Pallavi Katiyar began her career as an IT consultant, and today is leading a much broader portfolio as the CIO of Cyient. Throughout her professional journey, she has had opportunities to play different roles: “There has never been a dull moment,” she says.
Over the past 22 years, Katiyar has worked in different domains, technologies, and industries, and that has opened up a lot of avenues for her, from coding and product design to running large RFPs and SAP implementations. She’s also been involved in supply chain consulting, vendor management, and, most recently, driving large infrastructure and cybersecurity transformation projects.
In this interview with CIO India, Katiyar talks about her management philosophy, and how she has directed her career.
CIO India: What has been your greatest career achievement?
Pallavi Katiyar: I have been very experimental and have not hesitated to take on new challenges. This risk-taking capability and passion for solving problems opened up an opportunity — an M&A initiative by a $21 billion company in one of my previous organizations. I led the IT integration for two global business units that came together via this M&A route.
The two had very different enterprise and infrastructure portfolios with only a few synergies. This made it complex because both businesses claimed to be more advanced. Even before you can start looking into the technical integration, you’re trying to get the teams aligned on the future landscape — what is retained and what is replaced. The integration was happening across countries, so the execution has to be effective as it impacts hundreds of locations across the globe. The whole chain of management aspect and communication became critical.
It was a three-year project and required the integration of the entire IT application infrastructure and security portfolios. It was the toughest and the most complex program that I have ever taken up in my life. I’m very proud of that achievement because it pushed me far beyond my comfort zone.
CIO India: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to take in your IT career, and how did you make it?
Katiyar: Joining DuPont was probably the toughest decision for me. Prior to that, I worked in IT services and the new role required me to move towards the business side. It was uncharted territory for me. I was doing extremely well on the IT services side and things were looking promising from a career standpoint. At DuPont, I was expected to set up a delivery centre for them in India, rebuild the capability in-house, and drive large vendor consolidation. Moving to the business side when I really did not have any prior experience in that area was tough.
I don’t hesitate to take up new challenges, but after I spoke to the CIO of DuPont, I felt more confident to take up the new role. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted and was very passionate about it. That made the decision-making easier for me.
CIO India: What’s the best career advice you ever received?
Katiyar: I learned the importance of taking a bet on people. I credit a lot of where I’m today to my CIO from a previous organization. He trusted me and empowered me to deliver certain projects and roles which was a turning point in my career.
From another CIO I worked for I learned the importance of user experience. She was very particular about building user experience in every project. Many times, IT functions are inward-focused, bringing in the best-in-class technology but not necessarily looking from a user perspective.
I have learned a lot from the CEO of Cyient too. He believes in investing in the future and never hesitates to do that. The more I work with him, the more I see the trajectory of technology growth. Some of the investments he made seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but those investments are giving us ROI today.
CIO India: What are the prospects for career mobility for a CIO? What roles would you aspire to?
Katiyar: Today, CIOs are working in close collaboration with business leaders, and they are solving real business problems. That makes it much easier for CIOs to take up different roles because we have a good understanding of business priorities, challenges, customer expectations, the competitive landscape, and the commercial and governance aspects.
For me, it’s more about the passion to solve business problems, enabling better collaboration, higher productivity, and performance. It doesn’t matter much if that comes in a business-facing role or whether it comes as another role within one of the enabling functions like HR or operations. It’s more about the problem and the nature of the challenge that I have to solve that would define the future role I will be taking up.
CIO India: How do you groom the next level of leadership for the CIO role?
Katiyar: Nothing is constant, not even our positions. Somebody took a bet on me and it’s important that I do the same. I have a four-point mantra when it comes to people: challenge, trust, empower and enable.
The key is to identify promising individuals and take educated risks. You should be able to assess the trends and the development needs of that individual and start helping him or her to be successful in the new role. And you have to trust them with additional responsibilities and push them out of their comfort zone.
CIO India: Have you faced any unusual challenges during any project implementation?
Katiyar: When I joined Cyient we were going through an SAP implementation. We were SAP users for a very long, but we were implementing new functionalities for project managers to get more real-time reporting around projects, resource utilization, and invoicing. This required a significant change in the way a project manager would traditionally run some of these processes.
However, the teams were struggling with the new processes and tools. I realized that it was hampering our ability, and the initial objective of becoming more productive and effective was defeated. That’s when I decided to pause the project and went back to the drawing board — where is it that we are seeing gaps, and what needs to be done to address these gaps? We listed all the issues and the requirements all over again and put a roadmap against them. We walked managers through various aspects of the solutions, what to expect and what not to expect, and then we worked towards implementing them to make them more aligned with the business requirements.
It took us a good six to eight months more, but the good thing is that by the end of this project, entire reporting related to projects started coming directly from the system.
CIO India: What myths about technology, IT/IS management, digital transformation, and the CIO role would you like to debunk?
Katiyar: Digital transformation requires a complete ecosystem change — a complete transformation of how you do things end to end, and it often needs a cultural and mindset change. As CIOs, we need to do a better job of explaining to our stakeholders what it really entails.
Suppose you bring in RPA for finance functions. The technology is supposed to automate repetitive tasks which the associates in the finance function may not be used to. They are used to working on Excel sheets and need to really start thinking differently otherwise RPA will fail. It has to be a balance of what is automated and how that person whose work is possibly getting transformed has to be rescaled.
CIO India: What is your key learning from the last two decades?
Katiyar: Don’t blindly chase others. It’s not necessary to always go for the best in class or the most advanced solution. If your organization is not ready for it then the probability of failure is much higher than what you anticipated.
I have been part of a few projects where I was an active participant and my gut feeling said that the solution is not right for the company, but I was not very vocal about it, or maybe I was not in a position to be vocal about it at that point in time. I wish I had trusted my instincts and maybe created some awareness about it. But today, I’m very diligent when it comes to identifying and selecting the solutions for my organization.
CIO India: If you weren’t a CIO, what would you be?
Katiyar: I’m passionate about making education accessible to the not-so-privileged part of society. I would have been working on building some solutions or leveraging technology to make it happen. There’s a high possibility that I might still end up doing that a few years down the line!