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By Sumeet Bagga, Executive Director, IT Planning & Innovation and Divestitures, Mergers & Acquisitions, Merck
I grew up in a very traditional Indian household, in which you either become an engineer or you become a scientist. My father has a doctorate in mathematic and my mother has a master’s in the same. I went that route as well, studying math and science and considering medical school. I took a computer science class early on—programming in Pascal—and I loved it. When the dean pointed out that there was a scholarship available to me as a computer science major, I decided to pursue it further.
My first job, while I was also pursuing my master’s degree in computer science at Brown University, was as an associate software engineer, programming systems for the Trident submarine program at General Dynamics. It was pretty exciting developing systems for monitoring sound underwater. But defense projects take so long that I became frustrated by not being able to see the effects of the work I was doing. I needed to see the end result. I have since sought out jobs where the results of my work on the world around me were more tangible.
A Bigger Impact
After graduate school, I got married, moved to New Jersey, and got a job in software engineering at Bellcore, developing code to generate code, which was thrilling to me. We were developing a data model that would generate code automatically, which was completely new.
In 1997, Merck was beginning to set up a new clinical information system. They recruited me, and I jumped at the opportunity. The minute I walked through the door, the sense of purpose here was palpable. People were here for the patients, from the scientists in the labs to the developers on the ground. I helped to create the software to capture data for clinical trials that at the end of the day would help people. I could clearly see my impact. I was passionate about it, and that passion has kept me here for 19 years.
Along the way, I’ve found myself drawn to working with and directing people in teams. Over time, my management and leadership responsibilities have grown, but the main motivator for me has been the chance to do work that makes a difference. I have never cared about my title or my office. As long as I’m adding value, I’m happy.
Integration as a Service
When Merck was finishing up its integration with Schering Plough in 2012, I joined the Consumer Care IT division supporting architecture, information management, and business development. I was actively involved when Merck decided to divest the division to Bayer. And that’s how my current position—leading IT divestitures, mergers, and acquisitions—came to be. The leadership team here knew that this potentially could be an important part of Merck’s strategy, and it would be valuable to set up a center of excellence to handle the IT aspects of integrations and divestitures.
IT systems are usually the last thing on people’s minds when they’re planning an acquisition or divestiture. But if we don’t get ahead of the IT issues, we put Merck at risk. And we’re making progress in this area. For example, we are helping the business side understand that, when a decision to acquire or divest has been made, decisions about what systems and processes will stay need to be made long before Day One. We have to develop a coherent plan for fully integrating people, processes, and technology into one. This can be a lengthy process – it can take as long as three years for even a small acquisition – and you won’t be successful unless you have identified where you want to be at the end of it and have laid out a plan for getting there.
I had a group of people assigned to work on the IT transaction when we divested the Consumer Care division. So when Merck decided to acquire Cubist in 2014, I thought I could leverage the same team for this transaction. Unfortunately, the resources were no longer available, and I was going to have to start over from scratch. I knew that would not be a sustainable approach long term.
That’s when I came up with the idea of for a national guard-like IT team for all mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. I now have a group of 40 IT professionals at the ready when a transaction hits. They have a back-up strategy in place to cover their day jobs while they are mobilized to work on the merger, acquisition, or divesture. In the past, we’d get whoever was available on the bench and had to reinvent the wheel every time.
We were able to kick off the program late last year. Now underway, we conduct quarterly conditioning sessions to make sure the members of the team, who have skills and capabilities that span the IT organizations, are ready and available when we need them.
The Importance of Being Networked
Another part of my job that I love is mentoring IT professionals. People often approach me when they’re at a place where they feel they can’t move forward, and I am happy to give guidance. I particularly enjoy mentoring young people and getting their fresh perspectives coming into the organization.
One of the key pieces of advice I have: Remember, it’s all about your network.
Indeed, it has been a strong network that has provided opportunities for me to learn and grow across the organization and has been perhaps the single greatest factor in my career success.
I have led teams of hundreds of people in the past. Today, I have three direct reports, but my influence has never been greater. This requires working with people and parts of the organization that don’t report to me at all. I need to create and nurture relationships with Technology Operations, R&D, Manufacturing, Sales and Marketing, for example. The only way I get things done is through them.
What I’ve learned is that everything you want to accomplish, even as an individual, requires you to collaborate with others. I love programming, but I never saw it as a solo pursuit. I’ve always enjoyed working and collaborating with people. I’ll sometimes send out a meeting request to brainstorm solutions to a problem and people will tell me, “You don’t have to do that.” But I want to.
Interestingly, that advice is relevant not just to someone’s individual career success but to the success of the business.
One of the biggest concerns I hear from the people who come to me is that they feel like they can’t make a real impact at such a big organization. The best advice I can give them—or anyone else in the organization—is to constantly work to improve the quality of their network.
I help them see that unless they are able to reach out to people and understand what others do, they may never even know or imagine the kind of impact they can have. I find that a lot of people are stuck in their silos. My approach has always been to reach out. Just because you’re working in R&D IT doesn’t mean you can’t introduce yourself to people in manufacturing and supply chain. Making those kinds of connections has been critical for me.
These days, my biggest challenge is to make sure that the people around me share the same vision and are working toward a common goal. I think it helps that I’m very honest and transparent. I have a lousy poker face. What you see is what you get. My success depends on surrounding myself with talented people and giving them wings to fly. I’m available to support and guide them and recognize them for their accomplishments. The magnitude of your impact is directly correlated to the quality of the people with which you surround yourself. I can’t do anything by myself.