CIO Spotlight: Prakash Kota, Autodesk

What roles or skills are you finding the most difficult to fill? "Data scientists, artificial intelligence engineers, full-stack engineers, and cloud architects are jobs that are changing quickly across the industry."

Name: Prakash Kota

Company: Autodesk

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: January 2018

Location: San Francisco, California

As Autodesk's CIO, Prakash Kota leads the company's global information and technology organisation, a group that manages critical technology systems supporting the company's worldwide enterprise applications and infrastructure, including enterprise security operations, workforce collaboration, and productivity services. Kota has an impressive track record of establishing organisational vision and strategy, leading large teams, executing global insourcing/outsourcing strategies, setting up onsite/offshore delivery models, and M&A (planning and integration).

What was your first job? My first job was managing inventory for Oklahoma State University's food court while attending graduate school to help pay for my tuition. For the food court's six restaurants, I manually checked refrigerators and cold and regular storage to ensure inventory orders were put in correctly. As an engineering graduate student, the engineer in me asked, "how can I optimise this?" So, I came up with a new process to keep food from spoiling, which fueled my initial passion for process automation.

My first job also taught me the value of money. I learned how to manage the money I was making and decide what was within my budget. This appreciation for automation and money management has proven invaluable throughout my IT career.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not specifically IT, but I've always wanted to work in engineering as a leader for consumer tech products. I liked programming and using well-designed technologies.

After grad school, I landed a short-term IT consulting gig and really enjoyed the work. Once I was part of a corporate environment, I realised the scale and importance of IT to an organisation. Later, I started a quality assurance consulting job at Autodesk. It was only supposed to last three weeks, but here we are, 15 years later, and I'm still with Autodesk's IT division. It's a great fit for me because it allows me to empower our customers to "make anything," and I've always been passionate about how things are created with technology.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a bachelor's degree in electronics and communications engineering from University of Madras, and a master's in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I've had the opportunity to work in many areas at Autodesk, including quality assurance, application release management, operations, infrastructure, and enterprise security. I've also led teams working on end user collaboration and end user desktop and support. As a change agent, my goal is always to modernise and transform the teams I lead and serve. With each opportunity, I've learned about the depth and breadth of the IT department. Now as CIO, I'm fortunate to oversee the entire IT department, where I can use my diverse background at Autodesk to understand the role and responsibility of every IT team. One of my key responsibilities as CIO is to digitally transform Autodesk, and work with our partners to deliver more value to our customers, partners and employees.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Autodesk is on a high-growth trajectory and has a corporate goal to digitise the entire organisation, which means enhancing the customer and employee experience by removing friction for our employees, customers and partners. In order to do this, we are exploring and leveraging automation and artificial intelligence for both internal and external processes. For example, we are stepping away from data centers, moving all workloads and back office applications to the public cloud. This enables us to increase our resiliency, availability, and enterprise security as we move into the automation era.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? There are a couple big initiatives we have planned for 2020. First, we are working to deliver on the promise of our subscription-based model for our customers. Second, we are continuing to digitise Autodesk. We realise our employees are critical to delivering an exceptional customer experience, so we're bolstering their success by introducing a modern digitised experience ranging from the recruiting and onboarding process to delivering actionable data for product and go-to-market teams. Streamlining and automating business and IT processes is critical to accommodating Autodesk's rapid growth and ensuring customers and employees have a smooth, frictionless experience.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Typically, CIOs are only responsible for keeping the lights on and trying to reduce costs. That remains critical, but the role is evolving to include a "value" mindset. I host an annual CIO Exchange for Autodesk customer CIOs who are all on their own digital transformation journeys to improve customer and employee experiences. The CIO role at Autodesk is one of "technology adviser." I'm building partnerships across business divisions to enable maximum productivity and successful technology use in everything they do.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, I'm part of an organisation within Autodesk that focuses on the digital platform experience. Our organisation prioritises customer experience, business models, financial modernisation, as well as  traditional IT functions that focus on employee experience.

