about six months.
Wei Zheng: Wonderful. What does that mean to your role?
Archana Vemulapalli: Now I mean it’s a wonderful opportunity, right? Think about this, even the transition, it’s about taking being part of a really large organization and getting it to become two very successful organizations. And then it’s also building up the narrative of what probably one of the largest startups in the world would be. I’ve been founded startups and usually sometimes it’s people in a garage or in the smallest room of your house, coming up with an idea on a laptop. And you know when we spin this part of the business infrastructure services, we have a multi-billion dollar revenue pipeline and the sizable clients so it’s going to be a pretty amazing profile for us.
Wei Zheng: Yes, so what are the implications of leading such a huge gigantic organization from your standpoint? How do you lead? What does it take to lead well in this position?
Archana Vemulapalli: I think leadership is about constant learning. I don’t think I’ve ever been a certain type of leader consistently, and I say that because each role and experience teaches you some things about how you manage your teams, how you manage challenges, how you manage change and that makes you a different person, so I think I’m a different leader today than I was probably even a year ago and so for leading a large team, I think there are a few basics that I’ve learned some of the basics really are about staying in touch with your teams and really driving an inverse pyramid where you support your teams versus you drive your teams and really getting the buy in. For me it’s always very important when you when you run teams and manage teams to build a culture of inclusion and empowerment and when you do that, it doesn’t matter what size, you are the outcomes that come out of it and so it’s very important that you continue to build that structure and that you keep it balanced.
Wei Zheng: So how would you describe your leadership style? You talked about this inverse pyramid, which is supporting others rather than the pyramid, right? How would you describe your leadership style and how did you evolve into this style you mentioned with a constant learning process?
Archana Vemulapalli: I tend not to categorize it. For me, the values are more important. I think some of the core values of respect for the individual, building an inclusive culture, always looking to innovate, and setting high standards and bars. Those are some values that I personally stand for and I push my teams for. That’s the reason I tend not to say, “Hey I have a leadership style.” I think everybody is different, some people actually say, “Hey this is how I operate and how I’m going to manage my teams,” but I think for me I’ve learned that I have to cater my leadership style differently to different people because people are different. I have high performing people that are excellent, but probably need more time and attention and direction than others and so when you take a singular style or approach you actually can help each of these individuals with the potential they have, and so for me, it’s more about building a successful team, understanding them, and probably listening, right? So probably the closest I’ll come to is having a values-based leadership model.
Wei Zheng: Do you have any examples of that?
Archana Vemulapalli: I’ll give you an example of where I saw firsthand why I always intrinsically did this because this came to me naturally and then I saw it in action. In one of my prior roles, we were going through a major incident which required all of us to mobilize. We had a team that was working for four straight days with no sleep so none of us had slept. I think I went for 40 hours with no sleep because there was a lot of criticality at risk that we had to get back up and running and the reason I was doing it was because there were two things I was very nervous and feeling strongly about. I wanted to make sure that our team came through and delivered and there were people at risk that we wanted to make sure would not get impacted through this.
When we went through that exercise, like couple of hours into it, or at least a couple of days into it, I had my core team come up to me and they basically said, “You need to sleep and we have your back and we’re not going to let anything drop.” What I saw in that moment was not the fact that I was tired or exhausted, but I saw an embodiment of the things I care about, each of them in different ways and they ran with it. We took care of this critical incident, we restored services, we made sure we inherited this, by the way, so you talk about inheriting a mess we walked into a scenario. We didn’t know anything so sometimes when you inherit technology, it’s like somebody suddenly waking you up and saying, “Can you speak Russian now?” If you never spoken it all your life, you’re not going to figure it out in one day. That was the situation.
We walked into an environment where we didn’t know what we were called into and we had to figure this out to get things back up and in the way we mobilized, what I realized was they had paid attention to my constant communication with them about what I cared about. And when it came in that time of crisis, everybody stood up and represented that same set of values and we all work differently, we operate differently, and we expressed differently, but it’s that commonality of value, so for me that was a very tangible moment.
Wei Zheng: That’s a wonderful example. So those critical moments that pull people together, they don’t come from that moment, they come from years of accumulation of working together, right? So you mentioned one value of respect. Any other values you stress with your team?
