CTO Sessions: Kalyan Kumar, HCL Technologies

What makes an effective tech strategy? "Trial and error…"

HCL Technologies

Name: Kalyan Kumar

Company: HCL Technologies

Job title: CVP & CTO, IT Services

Date started current role: October 2017 (but joined the company in September 2000)

Location: London, UK

Kalyan Kumar is the Corporate Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, IT Services of HCL Technologies and the company’s Business Line Leader for Global Cloud Native Services and DRYiCE products and platforms. He also leads the Service Line for Global Infrastructure Services. Kumar is a member of the eminent Wall Street Journal CIO Network, responsible for identifying key challenges in technology and new opportunities for innovation.

What was your first job? I started as a System Engineer for Digital Equipment India.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes. From an early age, computers and networks have fascinated me. I got a Commodore 64 when I was a teenager and started learning to code in LOGO/BASIC. It all went from there, really. There was a period in my teenage when I was quite close to becoming a professional cricketer, but life events triggered some other direction.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to a Jesuit School in Eastern India and then went on to do my electrical engineering and then did quite a lot of certifications during the technical cadre role during the first part of the decade. I am a big believer in lifelong learning and curiosity and hence my pursuit to learn continues every day of my life.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started off in India as a systems engineer and then ended up performing various roles over the last two decades in technology: product management, product development, offering and practice management, business development, strategic partnerships and general management roles.

To be honest, I did have my share of detours. I can comfortably say that I am a technologist at mind, a musician at heart and sportsman at the soul. I think the love for technology, experimentation and creativity that comes with music and sports has kept me going on this path. All have been enriching experiences, helping to move towards who I am today.

What type of CTO are you? I see my role as a balancing function – balancing innovation with strategy. I try and take a holistic approach to my priorities, balancing technology needs like R&D, experimentation and adoption of new technologies on the one hand with the company’s overall business goals on the other. Recently most of my time is being spent around cultural transformation of the technical cadre at scale as I believe the rate of change of technology will not slow down, but the human aspect of adopting and adapting will be the single largest barrier in technology. I’m therefore spending a lot of time within the organisation internally and externally around that aspect. I believe the CTO has to become the “cultural transformation officer”, not just a technology leader.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Technology is evolving at lightning speed, and the impact curves are getting shorter and shorter. It seems like every couple of years we’re seeing a new innovation that prompts massive disruption.

That said, quantum computing is something which I believe has massive potential, and there are so many different applications of it which push the boundaries. Quantum computing will also bring real world scenarios much closer to computing, as quantum mechanics is all around us in our daily lives – and will become even more disruptive in the coming decade.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think every technology goes through a lifecycle which is characterised by various phases. Each technology always goes through a hype phase, which may vary from technology to technology, before it matures or phases out. This is primarily driven by a marketing element, but because the current market is well-balanced, buyers are getting smarter both in their expectations and when buying these technologies.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We’ve created and launched a programme to equip all of our stakeholders – clients and employees alike – with the skills needed to thrive in today’s tech landscape. I’d argue that skills are the most vital element of success in the current environment, so it’s vital that everyone we’re associated with is prepared.

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? I’m involved across different facets of digital transformation we support our clients with. But as for the balance between customer experience and efficiency, I’d argue that both are inversely proportional to each other. Both elements need to be viewed tactically, with separate technology applications where appropriate.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our main focus is helping our clients balance technological innovation with their wider business goals. There’s a huge range of innovative technologies and platforms on the market, but without any understanding of how these support the business’ overall aims, most won’t realise their full potential. So the mission is to help customers understand where they are at the moment, what they want to be, and how they can get there. The second most important aspect is the cultural skills transformation which is needed to enable this digital journey.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? This is a good question, and one that our customers often ask. The answer lies in the technology strategy that is currently in place: it is very important to ensure your technology strategy is well-aligned with the larger business strategy and objectives. Technology should not be seen as something that can work in silos, or just be ‘another enabler’. To feel the full benefit technology can bring, we must make it a business driver by bringing the technology and the business strategy as close as possible.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Matching product/service strategy with tech strategy is not always a straightforward process. The best way to link between the two worlds is to focus on overall process design and practice framework. A design and framework layer can create loosely coupled and modular elements that enable agile deployment and rapid change.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Trial and error, in short. I believe that an effective technology strategy is based on experimentation, continuous learning and feedback loops. This cyclic process ensures that technology strategy moves forward on the right path. Any technology strategy that is guided by future or expected change is likely to survive. This keeps the technology curve alive for the organisation.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I believe future CTOs will be a mix of multiple roles that a CTO is expected to perform. There are also different quadrants of a CTO role today, ranging from internal facing technology operations, to external facing evangelists, to shared platform owners, to holistic CTOs who balance a mixture of these. There isn’t a single way to define this as it has to be based on each organisation’s maturity.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’m fortunate enough to count a number of achievements over my career, but it’s hard to say what the greatest is. Rising through the ranks to become CTO of a company that I joined ‘in the trenches’ would certainly rank highly though – it’s something that I consider myself honoured with.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? To be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything I’ve achieved has been the result of skill, grit and agility, and a fair amount of luck, too. I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and that’s something I’m hugely grateful for.

What are you reading now? Right now, I’m reading The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato and Managing Technical Debt by Philippe Kruchten, Robert Nord and Ipek Ozkaya.

Most people don't know that I… Play the drums/percussion in a band called Contraband. We’re a semi-professional outfit based in India, and I join up with them whenever I’m able to go back over there.

In my spare time, I like to…Play and watch cricket, golf and tennis, and watch Formula 1. I like watching movies and documentaries too, as well as reading.

Ask me to do anything but… Give up the idea of a five day cricket test match! This seems to be the most debated topic of late in the cricketer circle…