C-suite career advice: Frank Antonysamy, Hitachi Vantara

What is the most valuable piece of career advice that you've ever received from someone? “You need to stay curious at all times, put the effort to find a solution to a particular problem, and do your bit before reaching out for help.”

Headshot of Frank Antonysamy, Chief Digital Solutions Officer at Hitachi Vantara
Hitachi Vantara

Name: Frank Antonysamy

Company: Hitachi Vantara

Job Title: Chief Digital Solutions Officer

Location: New York

In his role as the Chief Digital Solutions Officer, Frank Antonysamy leads the Global Delivery, Advisory and Technology Practices within the Digital Solutions Business Unit and has the responsibility to identify, build and deliver the digital capabilities needed by our clients. He also leads the development of One Hitachi solutions, combining expertise from Hitachi's mobility, energy, industry and smart-life companies to solve customers' business challenges. A seasoned professional with experience leading Fortune 500 global delivery management and transformation programs, Antonysamy is one of the top IT/OT executives in the industry. He built a $500-million industrial IoT business from the ground up and has a strong background in engineering and manufacturing solutions.

What is the most valuable piece of career advice that you've ever received from someone? My first job out of college was within a start-up company. As part of my work, I was highly engaged with the open-source community. When you're at a start-up, there's a huge amount of support from and collaboration with the community. You post a question; you receive 10 answers. Everybody wants to help solve your problem. But there’s also an expectation that you do your own research first.

During my first year working there, I asked for support on a forum and one of the responses I received said RTDM. I was unsure what it meant, so I approached my manager, who explained it meant ‘read the darn manual’.

This happened 25 years ago, but I still remember it this to this day. You may wonder why but I believe the moral of the story is that you need to stay curious at all times, put the effort to find a solution to a particular problem, and do your bit before reaching out for help. For me, inspiring a problem-solving mindset among the teams I work with every day is key and I try to encourage them to step up and not feel they need to hold back from sharing their ideas and solutions.

What's the worst piece of business advice that you've ever received? I would say the worst piece of business advice I've received is ‘Don't rock the boat’. Sometimes bold leadership is required when you’re looking to drive change and challenge the status quo. For me, the safest option is to not rock the boat and let the existing ways of working prevail. I have seen this happen before. Almost 15 years ago, we were once in the midst of an acquisition, we were advised to not rock the boat. Luckily, a number of us recognised we were striving for transformation, and we saw an enormous opportunity to be bolder and more direct with our approach. In the end, I'm glad that I didn’t heed that advice of ‘don't rock the boat’.

What advice would you give to someone who's just starting out their career in the IT or tech industry? If you’re staring a career in tech, I would say, for the first four to five years just explore and pick up as many new things as possible, because you really don’t know what you’re going to like and dislike. When you’re starting out, keep a completely open mind and try to work on as many different projects as you can. Only then can you start to really understand what you're good at and what you might not enjoy doing so much. Form an opinion from your own experiences, not something your friend tells you.

Ask yourself, ‘what really excites me?’ but, keep in mind, that doesn't happen before you try dabbling in a few different programs or projects across technologies. This offers an opportunity to create a broad base that you can build on to then specialise later.

Did you always want to work in IT and tech, or did you try something new before or different before? Yes, I did. From a young age tech always interested me. I graduated with a degree in Computer Science Engineering from Chennai in India and at that point the internet and the possibilities of what it could open, and the kinds of problems that we’d be able to solve, was so inspiring.

We had access to everything that was there, out in the world. The internet democratised knowledge and expertise so it was no longer exclusive. Everybody has access and that was so very exciting.

What was your first job in IT / Tech? My first job was with a tech start-up in Chennai, India. We soon moved to the United States where we were trying to be the next best thing on Wall Street. It was an exciting position where I had the opportunity to accelerate my learning.

In a start-up, you have to be dynamic and adaptable. You're the developer, you're the project manager, the network administrator, the database administrator, and then you wear a suit and give a customer demo or go to Bank of New York and talk about the great features that are going to come next. I loved the start-up environment; it accelerated my understanding of different technologies and the broad exposure that I gained. It was so much fun.

What are the some of the common misconceptions about working within the IT and tech industry? I would say that there is no one common archetype of what the IT and tech industry is.  

