Career Nav #26: How to be a 360 Degree Growth Enabler

Career Nav #26: How to be a 360 Degree Growth Enabler

Written by Pragati Ogal Rai


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Pragati Ogal Rai, Head of Developer Relations, APJ Twilio and CEO of ISSA India Chapter, shares her talk, “How to be a 360 Degree Growth Enabler.” Pragati is also the chair at Women in Cybersecurity India Chapter. She’s the author of a book called, “Android Application Security Essentials,” and the winner of the 2014 Zinnov Thought Leadership Award. She shares a few experiences on her career journey that she resonated with, when reading John C. Maxwell, regarding leading by influencing those around you.

John C. Maxwell wrote a book that talks about how to be a leader irrespective of your position in the organization. He also discusses how from any position in the organization, we can influence upwards, to the leadership, across to the peers and also down to the people who we lead or who look to us for guidance. The book also talks about some myths that inhibit our ability to move up and to influence. As I was reading the book, incidents from my career sprung up. Incidents where I held those myths and I didn’t perform to the best of my abilities or situations where somebody really propped me to do something or the situation demanded and I was put on the spot and I had to figure out a way to influence.

The first instance that came to my mind was when I was fresh out of grad school and I joined Motorola as my first job. I came fully loaded with all the badges, gold medal and perfect GPA score. I was the only one who was selected from campus at Motorola. I was going to do embedded programming and was placed on the security team. I was ready to change the world. My first day, my boss gave me a whole bunch of books about security to study. I thought I was finished studying.

For the next three, four, five months, I would study and I would go back to my manager and say, “I’m done.” He would ask a couple of questions and I would fumble and then go back to reading. Finally, after four or five months, when I was able to answer five questions correctly, he said, “Okay, let’s talk about work tomorrow.” I was so excited. The next day I went to my boss again, ready to change the world. He gave me a 1000 page specification document and said, “Make sense out of it.” I was working on the mobile platform. Inside mobile phones, there is an Integrated Circuit. We were doing embedded programming and we had to interface with hardware.

That specification document listed out what parameters should be passed. What would be the return values? How to interpret the error conditions. It was a huge document. I was scared. I put my head down, I shut down the TV and shut off my friends. I condensed that entire 1000 page specification document into 10 slides of all the important material. I took it to my manager and said, “Here is the specification document. This is what it talks about. This is what is missing.”

Lucky for me, I had a degree in electronics too. I was able to understand the OR in the NOR gates. The glow on the face of my manager was amazing. He was so excited to see that. He was so proud. My manager and I became friends in a way that he began to trust me. What I learned from that incident was that the specification document wasn’t just a pain for me. It was a pain for everybody. The fear of going back to the three months of studying drove me to think a little differently. I created a capsule of knowledge that could be shared with a lot of people. I became a cool, fresh grad in Motorola, who everybody thought was a subject matter expert in that specification document. If you’re in this situation, think differently. Try to create a capsule of knowledge that doesn’t just make you smarter, but other people’s life easier as well.

Fast forward five or six years at Motorola, I found myself in a ninja situation. I was probably a senior software engineer at that time. My role was to design a certificate store on an Android operating system. I had to sign all the applications that came my way. On the phone, there would be a browser team, a video team, audio team, camera team and many other teams. They would send their applications to be signed by the system certificate. That was something I was supposed to do and then make sure it was built.

The team was a diverse team, in 18 plus locations across the world. We had moved to a new system. We were using Git for managing the entire operating system. Everybody was pushing their code and there was just one single repository. These requests would come in from different regions, sometimes early morning, sometimes in the evening. I was worried because I didn’t want to be the one who broke the code, then I would be named and shamed. I was like a ninja taking these requests, working 24 hours, and I didn’t know what to do. I had to find a solution for myself.

I worked with the different teams within the organization and built a very simple process.
It said, “If your requests for certificate signing come in before 5 PM PST, it will be released in the next belt. If you’re sending me an updated app, make sure the subject line says so and a few other such rules.” I had an agreement with all the teams to follow that. It made my life peaceful because now I wasn’t answerable to anybody if a request came at 6 PM.

Six months later or so when the performance review happened and my manager asked me, “So Pragati, tell me what was your biggest accomplishment in the last six months?” I said, “You know what, I built that really cool certificate store and it’s the first time somebody did it. I’m so excited about it. That’s what I did the best.” My manager said, “Well, of course, you did a fantastic job with that. But what was really, really awesome is that you built this process that made your life easier, but it made everybody’s life so much better.” He had been getting thank you notes because of this process that I had built. Other teams were also trying to replicate this kind of a process. I wasn’t looking to be an influencer or a leader, it was just because I wanted to save myself from this crazy work thing that was coming my way. What I understood was, that if I solve a problem for somebody, instead of whining and complaining about the situation, I create a lot of influence across the board and win the love of the higher ups or the leadership.

Fast forward another few years. This time I was at PayPal. I was the first Android engineer that PayPal had hired. It was 2010 or ’11, during that time. My job was to build an Android app for PayPal. PayPal was doing amazing, but it was predominantly on desktops. After spending so much time at Motorola, I joined PayPal to be the person who helps build the Android app. When I started writing the app, I realized that there had to be some changes that needed to be made to accustom things for the mobile client.

The database had to be changed a little bit. A mobile client in 2011, it was still very slow. You couldn’t return a hundred values at one go, or the phone number couldn’t be a PII, or some security policies had to be changed so that wireless can be enabled. Instead of coding, I was speaking to all these teams, the security team, the compliance team, the UI team and the database team. I was trying to tell them how to modify their systems or how to do things a little differently so that the things work on the app. I tried and I tried, but it wasn’t happening. As the person who was responsible for building the app, my neck was on the chopping board. I had to figure something out. I realized that all the people that I was talking to were really smart engineers and genuinely nice people. They hadn’t worked on mobile. Until and unless they experienced it, they wouldn’t be able to help me out or advocate the change that I was trying to make.

I, with the blessings of my senior leadership, organized the first ever Hackathon at PayPal. We invited all the teams in and the objective was to build mobile apps. The teams came together and studied mobile. They wrote the apps. When they wrote the apps, they understood the system and realized it’s a little different. Instead of me advocating all the change, the little small fish in a big ocean, they became the advocates and started influencing and then the changes happened. My app came out and I was successful. I learned a small little fish can actually make an influence, and can create a ripple effect of change for the entire organization.

Leading the change or trying to be one person who is trying to impact somebody, influencing somebody, it can be overwhelming. It’s a hard job. There was one time in my career where I felt so overwhelmed. I felt so down. One day I was just sitting in the parking lot completely lost. I didn’t even have the will or the energy to get into the car and drive away. I was just sitting in the parking lot doing nothing.

A senior executive walked in and stopped. She asked me, “How are you doing? What’s up?” I started speaking about all the things that were happening, what was not working and how I was feeling so torn and so let down. She said, “Okay, let’s meet tomorrow.” She set up an appointment with me, I met with her the next day and things started to become better. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to anybody because for me, the notion that I had was it’s really cowardly to ask somebody for help. I’m grateful that she stopped and asked me. If you are feeling down, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, because we are all juggling so many things, reach out to somebody. There are plenty of resources to reach out to people. If you feel that somebody is acting not like themselves, if somebody is down, if somebody is feeling sad, just reach out to them and ask how they are doing. Maybe they’re just waiting for somebody to ask. Look out for each other in these challenging times and help out each other.