‘Self-confidence is like rocket fuel’: Meet CRN’s Woman of the Year

The winner of CRN’s inaugural Woman of the Year award has numerous patents to her name and regularly takes time out of her day job as a top executive at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to share the lessons she has learned with women mulling a career in STEM.

In her winner’s message (see above), Seeta Hariharan said self-confidence is the key trait required by women to succeed in the world of technology.

“As a kid growing up in the southern part of India, I was taught that if I truly believed in myself I would have the confidence to live my dreams,” she said.

“For women in technology careers, self-confidence is like rocket fuel: it can propel us to extraordinary heights and when we combine it with digital technology, we have the potential to make this world a better place.”
Hariharan has 25 patents to her name, and is currently general manager and group head, Digital Software & Solutions (DS&S) Group, at IT services giant TCS. She listed her proudest achievement as inventing a way for networking switches to automatically recognise whether an incoming call was for voice or data while at Bell Northern Research.
Several times a year, she delivers keynote speeches that are designed to inspire women in STEM (including this one to 2,000 female employees at General Electric). “During my keynotes I stress the importance for young women to ask for help in their careers, especially through mentors,” she said. 

Before joining TCS to build the foundation for DS&S Group, Hariharan held leadership roles in IBM’s software, services, hardware, and microelectronics divisions.

She prevailed in an intimidatingly strong field for Woman of the Year, the marquee category of CRN’s Woman in Channel Awards, held in London on 18 October.

The judges were impressed by the extent to which she has made a true difference to the industry at large, and the drive she shows in her willingness to stick her head above the parapet.

With Hariharan’s permission we have published her full answers in her Woman of the Year entry below.
Give an example of how you’ve excelled in your role, or how you’ve been an inspiration to others around you
I believe that part of my responsibility as the leader of a technology enterprise and a successful businesswoman is to share lessons I’ve learned with younger women considering STEM careers. Several times a year I deliver keynote speeches at the request of companies such as General Electric (for 2,000 female employees), universities, and at conferences sponsored by organisations such as IEEE Women in Engineering.

During my keynotes I stress the importance for young women to ask for help in their careers, especially through mentors. I also stress the importance of pursuing what you really want.

Getting what you truly want in life starts with understanding the difference between what you wish and what you really want. I wish I could eat ice cream every day without gaining weight. But I really want to create smart technologies that make people in cities feel safer and welcomed.

Whenever I speak at conferences, it immediately becomes clear most people haven’t thought this through. How can you change the world if you don’t know what you want to do?

Earlier in my career I decided I really wanted to earn my MBA at Northwestern University. I proposed that my employer pay all expenses. After twice being denied, I submitted a nine-page proposal arguing that the company would benefit. They agreed!

A curious thing happens when a woman declares she absolutely wants something. It has a way of channelling her focus and energies. And opening doors to a changing world.

Tell us about your current role and what motivates you. What has been the driving force behind your career strategy?
As general manager and group head of TCS Digital Software & Solutions Group, I lead product and channel strategy; equip engineering with talent and resources to execute against a visionary product road map; and drive sales and marketing.

While my responsibilities are broad, they’re connected by a common motivation: to anticipate the next wave and ride it before anyone else does.

At DS&S Group, we help companies and cities take advantage of disruptive digital technology, not become a victim of it. In our connected economy, new forms of value are created by connecting the dots between people, the Internet of Things, and organisations.

To succeed, businesses in consumer-facing industries such as retail and banking must become obsessed with delighting customers. Like businesses, cities are also competing for talent and investment. Not only must they intelligently manage water, energy, buildings and transportation, they also need new ways to make their cities more attractive places to live, shop and do business.

As the leader of a B2B2C software operation, every time I have a good customer experience it raises my expectation even higher for the next encounter. These skyrocketing consumer expectations motivate me to develop software that can deliver memorable experiences that today’s connected consumers and citizens expect.

