Taking calculated risks

SriLaxmi Kotwal has found success at home. She was born, raised, studied and has worked her entire career in the Indian city of Hyderabad. As a Senior Director in JDA’s Product Development organization, she leads the development team for JDA Retail.me, one of the company’s strategic SaaS products. With a strong academic background and incredible family support, she’s grown her career where she started, gaining confidence and learning lessons along the way.

SriLaxmi with her family

SCN: Why did you choose a career in technology?

SK: When I was a kid, I wanted to join the Indian Army. We lived in an area with a lot of people with an Army background, so I wanted to get there.  Then I figured out that my height was going to be a problem, plus my parents were not too keen on it. At that time computers were just being widely introduced (this was in the 1990s). I got quite interested in this box that magically, to me, made a lot of background calculations, so that was a big deal. I was very poor in math and was amazed at how the computer did a lot of that. I thought, let me try that out and I just stuck to it.

SCN: Were there a lot of women in your classes when you were studying Computer Science?

SK: Oh yes, but when I got into work, the numbers dwindled a bit as not everyone chose a career in technology. That was back then, but things have changed today. I see many young girls choosing technology as their career. But as you keep moving up the chain, that number keeps reducing.

SCN: Why do you think that is?

SK: I think you need to consider what a career in technology demands. I went through this journey myself. There is a lot of hard work and a constant need to stay on top of new learning. You have to be fully dedicated and have a hunger and passion to learn the new. I think that after a point, women tend to need to find a balance between their professional life and personal life and are satisfied with just doing their day job. Maybe that is the reason you don’t see as many women in leadership roles. Risk taking is another reason. If you want to advance, you need to take risks – basically unsettling yourself and coming out of your comfort zone.

SCN: What can women do to get more comfortable taking risks or making the extra commitment?

SK: One thing that I have learned, that I wish I had known during the course of my career, is that there’s really nothing called a super woman or super mom. We sometimes tend to think that we should be good at everything and doing every role to perfection. When I say role, I mean our personal lives as well. I’ve learned that at different points in time, different roles will take a priority, and this will keep changing. Whichever role you take at that point in life, give it 100 percent without guilt. When taking a career decision or when signing up for the extra things, first and foremost understand the risks, make the necessary adjustments in your personal and professional life (keep in mind this will initially demand some extra time from you) and then go all-out for it.

SCN: Are you a risk taker?

SK: I take calculated risks. I was at my first job nine years, doing very well, growing and gaining a new role and team every couple of years. But when I realized that I wanted to do something very different, I was advised against it. People said that I was very well settled, knew a lot of the leadership and had established credibility – why would I want to move? I had an opportunity to get into analytics and the data warehousing space at another company. Those were very different technologies and domains. I had started feeling very settled and whenever I feel settled, I start worrying.

I took the risk, and left the company for a new position. I struggled initially to fit in and connect with the organization. It took me a year to settle in, but I never gave up, thanks to some amazing mentors I had in the organization. It would have been very easy to go back, but I kept telling myself that I had to adjust and figure things out; to not take the easy out. I ended up working there for nine years, my transition from on-premise software to SaaS happened there and I worked with the best of the leaders who mentored me in this phase of unlearning and re-learning!

SCN: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

SK: The advice my mom gave and continues to give me: Learn to differentiate the music from the noise.  She always said, “You should have a career of your own. You should be an individual who has your own goals and life path. Be independent.  There will be people around you who will give their opinion or judge you for the decisions you make, but don’t be bothered with all that. Stay focused and listen to yourself.” That advice will always stay with me.

SCN: What kind of support system do you have?

SK: When I talk to other women, I encourage them to build support systems. If you can get it from family, that’s great; build that relationship. But also build a support system of friends. That should be a very focused effort, because you need to build trusting relationships with people you can depend on in times of need. My mom supported me when I was concentrating on my career and in parallel I built a strong support system of friends.

SCN: What characteristics do you believe every leader should possess?

SK: I think it is the ability to be fearless. Fearless leaders will not hesitate to take risks. Sometimes organizations need a jolt or massive changes to be successful. You need to be fearless to be able to make decisions like that in an organization. I really admire and have worked with leaders like that and have seen them transform teams and products.

SCN: What do you do to keep your skills sharp?

SK: I am a very avid reader, but reading about technology does not come naturally to me. I know being in technology, that’s probably not the right thing for me to say!  I take out certain hours of the week and go to our internal JDA learning centers to get myself updated on the functional sides of things. From a technology perspective I do a lot of online reading. Plus, I have identified mentors for myself in the industry who are technology geeks and I have periodic interactions with them. That’s an investment I make for my own career. I have leadership mentors and technology mentors.

SCN: Did you ask them to mentor you?

SK: My leadership mentors are people I have worked with, who genuinely believed they could help me in my career, and who I can be very honest about myself with. I met two such amazing leaders at my first job who continue as my leadership mentors still today. I’m comfortable with them and they know me very well, so any career decisions I want to take, I always run by them. I make a point of meeting them face-to-face when they are in Hyderabad. That is an effort you should make with a mentor; you must commit your personal time to keep that relationship going.

I don’t expect my technology mentors to know me that well because I’m not going to them for career discussions. I go to them to learn of new technologies. Because it is my personal interest, I ask them to coffee or have an exchange on email on a particular thing that they did or said that I’d like to understand more specifically when they have time.

My 24/7 mentor is my husband Ravi; the best decision in my life was choosing him as my life partner. He brought in a lot of stability and calmness in me and no career move has gone by without his candid feedback.

SCN: What advice to you have for someone taking a leadership role for the first time?

I think it is very important to know yourself – your strengths and weaknesses and how you want to develop yourself. That will help you gain confidence. As a leader, you are more watched and judged, so make self-awareness and accepting yourself a strength.

People management can make or break teams, so you have to learn to listen. By listening you can learn about the culture of your team, what motivates them and keeps them bonded. This will give you information to navigate and build trust with them.

Finally, it is very important for new leaders to have a mentor, and have a very honest relationship with them. A strong mentor can help guide you as you grow.

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