This is an industry that employs several million people, and the culture of a tech company is entirely dependent on the company’s managers. People often have a preconceived idea or expectation of tech culture and expect that translates across the entire industry in a homogenous way, which is wrong. There’s no uniformity about it. With many companies operating within the IT and tech industry, there are definitely different cultures and even microcultures within the sector.

There’s also a misconception that the tech industry can be defined as one thing, that it fits into specific parameters. In reality, tech touches all industries – the definition of what tech is and isn’t, is blurred. For example, if you consider what we do at Hitachi Vantara, would you have thought that a company born from making and operating trains is a tech company? We have the software that supports some of the fastest trains in the world. For example, we’re keeping them on schedule with monitoring systems for predictive maintenance. That said, the possibility to incite meaningful change is something that continues to excite me. If you look at a company such as Hitachi Vantara, it’s evolved from something that was just software running on computers in a desktop or a data centre. Now it’s writing software that is on a train. Writing software that is in the power grid.

What tips would you give someone aiming for a C-level position? Be prepared to deal with a lot of change and a lot of learning. Because if a person is aiming for a C-level position, they’re clearly successful in what they’re doing today; whether it’s in sales, marketing, engineering, or development. But when they make the move to a C-level position, they might find themselves stepping out of their comfort zone, because they’ll have to deal with a range of scenarios; both for the company and within that environment.

Another piece of advice I would give to people is to expose themselves to a broad knowledge base. For example, look at different areas; the business, political, the sports world. Stay curious and open as this all can teach you powerful lessons. At a C-level position you might be thrown into areas where you’ll have to make people decisions, strategy decisions, market decisions and the broader your view of the world is, the better equipped you will be to handle those scenarios.

What are your own career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? It depends on what point in time we are talking about. When I graduated from college with an engineering degree, if someone had suggested where I would be 25 years from then, I wouldn't have believed it. So, from that point of view, it's been a very rewarding experience and I’m grateful for it.

But ambitions grow and evolve each time I gain more experience or have exposure to new business challenges. My career goals move with each achievement, and I continue to aim higher.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, I do. I love what I do, so it’s not a toil and I don't look at this as something that I have to do. I look at my work as something that I like to do. I do want to be conscious of the time that I spend with myself and my family of course – that’s obviously something that’s important for me. I think I've got a balance where I wouldn't say there is a clear separation between work and ‘life’. Instead, it merges into a fusion of 24/7. And with hybrid work, the two seem to easily merge.

What, if anything, would you change about the route that your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. I look at my career as three different parts. It started with the start-up, where I spent seven years. Then I worked for a large global system integrator for another 17 years, which provided me with a very different perspective, and now I work for Hitachi Vantara, which has given me the exposure and opportunity to dive deeper into the digital industrial world. I've been fortunate to have a set of diverse experiences.

As I said, starting my career in the start-up boosted my learning and made me more dynamic, giving me vast knowledge of various business functions and technologies. It stood me in good stead for my future, so I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.

Would you recommend a coding boot camp or a computer science degree? It definitely helps when a person attends a coding bootcamp. This helps learning a specific language, a specific technology. But I do think that formal education and training in different aspects of computer science and engineering are also critical.

How important are the specifics of certifications? Project specific or technical specific certifications are very important because they can help you gain a broad range of capabilities and access, making you a more well-rounded professional in a particular area. They might not be seen as a necessity, but I think they can help give you a leg-up in the industry.

What are the three skills or abilities that you'd look for in a prospective candidate? Interpersonal skills are very important. These are the kind of qualities that make a true professional. We look at these in addition to the technical skills as they can often be taken for granted.

The three key things that I look for are the technical skills, the willingness to learn, and the candidates’ interpersonal skills. These are key to teamwork and working in a global environment.

What would put you off a candidate? People who are disingenuous. Humility and transparency are key qualities. For example, if a person is honest when they don’t know the answer, I think it gives that person much more credibility.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? And how could they be avoided? I would say the most common mistake is trying to fake it. Nobody is expected to have exposure to all kinds of technologies, and it's perfectly fine to say, look, I don't know that. There’s always the room and time to learn. A candidate that shows willingness to learn will always be valued more than someone claiming to have all the answers already.

Do you think it's better to have technical or business skills or a mix of the two? Coming from an engineering background, I've always wanted to emphasise the need for core engineering skills and technical skills that show an understanding of how it impacts business. But, generally speaking, I would say a mix of the two. That said, I would recommend being clear about what your primary skill is so that you can hone in on it and grow as an expert.