Interview with Vasudevan Sundarababu, SVP and CTO at CSS Corp

This is a TechGig Exclusive interview with Vasudevan Sundarababu, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at CSS Corp. Through this interview, Sundarababu explains how the CTO role has evolved over the years amid rapid technological disruptions. He also talks about how coding contests and hackathons are helping his company address the talent deficit.

#1. As a tech leader, how has your role changed over the years?

The technology industry is undergoing massive changes. To stay relevant in the industry and meet overreaching consumer expectations, companies need to reimagine their IT and business models. Doing so can help them maintain their competitive advantage in the market and stay ahead of the game. Consequently, the role of the CTO has evolved with changing times. Earlier, the role of the CTO was to procure the right technology and implement projects. But, with the current technological landscape, implementation has become a cakewalk. The CTO’s role has evolved to become vaster, wiser and more intense. Right from being the evangelist of new technologies, we have become the business technology advisors for customers. Our role is to not only understand IT and leverage it in the appropriate contextual manner but also to predict the changes taking place in the industry and evolve accordingly.

Technology has become so pervasive and ubiquitous that the CTO must be in sync with all other business units that are impacted by the technology in the system. From the age-old concept of being a technocrat, the role has changed to become that of a tech visionary with a 360-degree view of the industry. The CTO must keep abreast of new ways of integrating technology contextually in innovative ways in business decisions to drive sales for the organisation. In addition, a CTO now needs to increasingly keep business outcomes in mind while working on their technology initiatives. The end goal is to impart better business agility and enable the organization to pivot quickly as business models rapidly evolve.

#2. According to you, which is the best technological innovations to have come by so far?

We are gradually moving towards a conversational economy, where voice is gaining increased prominence amongst consumers. Businesses are applying conversational AI-based voice platforms in their strategic investment roadmaps to disrupt the customer experience ecosystem, thereby, simplifying and personalizing customer engagements.

Conversational AI is one of the pathbreaking technological innovations to date, that can disrupt the customer experience ecosystem by simplifying and personalizing customer engagements through AI-based voice platforms. Gartner predicts that “Conversational AI-first” will supersede “cloud-first, mobile-first” as the most important, high-level imperative for the next 10 years. With advancements in speech recognition and Natural Language Processing (NLP), conversational AI is making customer engagement much more unified and collaborative.

#3. What are the 5 best programming languages for beginners? 

AI is fast penetrating into all spheres of life today. It is everywhere and all around us. From your commute to work, to catching up with friends online, to shopping on the go, we are all using AI every day without even realising it.

According to Mark Cuban, a well-known American businessman and investor, “AI will make the world’s first trillionaire. ‘The first trillionaire is going to be someone who masters Artificial Intelligence and all its derivatives and implements it in ways we never thought of’”.

So, when it comes to AI aspirants, I would suggest the best 5 programming languages would be Python, Java, Lisp, Prolog and C++.

#4. How do you source skill specific talent requirements? Do you think platforms like hackathons or coding contests help strengthen the talent pipeline?

There are a multitude of tools and techniques, which help screen candidates for the primary level and match the right skills to the right talent. Coding contests, such as, code breakers and hackathons conducted through digital platforms are used as preliminary ways for talent acquisition, attracting talent having the required skillsets. We also follow the practice of hiring candidates from premier educational institutes, such as, IITs and IIMs. CSS Corp was also listed by IIT Madras as one of the top recruiters (in terms of job offers) during 2018-19. These techniques are not only used for hiring but also for creating a learning experience for the employees.

Having said that, we at CSS Corp believe in recruiting talent with the right attitude. Skills can be acquired; however, an organisation succeeds because of people that have the right attitude. Gone are the days when one could learn a specific skill and excel in it to achieve success for a lifetime. Now, you need to constantly upgrade yourself with latest skills brought in by the influx of digitization of the market. In today’s dynamic work environment, employees need to continually reinvent themselves. And, at CSS Corp every individual is empowered to and expected to innovate. Afterall, it’s the work environment and culture that helps employees flourish here.

For this purpose, we have built ‘Reimagine’, a digital career progression framework to reorient our service lines and re-align the growth of our employees to meet growing business needs. The “Reimagine” framework for employee re-skilling has been specifically built to fast-track employee initiatives within the organization, related to niche digital technologies including robotic process automation (RPA), AI, analytics, cloud, DevOps and IoT. Additionally, the framework enables collaborative learning and greater personalization through Virtual University, MOOCs, online portals and learning communities. ‘Reimagine’ promotes democratization of learning and fosters a culture of innovation within the organization.

