CTO Sessions: Rajeev Sharma, Grid Dynamics

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? “Technology is always subservient to business goals and vision. The best way to align technology with the business is to start with business needs…”

Headshot of Rajeev Sharma, CTO at Grid Dynamics
Grid Dynamics

Name: Rajeev Sharma

Company: Grid Dynamics

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: July 2021

Location: San Ramon and NJ

Rajeev Sharma is the Chief Technology Officer at Grid Dynamics. He has 25+ years of engineering and leadership experience. Sharma was awarded the Scientist of the Year award for his work on the Design of Agni-III Solid Rocket Propulsion systems. He holds a Master’s degree in Management & Systems Design from MIT Sloan and a Master’s degree in Space Engineering & Rocketry (BIT MESRA) from Birla Institute of Technology.

What was your first job? My first job was serving in the Indian Army that lasted for 16 years.This included 6 years in active combat duty and 10 years as a senior rocket scientist. I was a propulsion systems specialist for Large Solid Rocket Motor Programs. I also served as Platoon Commander and Company Second in Command, and was awarded Scientist of the Year for my work on the Design of Agni-III Solid Rocket Propulsion systems.

Did you always want to work in IT? I did not plan on a career in IT, but my foundational training as an aerospace and a rocket engineer prepared me for career in digital engineering and technology from a systems thinking point of view. I have always seen my role as technology enablement, and believe that technology is the backbone for innovation. From combustion modelling, finite element stress analysis, fracture-mechanics based design approaches and designing systems and interfaces, all these facets lend themselves to being a problem solver and a systems thinker. My experiences lend themselves to a career as a strong engineer who can write code, build AI/ML models, optimise for high-speed convergence, and think of all possible failure modes while taking appropriate steps to mitigate risks and maximise business impact.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied aerospace engineering as an undergraduate and am a Rocket Engineer at the graduate level. I also have a second graduate degree from MIT Sloan School of Management & Engineering Systems. My academic grounding and professional career as a rocket scientist and as a leader in combat have shaped me to serve in deep tech and leadership roles in the digital technology arena. As people gain more and relevant professional experience, I believe that certifications become irrelevant, especially at elevated levels of serious engineering.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career path has been characterised and shaped by many unconventional choices that had some inherent risks. Throughout my career, I have stepped out of my comfort zone, shifting gears, between the military, defence R&D, entrepreneurship, and corporate America. I’ve lead two start-ups and rose to the upper echelons of the engineering and tech field. So far, it’s been an eventful journey.

 What type of CTO are you? I am a CTO who can think both macro and micro as needed. I dwell deep into the details while also taking into account the bigger picture. I am a CTO who can elevate the dialogue and push the boundaries on the art of the possible. I am not your cookie cutter CTO. I am a technologist, writer, speaker, doer, follower, shape shifter, and above all, utterly fearless.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I am most excited about the confluence of AI, data, cloud and blockchain, and all of this under the paradigm of Quantum computing. We are barely scratching at the surface of the capabilities of these technologies, and their confluence will create absolutely new realities where the virtual and the physical words will coexist. For the first time in in the history of humanity, we now have plausible technologies that have the power to solve real-world problems, like climate change, world hunger, poverty and many other seemingly intractable challenges including new age education.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Technologies in the nascent stages tend to be overhyped, and this has been a recurring pattern that we have seen with the likes of mainframes, client server architecture, three-tier architecture, and SOA based approaches. These were followed by the data warehouse cycle, big data, cloud, AI/ML, blockchain, and now Quantum and Metaverse. The market always moves to commoditise and eat away the early mover arbitrage.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Over the past 12 months, my team has created specific solutions for all hyper-scalers, Microservices based platforms, MLOps and AIOps solutions on cloud. We have also developed game-changing partnerships with AWS/GCP for AI/ML, data and cloud powered business solutions. With the formation of intelligent digital engineering advisory (IDEA) group, we are now able to provide a high-quality engineering advisory to our customers. I’m also proud to have reinvigorated the theme of solution based selling, riding on the success of Grid Dynamics’ accelerators, R&D and consulting capabilities.

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? Grid Dynamics is not your typical IT firm. We are recognised for our deep expertise, collaboration, and a globally diverse team of exceptional engineers. These distinguishing factors enable us to create and lead in the development of innovative digital products and services. I believe that digital transformation has many facets and is not unipolar. Having an always “business first” lens holds the key, while technology shapes the foundation on which the business thrives. The Grid Dynamics’ culture of innovation enables us to brings products and services quickly to market, realise productivity gains through automation and build platforms that provide for a smooth and intuitive customer experience.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? The biggest issues and challenges that I’m currently helping our customers with include:

  • Leveraging cloud and data through AI/ML
  • Helping customers build modern applications using modular architecture patterns like microservices
  • Solving their specific business problems through technology and sound engineering like the inventory management solutions
  • Searching for solutions using Computer vision and NLP

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Technology is always subservient to business goals and vision. The best way to align technology with the business is to start with business needs through discovery-type engagements, stakeholder analysis and design thinking led approaches. This is followed by creating a technology agnostic solution architecture or blueprint, and then lastly, mapping it with the plausible low-level technology solutions. This approach essentially is top-down driven by the needs of the business and customer rather than a technology lens.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? If the business rationale is clear, that lends to a clearer product/service strategy. Mapping it to the tech strategy is then effortless and obvious.

What makes an effective tech strategy? The pillars of formulating an effective tech strategy start with having a clear business strategy. Organisations must also have cross functional teams who have relevant experience and can drive the tech strategy.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The CTO of the future will have seen many full cycle implementations of large scale digital transformations, and will have experienced numerous setbacks. They all have an end-to-end understanding of the implementation nuances across many industries, can put together a formidable team, have the ability to be clear and swift in their communications, and build consensus across the board. They will need to be a strong adviser and partner to the those in the C-Suite. They must have the pulse on emerging tech, emerging markets, business use cases and the art of the possible by using multiple technologies like cloud, data, AI/ML, Quantum computing and blockchain.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I have several achievements that stand out, and all of them can be attributed to my stepping out of my comfort zone and risk taking. Throughout my career, I have also made it a priority to learn, unlearn and relearn, and not relying on past laurels. Some of the achievements that stand out for me are:

  • Leadership experience in combat
  • Recognition of my exemplary service under operational conditions in combat
  • Designing of the long-range missile system as the principal propulsion designer and my eventual selection as the Deputy Project Director of the AGNI-III Missile Program
  • My recognition as a Scientist of the Year
  • My role as the Chief Solutions Officer and CEO of an AI start up
  • My current position as CTO of Grid Dynamics, a highly regarded public company and recognised engineering and technology leader

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Looking back, I would change my approach with my two start-ups by focusing more on product-market fit, and asking for the value that I believe was deserved. I have learned that people should never hesitate to ask for a price they feel is right. Do not be scared to ask for more. If you don’t value yourself, nobody else will.  

What are you reading now? Currently, I’m reading Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. While the book was first published 50 years ago, it still teaches many important lessons on scientific progress and revolution that can be applied to our lives today.

Most people don't know that I… am a poet and published author. My book Intuitively Rational: On Leading Fearlessly and Thriving is about leadership, and how to facilitate a process of new actions, outcomes, and as a result, new learning. I also harbour a secret desire to learn to dance acrobatically.

In my spare time, I like to…to read books on spirituality, leadership and biographies. I also chant mantras. Chanting aligns the body, mind and spirit.

Ask me to do anything but… I do not like talking about politics and politicians.