CTO’s Role Has Already Evolved from Technologist to Leader: IBM CTO

Subram Natarajan

Chief technology officers (CTOs) have been there for years. But, as with many leadership roles in the C-suite, it has evolved significantly. Today’s CTOs are no longer confined to looking after just the technical aspects of a company. He/she is overseeing the transformation of every business process and is expected to apply technology into every areas of their business, from strategies to execution. In a recent conversation with CXOToday, Subram Natarajan, Director & CTO, Technical Sales, IBM Technology Sales, India/South Asia, talks about his career journey, the changing CTO role and the new challenges as well as the company’s tech-related India-specific plans for 2021 

CXOToday: Can you tell us a little about your journey.

Subram Natarajan: Right after my graduation, I started as a Project Engineer with Procter & Gamble and was involved in their 3090 mainframe transition. Then I moved into mainstream software development with Speedware and then Informix, working on various projects involving case tool development and testing, database replication, and kernel development. When I came to IBM as part of Informix acquisition, I worked on storage platform development, on projects like virtualization, file system development, and hardware design, etc. I moved back to India a decade and a half ago: I had the opportunity to work with client-facing roles as a core storage technologist and architect for the AP region. I also led the high-performance computing portfolio for India/SA and then moved on to managing the technical sales for all of the Hardware group. About 5 years ago, I got the opportunity to lead the technology mandate for IBM India/SA as the CTO and here I am. I have been very fortunate to have had a variety of technology roles and all of them have been tremendous learning for me.

CXOToday: As a CTO of IBM, what role do you play in the organization?

Subram Natarajan: As the CTO for India/SA, I am responsible for developing and executing the technology strategy aligning with ISA’s business goals. With the help of technical sales, architects, and the engineering garage team, I help develop platform architectures and landing them with CXOs, for transformational projects. My role also entails, helping develop cutting-edge solutions that leverage technologies such as AI/ML, Cognitive, Hybrid Cloud, Blockchain, and Security and combining the capabilities of our ecosystem partners to deliver the best-fit solution to our customers. As a technology leader, I help nurture the technical vitality of IBM India/South Asia through skilling and other professional development programs.

CXOToday: Can you share one of the most challenging moments in your role? And how did you overcome the crisis?

Subram Natarajan: There are several projects where we have to had to face challenging goals in not only developing but also delivering the solutions. And each of them provides a unique learning opportunity and adds to our experiences. In recent times, I have to say, that the pandemic had a challenging effect on all of us. This was quite complex as it impacted not only just the professional side but also the health aspects of several of us and the families. Combine that with the changing work practice of WFH, we had to make sure the team’s safety and morale are held high, while we stressing on the productivity levels. We had to change the way we interacted within our teams and with our clients. I would term this complex situation as a crisis and the goodness is that we have learned to deal with the new normal and have nicely acclimatized to the new way of fulfilling our responsibilities. Overcoming this crisis was a collective effort: everyone had a keen recognition of the situation and came up with innovative ways to address them. Overall, I think this crisis has not only helped us improve our confidence levels but our resiliency as well,

CXOToday: How do you see the CTO role evolving in recent times? How different it is from the CIO/CDO roles in the current business landscape?

Subram Natarajan: There is a clear shift in the role of a CTO to have a more business-centric view of technology. Every technology project and the decision now needs a strong business context and impact assessment and CTO plays a major role in establishing it. Fundamentally, this stems from the fact that organizations are increasingly looking to IT as a means of driving some of the business KPIs, whether it is an improvement in topline or cost reduction, or customer engagement related. And therefore CTO’s roles are evolving more as a business enabler. In my view, many organizations have either a CTO or a CIO performing the function that we just talked about. Although the classic definition differentiates CTO and CIO roles in terms of the focus (external or internal respectively), in reality, these roles are often combined.

The CDO role is somewhat different, and it is about driving the digital capabilities of the enterprise. Typically, the mandate of CDO will include driving projects to enable organizations to conduct business digitally.

CXOToday: How did the global shift to remote work accelerate interest in and adoption of new technologies such as AI, blockchain, and cloud, etc?