#5. Lastly, a message that you’d like to share with our community of technology enthusiasts. 

I would suggest all the coders and tech geeks to consume technology as an enabler to solve business problems. Let us view challenges as business problems and not only technology issues.Afterall, the future holds good for people with multi facet skill sets, so keep learning and keep applying the knowledge in the right situations through innovative methods.

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Entering and staying resilient in an innovating industry: Women tech leaders on opportunities in AI, ML sector

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have seen immense growth in the last decade, and women tech leaders say the sector has a lot for women if they seize the opportunity.

It is critical that girls receive the education they deserve and are aware of the opportunities available in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

That is the goal of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed on February 11, which strives to highlight and educate people about the importance of women in science, not only as beneficiaries but also as change agents, especially in light of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development goals.

Previously, women were not sure about career growth in the STEM industries for myriad reasons – family support, work-life balance, and most importantly, the confidence to lead and achieve professional success. Now, this situation is changing, thanks to more and more companies evolving to provide flexible working conditions, introducing supportive and career-defining policies and initiatives, and building a cultural foundation where every employee can bring their whole self to work.

People Matters spoke to women tech leaders in the industry about the opportunities that exist for women in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) which has seen immense growth in the last decade.

Evolving AI & ML Space

Significant technological advances and innovation over the past decade have undoubtedly changed the way people live, work, and interact with each other. However, a lot more than just technology has evolved over the last two years due to the pandemic.

The pandemic era has forced organisations to move into an innovation mindset and have disrupted long-lasting, tested, and preferred business models for most organisations, while increasing the technology adoption rate by almost 5X.

One of the technologies that has gained popularity in recent years and seems to have profound future implications is AI.

“Today, most organisations generate consumer benefits and business value by leveraging 70 to 80% AI-led operations and creating AI-infused products and applications. Businesses are now reimagining their operations via a human-AI collaboration,” says Saraswati Kadel, Associate Director, CSS Corp Innovation Labs.

“The AI space has seen immense growth in the last decade – which is also the span of my career in the industry. When I first began, AI was just a research field surrounded by buzz from academia and select quarters of industry. I was always intrigued by AI and experiencing its growth and implementation across domains has been exhilarating,” adds Shraddha Surana, global data community lead, lead data scientist at Thoughtworks.

She says that today, AI concepts are extensively accessible via online courses that increase awareness and build the emerging tech’s global community.

“Take for instance, the boom in Artificial Neural Networks (or Deep Learning). Factors contributing to AI’s explosion include an increase in compute power, technological development, open-source contributions and an awareness of AI’s impact on social and economic life,” she adds.

What women in tech contribute to the sector?

Industry leaders say the tech industry is fast-paced and women have definitely brought empathy and diverse thought to the work culture, where there is a form of realism in how they view and work with other people.

“In my career, I have had the opportunity to witness women around me grow to be extraordinarily confident, improving their craft, and having a deep understanding of business. I’ve seen them take bold steps, and get out of their comfort zone, network with peers, and experiment to deliver awesome results for customers, without the fear of being wrong,” says Radhika Kannan, staff technical program manager, Intuit AI.

“Intuit is leading by example with internal communities (TechWomen@Intuit  and Intuit Women Network) and tech programmes focused on apprenticeship, mentorship and coaching, resources and tools for continuous learning, returnship, and through initiatives aimed at increasing the number of girls interested in technology at an early age, making sure female representation continues to grow within the industry,” she adds.

Opportunities in AI and ML in the next 5-10 years

In today’s world, AI and ML capabilities are in high demand across industries. From robots cleaning the house, serving at restaurants, chatbots, to self-driving cars, these applications of artificial intelligence can be seen in our day-to-day lives, and they are only set to increase.

These emerging technologies have also opened up doors to ample AI career opportunities.

“We are already witnessing an increased demand for data engineers, research scientists, AI engineers, AI data analysts, Business Intelligence developers and so on,” says Kadel of CSS Corp.

A major AI-area of interest has been Machine Learning (ML), thanks to its success in various fields.

Surana expects to see more focus and development in the areas of AI that help address the limitations of ML and Deep Learning – along the lines of explainability, robustness, and small data.

“We are seeing some traction with few-shot learning and meta learning. There is also a growing focus on data governance that emphasises on the identification of biases in models – especially those that will drastically impact people. This makes areas like reasoning and explainability that much more important in the near future,” she adds.

