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Executive Leader, Growth Offerings & Initiatives at GE Power Conversion, Bangalore

Shivkumar Kalyanaraman is a visionary technology and business executive with deep technology skills, strategic insight, client/business development experience and delivered business impact across USA, Europe, India, Asia Pacific (Australia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia), Middle East. He currently leads digital & power conversion offering launches for renewables and electrification infrastructure (Ultra-fast (100kW-several MW scale), affordable, flexible, scalable electric vehicle (EV) charging) at GE Power Conversion. Previously he served as Program Director, Special Initiatives, IBM Research – India, Bangalore responsible for transformative innovation in renewables (esp solar), energy storage and electrified transportation. Prior to that, he was the Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Australia, Melbourne, Australia and various other roles in IBM India Research Labs, Bangalore from 2008 where he developed and led industry solutions teams involving transformative digital technologies: Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning/deep learning, Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, mobile & cloud computing, telecom and wireless / networking.

Prior to joining IBM, Dr. Shivkumar was a Professor at the Department of Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He received a B.Tech degree in Computer Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India in July 1993 followed by M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the Ohio State University in 1994 and 1997 respectively.

Dr. Shivkumar was selected by MIT’s Technology Review Magazine in 1999 as one of the top 100 young innovators for the new millennium. He served as the TPC Co-chair of IEEE INFOCOM 2008, and as the General co-chair of ACM SIGCOMM 2010 in New Delhi. He has served on the editorial board of IEEE/ACM Transactions of Networking. He is a Fellow of IEEE and an ACM Distinguished Scientist, and recently named Fellow, Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE). Outside of work, he is a author of a popular carnatic music education website.

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You moved across various dimensions: from a high-ranking student of CS in IIT Chennai – to – becoming a Full professor in US – to – being a research group lead & Director of New Initiatives at IBM – to your current role as Executive Leader of Power Division in GE. Tell us a little bit about your education/early years that prepared you for these shifts?

This is not a usual career path – everyone can have their own path. I just followed my interests over time and passion to make a lasting impact using my unique skill set, and kept myself motivated.

Like many of us, I was lucky to be part of a family that prioritized education. The stable nurturing environment my parents provided allowed me to develop a habit of thinking from first principles in whatever I learnt. My exposure to Carnatic music also helped a lot in the hard-soft skill balance, and creativity combined with scientific rigor. It also gives you a sense of balance and poise that can help in competitive situations. I would strongly urge some arts combined with an interest in STEM topics, and a bias for first principles based mastery of topics. This is much easier now with the availability of excellent you tube and other resources on the Internet. 

You have worked across such a wide range of technologies over your career – from smarter planet technologies to networking and wireless technologies and high-performance computing. And today you are engrossed in renewables and electrification infrastructure. How have you spanned such a breadth of technologies? How do you keep abreast with the ever-changing technologies?

As mentioned in the prior point, I like to learn every subject from a first principles perspective. I have been also pursuing an interest to make an impact on climate change via my knowledge of digital, IT and management/strategic acumen. Also a healthy dose of motivation helps keep energy levels up and learn from a wide variety of people both inside and outside our organization. The rest are details.  

I spend a lot of my time (25-30%) on learning new topics or context for areas of interest. Typically, I use YouTube or other internet sources, and I always look for 2-3 different viewpoints on the same topic to get diversity of opinion. I also then try to formulate my own views on it from first principles. This allows me to remember the essence of a subject and forget all the other details (which I can find if needed or deduce through thinking through a problem).

You have worked in various collaborative models while in academia and in industry. What are the benefits of collaboration? What are some of the key skills required to identify and nurture such collaborations?

The fundamental point is to learn from each other in a collaboration. When in academia you hone a number of deep skills and in specific areas, and the ability to abstract complex technical topics and execute scientific processes with rigor. In industry, you focus on commercial impact starting backwards from the value to the customer. Technology platforms and innovation are means towards that end. Generally, in collaboration it is important to discover a joint area of passion / focus that can keep any discussion anchored; and both sides see value. Then the interpersonal trust and styles of working and valuing what the other side wants / needs is very important.

Another aspect is the ability to solve problems. The most important skills in solving problems is to understand and formulate the problem (where over 50% of time is spent). It is important to understand a customer or market challenge through a variety of lenses – business/economic, technological and organizational/people – and simplify the problem to its essence. Often the solution then is easy; or it can guide you towards the right technology to develop or apply (i.e. innovation).

You have been associated with various technical bodies such as IEEE, ACM etc. What is the value of these groups and what is your advice to students/young professionals about engaging with them?

You build a great network; and deepen your skills via key conferences and events. Keep it simple – and be engaged. I joined groups like ACM and IEEE when I was a graduate student. In the early days it would help you get significant discounts in registering to conferences beyond the usual magazines they send. Over time, I participated in technical program committees (TPCs) of conferences, organized panels etc; and later served as chairs (TPC co-chair, and General Chair) of major conferences like IEEE INFOCOM and ACM SIGCOMM.

The long-term value is in the network of professionals you build: one of the important truisms in business is that it is not what you know, but whom you know that matters {I think both matter!}. One important initiative taken by ACM and IEEE and organizations like COMSNETS in India is to support students to attend top conferences via student travel grants; and more conferences are coming to India. By going to these conferences and seeing how keynotes are given, or papers are presented, you learn about communication skills; and frankly you get confidence that this is easy, and you can also do this! The first technical paper is the hardest one; and once you do it once, it is like riding a bike – you can easily do more of it. If you go out of academia or research into products, the conferences also allow you important venues to meet and hire young talent.

What skills (Both technical and non-technical) do you believe students/young professionals of today should hone/develop to grow in their careers and be relevant in the ever-changing world.

Develop both your IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient). If you are interested in industry, develop a good balance of technical, hard/soft skills, and understanding of risk/finance. Use digital tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Coursera, Khan Academy, Kindle etc to deepen and continuously learn new topics.

In life and business success, you need to develop three skills:

–         hard skills (IQ related: science, math, engineering etc),

–         soft skills (EQ related: self-awareness, communication, motivation, leadership), and

–         risk management (eg: finance, economics, ability to understand a good vs a bad deal, negotiation skills). 

But, foremost. Be hungry, and you will discover your life’s mission. In engaging with that, and in the journey, you will find your joy and fulfilment.

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The TechICON series in an initiative of the Industry Relations Cell of IEEE Bangalore Section.