By Pragati Mathur, Senior Vice President, Enterprise Architecture and Business Intelligence, Technology and Business Solutions, Biogen
My background is in accounting, but from an early age I loved computers and programming. When I moved from India to the U.S., I decided to branch out and get another degree in computer information systems. While I was still in school, I got a job at Fiserv writing software for ATMs. At that time, in the 1990s, the company was doing C and C++ programming. But I was starting to read about the benefits of web programming and client server systems, and I thought it would be beneficial for the company to pursue these new approaches. So I pulled together a group of programmers, and we began developing simple banking applications using basic client server and web programming. This opened the door for Fiserv to rewrite a lot of their systems with a new focus on improving their user interfaces.
That was an early example of my willingness to take the lead and to explore new directions that looked promising. I am sure that is one of the reasons I am working in the IT leadership position I have today – this desire to step up and venture out in search of opportunities. This is why it is critical to take charge and to take chances, especially early in your career – for example, by rotating through various roles and functions.
Another crucial key in my career progression has been the various leaders who identified valuable qualities in me and took a chance by promoting me into new positions and by asking me to take on new challenges. Now that I am in a leadership position, I try to do that as well.
A School for Leaders
Not every risk I have taken has paid off. When I became a consultant at PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PWC), working with Ford, I aggressively pursued switching the client from mainframe systems to web applications. We went about it very quickly and didn’t take the time necessary to understand the regulations that existed in the European Union at that time. I had great intentions, and in the end it was the right decision, but we had to go back and rethink some of that work in order to address those global compliance issues. That set us back for a while, but I learned from this mistake the importance of rebounding from a setback, adjusting course and moving forward.
After PWC, I joined General Motors, first as a contractor and then as an employee. I had already become a skilled programmer, but at GM I learned what it means to be a leader. My first manager at GM told me he wanted me to switch roles after just a year and a half. I asked if this was a result of something I’d done wrong. He explained that it wasn’t. The chief architect for North America was taking on a new position, and my manager thought I should interview for the role. It was beyond anything I’d ever done, and I was unsure about the job. But he had confidence in me, and that gave me more confidence in myself.
This represented a big risk – not just for me, but for him as well. I’ve gone back and asked him why he took that chance on me. He said that his leadership philosophy was that if you focus on doing what is right for the company, everything else will fall into place, and he saw that same focus in me. That philosophy made him a bit of a perfectionist, and he expected everything to be thought through and solid. He would put you through your paces, asking why you chose to do something a certain way, making sure you had considered all the angles. This uncompromising approach could drive you crazy sometimes, but it helped make me into a business-oriented IT leader, focused on business value and business outcomes.
I also learned from him, and from other leaders, how to make those around you better. He was good at recognizing an employee’s individual talents and at knowing how to engage and develop those talents. That approach was typical of the organization as a whole.
Taking Care of People
Mentors have played a big role in my career success. And now that I’m in a senior role, I make it a point to try to do the same for others in my organization by recognizing and nurturing their individual talents. I encourage people to develop their skills and I try to create opportunities for them to do that—even if it means they have to leave my group for the betterment of the company. I’ve always tried to incorporate that into my management style, from GM to Boeing and now here at Biogen: hire talented people and give them stretch goals to help them grow.
I also learned from my mentors that it’s important to truly take care of people, and not just at work. Everyone is trying to figure out a good work-life balance and, as a leader, I do whatever I can to help people achieve that. I give my employees flexibility, and their output is better as a result. At the same time, the reality is that, with certain jobs, work-life balance just isn’t possible. Everyone has to figure out for themselves what they are willing to do at certain points in their careers.
I recognize how critical it is to have a support system. Without my support system, I would never have been able to get to where I am today. While my primary duty and obligation is to my family and my children, I am fortunate to have a husband who encouraged me to pursue these opportunities while he shoulders more of the day-to-day work with my daughter. He put his career to the side for me to succeed. Having that kind of support from family or friends is critical.
Women in Technology
I’ve worked for some incredible women leaders in IT. At Boeing, my boss was the CIO, Kim Hammonds, who is now the COO at Deutsche Bank. At Biogen, I report to Adriana “Andi” Karaboutis, who is our executive vice president for Technology and Business Solutions (TBS). Both these women are dynamic leaders who are passionate about getting more women interested in technology careers. They both encouraged me and showed me that nothing is impossible if you put your heart and mind into it.
To be honest, I’ve worked largely in male-dominated environments. Very few women leaders that go all the way to the top in IT. There are many possible reasons for this, but one major problem is the shortage of women following courses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Encouraging young women’s interest in these STEM subjects is very important to me. I hear young girls say that “Math isn’t interesting” or “Science is for boys, not girls.” I don’t believe that is true at all. However, if we wait until high school to try to get girls interested, it’s too late. We need to work to engage girls in these subjects at a young age, so their interest has time to develop and mature. When I hear young women say they don’t want to be the only one, that they’re not comfortable being the only woman in a class, I turn around and position it like this: if you’re the only one, you’re special.
One of the most important lessons that leaders have taught me is the importance of leaving a legacy. That gives meaning and focus to your life and to your work. Always ask yourself what you want people to remember you for.
I consider myself part of Kim’s and Andi’s legacy, and I want to make the success of young women executives to be part of my legacy. You want to be able to look back at where you started and see what you have accomplished for the betterment of others – companies, colleagues and future generations. Helping to develop IT professionals and leaders who are willing to stretch themselves, who are comfortable taking risks and taking charge, is perhaps one of the most valuable legacies anyone can leave behind.