Archana Vemulapalli: Inclusion. I think inclusion and respect go hand in hand. In almost every organization, I tend to really focus on diversity. Somebody once told me this and I didn’t come up with this, they said diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. And to me, that’s very profound and true, right, because you can have a diverse team, but if you don’t make them feel included, you’re not getting the value out of it and inclusion doesn’t mean everybody looks different, it means everybody is inherently different, your experiences shape you, and when you come into an organization, you’re bringing that experience with you, and you’re coming with the good and the bad. How do I get the best out of you and make my organization better?
When I went into IBM as an example, I’ll tell you what I loved about their organization was their people. There were people who had been there for years, but they had a level of respect, they had built this culture and they had built a certain credibility around the work they did it, but yet despite the success, some of them had an incredible amount of humility and I really respected that. I had come in with a bunch of experience on my own so inclusion for me at that point meant are you listening to me and my experience and am I listening to you and your perspective. I think when you build that in your teams, then the other one that I would put next is humility. It’s very important for us to not be so caught up that we are the best or we are the most amazing or the most successful because there’s somebody always better than us out there and so we need to have a level of humility and be willing to listen, so I think all of those matter.
I think that at the end of the day it comes down to I just want to sleep well at night and I sleep well at night when I treat people well and I get treated well. Everything else will come right though the work, the focus will be there and the goals you want to drive in.
Wei Zheng: Interesting, thank you for sharing that and so you talked about inclusion. I want to follow that up later in the questions I think some of our people in our audience probably are very interested in understanding more about what you do, what kind of projects you work on, and how you use technology to drive changes or to improve efficiency or effectiveness or well-being of individuals, so let’s dive into that aspect. Could you share maybe one example of a project you have worked on in your current role or your previous roles at IBM that sort of helped people to build and use technology or organizations to build and use technology to transform their business or to help them build better technological infrastructures?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah I’ll give you a funny example from my prior role in the city, as well as at IBM but I’ll give you the prior one first. So, if you talk to any technologist about the idea of sensors and smart cities, everybody gets about what they can go and implement and they’ll talk to you about the technology architecture, the tech stack, all of this stuff. When I looked at it, I really thought that if we started to take some of these technology trends and we applied it to a broader problem that the city faces, we can actually get to better outcomes.
The number one problem that most residents complained about in Washington D.C. was rats. We had rats in parts of the city and we used simple logic: when your city is not clean, people don’t want to move in, and when people don’t move in, businesses don’t make money and you have less taxes. When you have less taxes, the city has less budget so there’s all of these small things that play a big role.
We were sitting around a table and talking through this and everybody was trying to solve their own problem, so you talked about inclusivity and building an inclusive structure, what I did was I said look I believe this is a way we can solve this problem. What we did was we were very reactive about our approach. If somebody sees a bunch of rats in a trash can, they call a 311 complaint and we deploy somebody to go take care of it. Sure that works, but what if we could know it proactively and everybody just looked at me and said you’ve lost your mind. I said what if we can. I said well how would you find out, I said, “Well, what is the thing I can measure?” I can measure movement if I have a sensor that can detect movement and a certain pattern of movement, I could know something before anybody else tells me. So we actually ended up deploying sensors and trash cans that could detect movement for rats and we started getting data proactively that helped the city and also while we did that, we got with the city and said I can also tell you when the trash can fills up. So instead of you sending your trash trucks every four hours into the city to pick up, what if I could proactively tell you through data which areas, you have to focus on and which you don’t?
So now clearly there were two departments that got excited right, this is great. Now we talked about an inclusive conversation; if I had that one group I’d be solving one problem, but we then opened it up and we said okay we’re doing this and as we’re looking at this, I think there are other opportunities, what do you think. Well then, we had other agencies jump in and said look if you’re getting this kind of data and insights, can we now tap on additional sensors. So we can get environment data, so now it doesn’t cost us as much, but we can get the same outcomes so just including and presenting an idea and talking about how you’re solving a problem brought about three different problems that we saw with that one effort. So, I think it’s important to put it in that context, so I think that’s number one.
