Daisy Chittilapilly, president of Cisco
for India and Saarc, who is responsible for strategy and sales, operations, and investments to drive the company’s long-term growth in the region, sees the firm poised at the cusp of tremendous opportunity.
A BTech from the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, who holds a post-graduate certificate in general management from XLRI, Jamshedpur, Chittilapilly was elevated in July to her current position at the US technology giant.
Cisco’s increasing pivot towards software and services (especially amid India’s post-Covid economic rebound), she says, entails an opportunity for it to engage with customers, partners and governments in newer ways. Then again, there is the call of Digital India, which involves digitisation of multiple industry sectors that are traditionally poor adopters of technology. And this has only been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“You could call it the perfect storm for us to leapfrog our next phase of relevance and our next phase of doing business in India,” says Chittilapilly.
“The accelerated pace of digitalisation of India and its businesses for the surrounding economies in Saarc, for which we have responsibility, presents a tremendous opportunity,” she adds.
Indeed, India will need to invest $4.5 trillion by 2040 to develop infrastructure and boost economic growth and community well-being, according to various reports.
is looking at tapping traditional industries like manufacturing, transportation, education, healthcare, utilities, and agriculture in India -- areas in which massive programmes are conducted by the government. “So the intersection of these two -- our transformation as a company and the transformation of India -- is the sweet spot, in terms of opportunity, for Cisco.
We are looking at that very actively.”
Chittilapilly sees a big role for Cisco in the provision of technology for the Jal Jeevan Mission (where it can be used to monitor the quantity and quality of water, as well as its distribution to households), the power sector, and agriculture.
The company runs a “digital acceleration” programme which seeks to validate the impact of technology in areas where it has never been tried in the country. Through this programme, it is involved in helping Kerala’s prawn and paddy farmers raise yields, in collaboration with Krishi Bhavan and the state’s information technology (IT) ministry.
Cisco is developing partnerships with the government, which revolves around projects such as smart cities, national broadband and BharatNet, and defence modernisation. The firm is also eyeing financial services and IT services.
It is working on innovations in areas such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and the Internet of Things. The aim, says Chittilapilly, is to provide connectivity to every Indian citizen. Also, work-from-anywhere or hybrid work has scaled up multifold over the last 18 months owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Cisco has a platform called WebEx for video conferencing, and so on.)
The Cisco India boss thinks India’s economic rebound will inevitably rub off on the IT sector. “If we look at the IT industry’s growth in terms of domestic consumption of IT, it’s a fairly healthy growth forecast of about 8 per cent, and in that software is at 17 per cent and services is at 10 per cent,” says Chittilapilly.
With over 25 years of experience in the technology industry, including 17 years in leadership roles at Cisco, Chittilapilly has been involved in transforming operations and cultures to drive growth at scale. Before joining Cisco, she worked with tech company Wipro Limited across multiple sales management roles.
“I really wasn’t intending to pursue an engineering degree,” she recalls. “I had my heart set on a doctorate in physics but then I was advised by my school to pursue engineering.”
Her entry into IT was pure coincidence. She initially cleared the interview at a construction company, but it never sent her an offer letter. She qualified to participate in the next company that came along on campus, which happened to be Wipro, and this was where she worked for the next eight years. “This was quite coincidental, and probably one of the luckiest things that happened to me,” says Chittilapilly.
Asked about the challenges she overcame to reach the top at Cisco India, Chittilapilly says it is about cutting through the noise, and developing clarity -- “clarity of thought on what impact one can make on the company, the team and the role, and focus is a big part of that clarity.”
Also needed is the ability to build followership, which in turn is correlated to being an effective communicator. Important, too, is the ability to change and pivot.
What challenges do women tech professionals need to overcome to win leadership roles? “You have to be the best at what you do. So, skilling up is important. You have to represent yourself, your capabilities are and the impact you can bring. So, speaking up is important,” she says. “You may fall down a few more times, or be let down a few more times than the average population, so the ability to get up is very important.”
She concedes that the situation for women has improved in the tech industry -- hiring is more equitable and more representative of the population, with companies
more conscious of the need to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. “It is statistically proven that as you get more women leaders into business, companies
are likely to create more innovation.” But, she adds a caveat -- “There is still a lot of work to do.”
During the pandemic, Chittilapilly went back to learning French online with the Duolingo language-learning app. She has also been reading fiction, biographies, and books on neuroscience and behavioural science. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a particular favourite (because of the character of Elizabeth Bennett, she explains).
Others favourites include Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. Other authors she enjoys reading are Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan.
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