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Friday, Dec 24, 2004

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Info-Tech - Gender

Taking charge

Paromita Pain

A growing number of women are their own bosses in the IT industry. While some watch the steady growth of their start-up with a mother's pride, others take confident charge of their role as top managers and senior executives.

When Charles Babbage was designing the world's first computer, his research team included Ada Lovelace, possibly the first among women software engineers. And that was only the mid-19th century. Coming back to more recent times, as software dictates the quality of life, women emerge as managers and creators of leading IT companies, producing cutting-edge technologies. As a recent report in Computerworld says, "When it comes to software and services, women are certainly holding their own in senior executive positions."

An inspired lot

Kalyani Narayanan, CEO, Allfon Systems

The long march to the top couldn't have been easy but it certainly was interesting and stimulating enough to make yesterday's college students the CEOs of today. "When I was ready to go to college, the IT industry was almost non-existent in India. I like maths and accounting. Getting a degree in computer science was a thought. Since I went to college in the US, I had the flexibility of trying out a couple of Computer Science courses before deciding my major. I went on to major in computer science with a minor in business," says Kalyani Narayanan, CEO, Allfon Systems.

Completing a four-year degree in three years and graduating at 20 was certainly no mean feat. She was hired through a campus recruitment programme and started working for Pennzoil. Kalyani's achievements are testimony to her keen managerial abilities and professional dedication. "I was able to independently manage large critical applications. At 22, I designed, developed and deployed applications. I have been managing people in some capacity from then on. At 24, I led a team of more than 20 programmers on major integration initiatives at Sprint," she says.

A move to India in the late 1980s saw her begin ICM Computer Consultants. She started Allfon Systems in 2001 as a joint venture with partners in the US. From the best positions in established companies to owning corporations themselves, women play a variety of top management roles in the software industry. Founded in 1986, Dax Networks, headquartered in Chennai, is one of the top three networking companies in India. A part of the Apcom Group, Dax Networks registered a turnover of Rs 62 crore in 2003-04.

Sudha Jagadish, COO, Dax Networks

So what is it like being the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of a company that has been growing 40 per cent annually for the last five years? Sudha Jagadish would know. "I started my career as Systems Associate in Apcom in 1989. IT was developing and that made me select a career in technology. I moved into service, purchase, credit control and HR, taking care of all the major departments of the organisation. It was indeed challenging but, I must admit, the various exposures in diversified functions made my climb to the top predictable."

Her impressive profile includes handling all functions of the company, barring direct involvement in sales and marketing. Tushara Canekeratane can certify that the software industry does offer opportunities to women. She established Virtusa in 1996 with her husband Kris Canekeratane. As Executive Vice-President of Global Technical Operations, Tushara is responsible for all aspects of delivery, including Virtusa's unique Productisation Methodology, process, quality and operational excellence. Holding a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Mathematics from Loughborough University (UK), she was a founding member of INSCI Corporation and the head of software development for the company's flagship products, one of which was chosen `Product of the year' by the Association of Imaging and Information Management (AIIM).

Sarada Ramani, Founder, Computers International

What possibly works in favour of women is that there are no set criteria or conditions for success in this industry. Chance as well as hard work is of vital importance here. Sarada Ramani founded Computers International (CI) in 1996. Her latest award is the Rajiv Gandhi National Quality Awards, 2003. She says, "My entry into this field was an accident. If you asked me in 1994 what I'd be 10 years hence, I'd have said: A homemaker taking care of my daughters' education. I started going for computer classes to assist my elder daughter in her computer science lessons. I was very apprehensive about entering the technology space at a mature age. But it was relatively easy. I went on to do further diplomas. I first became a faculty and then an entrepreneur operating my own training centre and going on to head a software development company servicing international clients."

CI operates in financial services, retail and distribution, and hospitality domains. "Now we are developing products in mobile technologies, which is a fast emerging market," says this proud entrepreneur.

Pet peeves

The hitches and snags that these entrepreneurs tackled weren't always related to their gender. Most were the common pitfalls all entrants face and often went beyond gender discrimination. What is inspiring is the way they dealt with them to emerge clear winners. Sarada reminisces, "From space to finance to running around for everything was an ordeal. For a woman who was closeted with home duties and no formal business education, everything has to be learnt on the feet and fast. Being a first-generation entrepreneur only made things more difficult as there was no track record to prove my capability to financial institutions. Today the officer who seeks an appointment to discuss financial dealings is the one who made me run pillar to post during the start-up stage!

"What kept us going was the courage to dream and the enthusiasm to carry out that dream. Even establishing my credentials as a business head had to be slowly done. My age (44) and physical looks didn't help me put across a `tech savvy' image. Even today, when Ramani (husband) and I go for a meeting, people tend to address Ramani rather than me. But this actually helps me observe and converse better, after which they understand that they have to deal with me on an equal footing." Different countries have different styles of working and as Kalyani asserts, "Since I did my undergraduate degree in the US and also started my career there, learning how to do things in India was and still is a challenge at times. I like to talk straight and arrive at some decision at the end of each meeting. Often, people here think this is rude. They feel uncomfortable making commitments. You either get a royal runaround or get harassed for no reason by most government agencies."

Do women bring a different touch to work, as far as attitudes and strategies in software development are concerned? That's difficult to answer but some researchers say that women bring the user perspective into the picture more effectively. As entrepreneurs they definitely are bosses with a difference. Says Kalyani, "Our work environment is the same as in any top IT company. Looking closer, you can discern a woman's touch. I insist on serving nutritious, low-fat snacks for our employees. We even celebrated `Kolu' during Dasara. I look into the safety of every woman employee. We have a 1:1 man-woman ratio. Sometimes, employees bring even personal problems to me. Being a woman, I guess, they feel comfortable talking about domestic problems."

Sarada rates the constraints on a woman's time a drawback. "Most of our software companies cater to international clients. Being able to finish the work on time and service clients in their time zone makes it tough for women. One has to keep odd hours to handle client calls at midnight or stay back till 10 p.m. for a teleconference. Apart from time management, when you go up the ladder, it requires frequent travel. So compromising with the family can become an issue."

Women like Kalyani have learned to deal with this. "My job involves travel and also working late in the evenings. While it may be a disadvantage for some women, I accept it as part of my job," she says.

Their story

From her early years, Tushara excelled at whatever she put her mind to. She is also a gifted pianist. All of them may not be so gifted but each had inspiring mentors and rock steady families have helped them rise above every crisis.

"When I started out, both my daughters were in school. In 1998, we went through the darkest period. Our business was totally in the red, my husband was transferred, my daughter had finished her 10th and had to be admitted in Plus 1, a software development order for an overseas client had to be executed, new investments had to be made and bold decisions taken about the closure of the training division. I wouldn't have got through this without the support of my family. Now the children can shoulder responsibilities and manage anything in life. I feel this is the best gift that I have received for all the compromises they made for an absentee mother," says Sarada.

Theirs is a story of grit and determination. Being women, their problems have been a combination of the personal and the industrial. Though it can get lonely at the top, they obviously won't exchange their roles for anything in the world.

Pictures by Bijoy Ghosh

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