The second thing I’ll tell you I’ll give you an example with an IBM as well right, so we manage teams all over the world and one of the simplest things that we tried to do is we were trying to design an entire architecture for a client that’s in about 55 countries. When you are talking about an architecture that must span 55 countries and has to be managed centrally, you talk about time zone structures and alignment.
We had to get about six teams and six different countries aligned, we had to then get the six countries also culturally aware of the other 50 countries they were dealing with and as we did this, we had to make sure we consistently met our requirements. You talk about a cultural alignment, we had to do a technical alignment and an architectural change, so it’s not a simple hey we’re just going to go deploy something. When you deploy something that’s multi-regional that’s multi-geographic there are a lot of boundaries. You have to think about, manage, and handle how do you go do that effectively.
So this is again where inclusion plays a big role. How do we build that culture where people feel they can participate? How do you build that culture where people have a certain personality? And that’s the important piece so once you start to build those narratives together and you’re explicit about it, what will happen is the loudest voice always wins. Hopefully, those were helpful.
Wei Zheng: Yes, thank you. I have some follow up questions. So in our prior conversation, you also talked about how you have the technology side and you have the people and culture side, and that you bring them into alignment. What are some specific ways you do that and I guess technology is more straightforward, but the culture and people side is messier and maybe sometimes you have to reverse the decision making process of who is involved in decision making, right? So what are some ways, you can, maybe let’s use in a hypothetical example, let’s say Stevens, our university, would like to have some technological support. I don’t know, maybe new services of wanting to know how we can be more efficient as a university and you would come in. What kind of questions would you ask to get to know what the culture is like and how you could help us to see technological opportunities? What are some questions you would think of asking?
Archana Vemulapalli: The first thing I would do even before I asked the questions, is I would do my homework and this is something known a lot of people do. So for example in your hypothetical scenario, I would look up Stevens, I would look up your corporate mission which is posted on your website, I would look up what the objectives set are, I would look up your organization construct and key leaders because looking at your leaders and what mandates and experience they have tells me about how far they’re willing to go, how conservative they’re going to be. So walking in the door, I would already have enough of an broad assessment of what the framework of the environment is.
Then in the next level, what you want to do is so say the problem statement you’ve approached me with is hey I need an infrastructural change or I need an application redesigned or whatever your issue might be, but then you put in the construct of now that I understand your broad background of information, what are the objectives you’re seeking to achieve, right and that’s the overall strategy, you have to always know an organization’s business strategy first because only when you know the business strategy and direction can you give them the right tech strategy, otherwise what will happen is I’ll give you a very strong technical architecture and that might not meet your needs, your timelines, or the direction you want to head in. So you want to make sure that’s number one.
And the second thing is you want to learn more about the people, so how you organize today, what are the structures today, what are you trying to change, why you’re trying to change it, and what does that break, right? Is it impacting somebody’s role? And if it is nine or ten times, they’re going to be the detractors for the idea because nobody whose role is being primarily impacted likes change. So how do you then take that and turn that into a motivator? So that’s one.
The second is processes. What process do you have in place? I can build you one right, you know I always say this right, I can give you a Ferrari, but if I tell you that you can only drive it at 10 miles an hour, you’re going nowhere right? So it’s important to know what the processes are and what restrictions you have and then it’s important to look at what your ecosystem what is, what is your sort of in technology strategy tools? What are the capabilities you want? What are the outcomes you’re seeking?
Once you lay that out, it becomes very clear, because then you can almost overlay and say look here’s your budget, here are your outcomes, and here’s the thing. I’ll tell you when I was in DC and in my role, I had identified the top 10 issues every mayor cares about and what I realized, and I joke with my other city mayors, I said look every metric is about the same ten things that either gets them re-elected or not. Right now, the order depends on if it’s in a highly contentious area, whether there’s a lot of crime, and if crime moves up, right? If crime is not an issue, and it’s one of the lower things on the list, by the way it never goes off, it’s always in the top 10, then they’ll say it’s cleanliness and safety.
So there are a bunch of these that always shift. But it’s knowing that I was able to help my mayor better, it’s no different in any organization, I know what the outcomes my leadership is looking for. I know how to go organize my teams to get to those outcomes.
