Reflections with Pratima Amonkar

By Ekaterina Azizova

Pratima Amonkar is an APAC (Asia-Pacific) Lead for working with Cloud ISV (Independent Software Vendor) Partners at Microsoft Corporation. Pratima has 23 years of experience in different positions in the IT industry, including work for universities, start-ups, SMEs and large multinational corporations.

My team and I work with companies which create solutions for different industries and for different Microsoft cloud partners, for example hospital management system for health care, analytics dash board for the energy sector, etc. based on cloud technologies.

A typical day for me may be divided to internal focus activities and external focus activities. Internal activities mean running teams in our organisation, while external activities involve connecting with partners.

My work also includes a lot of my own self-learning on a day-to-day basis.

Just being very focused on dedicating some time for it. It doesn’t matter on your position – you should constantly be learning even at the entry and senior level position.

I take one day a week, usually a Saturday or Sunday, for reading, studying and learning what is happening in the industry. It is especially important in IT industry where the pace of changes is so rapid. Plus, every quarter of the year I do formal learning, like an online course 3-4 months long. For example, last quarter I have a course from MIT on Artificial Intelligence. It is stimulating to learn from the top university professors even if they are sitting far away from you. We do a lot of unstructured learning every day, but courses are not like reading magazines on – structured learning stimulates you to go deeper to the subject.

When I started to study, IT was still very new. It was a time of big floppy disks and things like that. Computers that can process large amounts of information and provide high speed calculations were also very new things. So, innovation was the first factor.

The second factor was how innovations can make an impact, like making better weather forecasts or useful analyses of utility data. At that time what made me really enthusiastic was how automation can change the lives of people, how machines can make an impact and make people’s lives better. And this passion is what motivates me every day in my job for the past 23 years.

 My first job was at the place where I first started to study IT – in a computer training institute in India. I worked for an institute lab helping students with their projects.

Then, I worked for a company which specialised in object-oriented programming and then in a start-up. After that I worked in Sun Microsystems, which finally became a part of Oracle.

IT industry is very competitive – you might even have a multibillion dollar competing with a start-up. Of course, you must know your subject very well. However, another thing is that you need to create a solution that will be useful for people. That is where competition lies. You can create a great technology, but it will be not competitive if no one adopts it.

It really depends on the roles. In IT there are multiple roles. There are very technical roles where you need to sit down and write code. If you are involved in programme creation you must have good technical knowledge. At these positions your soft skills do not really matter much unless you have to work with a very large team. Business development positions require soft skills, so you must be able to present ideas.

In large multinational corporations we usually have roles which are a mixture of both. You need not only have a good product but also be able to explain this product.

Developing skills also depend on one’s core strengths. As advice, I would say you really need to figure out your strengths – do you really enjoy sitting up and coding, or do you prefer to talk about your solution? So, look at your core strength and then try to develop that.

It is not impossible to develop several competencies, but you need firstly to understand what your core strength is and then add to it.

Firstly, you need to think about what value you can bring to the business. It doesn’t matter if you are in an entry position or managerial position or if you are a business owner – you should always think how you can make this business better. The second, bring value to yourself – it is your constant learning that will help you progress as well.

The IT industry is changing very fast and when you are going through your career path there may be people entering at their twenties who are more technically qualified than you, which is very different from what I expected at first.

We do a lot of technical competitions for students and programmes supporting girls to study programming and STEM. Furthermore, we develop different kinds of inclusive software that can help people who have disabilities – for example, software that can help people who have visual or hearing impairments.

From my working with students I would say that students have very new bright ideas – they can see the gaps and understand how to address these gaps with software, which is very important.

Many projects in technology can be demanding – long hours, requirements to travel a lot, different kinds of risks, the necessity to take bigger goals and bigger roles. One advice I would give to the girls in IT is to be fearless; do not keep worrying about whether “am I the best person for the project?”, “do I know enough?” or “is this project very difficult to do?” Sometimes women ask themselves too many questions before they actually start doing the things. And my key message is to be fearless. Being fearless means to take the next step when you are ready, and don’t hesitate to bring value to the business and to yourself.