Subram Natarajan: Learnings from the disruption of COVID-19 have signalled a need to accelerate the investment in some of these exponential technologies – fast-tracking those mission-critical initiatives whether it is related to mainstream AI deployment, deploying intelligent workflows supported by data and demand insights, or establishing a blockchain network to facilitate digital transactions, etc. Those with the boldest vision for such projects will emerge stronger in the new tomorrow’ and get the most benefits. Not just because they will result in more/different work to do, but because they understand the transformational impact that growth combined with efficiency can deliver. One common pattern that we are seeing within various organizations is the adoption choice of these technologies. Hybrid cloud and AI projects coupled with security technologies stand out as the front runners in this regard. The reason is that the propensity for these technologies to add value to the business in the remote workplace economy is high.The pandemic has significantly accelerated the digital transformation journey of companies of all sizes and industries; what we would see happening in five or six years will now happen in a year or less. The question for enterprises is not “if” or “when” – it is “how fast”. The IT landscape in India has also leapfrogged in the last one year with emerging technologies helping clients take advantage of the data paradigm and reshape standard business models.

CXOToday: You’ve been talking about intelligent automation. What are the emerging trends in intelligent automation? How is it different from AI implementation?

Subram Natarajan: Implementing Intelligent automation is a journey in itself. To start with organizations are undertaking digitization projects targeting their operations with low-code, cloud-ready containerized automation software. Applying AI into some of these projects, (for eg., Document Understanding, Next Best Actions suggestions) has been emerging as the trend. From the platform perspective, organizations are realizing the need for a unifying control plane for intelligent automation. To achieve the scale and to ensure that the existing automation tools are accommodated, one would need a platform that is open and yet secure. Such hybrid cloud-centric platforms are being thought of as the launchpad for deploying Digital Workers, and through such initiatives, the organization can work towards a true hybrid workforce where higher levels of productivity can be realized. Unlike regular AI implementations, the AI function within intelligent automation operates within the process boundaries and has well-defined integration into automation software. Automation simplifies how businesses operate. AI accelerates innovation by making every process more intelligent.

CXOToday: In terms of its adoption, what are the existing challenges in the space? Which sectors or companies in India have adopted intelligent automation?

Subram Natarajan: More often than not, while automating some of the complex processes, challenges will be that of a combination of tools, methods, data, and the process itself. Some examples are, conversion of non-digital process inputs, ability to identify target data fields within unstructured document formats, ability to accommodate for changing rules or business logic with relative ease, generation of insights from transactional performance data within a robotized process, ability to interpret contextual understanding of instruction sets upstream of robotic activity.

All organizations, irrespective of the sector that they operate in that have a fairly large number of repetitive processes, stand to gain from Intelligent Automation. We are seeing a good lot of interest for IBM Cloud Paks for Automation that provides a complete and modular set of AI-powered automation capabilities to tackle common and complex operational challenges.

CXOToday: Can you share some of the company’s tech-related India-specific plans for 2021?

Subram Natarajan: As a core technology company, our focus is on bringing the right solution to our customers as they modernize their businesses. Our focus continues to be on Hybrid Cloud and AI as the core platform for the building of several industry solutions. One should not forget the integrated elements of security, manageability, and operational excellence that go into building every solution. Our tech plans are around developing deep expertise in these core areas and bringing value through innovative solutions.  Let me give an example of our recent launch which further strengths our Hybrid Cloud and AI strategy is IBM Cloud Satellite.  With IBM Cloud Satellite, we are extending IBM Cloud services to any environment – any public or private cloud, on-premises or at the edge – giving clients in India across industries, including telecommunications, financial services, government, healthcare, retail, and more, access to a consistent and secure set of cloud services – wherever their workload resides. With IBM Cloud Satellite, clients are able to meet essential data requirements such as data sovereignty and privacy—delivered via the IBM Cloud, the industry’s most secure and open cloud for business. We also recently announced that IBM has achieved the full Cloud Service Provider empanelment from India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY). The empanelment will enable the Indian public sector – government agencies at the central and state level, and public sector undertakings across sectors, to tap into the industry’s most secure and open cloud platform to drive innovation and growth.

CXOToday: With a lot of focus on mental health and wellbeing, how do you unwind after a hectic day? Also, how do you encourage your team to keep their cool in the job?

Subram Natarajan: Walking and exercise are time-tested means of unwinding. And I encourage the team to do the same as well. During this pandemic, quite surprisingly, a number of the team members have picked up several hobbies on their own. I make it a point to talk about them and encourage them to do more such activities.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at