Wei Zheng: That’s interesting. Thank you. That’s profound in terms of we have we have these technologies available, but you’re going in almost like a detective or anthropologist to understand what the organization’s ecosystem is like first and then you suggest ways to help them reach their objectives which is really interesting, so I think it’s very interesting and useful for us to think about as a school, as a university, in terms of educating a lot of technology professionals, how they think, not just in terms of technological progress or tools, but more in terms of what the need of the organization is and how I can align myself.
I do have a participant question that asks something similar to this. So this person asked about how you navigate the transition into leadership roles in STEM fields. So I’m assuming this person has a very strong background in STEM and then wanted to move into leadership roles and so it seems to imply or come with different sets of skills and maybe priorities or human mindsets. So what does it take to do this transition well?
Archana Vemulapalli: I mean so first I think everybody’s journey is individual and unique and it needs to start with knowing yourself. You have to know what your strengths are and you have to actually be very honest about where you don’t think you’re strong because even at this point it doesn’t matter if you go talk to some of the best CEOs, they’re still constantly working on things they think they need to improve on.
So you need to have your own personality map with your strengths or weaknesses laid out because as you’re doing that, and the first thing I would say is always make sure you’re always generating value in whatever you do because if you’re not adding value it doesn’t matter you’re replaceable. It’s only when you’re adding value that it’s harder to replace you. It’s still not impossible, by the way, anybody can be replaced, but it’s harder to replace you when you start to build your skill sets right, then you start to know what your next levels and the opportunities open up.
For me, personally I think I have never been intentional about getting from A to B or B to C and saying here’s my path, or I’m in this role, and my next goal is that role. It’s my personality right and that’s one thing that’s different for everyone. For me it has always been enjoying what I do. Right, I support my team, my team’s the best. I can learn constantly so if I’m not learning I force myself to learn right, I mean that’s one of the things I actually make sure that when you get into leadership and management it’s very easy to get stuck into a phase of where you are teaching more than you’re learning or you’re trying to tell more than you do, and you need to make sure you don’t consciously don’t get out of balance with that because if you learn all the time, and you talk to people who know more than you that forces you to always be humble, and it also puts you into the mode of building your own skills over time, so for me, I think the transitions were never intentional, it was always that I got very good at what I did. And when I got to being very good at what I did, I naturally looked for what I could do next right, and so I kind of went into effect.
Wei Zheng: Thank you. So just a follow up on this question, maybe starting for people who are earlier in their career they probably started as a supervisor and then the manager and moving up hopefully and so there they started with a lot of expertise in their own areas of work and they started to have to let go of the expertise and working through other people. For some it’s very scary to let go of control and that sort of thing. What are some ways that you have navigated that transition and what would be your advice for people who are making transitions like that?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah I think it’s important in that scenario that you mentioned, where it is that you have to decide also what you want to do, because if you don’t want to give up your technical depth and you say hey I’m one of those people that wants to be the core person that’s developing, then maybe moving a management track is not the one for you. Maybe it’s getting into a technical leadership track where you are building your competency and you still stay in touch with your competency, but you’re getting more that you train up to sort of build a scale around. It’s a different kind of management, it’s a different kind of leadership track. General management probably not right, no management is where you manage broad objectives and outcomes as a slightly different track, so it doesn’t mean you don’t manage people, you do both, but if you want to really figure that out, you have to be willing.
You will never succeed moving up if you don’t know how to build your teams. If you think you can do it all by yourself, you don’t need a team, and you don’t actually need to move up, that is the biggest mistake I’ve seen a lot of really.
Good people get caught up in that trap right where they try to do everything themselves no movement you try to do everything yourself, you are setting yourself up for failure. One if I’m good for your health because you won’t sleep, you’ll be working around the clock right, but the second is your team won’t respect you because when you want to work with someone like that I don’t think so right.
Wei Zheng: Right. One of the executives I interviewed in the past mentioned this story, and he was in sales. He said he was a really good salesperson and then he when he transitioned into management, he did very similar things and he thought he was very successful until one day one person pulled him aside and said, “I think you can step back a little bit people are not very happy with your leadership.” He was very surprised by it, and from that moment on he became more conscious about not doing other people’s work and to be more in the leadership role. Do you have any moments like that, or do you have any revelations or transitional points, maybe not particular to this sort of transition, but maybe the next level transition would be to a director role or to a senior executive role or their transitions like that for you?
