The move from technology leader to business leader.

Praniti Lakhwara is the CIO at Apttus, the leader in Quote-to-cash software based in San Francisco. Trained as an Aeronautical Engineer, Praniti made a move to IT leadership about two decades ago, leading teams at Guidewire and Nimble Storage before joining Apttus two year ago.

Conversation highlights:

  • How to start being thought of as a technologist and business leader?
  • How to be a good leader to your remote team?
  • How to prioritize the right initiatives for the IT organization?

**Please note that this interview has been abbreviated for this blog. 

Julie: Praniti is the Prince of the CIO world and Apttus is a leader in CPQ or configure price and quote technologies, and the company has done extremely well.

Julie: Praniti, you’ve had an esteemed career in various important IT roles, but I think moving into Apttus was your first opportunity to step into a CIO role. How was the transition when you moved from VP level IT leader to a CIO role?

Praniti: I’ve been in IT forever, but I’m an aerospace engineer.

Julie: You were going to be a pilot at one point, right?

Praniti: Yes, that was the dream job. But, here I am on a desk job, which is as exciting some days. My journey into IT was by accident. I was in an engineering organization for a long time, and we didn’t really have a formal IT organization at that time. I got pulled in from an end-to-end perspective and a business-process perspective.

Praniti: Technology, obviously, came with it. But, it’s always been a business-first kind of a direction that I have taken in my journey. IT got really exciting and I went into a few other roles, all very software and application centric. My first time to lead infrastructure was at Nimble Storage. It was like diving into the deep end when it came to infrastructure. I had never experienced an infrastructure at that time. So, the goal was to execute with good people and really follow through in trying to solve problems.

Praniti: From Nimble I moved into Apttus and it’s a great company- a leader in the middle office space, as we know. Apttus was at a stage where they were looking and thinking of going towards an IPO, and so, they were growing really fast. They needed somebody to come and take a look at all of the shifts that need to occur pre and post, and that’s how we started the journey. It was very infrastructure-centric and decentralized on the outside before I stepped in. There was a lot of work around establishing credibility with their business stakeholders and feel fortunate enough. If you’re fortunate enough to work for a technology company, as the CIO, there is, also, the benefit of being able to talk about your internal implementations. And that was another part of it. That’s where I see the differences, so we say, as we move into that C-Suite.

Julie: I would argue that, sometimes, it’s a blessing to be a CIO in a technology company or a curse ’cause you’ve got a lot of other people that think they can do your job so much better but don’t actually want to do that.

Praniti: Right.

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Julie: As you look at the last three to five years, what do you think that CIOs should change about how they may have operated five years ago versus how they need to operate today?

Praniti: There was a time where IT was looked at as a red-tape organization. It was like the IT police. We’ve all heard that term. Employees made to follow very strict guidelines. And on the flip side, we, also, were looked at as order takers. So, it was primarily the organization that would go in the back and fix something technically and deliver what was being asked to deliver. The shift is accelerated because of the constantly changing technology landscape.

Praniti: So, when you think about mobile, it is considered table stakes. There is no code application. There is a big proliferation of SaaS. We are a part of that. A technologist’s job is no longer an IT job, or even an engineering job. It’s everyone’s job, because they all are technologists out there. So, you’re no longer a subject matter expert that you thought we were, and we’ve got to shift how we think about it as well.

Praniti: There was a time when we would say, “A data warehouse project takes 12 months to complete.” And nobody would bat an eyelid. Just be like, “Okay. 12 months. Can you try to accelerate to 10 months?” But, these days, data is at our fingertips. Tools are at the fingertips, and we’ve got to change and add value almost on a daily basis. So, the shift is really that IT and business are now turning into a synonymous term.

Praniti: CIOs and their teams need to lead with business conversations. They do not need to lead with technology conversations.

Julie: But, it’s not just the CIO’s mindset that needs to change, it’s the rest of the organization’s mind as well. How do you influence that?

Praniti: I think the key is, as you’re looking at bringing in your employees or your teams to gather into this business-centric world, you’re hiring for hard skills, soft skills, business skills, and technology you assume can be taught. So, you’re actually hiring for the other side of that coin and assuming that if it sells those configurations and soft integration, we can bring that skill. We’re seeing this trend in IT departments and how they’re organized. IT departments now have mostly IT business partners, business analysts, very process-focused, business-focused and very outcome-focused.

Praniti: Those are all things that are definitely shifting that landscape.