Firstly, I would say that for both applied and continuous learning, it is very important to learn constantly and apply your knowledge. Also, it is important to have an “I can do it’’ attitude – a positive attitude to work and to take risks. One more thing that is really important is to try and make a real contribution to the company.

I believe it is worth working in a corporation first for some time, like at least 2-3 years, before becoming an entrepreneur. When you are in a start-up you must do pretty much everything and it will really help if you know at least one aspect of the business well. You will learn the details that will help if you eventually want to start a business. On the other hand, what can also happen is that you can start working for a start-up – get employed by a start-up instead of entrepreneurship. There are some benefits for doing so because start-ups usually give you more space for trying new things, so you can enjoy not having strict boundaries. In large companies you need to follow with company’s framework and do things accordingly. Some people may not like that.

When we invest in start-ups we look at the start-up owner – who is this person, what background this person has. And most likely than not we would count whether this person has a corporate background or not, because it gives a little bit more structure of clarity of thought.

I would strongly recommend Mindset by Carol Dweck. It is a fantastic book. I would also recommend Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella. And other book is Tribes by Seth Godin. These are excellent books that are worth reading.

I think it’s important to be good at the fundamentals when you’re young. When you go to college, don’t choose to an applied subject. Try to become more of a fundamentalist. You know, you learn physics, or mathematics, or core theory of economics, rather than applied economics. For engineering, maybe for example, go learn signal processing, don’t go to data science immediately, because you don’t have a proper foundation. So I think, until you get old enough, just pick one subject and dig deep, and aim to be really good at it at that level. And then if you feel like that’s not your calling, then you can actually go into more applied subjects after that. You could work for Google, or Microsoft, be part of a team. You can actually shine off of the fundamentals you learn. You cannot learn the basics when you are 26 years old. That’s usually not going to end up well, because you’re usually going to end up changing a lot things.

So even if it was going to be very painful, I would have chosen chemistry or physics or even sociology or philosophy. I would actually dig deep, because that’s the only time you get to learn your fundamentals. But you’re not learning the material itself, you’re learning how to learn. Even after college, you’re not an expert in something. But what you learn is how to learn better when you go out of school. So I think, luckily, whether I intended or not, I scratched the surface on many things, but I only learnt to dig deep in my PhD. And even then, I didn’t have very good fundamentals in anything, and that was something that I regretted a lot. If you have an opportunity and good guidance, I think that’s what you should do. Learn something really hard, and try to be a good problem solver within that range, and then you go out there and do your stuff. I’ve rarely seen people who knew what to do from college to their next job. A lot of people get confused as to what they were going to do next.

For instance, I actually have a friend – a physicist by training – who was really smart, and he’s now a banker. And a lot of people do that these days! And he actually got a second PhD because he loves being in school. He went to University of Washington for his physics PhD, and then gave up because he couldn’t solve the problem he was trying to solve. He graduated, but he didn’t manage to solve it, so he applied to another graduate school. He was 34 when he graduated! But he got a decent job, he enjoys what he’s doing – being a risk calculator for a big investment bank. And he loves doing that, because he can see how things are moving from a very different angle. Different from people with a sales background –  because they don’t know the theory, and they don’t have the insight. But this guy, in the same breadth, he’s speaking everything in terms of numbers. He has simulations running in the background, so he can predict what the immediate future will be like, and that’s because he’s so good at the modelling that he learnt.

Yeah, for advice: dig deep, and fully understand when you have the chance. Do that when you’re young, and that will equip you for the future. It’s a hard lesson that I learnt. Actually one of my mentors once told me the same thing when I was young a similar line of thinking, but I never understood – it was too abstract. I guess everyone has to have his own share of experience to get there right, I mean it’s an epiphany at some point. 

And, finally, be yourself!