[WomenInTech] Of war rooms and software troubleshooting – how Vima Philips leads in an engineer’s worldRekha Balakrishnan
Vima Philips, who is Head of Product and Engineering – APAC Region at CBRE, brings with her a wealth of experience in various engineering roles across multiple multinational companies.
Growing up in Kerala more than 30 years ago, girls Vima Philips’s age had no idea that they could do as well - if not better - as their male peers, in education and at work.
She grew up differently, in a family with a mother committed to a career, and says she couldn’t have asked for a better role model. “It’s important for girls to hear the right messages growing up and the best inspiration is to have a mother as the role model and a father who is an equal partner to the mother,” she says.
It’s this passion and determination that Vima has followed throughout her illustrious career so far. She was recently appointed as Head of Product and Engineering – APAC Region at CBRE – a leading real estate consultancy firm that provides clients with a wide range of real estate solutions, including strategic consulting, valuations/appraisals, capital markets, agency services, asset services and project management.
Bitten by the tech bug
After completing a BTech in Computer Engineering from Cochin University, and an MS in Software Engineering from BITS Pilani, Vima joined Wipro Technologies in Bengaluru as a campus recruit and worked there for six years.
“This is where I honed my programming skills and got recognised early for leadership skills. I have been told that I am an engineer who understands business, can interface with customers, and can lead other engineers – these realisations happened during my time at Wipro,” she shares.
She moved to San Francisco in 2006, and after a short stint at Compunnel Group, moved to Premier Retail Networks, where she worked until 2015. She followed one of her mentors to Cisco to work on a consumer-facing product that required to be highly available and scalable.
The same year, her husband came across a great opportunity in India, and felt it is time to move back. She moved to Gurugram and Sirion Labs in 2016, as the head of engineering.
This year, she took up the Product and Engineering leadership role at CBRE.
“The real estate industry is at the cusp of a technology-driven revolution, and CBRE is committed to building the next generation of prop-tech services that will add value to our customers. I will be in charge of our new digital and technology centre in Gurugram, which will be the primary software development centre in the Asia Pacific region, and an innovation hub that can serve CBRE globally,” she says.
Vima is passionate about aligning engineering excellence with business outcomes. “I have built and led large distributed Agile teams, in startups as well as large conglomerates, and in multiple countries and cultures. The Asia Pacific Product and Engineering leadership role is a crucial one for CBRE and I hope to leverage my expertise in the prop-tech world,” she adds.
The engineer’s world and war rooms
Vima recounts some interesting experiences as a woman in tech.
“In an engineer’s world, every now and then we have to deal with our software hitting some corner case that it wasn’t designed for and behaving in ways that could be catastrophic for the customer’s business. We then get into “war-rooms” and people come together to find and fix the root cause. For example, I was called back once from the middle of a Friday dinner to deal with a software outage because I was the engineer on call. I had to switch from relaxed celebratory mode to ‘emergency bug resolution’ mode – you have to troubleshoot as well as do stakeholder management when these things happen. But once it is resolved and behind you, these become memorable stories to inspire junior engineers.”
Women and STEM careers
Vima believes women in STEM careers are not rare, but the ratio is still far from ideal.
“It is important to start early and be gender-neutral when talking to children about STEM. Unfortunately, there are still challenges with the subtle systemic conditioning that happens in pushing boys towards STEM more than girls, and having organisational cultures that are not attractive for women. This is changing, and we now have leaders who are more aware, inclusive and supportive,” she says.
Women on top
Vima is optimistic about more women joining senior management positions.
“The number of women leaders and entrepreneurs is on the rise and women are exploring newer heights in almost all areas of work. These days, what matters most is the person’s capability, and willingness to work hard in all circumstances. Merit is getting recognised, and nothing is beyond reach. The culture is becoming positive in the corporate world and in society, and it will only get better in the coming years,” she says.
As an engineer traversing different companies and paths, Vima is fortunate not to have faced the glass ceiling. “There is increasing awareness today that diversity is a good thing – for gender, race, age, etc. The most important thing is to be unquestionably good at what you do. This will bring respect automatically, and it is your best weapon to shatter any glass ceiling you might encounter.”
Vima looks forward to a future where happiness will play an important role.
“I recently read about a kid who responded to the question of what he wants to be when he grows up, by saying he wants to be happy. My future plans are similar – be a better version of myself, help people around me be better versions of themselves, and be happy!”