Julie: How do you get the traditional business partners in sales, marketing, and engineering to come to the table with the mindset that, “Hey, this is now a critical enabler to me being able to do anything I need to do”?

Praniti: That’s fine. And it’s not really possible to do it without the business coming along with you for that ride. So, you have to have everything which is operation work, constantly.

Praniti: Foundational plumbing has to work. When your house is optimized, how can you go and tell another business unit that we can optimize theirs? So, I think you’ve got to leap to the front on that angle. The second part is having those business-challenge conversations, knowing that our team can understand and, in fact, articulate those challenges before our business teams can. When it comes to enabling the lead funnel, you’re not talking technology. You’re really talking their language, and that establishes credibility and starts to bring them along with you.

Julie: What are your thoughts in terms of bringing the rest of the organization to understand that agile is its intact team’s committing and dedicating to things?

Praniti: It helps that we are in that technology landscape where things are changing every day, and people are starting to expect that change and a very user-friendly approach. Whether it’s our end-users or customers, that customer experience is becoming extremely important. You can’t articulate the value we bring towards these kinds of items like customer experience, collaboration amongst our teams, a business outcome. People are much more willing to change constantly with you .It’s not overnight. It’s a journey. It takes time and effort. It takes a lot of investment where you’re really starting to pull people together, and at some point, you realize you’re not pulling anymore.

Julie: How do you keep your team engaged and motivated when they’ve seen that there’s a lot of broader change going on in the organization? What are some of the things you’ve learned over the years to help keep teams focused on driving towards that constant change?

Praniti: Apttus went through a large change like that recently about six months back, and there were pockets of the organization that were very, very optimistic about it. There were also pockets of the organization that were sort of straddling the line on “We’ll see how it works out”.

Praniti: And these are the times when you see moral being lowered because there’s a lot of uncertainty, and I had to deal with that within the IT organization as well. A part of that is that you have to be rock stable. You have to be transparent. There’s a certain amount of trust that you’ve already established with your team, and that transparency cannot be underestimated.

Praniti: So you’re thinking your thoughts aloud. You’re talking with the same thoughts that your teams have. “Okay. Yes, there is uncertainty. I feel it as well.” And so we’re trying to attack it together. We’re trying to be in it together, and although this is the softer side of leadership, it’s an extremely important side of it.

Praniti: I’m very happy to say, by the way, that we didn’t lose one person in IT over the last six months.

Julie: That goes to the broader conversation around talent. How do you build up the right team, the right locations, the right talent in this tight market?

Praniti: Yeah, it’s the one item that we have to focus on. It doesn’t always have to be where you are. Talent is tapped out in the Bay area, and it really is starting to get expensive. Companies our size, which are mid-size companies, have a hard time competing with the larger giants that are in Silicon Valley. So, my perspective is that it really shouldn’t matter where they are. Obviously, there are some parts of it, related to company culture, the values, the infrastructure you already have in place; however, it’s not the where; it’s the who and the what you’re hiring for. The soft skills, the hard skills, high communication skills, very, very high EQ in your team members. Those things are very important, if you’re looking to hire.

Praniti: We have a very large portion of Apttus that operates out of India. Almost 15% of our employees are out of India, and we’re lucky enough to have locations there that hosts IT team members. Those boundaries have become very blurred. They’re blended. The geo-born boundaries don’t really exist anymore. In fact local team members that are here at our headquarters, for example, can be considered remote from our five team members in India,

Praniti: There really isn’t a local or remote anymore. That’s how I look at it. And so I think it’s really about trying to get the right person for the right role versus worrying about where. It could be out of Texas, working out of your home. It works great.

Julie: And in those models, in particular, the bigger challenge was the inclusiveness. Figuring out how to work around boundaries.

Praniti: That’s right.

Julie: What are some of the techniques, tools, and strategies that you’ve learned over the years to help with some of those things?

Praniti: One of our biggest challenges is the time-zone. When you’re exactly 12 and a half hours apart, it is very, very hard to make sure everything happens in the early morning hours or the late night hours. It’s something that I still grapple with. It’s not something that has been solved, I think.

Praniti: One of the things that we’re trying to do right now is doing a lot of catch up transition meetings in the morning and in the evening, so we really have that 24/7 cycle going on.

Julie: How do you get the information flow going?

Praniti: Tools like Microsoft Teams. We just launched Teams. This is where we can bring it together where there isn’t that level of distance or gap.

Julie: Well, one of the things that gets underestimated in this sort of global collaboration is the cultural nuances too, right?

