CIO on a tightrope: Ask Me Anything with Sachdev Ramakrishna

Moving on from his former role as the first CIO to Indian pharma giant Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Sachdev Ramakrishna talks to Pulse about the fearlessness of startups and the fine balance between the more mundane tasks and the pioneering, ground-breaking ideas that give a company competitive advantage.

What’s one of the most important balances a CIO needs to strike in the job?

What typically happens is that when you get a CIO in, it’s a bit like working on a smart city idea. If building the city completely ground up, it’s very easy to architect that. But if I build retrofitting newer concepts to the old architecture that needs a very different type of imagination.

So the CIO’s role is to preserve the foundation of the IT infrastructure and the company on the one hand. The users have gotten so used to dull, boring login screens, and the familiarity is so high that it becomes hard to get them to start to use other systems. On the other the CIO is to do big grand stuff; large scale transformation and get them by orders of magnitude a competitive advantage, whether bringing the supply chain to get more agile or whether to get them more customer-focused.

Marrying these two worlds is very difficult. In my personal experience, while one wants to embrace the big grand ideas and make the company look nice and shiny, you still have the fundamental job of keeping the email systems going, ensuring that the leadership all have access to handheld devices etc. So that is what I call the dull boring stuff that you have to do to keep the lights on while also embracing something that seems far flung but uniquely interesting.

How do you go about achieving that balance?

It’s partly what I call culture-oriented. Beyond the fact that someone can drop a certain amount of money into the CIO’s wallet, there’s also the whole culture of the organization. If a culture tends to be a little more digital-first embracing, then IT gets to have a seat on the executive table.

Then by design, you can imagine what the new company should look like. It’s not just the HR folks who are saying we’re going to get greater talent. It’s also about how it is going to bring certain process agility, simplify work and bring efficiency.

What amazes me is that one would traditionally think that more high bound industries such as construction or mining would be more inertial or less technology-oriented compared to retail or banking. But I think it depends on the posture of the company and how they can exploit technology for the benefit of the business.

How different is it trying to reach that balance when moving to a startup?

I used to have a fairly decent sized office with a regular supply of good coffee and some free food; in other words, the budget was fatter! The canvas was grand but it was riskier too. One also had to build a lot of internal executive consensus before we started a new IP project.

In the healthcare startup, I think it’s still built around some of the founding team’s vision. We’ve got greater control on what we wish to set out to do. We are largely using tools like pattern filtering, recognition, and artificial intelligence to work for patients with complex medical disorders and help them find accurate diagnosis and treatment planning.

What do you think are the qualities within a CIO that one needs to balance?

Within all of us, there’s a more expansive mindset to look outward, reach out, network and socialize. There’s also the introvert in us, which is more self reflecting. The balance of energies is very important.

The CIO was in some ways known as the ‘VP of No!’, where if someone wanted something he would say he would check what your privileges are, depending on where you are in the organizational hierarchy. You’d say you’d love to do something and it didn’t have to necessarily go with the fact that somebody lower in the hierarchy in an organization could exploit for a greater advantage, largely because someone could be young and therefore more embracing of the new.

CIOs are often the gatekeeper to access and security. There is value in standardization, especially as enterprises get to industrial scale or have offices across the world and, therefore must adhere to a standard in formatting. However, on the other hand, the real power of enterprises is when it connects with markets and customers who first discover its products from within their comfort zones, their homes, their playtime or any device. That requires the power for them to access some of your assets or systems from the outside and particularly also with suppliers when one gets horizontally or vertically integrated to court to ensure that they are able to pass in both goods and information of their supplies and invoice the enterprise efficiency rather than wasting a lot of time on the paperwork.

The point is to find that balance as the world goes forward–and you have to allow people to bring their own devices–then there has to be some provision where they can still access and continue doing productive work as opposed to being left out.

How much of the role is management and how much of it is leadership?

That’s a bit of a tricky one.There is a bit of the CIO function that has to keep the lights on which I still think is the boring part of one’s executive life. It’s standard. It’s routinized. Its formula-based and it has a particular format but it has to be done. That’s the planning and of course managing both teams resources, talent, training, retention, exits and attrition. All that can consume the life of an executive.

The problem is if you stay there, then the old and familiar is safe, but old won’t get the company ahead or at competitive advantage. So if you’re not bringing big giant ideas, you’re not figuring out how to segue the current infrastructure into the future.

Leadership has very different dimensions. The CIO function can be a bit lonely, just by its nature. Because everyone uses a laptop, they have a point of view on how good or bad an IT function is. So the CIO should benefit by being part of external networks: a CIO club. It’s about constantly trying to excel trying to further improve, round off the edges and trying to better yourself as a person.

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