Interview with Padmasree Warrior

Interview with Padmasree Warrior


Last year, I had a chance to interview Padmasree Warrior who was CTO of Motorola at the time and since then she has moved on to Cisco (as their CTO). The interview was conducted for the PiTech Magazine but for various delays the print edition never got released. I am publishing the interview in its entirety for our readers. Padmasree is a terrific technology leader and there are a lot of good insights in her answers.

1. What are some of the exciting initiatives you and your team are working on at Motorola?

The next decade is about the Mobile Revolution. It is quite remarkable how something as simple as the cell phone is transforming the human race by connecting the entire planet. Today almost half the planet communicates via a mobile device. The social, economic, cultural and technological implications of this are profound, particularly in under-developed countries of the world. The Motorola team is working on delivering products and experiences to enable “Seamless Mobility” which is our vision to enable access to communication, information and entertainment whenever, wherever and however people need it.

For example, recently we announced the world’s first wind and solar commercial network GSM cell site in Namibia. By incorporating renewable energy technology into this cell site, we created a cost-effective solution for operators in the region who find fuel generators too costly and don’t want to wait a long time for a main grid connection. Most importantly, we’ve created the infrastructure for people to be able to communicate with each other. That’s powerful and exciting.

2. What will the mobile device in 2012 look and feel like? What new features and functionality will be introduced by then?

The mobile device in 2012 will become an extension of your persona. In other words, it will know your preference, know where you are and will understand the context of what you need. This will simplify how people access communication, information and entertainment. For example, the mobile device will be your computer, wallet, TV, camera, music player, FM radio, alarm clock, flash light, calendar, game system and so on. By 2012 the mobile device will become your remote control for life.

3. How does “Always On” environment change how media and entertainment will evolve over the course of next five years? What does digital convergence mean to you?

The on-demand genie is out of the bottle and there is no way it is going back in. This fundamental shift in consumers’ expectations of being able to watch video when they want is having profound impact on nearly every technology component of every network that is capable of delivering a moving series of images . . . LANs, WANs and wireless.

I see convergence not as technology-driven, but experience driven. Convergence is the mobilization, socialization and personalization of content and communications…the technologies are being driven by the desired experiences. This is how Motorola researchers are going about their thinking. With deep expertise across mobile devices, home networking components, set-tops and next-generation networks, Motorola is focused on creating an integrated experience network topology that will excite the consumers and grow business for every player in the new media ecosystem.

4. If you were advising entrepreneurs, which problems would you advise them to tackle? Where is the most innovation needed? What are some of the problems that our industry hasn’t solved? What’s holding us back?

There are many problems to be solved, some are technological and others regulatory. I will answer this question more from a technological perspective. My advice to entrepreneurs is to focus on value added applications for the mobile platform that has many constraints such as battery life, screen size etc. Just forcing the internet designed for a PC onto the mobile device will not work. We need to think about innovation in areas of internet mobility, content mobility and broadband mobility. Areas of particular challenge are power management and battery life. Another exciting opportunity is to think about how this device may be used, when Wireless Broadband becomes a reality with WiMax. I don’t think anything is holding us back. I am an optimist – I believe the human mind can solve most problems. The scale of the mobile revolution is so massive that innovation will occur at many levels both in developed and emerging markets simultaneously.

5. At Java One you talked about Platform Disturbia. How do we solve the problem (or ease the pain) of industry fragmentation at multiple levels? Or is it a fact of life?

“Platform Disturbia” which is my anecdotal way of describing the fragmentation in the mobile industry can be a great opportunity for developers, but brings with it significant challenges. As content and communications go mobile – How does one move content easily and transcode it from one format to another? How does one set the hooks between different networks and mobile devices so the hand off is seamless? With personalization, where should the authentication and personalization engines be located – on the mobile device or on backend servers? Should context and location awareness work with authentication; how much should they reveal and to whom?

It is hard enough dealing with the sheer number of different mobile handsets, screens and separate operating systems. Now we want those devices to talk effortlessly with enterprise infrastructures – to enable secure communications and data sharing with field service people. We want to extend into the home and be able to upload and download content automatically from set top boxes. And deliver a whole new generation of location and context-based services that will make mobile devices even more personal and interactive.

The way to ease the pain of industry fragmentation is through the adoption of standards and for large innovative companies to be transparent about intellectual property rather than extract high royalty rates for patented technologies. The former accelerates time to market and therefore expands market creation with a unified approach. Of course, companies must protect their intellectual property and get fair, reasonable payment for their patent rights. However, often fragmentation occurs when competing technologies are created to avoid high royalty taxation.

The mobile world is a huge and divergent ecosystem where innovation needs all of us to be both visionary and pragmatic – so that we can move to Platform Utopia!

6. India’s wireless market has been exploding at a rapid pace. Could you please discuss the role of wireless communications in India’s economy? What role does India play in the global wireless market?

Yes, the wireless communications market is certainly growing very rapidly in India – nearly every global manufacturer has production and research presence in the country. India adds almost 6 million subscribers every month – that is equivalent to connecting the entire country of Denmark in India every month!