Julie: You can have the right tools, but if there isn’t an understanding of communication styles, cultural styles, and getting past language things then you will face challenges. We’ve actually been investing time, trying to do more cultural training, not Forescout culture, but the “Hey, let’s understand how folks in Israel work and engage”. 

Praniti: This is where the high EQ comes in. It’s really sort of putting ourselves in their shoes and trying to understand and especially giving benefit of doubt. That is the key.

Julie: What other key initiatives are you trying to drive? Is there any technology element to it? Besides, what are some of the technologies you’re excited about?

Praniti: My next 12 months are primarily focused on the lead to cash. We are going very deep into the lead-to-cash area. We had a huge number of conversations with our business stakeholders who are very, very supportive. Our board’s very supportive, and I think the idea is to really get to a scale in efficiency and not being the cost driver. We’re being a business outcome driver.

Praniti: I think cost comes in as the flip side of it. But, that should not be the reasons to do it. The reason to do it is that we are solving a problem, and so for our lead to cash, we’re re-implementing our old tool we used.

Praniti: We want to be the best in class. We want to showcase. We want external customer conversations, not from a sales perspective as much. It helps our internal environment get to a place where scale was never a challenge or is never something that’s going to come and bite us.

Julie: And most of this is using your own tools and capabilities?

Praniti: Yes, we’ll be using our own capabilities. We’re obviously using many others. We’ll stitch all of these systems together. There is a ton of work going on for re-implementing some of these systems.

Praniti: We can actually just use our own products there. It helps as well, because this is the kind of initiative done in an accelerated fashion over the next 12 months ’cause you’re going live almost every two months with something. It’s going to, by itself, invest in our team as well, which is important.

Julie: What a great, great challenging project and program for them to be involved in terms of them learning.

Julie: What technology ads or plug-in plays are you looking at potentially on the infrastructure side to the collaboration side? 

Praniti: We’re looking to bring in RPA into Apttus. We also have a ton of used cases where we can put it in place, whether it is helping on the close side or on revisioning side. So, there’s a lot we can do with RPA.

Praniti: We haven’t started delving into the AI/ML. Now, Apttus has its own product called Apttus Max, which utilizes NLP, and it’s a customer-facing product that has a lot of learning mechanism built in.

Praniti: AI is very much the buzz word of the day, and we’re not rushing right into it because I think there is a lot of learning that needs to occur around that landscape. It’s new. It’s not fully mature. Applications are not always clear. I don’t profess to know enough about it. It’s something that I really want to dig deep and learn about. It’s the newer networks. I’m talking about supervised learning, unsupervised learning. There’s just so much in the machine learning landscape, that it’s not obvious right away, and then there are the lack of skills around that which are all there in the Valley right now.

Julie: Well, I would argue. It’s clearly a lack of skills. When I look at the whole premise of AI and machine learning, it is a ton of data, it’s not having my X number of customers. That’s not going to apply itself very well. So, as much as I think it’s important that we’re up, there are crowd-sourced AI-type solutions that we could start to dabble in to learn more. It’s all based on this amazing data set.

Praniti: That’s right. While the data set is there, it needs to be accessible and something that you can really tap into. The kind of insight you could get requires a large data set. I don’t think everyone’s quite ready or quite there yet. Over the next two years, we’re going to see people dive into it, but it’s not something everyone is doing right away.

Julie: You and I both have the very lucky opportunity to work in technology in the Silicon Valley and understand what’s going on, but I spent time at events with CIOs that are in the Midwest or other parts of the world that don’t have the same access that we do. Any thoughts or advice you might give to them in terms of how they get that Silicon Valley perspective, if they even want it? How you embrace more emerging technologies or startups?

Praniti: So there’s really two questions around this: how do we all talk to each other, and then how do we engage and get introduced to some of this technology? And one is a consequence of another.

Praniti: Really the key is to network with your peers. The key is to be an early adopter. Have an open mind for some of these startups that come in and really can disrupt the market, can disrupt large incumbents. Whether it’s in the Silicon valley or outside, you really have to have an early adopter’s mindset from that perspective and have a certain amount of risk taking that occurs with it.

Praniti: If it’s source for a problem, let’s try it out. That’s really how I look at, and I love to be an early adopter myself. I think everyone should be curious, and we should encourage it across everybody, and word of mouth travels so fast. Remember when Zoom was small?

Julie: Yeah.

Praniti: And it’s really had this amazing rise as a technology across the globe because of pure network and the best in class technology.

