Business Today

'Having it all doesn't mean doing it all'

Cisco Systems' chief technology and strategy officer Padmasree Warrior talks about how the global networking firm is changing, her life and influences, and what women should and shouldn't do to reach and retain leadership positions.
Suprotip Ghosh and Josey Puliyenthuruthel         Print Edition: Sep 14, 2014
'Having it all doesn't mean doing it all'
Cisco Systems' chief technology and strategy officer Padmasree Warrior. Photo by Rachit Goswami.

Padmasree Warrior is the feisty Chief Technology and Strategy Officer at Cisco Systems. In an interview with Suprotip Ghosh and Josey Puliyenthuruthel, she talks about how the San Jose-based global networking giant is changing, her life and influences, and what women should and shouldn't do to reach and retain leadership positions, among other things. Edited excerpts:

Q. Can you give us a general direction on where the company is headed?

A. Our strategy has moved from being a networking company to an IT company. The industry is moving to a point where infrastructure will be delivered as a service. Platform and applications will be delivered as a service with the network enabling this transformation. We believe we are at the tip of the Internet going to its next phase, the 'Internet of things'. We need to change from selling boxes with switches to a software and application enablement company. We launched this strategy a year ago and we will be launching more new products here.

Q. And why would Cisco necessarily be able to capitalise on that trend, more than anybody else?

A. Our relevance would be to provide the bandwidth. Additionally, in the future, the network has to be intelligent enough to decide what data goes back into the cloud, and what stays locally, and that's the thing only Cisco can do.

Q. Why are there so few women in tech start-ups?

A. If you look at the overall tech industry, the number of women are very small across the pipeline. And then you say start-ups, meaning someone who leaves and takes a risk in creating something that puts additional risk. Technology is perceived as very isolating to women. You have to be very geeky looking, you can't like fashion, you can't dress the way you want to dress, and they tend to not pursue these fields.

Cisco Systems' chief technology and strategy officer Padmasree Warrior.
I also feel in the start-up area, we need to create more role models. There are very few women in venture capital (VC). The more women role models we get in the VC world, they will be more sympathetic looking at women as truly capable of doing things .

I try to connect different segments of women investors, women in investment banking and women VCs with women founders and women in corporations. The future will really require multiple disciplines to create a hugely attractive wearable. You [will] have to be really good at engineering skills, but you [will] also need to have good business skills, amazing marketing skills, and physically they have to be attractive to wear. It will become more multidisciplinary, and it will become much more attractive for women to play a stronger role there.

Q. Last year, Ursula Burns [Chairman and CEO at Xerox] mentioned something that she had called the "impostor syndrome". She said that it's a bit inaccurate to say that I can have it all. What do you think?

A. I don't know if I will call it that. I mean I wouldn't do it deliberately. Having it all doesn't mean doing it all. You still can have it all. People talk about 'balance'. I actually don't like the word balance. I have often talked about it, because balance somehow suggests that you have one life at home and another at work. I like the word 'integration' much better. Talk about your work, your family, but also of yourself and your community. The more self-aware you are, you have to make those choices, but that doesn't mean you have to give up on one or the other.

Q. Integration, just explain that with a typical day of yours.

A. I start early, and usually catch up on the news before I check my emails. I go online and read what's happened in the markets. Then I usually check emails while having coffee. I start work around 7-7.30 a.m. Usually I have a lot of meetings with customers or start-ups, investors and founders. I leave work by 7 p.m. or so, get home, and have dinner with my husband. Then we go for a walk. After we come back, I may read books recommended by my son, who is in college, and chat about that. I probably finish all of that by around 10 p.m. I meditate for about 20 minutes and go to bed by 10.30-11 p.m.

Cisco Systems' chief technology and strategy officer Padmasree Warrior.
I practice what I call 'digital detox' on Saturdays. Otherwise, you're working all the time, because technology lets you work all the time. So on Saturdays, I stay off emails and voicemails unless we are working on a deal. It has really improved my own decision-making process.

Q. If I were in my late-20s, and going from a junior level to mid-level, one differentiator would be the volume of work I do. Is 'integration' really an option to somebody at that stage?

A. Absolutely. As you go higher in the hierarchy, you have to build a team that can do the work, and it's not that you have to work an infinite number of hours. Women always somehow feel volume of work is going to go up more, versus responsibilities are going to go up more. There's a big difference. With responsibility, you get accountability. My advice to women thinking about the next big step is to look at it as a gain in responsibility versus gain in the volume of work. There are usually only three to five things at any level that you are held accountable for. So it's really being clear on what you are being measured on and are accountable for as a leader. Then you have to figure out in your day how you structure that.

Q. What should Indian corporations do to foster women in leadership because that seems to be the critical point of discussion these days?

