C-suite career advice: Ashok Reddy, Digital.ai

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "This is a classic example of what got you here, will not keep you here. To obtain a C-level position... you need leadership skills and a mastery of business fundamentals, whatever your role may be."

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Digital.ai

Name: Ashok Reddy

Company: Digital.ai

Job Title: CEO

Location: Plano, Texas

Ashok Reddy has more than 25 years of experience driving growth and innovation at leading technology companies. Prior to his current role, Reddy led Broadcom’s multibillion-dollar Enterprise Software Division, where he helped create a platform for global enterprises to scale their digital transformations and become real-time digital businesses. He joined Broadcom in 2018 as part of the company’s acquisition of CA Technologies, where he led the DevOps business line. Prior to that, he ran the Mainframe and Automation Business units. Recognised as an early champion of DevOps with deep experience in agile transformation, Reddy has held leadership positions at several Fortune 500 companies including IBM, Rational Software, Honeywell, and Novartis.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Always bet on yourself. It is the one thing you can control. Believing in myself allowed me to focus on discovering and pursuing my dreams and passion vs what others wanted me to do or become- especially growing up in India, where every parent wanted their child to become a doctor. Self-belief gave me the confidence to focus on what I wanted instead of putting my future in someone else’s hands, and allowed me take risks and step out of my comfort zone. It also allowed me to become a lifelong learner and I am constantly improving my ability to take on new and bigger challenges.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Be competitor focused. When you are competitor focused, you end up lagging the market and chasing features. Instead, be customer and outcome focused and you will either set the pace or carve a new path. Being customer and outcome focused enables us to be visionary. By focusing on what customers need, we’ve enabled other enterprises to transform and create sustainable digital business models. We were able to achieve this because we listened to our customers and helped them accomplish their outcomes instead of waiting to see what our competitors were doing.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Technology is a very broad topic. Eventually, every company will be a digital technology company to some extent, regardless of their industry. Instead of focusing purely on technology, pick a domain you are interested in and passionate about, and combine that domain with technology. If you are passionate about healthcare or the environment for example, explore technology that can make a difference in healthcare or to the environment. And don’t limit yourself to just one area of technology. Explore coding, user experience, IT, security, systems analytics, etc., until you find the niche that really speaks to you. And later, you can expand from there to either a technology management or business leadership role.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I didn’t start out wanting to work in technology. I always wanted to do something where I could make a major difference and make a significant contribution by solving problems that were very challenging. When I first discovered computers, especially software and programming, I realised the power of software was to be a great force multiplier in solving significant problems and creating new value in every industry. For example, when I worked in industrial automation, I implemented software to automate processes for that one company. However, by working in a software product company, I was able to create software that could make a difference to many companies in all industries.

What was your first job in IT/tech? As a college Freshman enrolled in Chemical Engineering, I worked on an Apple IIe computer for a relative in his business. I taught myself how to write programs to solve numerical analysis (a root-finding algorithm using Newton Raphson method and regression analysis using least square methods, etc). This led to writing programs to solve more complex chemical engineering problems such as, simulation of Sulfuric Acid Plant design, Heat Exchanger and Distillation column design, to name a few. Ultimately, this is how I discovered my passion for software and technology.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? People think technology is all about bits and bytes, math and science, with no room for art and creativity. This could not be further from the truth. As Steve Jobs said, “technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Technology is not all about coding, nor is it limited to ‘born’ digital companies. While some companies focus exclusively on technology, every company can – and should - leverage technology to achieve their desired outcomes. Technology solves problems across every facet of our lives. To create effective technology solutions, we must bring art and science together with empathy, curiosity, communication and so much more. In my work, I see the domains of business and technology becoming increasingly intertwined, with the common purpose of driving great experiences for customers and value.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? This is a classic example of what got you here, will not keep you here. To obtain a C-level position, you not only need functional technical expertise, you also need leadership skills and a mastery of business fundamentals, whatever your role may be. As a C-level executive, you are constantly taking risks and making decisions while striving to inspire and empower your people. CIOs need to know how to create business and operating models; CFOs need to know how to develop value and risk management strategies that will provide a competitive edge to their companies.

Start honing these skills early. Take every opportunity to learn different areas of the business, develop a customer and outcome focused mindset, and learn to listen to the people around you and understand what motivates them.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My goal has always been to make a significant contribution, solve challenging problems, and always be true to myself. As a life-long learner, success for me is not about the achievement of one goal. Rather, it is about learning from the experiences of others to solve the next bigger challenge. Through learning and exploration via different functional jobs in different industries, I have followed a path of self-discovery that has taken me from engineering to software, AI, business and several places in between. Along the way, I stayed true to my goals, moving on when I no longer felt that alignment.