Julie: Let me say, I am the biggest Zoom fan there is. I have never had this amazing web video conferencing. I’ve always fought with whatever other technologies I was using, which I will not name.

Julie: What I do find interesting is, this was not a problem that hadn’t been attempted to be solved 20 other ways. I look at things like AI/ML, Cloud, RPA, solving something that’s been a problem for a long time, but it’s a new and different way of solving the problem, whereas I look at Zoom, taking one of the most fundamental problems out there which no other vendor really ever cracked the code on and just doing it brilliantly. There’s very different flavors of innovation.

Praniti: Exactly. And really, the biggest thing that I feel was not even the technology; it was the experience. So when you don’t have to manage the change, that technology is going to just proliferate.

Julie: How do you reconcile the innovating and looking at new things, yet be solving the things that are on your list?

Praniti: I think this is where you have to be very pragmatic. There’s some really cool technology out there, and not everything’s going to apply to you, and that’s okay. I don’t need to dip my fingers into an area that I’m not trying to solve for, that’s not going to solve for the business outcome I’m looking for, and that’s okay because there’s enough cool technology out there that is addressing the problems I have. So, if you really are a fan of new, emerging tech, there is no dearth of companies out there for you to go and look. I’m not a big believer of bringing in something for the sake of bringing it in. I don’t think any of us really like to do that. It complicates an environment that does not require to be complicated. Your budget has to support it. Your resources have to support it.

Julie: In your role, you’re responsible for security in and protecting Apttus as an organization, and you’ve had some of that responsibility in life prior as well. When you think about information security and risk, compliance and certifications, tell me where it is on your list of priorities, and some of the things you’re doing there.

Praniti: It has been very high. Before I came to Apttus, we did not have any compliance certs at all. We have pretty much all of them now. We’ve got ISL, GDPR was something that we looked and felt like we covered ourselves. I don’t think everyone’s 100% there or ever will be with data, but it’s very much very high on the list.

Praniti: When it comes to security for a product for our customers, it’s as important as internal security. They play into each other. A lot of people tend to be externally focused from the customer product side. We like to cover the gamut there.

Praniti: I also run product cloud at Apttus, so it has played a large role, over all. The landscape of security is changing. It’s sometimes very hard for a CIO or a leader in the IT organization or the security organization to sit back and say, “Where is that bar, where is that balance of my spend on security and of my protection on security?”

Praniti: There are all these different attack vectors. what do I handle first? It’s extremely important to do your basics well: protection, phishing.That is still a very large attack vector.

Praniti: Governance is also something which is large with the California Consumer Privacy Act coming out. We’ve got GDPR. It’s not just about securing and protecting your data anymore; it’s about the process of ingress of the data, egress of the data. There’s just a lot of aspects to it that is making us look at it much more closely, so it’s very much in focus.

Julie: Yeah, so two more questions. One is how should the CIO/ CISO reporting structure work? There is so much debate about that.  

Praniti: I love that.

Praniti: Well, number one, I run security at Apttus. I may have a slight bias on that perspective, but for good reason. I think that this has become a debate which like the CDL, CIL. There is a debate around some of these roles and responsibilities that doesn’t really need to exist.

Praniti: Isn’t it a conflict of interest if both people roll into the CEO? Does the CEO have a conflict of interest? So, to me, this is not a rationale that makes sense. What makes sense is the size of the company and the product of the company.

Praniti: So I think it really depends. Most of the time, my opinion is it blends well with the CIO role in most companies. There are exceptions, and that’s also fine. There’s no reason to get religious about those exceptions either.

Julie: What would you have liked me to ask you that maybe is something that you didn’t get the opportunity to?

Praniti: Well, that’s a tough one. I think we hit on some of this with team play. I am very passionate about a team play. I’m very passionate about women in technology, and to me, it’s a very hard balance sometimes when you have a team. You think about your team, and all the diversity you have and figure how to ensure the balance of where people don’t feel left out just because they are men.

Praniti: That’s something I struggle with because you want to promote more women in technology. You want to promote people that are not going to back away from a career path which can be brilliant, but I don’t want the rest of my team to feel like I have this skewed view on it. So I think this is very hard.

Julie: Exactly. So, you gotta be sensitive to that in the messaging, in the approach, and the initiatives need to be very thoughtful to make sure there’s an understanding of that.

Julie: I think that’s about the end of our session and you were amazing. I feel so lucky to have met you through the CIO community several years and value all the advice and guidance and input you have given me over the years.

Praniti: Likewise. I’m so glad we got to do this today.

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