Operational efficiency is critical, and it can't be compromised, but it should be thought of as the groundwork to your organisation's overall productivity - it needs to be augmented by digitisation. While digitisation may seem like just a buzz word, Autodesk truly does "digitise the company" by using digital means to remove friction for all end users. With a frictionless employee experience across all business divisions, employees can be highly productive and effective and help Autodesk grow.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We use "working backwards" approach to ensure we're always providing end user value. This process requires my teams to develop a press release that describes how a solution launch will read to end users and stakeholders before the product development even begins. I ask all my employees to consider business benefits and keep the user experience in mind before working on any project. We are data-driven and use Objective Key Results (OKRs) to measure what matters and determine if we've met our objectives. I have a live service dashboard in my office and review metrics daily to ensure we're focusing on the right areas. Catchpoint is one solution we use to improve IT operations, efficiency, and risk mitigation. It helps us find and fix issues as soon as possible, before they impact our customers.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Many of our employees are builders, makers, and engineers. They care about our customers and share responsibility for understanding their needs, expectations, and experiences. Autodesk's mission is to help people imagine, design, and make a better world, so our success depends on customers' success. We are as committed to providing an exceptional customer experience as we are to delivering exceptional products.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Data scientists, artificial intelligence engineers, full-stack engineers, and cloud architects are jobs that are changing quickly across the industry. These roles are in high demand and show no signs of slowing down. Attracting and maintaining top professionals for these roles is challenging for tech companies because They're all after the same talent. Communications-based roles are also a challenge to fill as they require the right level of technical experience and top talent.

What's the best career advice you ever received? One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received (and still apply today) is to always get out of your comfort zone. I've learned that you never want to be the smartest person at the table, and if you are, you should move tables. It's important to surround yourself with people you can learn from so you can continually grow and avoid stagnation.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I maintain a continuous dialogue with my employees and encourage lofty career aspirations by providing cross-divisional opportunities at Autodesk. This allows them to build their experience and portfolio, as well as prepare them for greater responsibilities, and up-level people once they are qualified to take on higher positions. We prioritise staff training, aiming to fill any knowledge gaps so people are ready for the new opportunities when the time is right.  

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? My advice for aspiring IT professionals is to have a "learn-it-all" rather than a "know-it-all" mindset, especially given the fast pace of business and the rate at which technology is evolving. Also, be courageous and move out of your lane. Partner boldly across different parts of the company to drive value-based business outcomes. 

What has been your greatest career achievement? My biggest accomplishment at Autodesk is regularly delivering business value during this huge transformation phase of the company. I'm proud to lead an amazing team of IT professionals who drive continuous value and deliver great results through the use of new technologies. I love taking on challenges that come along with the digital transformation and growth journey Autodesk is going through. I still feel I'm at the very early part of my career, and look forward to new accomplishments in the future.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have pushed myself to make bolder decisions and have a bigger appetite for risk sooner by trusting that everything would turn out well. Early in my career, I was more excited about building cool technology, but I've since learned that it often makes more sense to buy than to build. Building requires a great deal of time and money, and it isn't always the most logical answer.

What are you reading now? I'm enjoying reading articles, blogs, and books about company culture and team building. I'm reading a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, which I've really enjoyed. It's about how grit is more of a marker for future success than IQ level. This philosophy resonates with me, and I hope to pass my determination to succeed on to my 10-year-old daughter.

Most people don't know that I… Most people don't know that I only sleep three to four hours per night, even on weekends.

In my spare time, I like to…Hike, catch up on sci-fi movies and travel. I also enjoy spending quality time with my daughter and wife.

Ask me to do anything but… My pet peeve is anything repetitive that doesn't require human judgement. In my first job at the university food court, I learned that dishwashers are one of mankind's best inventions. Bots have become a big part of what we do at Autodesk today. I want to continue to work on developing a digital workforce that utilises automation to make daily repetitive processes less noticeable for employees.