Archana Vemulapalli: You know I think that’s when I said your leadership style doesn’t stay the same and it should evolve because your experiences teach you so many different things. I was always good in managing teams and I managed teams across different countries, so you talk about cultural implications, personalities, and how different groups now work together, all of that comes into play, but I’ll tell you the one consistent thing that I learned and think is very important is that you have to be always actively listening to what you can do differently and improve it and if you don’t, you lose out.
So I’ll give you an example. If you asked me 10 years ago what your leadership style is I would have said it’s very open and I believe in a flat structure and I would define what I was and then what I realized is that’s actually not true. Those are what I would like to be, but not everybody that reports to me and works directly I have you know, I have some of the smartest people that need a daily touch point call on how they’re doing and what the weather’s like, that’s what motivates them. I have other people that are so motivated and ambitious that they don’t need a call for months. And then I have people that need the retention because they are newly promoted into their roles they don’t know what to do, they’re trying to figure it out, they actually need the guidance of a successful individual.
The one thing I always tell my teams and I genuinely mean this is that I am 100% committed to them being successful, not me being successful, them being successful because if they are successful, that automatically makes me successful. So as you put them as the priority and they know that, then you walk through anything and I think it’s important to set that up front, then you acknowledge it, right, everybody has good days and bad days and you work through it and then agendas you’re straight on driving outcomes.
Wei Zheng: Thank you for the insight. We do have a participant question here that takes us a little bit into a different area which is more having the conversations between those with technology roles and other audiences maybe more business-problem driven and they may not speak the same language. And this example here is a data analyst who knows AI can help a clinician who had a question, but they had trouble doing so because don’t speak the same language. So there’s a communication translation issue. What are your suggestions of how you would approach a situation like this: let’s say a data analyst who knows AI and wants to help with a clinician who doesn’t speak the technical language, where would you start?
Archana Vemulapalli: The biggest problem I think is when a bunch of technologists get together, we can talk at length about how we’re solving an issue, but when you sit in front of someone that’s not inherently a technologist or doesn’t have deep expertise in that area and they suddenly hear you articulate a problem based in a very different way, they don’t understand. So I think it’s very important for you and for the folks in that role to understand and listen to them and see how they are articulating the problem, because I think the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity is translating a business need to a technology problem.
If you pay attention to the market, some of the most successful people are the ones that have been able to bridge those conversations. A lot of people still struggle with this especially in the space of AI there is so much nervousness right because people don’t understand. It has so much potential now with all the hype of jumping on it, there is so much more opportunity. So I think getting people comfortable with the values, getting to the core issues, and trying to understand what is it that they’re looking to do, and sometimes it’s as simple as asking people, what is it that they want to solve.
I was on a call once with a client where we were explaining some models we built and the value in it. Clearly, I was speaking the tagline and the client just said, “Hey, will this help me not get on calls in the middle of the night because that’s what I’m getting yelled at by my CEO.” So right there you saw his problem was very different and he was just trying to understand. He was just trying to solve this problem, he wanted me to tell him how he could get there and what he needed to understand. So immediately we pivoted, and we said all right let’s walk through your issue. Tell us what your problem is and then map it to that and said, if I saw these two things are you good or oh, by the way, in addition to these two things here are three things that I think can actually help you, and can you help me articulate it in your language like what would make sense to you.
And it was interesting. He actually took that and told us how to position our entire value very differently than we would have, so I think it’s absolutely important there to get them included in the conversation and you almost partner with them right because sometimes we talk at them, I’m telling you this is a major technologists crime, we talk at people and then look at them and they don’t get it and that actually is one way you never get a client on board. So it’s very important that you make them feel very much part of the process, show them you’re there to help them, and then they open up very differently and that divide that you see it gets rich very quickly.
Wei Zheng: So it sounds like people need to be well-equipped in both sides of the thinking to be a good translator or bridge. So I had an interview with Chris Ferrerri a few interviews ago and he’s from a technology background. He works on Wall Street and he was trying to build some new fintech technologies. He said when other businesspeople articulated their problem and went to the IT people they said, “No, it can’t be done.” And then he said he went there he broke down the business problem and said, “Can you do this piece?” and the person said, “Yes.” And then he said, “Can you do this piece?” and the person said, “Yes.” So by doing that he was essentially helping from the business side to help IT to understand what the business need was. So it seems like we need to come both sides and then need some translators in between to help bridge the gap.