Today, as CEO at Digital.ai, I am working in a space I am passionate about, in a position where I can be myself, supported by my family and a world class team of colleagues and investors, serving the leading companies in the world. I am grateful to be where I am. Yet, I know that someday I would like to take on my next challenge. Technology is not deterministic, as it can be used to create very different kinds of outcomes and societies. AI technology is opening up many possibilities and someday I would like to explore AI technology with biology to help create a desirable future for humanity, by finding cures for many of the causes of chronic pain.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have come realise it is really more about work life choice. The choices we make determine the balance we have, and those choices vary over the course of one’s life/career. When my children were young, my family stayed in one location for 12 years. During this time, I focused on spending time with my family, I took on running marathons, and I obtained a master’s degree in AI/Machine Learning at Georgia tech. This decision surely impacted the growth of my career during that time period. Since my children graduated, I’ve had more time to focus on work and this is reflected in my ability to take on the role of CEO. Now, you’ll have to ask my wife how I am doing with work life choices these days. Seriously, I always put my health and family first and encourage everyone at Digital.ai to do the same, especially during the past year.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Nothing. It took me a long time find my passion, using technology to achieve business outcomes, but I would not change a thing. I started as mechanical engineer, then I switched to chemical engineering based on what I learnt at a summer internship, which is also where I got my hands on my first computer and started programming. I combined chemical engineering with technology.

My first job was in pharma, using software to automate manufacturing. Later, I worked in the oil and gas and power engineering industry. I realised that being great at designing and building chemical and power plants requires years of actual experience with rigid rules. So, I moved back to industrial automation. At the end of the day, I was writing software applications – whether automating dry docks for submarines at San Diego Naval Dock or designing alarm systems for remote wells in pearl harbor, I realised I was helping the product teams to build better software and shaping their roadmaps and I loved it. This is when I decided I wanted to be at a software company and became a product manager - my first job combining technology with business.  Over the years, I have changed fields, industries, and functions, all with technology as a common theme. I built a pyramid of knowledge instead of staying on a vertical ladder in a single lane. And I gathered invaluable knowledge and experience every step of the way which led me to where I am today.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? A computer science degree: It is about both arts and engineering, not just programming. A degree program also forces you to take classes you wouldn’t otherwise experience, and learn new things which can become very important later. For example, statistics or human-centered design classes helped me to learn about machine learning, which is computational statistics. One can start with a coding bootcamp, start a job, and then do an online computer science degree like at Georgia Tech and other great universities.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications tend to be important earlier in your career. As one gets into more senior roles, they become less important. However, I frequently use certifications (PMP, computer languages, etc) to gain a deeper understanding of a subject or an area. I recently became SAFe Agilist (Scaled Agile) certified. Not only did it expand my knowledge of scaling Agile, but it also gave me a greater understanding of the challenges our customers and team members are dealing with.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  Motivation, passion (what gets them naturally excited), domain expertise/intelligence and self-awareness/authenticity- these are the three areas I look for in candidates. The goal is to seek out authentic and self-aware individuals who constantly want to learn, improve, and add value to our customers and to fellow employees, and align the roles in our company with these individuals’ passions and expertise.

For example, if a person wants to be in customer success, they must have natural empathy for listening and solving customer problems. One of our key values is about duty to our customers and employees- which is what the D in Digital.ai stands for. Making customers successful is a duty, not an option, just like it is a duty for a parent to take care of their children regardless of the circumstances.

What would put you off a candidate? Generally, I am put off by candidates who do not focus on understanding what challenges the company and our customers face, and our priorities, values, and culture. And instead focus on job title, how many people they will have directly reporting to them, and compensation. Innovation happens in teams and teams of teams. The ability to work in teams is very important, and the focus on titles and hierarchy is limiting to candidates.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Focusing on what the company offers them vs the value they can add to the company and how they can personally grow and expand to achieve their career objectives. Instead, they should use the interview process to gain an understanding of the challenges of the role and then explain how they can make a difference.

Also, instead of focusing on a title, which can be misleading from company to company, they should focus on understanding the objectives and key results (how success is measured), and the impact to the company. They need to understand the values and culture of the company, and how they can make a real difference.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Both. Being great at technology helps with creating great user experiences along the customer journey maps for any company, whether they are internal or external customers. However, these tend to be outputs focused on improving efficiencies - by combining business skills, one can deliver outcomes with a focus on effectiveness.