Milind Kulkarni, now senior vice president of corporate strategy, government relationship, digital and IT at ST Telemedia Global Data Center (STT GDC), started out as an electrical engineer. However, he soon discovered an interest in the world of IT and decided to make a career of it.
For Kulkarni, this transition wasn’t a difficult one: “It was easy because I always had that bent of mind towards technology and taking challenges is important for me. It was easy because I had the intentions and passion and was looking for a change.”
Here are edited excerpts of CIO India’s conversation with him.
CIO India: Explain your career path. What has been your greatest career achievement?
Kulkarni: I think the one I would like to highlight is from when we were demerging from Tata Communications and forming STT GDC India. Tata Communications is a telecom company and STT GDC is a data center company. We had two options — either follow the steps of Tata Communications or build a new architecture and thought processes as STT GDC India. I was part of the demerger from an early stage and had analyzed both options thoroughly.
I chose the option of building our own architecture and stack separately. We used cloud-first technologies with API integrations and all that from an analytics perspective on how we can make it stronger at the cybersecurity level. We implemented these projects on various cloud platforms very fast and even we received industry awards and recognition for it.
The demerger was not easy. But we spent a good amount of time planning it. Typically, what happens is that people start executing faster instead of spending the right amount of time in planning. I think if we plan well from the process and architecture perspective, then the implementation is easier. That is why we got the things right.
CIO India: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to take in your IT career, and how did you make it?
Kulkarni: Scrapping a project that was 70% completed.
The project was developing a web portal for customers at Tata Communications. I had to convince the MD of the company to not go ahead with the project. Of course, the first reaction was that that was not acceptable, but when I presented with data points that we would not get the desired benefits, it then turned to a healthier decision.
I also had to convince the team and for that, I brought them together and explained why this project wouldn’t work, showed them what the competitor was coming up with and what the industry was doing. They went back and did their research and were convinced to scrap the project. It was a collective decision, although I was presenting it because somebody has to bite the bullet. It is not wise to put in more time and money to complete any project that’s had majority completion if we are sure it will not work.
A CIO role is not only driven from an internal technology perspective; we need to also understand what the industry is doing and what the competition is doing. If something they are doing is better and faster, which is quite possible, we need to go back to the drawing board.
CIO India: What’s the best career advice you ever received?
Kulkarni: Think about the bigger picture and value creation for the entire ecosystem. We typically talk about the customers-first or employees-first approach, but I think having value creation and the bigger picture for the entire ecosystem helps. If you go with that thought, I think that makes you a leader.
CIO India: What are the prospects for career mobility for a CIO? What roles would you aspire to?
Kulkarni: Not only CIO roles: Any role is only a beginning. It’s always the question of what more value can you bring to the table. I did that during my career, and even in my current role, I do the same. I joined as a digital leader but I also look after corporate strategy and affairs. I’ve started looking into more areas than only looking from a technology perspective. CIOs can create value by taking strategic responsibilities, overseeing mergers and acquisitions, being experts in the technology domain, and also mentoring technology startups.
If you do only things from your key responsibility areas, you might achieve near-term goals. When you start helping to achieve things that are not part of your regular day-to-day activities, but are something beneficial for your organization, your role expands beyond boundaries.
CIO India: What makes a good CIO, in your opinion?
Kulkarni: People interested in this role have to widen their knowledge perspective and understand the ecosystem — existing business models, where the industry is headed, and also what competition is doing. A person with these qualities, who is ready to take risks, who will think differently and make things happen, will make a good CIO.
CIO India: What myths about technology, IT/IS management, digital transformation, and the CIO role would you like to debunk?
Kulkarni: The first myth is that technology can solve all the problems. That’s not the case: It’s always people, processes, technology, and data that together solve the problem. They are the four tyres of one car.
The second is that technology leaders don’t understand business.
The third myth is that technology projects take longer, and hence we should not do it. With agile models we have a stepwise approach to create value. Gone are those days where a waterfall model was used. Agile gives us in-between benefits and we should use that.
Years before, we were doing consulting for a bank in the US where we had to redesign their entire infrastructure for almost 100 branches. During a leadership meeting, the client said, “If it’s IT then forget it. IT projects are always delayed. We never get what we’re looking for.” It took another meeting to convince them otherwise.
And the last one in this area is about digital transformation being only about technology. Digital transformation is not only technology transformation: culture and people transformation are equally important.
CIO India: In the past few years, has it become easier or tougher for the CIO to get a ‘seat at the table’? How do you equip yourself for it?
Kulkarni: Its easier today compared to years back. If you want to be part of a leadership team, you need to understand the overall industry competition. Sometimes you have to manage perceptions, convincing people before the meeting, and sometimes you have to deliver and show how value is created.
CIO India: How do you build motivation and the right culture in the IT department?
Kulkarni: Technical people like doing technical things. If you want to motivate them, encourage them to explore new ideas and technologies.
Celebrating failures is also very important in this journey. Success is talked a lot about and people get rewards too. We used to have a separate session or party to celebrate failures! Then we get inputs from different people on what could have been done better. So, managing and learning from the failures is the second important thing.
The last one is encouraging staff to go beyond their role.
CIO India: What are the challenges CIOs face today?
Kulkarni: Firstly, technology is changing extremely fast today. Earlier we used to lay out a three-year strategy. Now, even if we prepare a one-year strategy, we have to go back and revisit it at the end of the year and change our numbers.
The second concern is cybersecurity: We have to build it into every aspect of our journey.
Thirdly, there are regulation and compliance. We have to always keep a close watch on what is happening in regulation, compliance, and policies because that sometimes impacts us immensely.