I’d like to move on a little bit just to talk a few talk about inclusivity in the diversity issue, especially our series has the theme of women leaders in technology. What has been your experience in as a woman leader in technology? Do you find yourself a lot of times being the only woman in the room or sometimes underestimated? What’s your experience and what’s your strategy of navigating those situations?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah I think the stereotypes and the unconscious bias are still there, but equally I think there are a number of people that are actively looking to change that and the reason I say that is have I been subject to stereotypes all the time, but have I never let that stop me. More importantly, have I always found people that supported me when I needed it, so I think you have to you have to drive and pull you your strength and confidence in it, but you also have to recognize it is an uphill battle.
Sometimes the you know unconscious bias doesn’t happen because somebody decides they’re going to stereotype you a certain way because they have that malicious unconscious bias. They genuinely do it sometimes because we are just used to it and they’ll make a joke because they didn’t think otherwise.
I was once on a call where I had a colleague talk about a strong woman candidate and as he was talking about her and about promoting her he said, “And you know she’d be great because she’s also a wonderful mother of four kids.” And I said when you talked about all the men, did you talk about how many kids there are? It just struck him, and he said he didn’t even think about that. I said, why is her being a good mother a testament to success? What if she was a bad mother? It’s okay. What if she didn’t have kids? That’s okay, right? So I think it’s very important for us when we see these activities happen all the time just call it out and I will tell you that almost all the time, people are willing to do it, people are very much there. We need to drive and be intentional because every time I have that one intentional correction I’m making it better for somebody else and we need to do that just not just for the women, but also for the men.
Wei Zheng: Great. We do have a few minutes, so why don’t we open it up?
Deborah Sgro: Thank you, wonderful presentation and thank you for the comprehensive approach that you took to these topics. It was really very informative so thank you. The question that I always ask in these types of meetings is I’m concerned about how women’s participation in particularly the computing science has seemed to be plateaued and even maybe declined over the last few decades. Are there any insights that you might have for what might be contributing to the retention rate or the lower participation of women in computing sciences?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah I think that it’s a multi-faceted problem and I think we really have to make a much more conscious effort in middle school and high school. For a lot of young female students to get into science and get into computational science, it’s the way we teach it. If you look at even our subjects and the way our books are written, they are not written with how sometimes women at that age of girls at that age like to consume it.
I know firsthand I have a niece who wanted nothing to do with anything technology, she wanted to run away and be a movie star when she was in sixth grade. And I saw my cousin firsthand sit and work with her in creative ways to get her engaged in technology and now she’s written a bunch of different programs and one some national awards and loves it.
So it’s about how we expose these kids. I think it’s really important in middle school in high school to continue to expose them so they make informed choices about their careers.
The second thing is having the right instructors in organizations and representation leadership because if you have enough women leaders out there and you see this as a normal commonplace structure, you tend to want to go in that path. And we need to have that more.
So I think it’s both of those and the other piece that we also need to do organizationally is in when we have women in your organization, you have to create a support structure for them to succeed because especially in technology, when you’re coming into these computational sciences fields as you mentioned, when there are not that many and you haven’t had the experience where you’re hired and now right fresh out of college you’re looking around you for like-minded people to help you. If you don’t have that structure, you don’t succeed.
My first job straight out of college, I went to Lucent Technologies. I was one of three women in that office and it had 100 people. One of the three women was the office assistant, one was the manager for a smaller team, and then there was me, and that was it: 97 men, 3 women. I was fortunate that the team of 12 men I worked with literally adopted me and they taught me everything I knew right from and I’d moved straight from India too so they even taught me like you need to turn your headlights off or your car battery will die and stupid things like that, but I was very fortunate I had them and so I think it’s important for people to build that, because if you don’t it’s easy to quit.
The easiest thing for me then if I hadn’t had that support structure, would have been to quit and so I think we need that and I think that’s the reason you see the gap and that’s why we need to be very intentional about it, because if we’re not this gap is only going to worsen, it is not going to get better.
