Monday, July 15, 2024

“Discovering highly talented technologists with the mindset for scaling business is my biggest challenge.”

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What all roles can a technologist play in the industry? If you believe the options are limited—take a look at Sundara Nagarajan’s profile, and I guarantee you—you will be enthused. While he started his career as an assistant R&D engineer—he’s been the head of several R&D units, co-founded a tech firm, and now enables technologists to scale their ambitions. Thanks to Neeti Toila, who pointed me to Sundara—as a perfect example of a Guru—I was able to connect with him and draw these valuable insights….

Q. Can you describe your current role? What are the primary results that you are expected to achieve for your organisation in this role?

A. I am Managing Director at IndusAge ScaleUp Advisors, an innovation scale-up advisory firm. I am responsible for leading the enterprise advisory practice targeted to help technology-led companies to monetize their intellectual property, globally. We help tech innovators scale up their innovative ideas into business with economic value. The primary result we seek is to build valuable businesses based on technology innovations.

Q. What are the things that excite you–about this role?

A. I am passionate about helping technologists to build and scale their innovation, so they can impact the world positively. My current role provides me with the opportunity to execute on that passion. In this role, I am working with technologists in larger firms (intrapreneurs) and tech entrepreneurs to fulfil their ambition to build a valuable company for their investors. I am also working with investors who bet on innovative technologists. Our customers and our products are one and the same—the company we help to scale. Therefore, we try hard to be diligent while choosing our clients.

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Q. What’re the top 2 or 3 challenges for you in this role?

A. Even though IndusAge has been in this business for close to 17 years, we are less known in the market as we weren’t trying to scale our practice until recently. Discovering highly talented and promising technologists with the mindset for scaling business is our biggest challenge.  Following that discovery, every situation is unique requiring patient, longer-term engagement to help them.

Q. How, are the kind of firms you invest in, different from typical start-ups?

A. We are looking for technology development or technology-enabled business start-ups that have or aspire to build differentiating intellectual property. Such businesses are built on innovation as the foundation. Usually, the founder behind such companies come out of university or corporate research background or deep practice experience, have a deep understanding to formulate the problem definition and are eager to improve people’s lives with their innovation. There will be invention and creativity combined with clear people-oriented vision and economic value creation model. In almost all the cases that I have studied closely, we can discover one individual who is possessed by a challenge deeply and inspires several others to engage with them in their mission. They build institutions that are scalable to incredible levels. My favourite inspirations from India are Aravind Eye Care System and Jaipur Foot.

Q. Any common type of challenges that you help these technologists with—that you can share with the audience?

A. We make the technologists aware of the multi-dimensional nature of challenges.  We challenge the innovator to prove their engineering design to be scalable beyond a lab model. We clarify the subtle but important differences between product management, technology management and engineering management. Most technologists do not naturally internalize the people and economic aspects behind building a business. It takes several hard lessons before techno-preneurs internalize the difference between unit economics and company economics–role of intellectual property, operational excellence and company culture in building a scalable business.  I consider humility as one of the important values for us as external advisors to cherish when we work with creative techno-preneurs.

Q. Is this the kind of role that you had dreamt of when you were in college? If not, how did the shift happen? Are you happy with it?

A. I had certainly dreamt of becoming a respected scientist/technologist from my earliest days. I pursued that path for over 33 years with some level of success, but quite different from what I set out to do. I realized the importance of timely and appropriate coaching/mentoring in achieving against our full potential. I perceived the need for technology innovators to get the right kind of support to execute on their dreams. I decided to spend the rest of my life sharing the learnings of my life and build a sustainable organization whose mission is to help technology innovators to scale up their business. I am very delighted that I made this switch in my life based on my experiences.  I believe it will eventually benefit at least a few young technology innovators to fulfil their dreams in creating a positive impact on the society, as they create economic value.