Focusing on the needs of individuals has also been a driving force in my career. It starts with striving to make each day better than the previous one, being thankful for the talents and opportunities I’ve been given, and helping others who are less fortunate.

Which one achievement or task in your career are you most proud of?
I have 25 patents to my name, but I’m proudest of my first invention years ago at Bell Northern Research.
Back in the Stone Age era of dial-up internet – before all-digital networks – voice calls and internet data were carried on the same phone lines. Getting on the internet meant placing a call with a kludgy modem. Since people stayed on the internet for hours instead of just minutes for phone calls, network switches were often congested. Internet users hogging lines day and night prevented consumers making voice calls.

Regional phone companies quickly realised this was more than an inconvenience. For consumers trying to place emergency calls (such as 999 in the UK), it could be a matter of life and death. Since the regional phone systems couldn’t discern between a voice call and a data call and people didn’t have mobile phones yet, they asked Bell Northern Research for a solution.

I committed myself to solving the problem. Before long I invented a way for networking switches to automatically recognise whether an incoming call was for voice or data. If they became congested, my innovation automatically prioritised voice calls over data calls.

I wish I could say with certainty that my invention saved lives. I don’t have any figures or anecdotes to support that. But knowing it could have saved just one life gives me tremendous satisfaction to this day.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
As anyone who has participated in sport knows, learning which skills to hone is as important as the will to improve them. Early in my career I realised that unless I proactively defined how I wanted to be seen by others, they would be more than happy to do that for me. Which probably wasn’t going to work in my favour.

So I was fortunate to learn that defining yourself before others do is absolutely critical to career success.
Let’s face it. Whether due to height, skin colour, career choice, age or accent, the technology sector is awash with stereotypes. They’re like a wayward town crier who proclaims who it thinks we are before we have a chance to utter a word. Often these impressions are indelible, affecting careers in ways we will never know.
But we can – and must – say something. By speaking up using the words and imagery that we choose, we can proactively define ourselves exactly as we’d like to be seen. In fact, even the simple act of defining ourselves can break barriers and open doors.

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, I begin by talking briefly about myself and the exciting directions we’re taking TCS. I finish with some personal colour, like my passion for reading and playing golf. By defining myself before they do, it helps override stereotypes from their upbringing, culture, language and experiences. So I can help them understand what I stand for and get down to business.

What is your top tip for women looking to start a career in IT?
It’s critical to become more self-aware. For me, that translated into learning early on how to identify blind spots such as self-defeating behaviour and other shortcomings before they affected my career. It’s an important skill that improves with practice.

I vividly recall my second job as a system architect at a large telecommunications company. I aspired to become an engineering manager and enjoyed great support from management. I took pride in learning as much as possible about the firm and the industry and made sure I shared my knowledge at every opportunity.

My boss, then grooming me to be a manager, took me aside after one meeting to ask how I thought it went. I said, “great” because I had answers to almost everything. He then explained that having Ms Wikipedia in the room could discourage others from making contributions and getting their own issues addressed.

By exposing my blind spot through greater self-awareness, I learned that leaders need to encourage others to believe in themselves, not just have all the answers. This tip enabled me to develop a vital career skill that I continue to employ even today.

What is the one thing you would do to encourage more women into the IT sector?
I’m impressed with how socially conscious young women are these days. They’re passionate about recycling, making their voices heard and improving the planet. My thinking was not as evolved at that age.
Yet when the conversation shifts to careers and I talk about IT, it’s a non sequitur.

Not enough young women realise the potential of technology to align with progressive values, to make the world a better place. So to encourage them into IT careers, I would help them see the links forming in the IT industry between data technologies such as analytics and AI and the human experience – especially in cities.
For instance, TCS smart city technology makes urban transport, lighting and water systems more efficient. But it can also make people feel safer by making streetlights brighter to help reduce crime.
We need the bright minds of young women to envision our data-driven future.

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