"People talk about 'balance'. I actually don’t like the word balance... I like the word 'integration' much better"

A. By just creating an atmosphere where people can be people and can be truly authentic to who they are and be professional can help remove a lot of constraints. At Cisco, we have a very strong women's networking group, and a lot of men who want women to be successful, participate. One of our key sponsors is Chuck Robbins, who is the head of sales at Cisco. Having role models among men is also something every corporation can do. And surprisingly a lot of male leaders are willing to do that.

"My advice to women thinking about the next big step is to look at it as a gain in responsibility versus gain in the volume of work"

The reason why women leave their careers even if they are really smart and successful is because often they feel they are being constrained in being able to perform to their true potential. They're told they have to act in a certain way. When I started working, we were actually told how to dress and how to talk and what to wear and what not to wear. I think that is very limiting. Things are actually getting better...

Q. India has a new company law that actually mandates the [presence of] women on boards. It is in a sense some kind of a reservation. Your thoughts.

A. I am not opposed to that. It puts the problem front and centre. If you are not accountable for something, you take the easy way out. Maybe not deliberately isolating and not picking women for boards, but you just don't think about it. Maybe you just go with whoever is the first person who comes on your radar screen, versus saying, maybe there's a competent woman here. The perspective that women bring adds a lot, especially when it comes to governance. So I don't look at it as a quota until we see a change, because the numbers are so small today.

Q. You've been heading Cisco at a time when it is on an acquisition spree. Could you share a little bit of the strategic thinking behind this?

A. As a company Cisco innovates by having four pillars: Build, buy, partner and integrate. We invest roughly $6 billion in R&D worldwide. In the last 18 months, we have made 16 acquisitions. Ever since I have been in my role, we have done two 'platform acquisitions'. One is Meraki in San Francisco that does networking from the cloud as a service, and we bought a security company called Sourcefire for $2.6 billion.

Q. Where does India feature in Cisco's scheme of things?

A. India for us is important from two aspects. There are 11,000 people in the country now and from an R&D perspective, it's the second-largest centre after the US. As a market, it is really important too. Just as it leapfrogged with the majority of growth with mobile, India has an opportunity to leapfrog to modernise cities in a different way and actually build newer cities in a different way.

Q. What are your thoughts on niche, best-of-breed companies emerging out of India, armed with global custom and the highly competitive pricing that we now have in our DNA?

A. We just announced a $40 million early stage investment for India innovation, specifically dedicated to start-ups. We have invested in a Mumbai-based analytics company called Covacsis. It is unique for Cisco. A lot of these niche or best-of-breed companies have a problem with scale. If you want to grow beyond a point, you have to have a sales force. You have to have service support for the customer. That's where we can complement what they have. So they get our access to global customers, and we sort of figure out the matching because we understand our customers really well, and if they require a product, we will actually sometimes integrate that; we do allow them that in many cases. We, in fact, have a competition called the Grand Challenge. As part of that, we tell companies to send us their proposals and if we are interested in them, we'll invest in them. I think that is the power of the Internet. It is democratising innovation.

Q. You talk about your husband and parents being great influences in your life. What aspects from them have changed you as a person, made you stronger?

A. My mom was a big influence on me. When I was a kid, I had severe asthma, to the extent that I had to be homeschooled for almost two years. She was my caregiver, my teacher and sort of my friend, and she helped me get through my courses. I received a lot of support from my parents and it made me who I am today.

"We invest roughly $6 billion in R&D worldwide. In the last 18 months, we have done over 16 acquisitions"

When I told my dad that I wanted to go to IIT Delhi, very far from Vijayawada [in Andhra Pradesh] where I grew up, he didn't even bat an eyelid and said, go. Later, at IIT, there were only five girls in a batch of 250, so I called up my dad and said I wanted to come home. He said, you have chosen your path, and it is up to you now to make the journey interesting. You can't come back. At the time I felt that he was being so cruel and mean. But now I feel so glad he gave me that advice and I didn't go back. I owe a lot of my success to my education in IIT. My brother is a chartered accountant, and my sister a Chemistry major.

I met my husband in my first year at IIT. We were really good friends and got married later. He is an engineer and a big influence in my life. I travel a lot and he has never set forth any barriers to my success. Now my son is grown up and he is influencing me. He writes fiction and is a very creative person. So he helps me sometimes to really look at the human side of technology.

Q. What are the new markets you are looking at?

A. Emerging markets continue to be important for us. A lot of countries now want data to remain in that country versus be in a cloud somewhere else. That would be opportunity for local companies to create a cloud. So we are looking at how we can help local cloud providers. People in the past spent a lot of money on security to prevent attacks. Now [the money] is shifting to how do I know that I am being attacked, and how can I recover quickly? So we are shifting our portfolio to address these two points.

Q. You said [in the beginning] the Internet of things to be the next big phase. Any other big trends in the tech world?

A. Mobile will be big. Beyond the IT space, 3D printing and robotics and automation, whether as a car that drives itself, or robotics in terms of manufacturing, or drones.

@JoseyJohn

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