Wei Zheng: In our prior conversation you talked about somebody crying in the workplace and I think that’s pretty it’s very informative in terms of what our workplace really is like and what it should be like. It would be helpful to be more inclusive of people who are different.
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah because it’s also the way, and I talked about this, and she thought it was interesting, but I’ll give you a lens perceptions and stereotypes. We’re all used to working together, we all have good days and bad days, and we’re all used to getting upset at work. I was in a conversation with a colleague and he mentioned that he was uncomfortable because this woman would be emotional because she would cry when she got upset and I said, “What’s wrong with that?” He said, “Well you know that’s emotional.” I said, “Do you get angry when things don’t go your way?” He said, “Yes,” and I said, “Okay, that’s emotional too.”
Who has decided what is right and wrong and how you express your emotion, now we can all say yes at workplaces you have to have socially acceptable forms of expressing emotion, but as far as I know, crying hasn’t hurt anyone. And if having a good cry makes that person feel better and check back into work, more power to her. But these are the things we need to call out. I can’t be labeled as emotional, passionate, energetic, or crazy based on what you think you you’ve seen or have not seen, but these are the unconscious biases. I tend to call these out because who decided it is these societal norms that have been set up and structures that have been set up. Even for working women, for all of you that are planning careers and have active careers, how many of you deal with the pressure of having to try to be the perfect homemaker and be successful at work? I didn’t sign up for two jobs. I mean if I can, that’s great, I’ll pat myself on the back, but I’m a terrible cook. I don’t want to be a good one, I don’t aspire to be. I can get my eight-year-old McDonald’s any day and he will be happy with it, but it’s the stereotypical nature we’ve already been raised with and we’ve been raised by parents who brought us up a certain way.
So all I’m saying is we as women shouldn’t take that much pressure on ourselves. If you can do it, go right ahead, but if you can’t, it’s okay.
Wei Zheng: Thank you, and we have one more hand there, Nishitha go ahead.
Nishitha Reddy Dodda: Thank you, Professor. I am so glad I attended the session it has been a privilege to have gotten a lot of insights from you Archana, but one thing you said that stuck in my mind is adding value in what I do so even as an employee or student. As an employee, I might think, “Oh, I need to get this stuff done,” or as a student, I might “I need to get this assignment done,” and the first thing that comes to my mind is, am I learning something new? But what do you mean by adding value which makes me irreplaceable?
Archana Vemulapalli: Yeah so let me give you a perspective. When I talk about adding value in everything you do, I’ll tell you what value means to me: I do it to the best of my ability, I do it to where I’m always pushing myself to do better, and I am making sure for the dollar, I take from you, I give you $2 worth back. That that simply for me is adding value and that could be interpersonal skills, because it could be how I managed my teams and how I get the right outcomes, it could be how I have the right technical depth so I’m coming out with the right outcomes, it could be how I make sure that you avoid certain loopholes that I see so you’re successful.
So to me it’s it comes down to when you go into work, you have to you have to go in like you respect the place just like you respect your house. When you go home, you look forward to going home, right? That’s your house. Would you like it if somebody came in through stuff around and made a mess of it? No, right? That’s the place of your family, so similarly, when you go to work when you go to learn, when you go to school, you are choosing to invest that time right in somebody else do it with that same level of respect shrink that base with respect. And when you do enter when you lead a pace with respect, that means you go in and for that, for the eight hours they pay you right or, for that 10 hours they view you’re doing your best that’s all anybody ask for is for you to do your best, right? For your own sake, I would ask, “How can I do better?” and “How do I constantly improve myself?” So hopefully that was helpful, but let me know if I can be of any assistance.
Nishitha Reddy Dodda: Thank you so much.
Wei Zheng: Thank you so much Archana. Our time is up. Thank you so much for sharing the stories and insights. They were very informative. So the respect, humility, and inclusivity are very good lessons for all of us to bear in mind as we go off and do other wonderful work in the world. Thank you so much.
Archana Vemulapalli: Thank you again, sincerely. I appreciate the time of all of you that made time. Just a genuine thank you. I appreciate being able to participate and talk to you and I wish you all the success and you know if there’s ever anything I can do to be of assistance, please don’t hesitate, alright thanks again.