Q. What are the skill sets needed for such a role?

A. Scaling technology innovations into valuable, scalable business is a big challenge. Studies show that only 1 out of 400 technology innovations becomes a thriving business. It is a multi-dimensional challenge. Careful balancing of technology, business and financial aspects are essential. We also need to employ the wide spectrum of methods for helping and developing others—teaching, training, consulting, mentoring and coaching. We also need access to a wide range of highly talented and experienced people to help depending on the specific needs of the tech innovator.

Q. Is keeping up-to-date with the latest technologies and their applications—a challenge for you? If yes, how do you handle the same?

A. Of course, it is a challenge to keep up with the fast-changing technology space. Throughout my career over three decades, I have continuously learned as much and as fast as I can. Unless one is passionate and excited about the very process of learning, it will be hard to keep up the pace. It is a matter of natural talent to engage actively with the streams of knowledge, wherever they come from.

Q. What are the growth options (career) from here onwards?

A. Building a few deep technology companies with tech innovators will be the career growth option for me.

Q. For youngsters dreaming to fill in your shoes—what would be your advice to them? What aspects should they work on to reach here?

A. Commit to keep up with technology as it changes and discover ways to solve real customer problems—improving the lives of our fellow beings. Find mentors and coaches who can guide you towards your accomplishments. Learning alone may not be efficient and effective for you to realize your potential. 

Q. What are the key mistakes that you made that you think you should have avoided in hindsight? Any learnings?

A. I should have prepared better for my entrepreneurship as a technologist. I should have listened better to my advisors. I should have realized the multi-dimensional complexity in building deep technology companies. I should have discovered my deep talents and developed them into world-class strengths, early in life.

Q. Any bad leaders (need not name them)? Any learnings from them?

A. The way I assess the Managers under whom I worked is to assess how much positive impact I could create, realizing my potential in their team. In that sense, I did have a few Managers with whom my impact was relatively low. As I progressed through my career, I started perceiving managers and leaders differently. Leaders can be seen at all levels, while manager is a position in the organization. Someone is a leader because we follow them. We “fall in line” with managers because they have authority. The best thing that can happen to you is to get a Manager who also leads and inspires you for engagement.  As John Zenger, a world-class coach points out, “Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths.”  Now, “bad leaders” are those who inspire you to engage them, but only to fulfil their ulterior goals. The most important insight I developed is the realization that it is near impossible to know them in advance. That is their strength.

Q. What is your leadership style in terms of managing your people? Any mantras that you have developed/follow to lead your team?

A. Every individual is gifted with great talents. As their leader, I strive to discover those talents and help them develop strengths and competencies. Let them blossom in their own ways and aligned with their own aspirations. Fine-tune myself to get the best possible impedance matching for maximum transfer. Build interdependent teams to win the games of our life. Keep respecting others. Try not to manage them or only as little as practically required.

Q. How do you balance time between work and personal life?

A. Pretty badly.

Q. If you were in college right now—what would you wanna be in the next 5 years?

A. Same thing—to be the best scientist/technologist that I can be!  But, I will look for a few coaches like me to help me.

Q. What are the three things you’d like people to say at your retirement party?

A. He was genuine, authentic and caring.

Q. Which are your three favourite books or movies, and why?

A. Limit of three books is too restrictive for me. Here are my top-3 choices (and a bonus.)

  1. Stephen Covey, “7-habits of Highly Effective People” (I am still working on it)
  2. Frederick brooks, “Mythical Man-month: Essays on Software Engineering” (industry is still working on this.)
  3. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O Clifton, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” (I wish everyone worked on this.)
  4. Benjamin Graham, “The Intelligent Investor” (I wish I read this when I was in my twenties.)

Q. Which is the most exciting challenge (or accomplishment) of your professional journey? How did you tackle it? Any key lessons?

A. Most exciting challenge of my professional journey was aspiring and attempting to build a deep technology, Indian company. I put everything I had into realizing this vision but lost the game ultimately. The cause remained and continued to drive me to pursue it working with others. Learned several lessons that I spread now through my engagements. Key lesson I learned is that the business of deep technology has very little to do with technology itself.

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