My journey from Mumbai to Mars

Dr Anjali Subburaj, digital commerce chief architect at Mars, speaks to IT Pro 20/20 about standing firm in what can be an intimidating industry

Mars mini chocolates in a bowl

The following article originally appeared in Issue 11 of IT Pro 20/20 as part of a new series that invites industry experts to give their take on some of the most pressing issues facing businesses today. To sign up to receive the latest issue of IT Pro 20/20 in your inbox every month, click here. For a list of previous issues, click here.

Women in the technology industry, especially those in technical roles, routinely face a plethora of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They shouldn’t have to follow such a tough path on their own - but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Today, I am part of Mars, one of the world's largest consumer goods companies, in a role that shapes our key technology strategies, but I’ve come a long way from where I started and it was often tough going.

My path into tech started with a doctorate degree in experimental physics - a subject which fascinated me due to its logical and structured nature. I had started to build upon my experience of scientific computing by engaging in small projects alongside teaching, but in 1999, my husband was transferred to the UK through his company. I arrived with my family to start a new life in a new country.

My first job in the UK was as a support analyst in a startup, answering customers’ phone calls and logging their IT questions. Initially, I focused on finding a suitable role, doing it well, and then taking the next step. Since my first role in IT, I have technically led many digital transformation programmes for various enterprises, including government departments and multinational companies.

Many people assume that strong communication skills are not necessary to work in the technology industry, reasoning that workers will be spending more time with computers than with people. I too started my career in technology with this assumption, but quickly realised that my technical skills would never gain the recognition and value that they deserve if I couldn’t successfully convey their importance to others.

I have always focused on learning business processes and understanding business challenges, without relinquishing my core technical skills, and my key achievement has been to learn to communicate well. The key to effective communication with business stakeholders is to make a conscious effort to listen, clarify, and respond in a language that is both relevant and jargon-free. The key to successful communication is to do this consistently.

My focus on maintaining my integrity and learning continuously has been key to my professional development, but my biggest challenge has been finding ways to fit into the male-dominated IT industry.

I did not fit in a typical IT organisation. I believe in fairness, value integrity and advocate diversity of opinion, but I was often told that such principles conflicted with organisational interests. I was frequently urged to overlook unjust treatment, encouraged to be more like my colleagues and toe the line. My technical abilities would also get dismissed. I struggled to accept such compromises.

As an example, I was working on a large, complex programme alongside a senior architect who was well known in the organisation. Unfortunately, he had neither much knowledge of the subject, nor did he take any responsibility for the team. He would ask me what I was doing, write it down and then take full credit with the senior managers, who assumed that it was all his own work.

Frequently, I was the only woman in the team and had a different ethnic and cultural background, so I directly attributed these differences in attitude to biases. I had reached an impasse and had to find a way out. I decided to change myself, but on my own terms and conditions. I worked on eliminating my own biases about people and their culture, background, nationality, and gender in order to ensure that I could be objective about any gender bias that I experienced.

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This objectivity has changed my approach. Instead of dismissing comments which may at first seem biased, I have learnt to try and appreciate where they are coming from. If they are borne out of a lack of understanding, I have a rational conversation with the individual. If this does not resolve the matter, then at least I know that I have attempted to build bridges.

Introspection has helped me redefine my values and I live by them, while simultaneously trying to internalise feedback to continuously improve myself. I recognise that this is all a work in progress, and one which I may never complete. However, exercising the ability to be my natural self has brought me peace that I have not known before.

Two decades after I arrived in the UK, it’s gratifying to see more young women choosing careers in STEM, but while I am fiercely proud of the technical skills that I have honed over the course of my career, the skills of communication, empathy, and introspection have been just as vital. It has been a remarkable and rewarding journey, professionally, personally and intellectually, and it’s not over yet. I know I have a lot more work to do and I’m intrigued to see where it will take me next.

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