This rapid adoption of mobile communications will have a positive impact on economic empowerment over the long run. This is already starting to happen in other emerging markets. For example, merchants in Zambia use mobile phones for banking. Health workers in S. Africa use them to update records while visiting patients. In Tanzania fishermen use mobile phones to get market, weather and the price of fish while still off shore. Already mobile connectivity is generating big economic benefits according to a London Business School study. The study says that in a typical developing country, a rise of 10 mobile phones per 100 people boosts GDP growth rate by 0.6%. That may not seem much but compounded over a few years it adds up to a substantive increase in the standard of living

India plays a critical role in the global wireless market because the scale of people yet to be connected is large. This demand will become a hotbed for creativity and innovation. When we connect the billions of people, we will see new use cases with mobility. Looking forward, the opportunity in India and support of the government is quite strong. The Indian government has set the target of 500 million subscribers by 2010.

7. How do you manage uncertainty? How do you keep the team of 26,000 focused and motivated?

Managing uncertainty is exactly what innovation is all about. Not knowing the answers, taking risks, disrupting the status quo and challenging conventional wisdom are necessary ingredients to invent and innovate. As inventors, it is our responsibility to think beyond the possible and break barriers to create the never before imagined solution.

However, with this creativity comes the need of one shared vision. At Motorola, our shared vision is of a world in which communications transcends the barriers of space and time to deliver an on-demand consumer experience – what we call seamless mobility. It is this vision that connects our work and keeps our 26,000 focused on one end goal.

Most importantly, I surround myself with very smart people – individuals who are not only experts in their fields, but also possess strong business acumen blended with an entrepreneurial spirit to succeed. It is tough to find people like that, but ultimately people are the backbone of an organization, they are the catalysts for growth and success. Leadership is not about YOU but them – the teams you lead. My advice is to leaders – be humble and don’t be afraid to hire talent that is better than you.

  1. How do you keep up with all the information and technology evolution around you? You have your own blog; do you have some favorites that you read regularly?

I stay connected – to people and information. I read just about anything and everything that comes my way, it is almost addictive. I also spend a lot of time meeting customers, visiting universities across the world, chatting with students – all the way from elementary to post doctoral and interacting with industry thought leaders. This has exposed me to some truly remarkable individuals from all fields. Recently while in San Francisco, Dr. Jill Tarter invited me to the SETI Institute where I met with some brilliant astronomers and scientists and gained a unique perspective on their contributions and achievements.

I also stay connected to information – from blogs to technical papers to trade journals to books, there is always something fascinating that sparks my interest (and keeps me busy on those long cross-Atlantic flights!). Yes, I have my own blog called “Bits at the Edge” – I read many blogs and enjoy the perspective of different bloggers, whether they agree with my opinions or not.

  1. What are the key ingredients of a strategy to outsmart competition?

I always say a Vision without a plan is just a Dream. The key to success is Think Big and Act Fast. Focus on delivering value by solving relevant problems.

10. How can technology companies better understand the needs of customers?

It may sound simple but I would say that we could better understand the needs of customers by being better listeners – especially earlier in the product development cycle. As corporations grow, it is easy to get stifled by what is going inside our own walls and forget to open the doors in the early stages of concepts, to understand the pulse of the marketplace.

At Motorola, we are shifting our focus to delivering enhanced experiences to our customers. Similarly, our research efforts stay focused on discovering the problems of tomorrow and then creating solutions to solve these problems.

Let’s take the example of the original RAZR – our researchers perceived that consumers were in search of a phone that would fit in their shirt pocket; our scientists then brainstormed and developed the solution of an embedded antenna that allowed for a slimmer form.

11. How do you manage work-life balance?

I actually dislike the word “balance” in this context, because it conjures up images of conflict. My work is an integral part of my life and so are my family, my community, my friends and my self. I prefer to think of this more as an integration challenge. I have one life in which I must INTEGRATE each of these. Therefore, it is not important HOW we decide to apportion the time spent on each of these because there is no right answer. The challenge is to COPE with the guilt that comes with however we choose to spend time on each of these. Over the years, I have tried not to feel guilty about things that I am unable to do, but rather enjoy the experiences of what I am able to do. Recently I had to miss our senior leadership strategy session, instead I chose to attend my son’s middle school commencement where he received a President honor award. I had a blast being a proud mom that evening.

12. You are an inspiration to many. Who inspires you? Who has been your role model(s) and why?

Mother Teresa continues to be an inspiration to me. I do not see her just as a martyr but as a pioneer and a bold risk taker. She looked at the world holistically and her work broke down barriers – race, color, ability, wealth and economic status. She left her home country and comfort zone to improve the lives of the poorest of the poor.

13. Who are some people you would really like to meet with that you haven’t been able to meet yet?

Restricting my wishes to people that are living, I would like to meet Nelson Mandela who single handedly and irreversibly influenced the course of apartheid in the world. I would also like to meet Scott Adams – I Iove Dilbert!

14. What’s the last book that you read that really made a difference in your life?

The Alchemist – poetic style of prose that is thought provoking, makes you pause.

15. What are some of your favorite memories of being at IIT?

Dating my then boyfriend (now husband), all night chat sessions in the dorm room, the perennial hikes to street cafes at odd hours in search of chai (tea) that had nothing at all to do with drinking tea per se, heated debates about everything from solving world hunger to cutting classes the next day.