Kannan believes the next decade will see more opportunities for machine learning engineers, cloud architects, business intelligence developers, and data engineers.  “At Intuit, we are on the lookout for top talent, with capabilities in artificial intelligence/machine learning, data science, cloud, open source, and natural language understanding (NLU),” she adds.

However, with the adoption of new tech, issues related to privacy and data transparency continue to be a challenge.

Shephali Sharma, associate vice president – IT transformation services, and CRM, Birlasoft says to mitigate any ethical complications and risks related to this, the role of an ethics leader for new-age technologies will be in demand, with increased ethical business practices being sacrosanct.

How to stay resilient in a fast-paced tech industry?

In today’s digital world, new technologies and business use-cases are being developed all the time, and businesses are looking for ways to incorporate emerging technologies into their operations.

Kadel says to stay resilient, it is imperative to have an adaptive and flexible attitude, both at the personal level and at the professional level.

“Businesses were forced to move to a work from home model overnight. I am happy to share that CSS Corp was one of the first IT services companies to move to a 100% WFH model. While the organisation was supportive, I have also had to make adjustments to my day-to-day schedule. Over time, I have worked out the most appropriate work model that balances out my personal and professional commitments,” she says.

To keep pace with such fast-paced development, what has worked for Surana of Thoughtworks is nurturing strong core fundamentals and deep diving into the fundamentals of new algorithms. “Once the fundamentals are clear, I find any new algorithm much easier to grasp, understand and use,” she says.


Budget 2020: Govt. Focuses On Data, AI, Quantum Computing

The Union Budget 2020 presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a quantum leap, calling data as the new oil and allocating a substantial sum for development of quantum technology in the country. In her address, Sitharaman said the new economy is based on innovations that disrupt established business models.

“AI, IoT, 3D, printing, drones, data storage, quantum computing etc are all rewriting the world economic order,” she said.

Are these initiatives enough for Narendra Modi government’s target of turning India into a US$5 trillion economy by 2025? Tech experts and analysts look somewhat optimistic.

Making a Quantum jump

One of the most significant announcements was the Rs 80 billion outlay over the next five years for the National Mission of Quantum Technology and Application.

Nishant Singh, Head of Technology and Telecoms Data at GlobalData, says: “The announcement is significant as the scale of investments necessary to make headway in quantum computing is not possible without the support of the government or large corporations. The quantum computing race already has stiff competition, with companies like Amazon, Google and IBM in the fray; the Indian government’s move should boost the attempts of domestic technology providers, who have been keen to enter this field, but so far did not have the necessary scale or resources.

“From the government’s perspective, quantum computing and its related applications will have significant implications for India’s digital citizen initiatives in healthcare, smart cities and research. For the wider technology sector within India, it would mean attaining indigenous capabilities in quantum technologies, which they can leverage commercially.”

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Collaboration, teamwork, and attitude – are the interpersonal skills we gauge

In a recent insightful conversation with Brijesh Balakrishnan; SVP & Delivery Head – Digital Engineering Services and GIS at CSS Corp, we were able to decode some of the latest tech trends that are the driving force behind the rapid growth of IT industry. Here are some excerpts from our talk.

What are the trending skills for job-seekers in 2020?
Heading into the year 2020, we encounter seasoned pros and freshers who are keen to know what’s up and trending, and what’s down and out. I want to say that some of those technologies that were hot in the previous year are still going strong in the subsequent years. Digital technologies like any product or service are on a lifecycle trajectory going through various phases of development, maturity, peaks, and plateaus. If I were in their shoes now, I’d cast my eyes on Front-end technologies, Data Sciences, RPA, Agile DevOps and Micro Services. Other emerging trends include immersive experiences such as mixed reality, which combines AR and VR.

What is your organisation doing to promote diversity at the workplace?
Among the many values that we espouse as a responsible corporate citizen, diversity is at the core of our hiring and retention programs. CSS Corp is an equal employment opportunity employer whose motto is to ensure a diverse blend of all genders, backgrounds, age groups, and professional tenures. Moreover, we strive to ensure that the mix across various project teams displays an accurate reflection of the best practices in the industry. We keep a close eye on the ratio of women to men in the organization. We take stock every quarter to review and ensure that all our talent sourcing programs meet the diversity and inclusion goals enshrined in our policy. Vibes from our hallways and cubicles showcase an apt composition from an orchestra of talent and diversity. It is through this diversity that we ensure the workplace is creative, engaging, and productive.

