'Success has to be defined on one’s own terms,' says Intel's Kumud Srinivasan
We first heard Kumud Srinivasan, Intel India’s President, speak at TechSparks, YourStory’s flagship event. There she spoke about the shortage of women in technology and said one thing that resonated with almost every women present, “guilt is the curse of womanhood.” That, in a way, is responsible for the “leaky pipeline” in middle management across industries, mostly technology, when women tend to drop out of their careers, she pointed out. With that intriguing thought, HerStory met Kumud for a deeper, freewheeling chat. Read on for more:
Early life and the move to technology:
I was a hard working competitive student. I loved to learn and compete. In college, as we were getting close to the third or the final year, a lot of my male colleagues were talking about going to the US for graduate studies. That’s when I started thinking about going to the US myself. I had a conversation with my father; he responded simply by saying go. And that set things in motion. It was only when I was on my maiden flight from Kolkata to New York City that I realised what I had set in motion.
While I was doing my MBA programme (in the US) an opportunity came up for me to switch tracks. There were a couple of things that influenced me. First, I found programming to be very reminiscent of doing math in terms of problem solving and I enjoyed that aspect a lot. I had math and statistics as my minor when I was doing economics. So, it felt familiar. I liked the definitiveness of programming, how a code accomplished what you set out to do or didn’t. The other thing I liked was the money. Computers was a field where you had things like fellowships and student assistantships.
Early years at Intel:
I joined Intel almost accidentally. My husband was with Intel and he decided to pursue an opportunity in Albequerque. At that time there were no other employment opportunities in Albequerque so I joined Intel with the intent that when we came back to Bay Area — which was what we had planned to do — I would go to some other company; a non-engineering, less nerdy company. It has been 28 years and I am still with Intel. I found the journey very exciting with lots of opportunities to learn and grow.
The fact that I was primarily in an engineering company didn’t seem to matter. What I have learnt is that if you have a point of view that is well thought through then people listen. I also feel that some of my liberal arts education helped in some ways – particularly with things like communication and perspective.
Intel is largely gender agnostic. If there was any discomfort early on when I felt myself clearly out-numbered by the number of men, soon I got so used to it that I even stopped noticing it. I spent 21 of my 28 years in Intel in technology and manufacturing where the number of women tends to be fewer anyway. But I feel that it helped me develop the courage to think through what I want to say and to articulate it and to assume that people are going to listen if it made sense.
On balancing work and family:
Things are tougher in the earlier years because parenting tends to be a more involved activity then. At TechSparks I said, “Guilt is the curse of womanhood”. I have had my fair share of working through that over years and slowly learning to let go. But, three things helped me a lot. Persistence is one. It seems to me that there are times when life feels overwhelming and you just have to tell yourself to hang in there. The second is to be clear about one’s priorities and accept the trade-offs and I think that’s true for both men and women. It’s just that women agonise more over the trade-offs and this is where the guilt comes in. The third thing is to seek help with a support structure, both at home and work.
Having said that, I do think that it is very important to have a supportive spouse. In my case my husband was a very engaged parent. A lot of parenting is not just time management, it’s also the responsibility and the decision making that comes with parenting; and it helps a lot to be able to share that with another person.
In the early years we needed help and because we were in the US, it was primarily hired help. I remember thinking at one point that it’s going to be expensive. So my husband and I agreed that we would look at it as an investment rather than an expense. Now when I think back to that conversation and decision, I think it was the right way of looking at things because it has paid off so many times over.
Achievements at Intel:
When I started in Albequerque, the first project I was given was to make a fab (fabrication unit). That’ where we make our chips. I was given the job of making a fab become paper less. Paper is a very significant source of contamination and these fabs are clean rooms. I had to create applications and automated systems so that everything could go online.
From that, till 21 years later when I left the world of technology and manufacturing in Intel, I had overseen the transition of our 200 mm wafers to 300 mm wafers. If you go into a 300 mm wafer fab in Intel today, all you see essentially are computer interphases. The wafers are all being automated even in terms of their delivery from equipment to equipment. So there’s no human touch. I feel very proud of that whole journey and am very honoured to have gone through it.
On moving back to India:
I read this book called ‘True North’ by Bill George and he says that any long-term career can be broken down into three phases. The first phase is when you are preparing to lead; the second and longest phase is when you are leading and the third phase, he describes as, when you are giving back. Before I took over this position, I had already started feeling a desire to give back. You start giving back by coaching and mentoring employees. I also wanted to give back to the community in which I had been born and brought up. When this opportunity came up, my husband and I were a month away from becoming empty nesters. I thought to myself, “If not now then when?” and we decided to go for it.
Priorities at Intel:
When I got a sense of the organisation and the kind of work we do, I concluded that over the last 15 years Intel India has become a very strong execution engine for Intel. So the next level to increase the value of our contribution to Intel is essentially innovation. Going to that from being primarily an execution focused site calls for a lot of different things.
First and foremost, it calls for increasing the depth of our technical expertise across many domains. One of the things that many of the employees said when I first came over here is that Intel didn’t appear to value technical growth. They felt Intel values people going up the management ladder but not the technical ladder. So that is something that we took on as our focus. We created a structure to encourage employees to go down that path.
The other aspect is the cultural aspect. Innovating basically demands that you empower yourself to challenge the status-quo. I think Intel India may have a bit of cultural drawback there. We tend to wait to be told what to do. So that is another area where we have had a lot of discussion among the leaders. How does one influence the culture and actually swing or even move the needle on something like that? So it’s not moving away from what has got us here, it is building on top of that.
Interests outside of work:
I believe one should live life fully and that means using my full potential as an individual, an employee, a member of a family and a member of a community. As an individual what that means to me is that I push myself to learn and grow in every way I can. Fitness is very important to me. I try to maintain a balance through things like meditation and yoga.
Maintaining an intellectual balance as in reading not only work related stuff but also non-work related stuff is very important to me. I am a voracious reader. If I don’t read something that is not work related for a long time, I get a little cranky. So I make time to do that.
I enjoy being a mother. Interacting with my children is one of the fun things. This position has also given me an opportunity to engage with the community in so many different ways. I love doing whatever makes me use my full potential across many different dimensions.
On helping women dropping off midway through their career:
I think a lot of companies including Intel are doing a lot of things. In Intel recently we implemented a program that we call ‘Home to office’. It is aimed at helping women come back into the workplace. We let women return as interns. It gives us a chance to evaluate them and see if the job’s a good fit for them. It also gives them a chance to see if the job is something that they enjoy doing and would like to ease back into.
I think making it easier for women to balance the demands of personal lives in different phases calls for participation not just from the industry but also the government and the academia. One thing that we haven’t done enough of is to bring men into the dialogue. Nobody is talking about the need to actually educate men so that is where the academia will play a big role. In order to bring the men in we need to create an environment which is a little more inclusive. That is the direction in which I would love to see this whole movement go.
On Intel and startups:
We believe that the startup movement in India is actually one the biggest sources of growth for India. A lot of innovation is going to happen. A lot of the IP creation, a lot of the product development is happening in startups. So that is something that we absolutely want to see more of. We already have Intel’s Venture Capital arm where we invest in companies and we want to do more.
Advice for women:
In order to have a successful career you have to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing? The answer to that question may change depending on which phase of your life you are going through. Whatever that answer turns out to be; be true to that and you will find the way to success.
My advice to all women who are asking themselves the question, “Should I work or take a break?” is, “Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Whatever makes you feel good in that phase of your life is perhaps the right answer.” At some later point in life, if the answer to that question changes, then they could come back to work. Success has to be defined on one’s own terms; nobody else can define it for us.