Mumbai: For a woman who left India with just $100 in her pocket and a one-way ticket, Padmasree Warrior has come a long way. As chief technology and strategy officer of Cisco Systems Inc., she oversees strategic partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, integration of new business models, incubation of new technologies, and cultivation of technical talent.

Prior to joining Cisco in 2008, Warrior was executive vice-president and chief technology officer at Motorola Inc., where she worked for almost 24 years. Forbes magazine named Warrior one of the world’s 100 most powerful women for two consecutive years. In an interview, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi alumna, who also has a Masters degree from Cornell University, spoke of how Cisco is reinventing itself, her journey in the male-dominated tech world and her love of poetry and painting. Edited excerpts:

You wanted to be an astronomer but have ended up in technology.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by space. My dream was to become an astronomer. Space X (founded in 2002, the company manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft) didn’t exist then. That is actually why I chose to study engineering. When I got into IIT-Delhi, I chose physics as my first discipline because I was interested in astrophysics. After a year, I changed to chemistry because I found that more than pure science; I was interested in the application part of science. When I was at IIT, my dream was to come back some day and be a professor. I then went to Cornell. And my plan even then was to finish my Ph.D and get back to academics. I got an offer from Motorola while finishing my Masters. I thought I would work for one year and go back to finish my Ph.D. But I never looked back.

You left India in 1982 with $100 and a one-way ticket.

I was a graduate student and I had no money. I only went to the US because I had a fellowship. Otherwise, my parents couldn’t afford to send me there, and they bought me a one-way ticket because they couldn’t afford a two-way ticket. I bought all my books here because it is cheaper to buy them in India. I took two suitcases filled with books. Then I got a fellowship and started working. The message here is if you work really hard and set your goals, you can accomplish a lot. If I can do it, you can do it. I grew up in the small town of Vijayawada.

You have seen many ups and downs—the dotcom boom and bust when in Motorola and, later, the Lehman crisis, when you just about moved to Cisco. The transition must have been challenging.

The reason I started with Motorala was because it was in the semiconductor business and I had done some research work at IIT as well as in Cornell on material sciences. I spent the first good portion of my career in the semiconductor part of Motorola, which has since been spun off into a separate company (in January 2011, the firm was split into Motorola Solutions Inc. and Motorola Mobility, which was acquired by Lenovo Corp.). It was such a big company. I got experience all the way from semiconductors to batteries and energy to cellphones to networks. The reason I moved to Cisco was essentially that I saw a blending of the Internet and mobile, which until then were two completely separate platforms. Mobile, until 2006, was basically a voice device. We just had very basic data. It didn’t have all the apps we created. When I moved (to Cisco), I saw these two platforms coming together. I chose Cisco because it is really in the great position as a networking company to drive this platform into the future. I again feel like we are at a tipping point in the industry with what we call the Internet of Things and Internet of Everything. In this transition, different platforms are coming together just like the Internet and mobility came together. We will see the evolution of data platforms and connectivity platforms coming together in the next decade, and we call them as the Internet of Everything.

While Cisco is betting on Internet of Things, Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. have begun making networking equipment, where Cisco is a market leader. How do you view this competition?

We have reinvented ourselves a couple of times. My boss, John Chambers, talks about having a near death experience during the dotcom bust and coming back. That instilled in the culture of Cisco a tremendous focus on market transitions. In the last seven years, we have moved from just being a networking firm within infrastructure into data centres, security, mobility, application space and collaboration. Our customers are now no longer buying just products but the outcomes. This is why, going forward, Cisco will become more of a solutions company, more of a software company, and more of a services company.

Cisco is also working on smart cities, even in countries such as India. How is the concept shaping up?

Smart cities is something that we started before people started talking about digital countries. Maybe we were too early in the space. There are a lot of inefficiencies in every city. We thought we could make it more efficient using IT (information technology). We have got some early adoption. We are making a lot of progress in cities like Barcelona. Initially we thought it will be only for greenfield cities, but later we found that it doesn’t necessarily have to be new cities, it could be brownfield (too). The shift is that now there is a lot of movement, including in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking smart cities. But how real it is going to be—is it too ambitious, is there going to be connectivity, is there going to be investment?—these are the questions we still have to answer, but I think it will be beneficial to consumers. We are launching many pilots in India with partners like L&T (Larsen and Toubro Ltd) and ITL (International Tractors Ltd) and IL&FS (Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd). We have a pilot in Bengaluru on improving traffic management and waste management. But it will take time. Having said that, there is a need for it and a demand for it and it will happen.

You have reiterated on many occasions that you want to do a lot for women and technology.

I think the numbers (of women in technology) are really bad. Within Cisco, I am very sad to say that numbers are not any better or worse than that of anyone else—we are about the industry’s average for a US firm. We also have several senior women. Our new CFO (chief financial officer) is a woman. Our CIO (chief information officer) and CMO (chief marketing officer) are women. And our HR (human resources) head is a woman. So there are five C level women in our operating panel, which is about 30%. Our board also has a fairly good composition of (women)—about 30%. So we are better at the higher level. Most of the time, women give up because they don’t have role models. They don’t have people they can relate to, that look like them, who can share the stress that they have at home, and (understand) what it means to be a parent, and how can you have a family and a career and how can you do them both in a way you find satisfactory... We have a lot of programmes for women networking groups (to address such issues). We do events every quarter where we bring external speakers. I think this is a problem industry has to team up to solve.

You are also a poet and a painter.

Yeah, I write Haikus. I got interested in Haiku during a holiday I was taking few years back. I bought a Haiku book at a airport, believe it or not. And started reading. I think the engineer in me likes the structure of having 5-7-5 in three lines and is fixed. And I think the creative part of me likes the fact that most Haikus are written about nature. I love photography and being outside, so it is a good combination and a medium for me. I paint. I used to paint as a kid—never took any formal classes. I taught myself. So now I have started painting more. I like it and it is very relaxing. I call it my digital detox.

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