What is your take on the adoption of fast-emerging technologies by the companies?
One needn’t look further than the pink papers and media buzz to witness the widespread adoption of new-age technologies. Yes, companies are all caught up with the disruptive technology whirlwind that has swept the IT landscape. However, the focus must also be channelized internally—toward employees. At CSS Corp, for example, we are tapping digital technologies to engage employees and draw out the best from them. The need to foster a culture of reskilling, and innovation along with exposure to different domains ensures delivery teams are agile in the digital economy. In the experiences that I’ve gleaned thus far, I’d say that customer engagement, employee engagement and process efficiencies are the 3 intertwined arches that enterprise leaders must never lose sight off.

What advice would you like to give people who are starting their careers?
I’d advise job seekers to take a close look at their resumes. Skills across the latest technologies and trends add lustre to any profile. Front end technologies, Data Sciences, RPA, Agile DevOps and Micro Services etc., are music to the ears of prospective employers today. Novices who are embarking on IT careers have their whole life in front of them. Today’s digital workplaces are an oyster of opportunities. So, seize the moment. Cast off the mind-set that says: “I want to stick with Java or .NET.” Show alacrity in taking up different projects that demand various skill sets. The market rightfully demands that candidates re-skill and cross-skill across other technologies. Also, freshers must be quick on the draw to lend a helping hand in other projects and domains. Continual learning is a way to sharpen the competitive edge and stay relevant in the digital economy.

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Cloud Wars & Mobile Accords : Trends that could impact CRM in 2020 CIO Review India magazine

Authored By Mushtaq Ahmad, CIO, CSS Corp

Cloud Wars & Mobile Accords – Trends that could impact CRM in 2020
The CRM software market size is expected to reach USD 80 billion by 2025, and the battles to claim a stake have already begun. At the forefront of the action are some leading technology trends that will shape up the CRM landscape in 2020.

Boost in Cloud-based Services
By moving the on-premise CRM to Cloud, enterprises have brought in substantial real-time intelligence and 360-degree views of customers and prospects. The cloud migration has enabled them to fuse demand chains with supply chains and channelize their digital transformation around their customers. Hassle-free installations, coupled with remote data migration and upgrades, bring in a level of flexibility that on-premise services lack. Moreover, with expenses on hardware, server, and software maintenance eliminated, the Cloud-based CRM makes customers the real winner.

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Ride The Cognitive Technology Wave The Right Way

According to a 2017 Deloitte report, “90% feel that cognitive technologies will be somewhat or much more important to their companies’ strategies [in the future] than they are today.” Working with a company that offers cognitive-based technology solutions, I’ve seen this increase in importance firsthand.

The cost of missing out in the cognitive race can adversely impact your business. But the good news is that it’s become much easier to adopt cognitive technology today. The caveat is that lofty hopes, poor planning and inexperience could quickly derail your cognitive initiatives.

Here are some perspectives on creating a systematic strategy to integrate cognitive technologies in your enterprise, set pragmatic expectations and reap maximum return on investment (ROI).

Who Owns It?

Depending on which side of the fence you are on, you might say the onus of cognitive projects lies with IT or business. Well, it’s time to burn the fence. IT and business have a shared responsibility toward crafting and driving the cognitive strategy. Several early adopters are creating new roles, with chief experience officer (CXO) sponsorships, to steward their cognitive initiatives to drive positive business outcomes.

Brace For The Challenges Ahead

Some of the challenges that come with adopting cognitive technologies include:

• Finding The Right Problem To Solve: If you were thinking of using artificial intelligence (AI) to eliminate X percentage of your workforce, think again. This scenario is neither real nor ideal—and you will run into massive change management challenges internally. It is widely accepted in the industry today that AI cannot replace humans, not anytime soon at least. A smarter goal would be to minimize employee effort in labor-intensive, repetitive work. Create a transparent AI manifesto, which includes upskilling of employees to cowork effectively with AI.

• Integrating With Existing IT And Business Ecosystems: Integration of cognitive technologies with existing workflows is one of the biggest hurdles that organizations face. Ensure you check the feasibility of this integration and bake that into your strategy.

• Identifying The Right Cognitive Solution: Organizations often lack the understanding of cognitive technologies necessary to identify which solution is right for their needs.

• Finding The Right Partner: Lastly, the steep shortage of talent with technical skills and experience is hurting the cognitive roll-out. However, leading technology service providers have developed strong cognitive competencies that can be leveraged by forging strategic partnerships.

Look Inside And Start

Now that you have some idea of the challenges and the solutions, look inside your organization to start your cognitive journey. Look for projects where big data and analytics have already been leveraged. Chances are, they use some element of AI, even if it’s elementary.

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