Puneesh Lamba, CTO of apparel manufacturing company Shahi Exports, has always been a go-getter. In his first job as a graduate engineer trainee at manufacturing conglomerate Escorts Limited, Lamba was posted in the field after only eight months of training, which otherwise took one year. He again displayed his professional strengths when, he said, “in record time of less than four years, I was promoted to area manager, a position normally acquired after working for seven to eight years.”
However, Lamba says his biggest professional achievement has been the “regular disruption of self.” It was this ability to continuously disrupt that made Lamba pivot from a career in sales to one in technology.
In a conversation with CIO India, Lamba discusses how his self-disruption and risk-taking led to better results in the IT organizations he has led and in the business outcomes at his organisations, holding lessons for other technology leaders to consider.
CIO India: You started your career with sales and marketing. Why and how did you decide to get into technology?
Lamba: While at Escorts, I was increasingly getting bored with my profile in sales.
Finally, I met the sales and marketing head and requested him to take me away from the monotonous job of selling products and growing vertically from regional manager to general manager yet doing similar things in more geographies.
Fortunately, when an opportunity presented itself in a couple of months, he remembered me. The company had decided to implement an ERP solution and was putting together a team to lead this highly significant project. So, he called back and asked me if I wanted to be a part of this team. I asked him about the details of the project, and he arranged a meeting with the consultants for my better understanding. After the meeting, I accepted the offer. That’s how my journey started in technology.
CIO India: What has been your greatest career achievement till date? Why do you rank it at the top?
Lamba: Regular disruption of self and creation of the startup ecosystem for my organisation are two achievements that I value the most.
I kept on disrupting myself whenever I started getting into a comfort zone. From sales and marketing, I moved to ERP. From there I moved to business analytics and custom apps and then into a global consulting role. Then I moved to internal IT, becoming the CIO of Bilt, a billion-dollar organisation manufacturing writing and printing paper. which was an extremely brave (and on the borderline of stupidity) move by me as it was again an unchartered space for me.
Accepting challenging assignments that other colleagues were wary to attempt had become a habit and I strongly believe that disrupting myself always kept me on my toes and prevented rustiness to creep in.
In 2016, when startups were still a new breed and companies were taking a cautious approach to work with them, I started creating an ecosystem after identifying what technologies are important for us in our roadmap. I contacted NASSCOM, the nongovernmental trade association and advocacy group focused on India’s technology industry, to share the list of startups and their solutions and services in our identified technologies. I shortlisted some startups, shared the objectives of this exercise with the business leaders, and then called in all of them one day where startups presented their solutions for us to pick and choose from.
The exercise, which started in 2016, helped us create an ecosystem for our organisation. Over the next few years, it helped us to come up with multiple solutions that enabled our company to grow, deliver faster, and remain competitive. It gave me a satisfaction of giving something back to the society by supporting small startups. Later, it also became my learning ground to keep abreast with next-gen technologies and use cases from multiple industry verticals. Also, I started mentoring some of them, and more importantly cocreating solutions with them for solving our business problems.
CIO India: As a technology leader, what was the toughest decision you took? Why does it qualify as the toughest, and what was the outcome of the decision?
Lamba: One of the toughest decisions that I took as a CIO was to choose between outsourcing the information technology activities to an IT company and shift my team to their roles or to keep everything inhouse. There were merits and pitfalls in both the approaches. While outsourcing promised a more organised, skilled, and service-level-agreement-oriented approach, keeping them in house offered more flexibility.
I had long deliberations internally and sought opinions from consultants and other CIOs. Finally, I decided to keep a hybrid approach where a few strategic roles were kept within my team and all operational and monitoring roles were outsourced to our partner.
I can safely say today that the decision paid off in creating a service organization, which functioned faster, better, and in a more economical fashion. Over the course of four years, we ended up saving more than ₹5 crores (₹50 million), besides getting a mature model for future.
CIO India: Tell us about a time when you acted on a new idea. How did you translate that idea into an action plan and eventually achieve outcomes?
Lamba: Cybersecurity has always been a challenge as the talent available on the dark side of the web is much greater and smarter than that available on the light side. The pace of innovation for hacking our systems has been outpacing the innovation in defending, and that is the reason all of us are playing catchup and are reacting to the attacks.
One of the ideas that I tried around seven years back was whitelisting instead of blacklisting. Whitelisting is the opposite of blacklisting, wherein a list of trusted entities such as websites and applications is created and allowed to function in the network.
While it was a painful and long process, which increased our own work as and when a new credential was established, it worked very well. It was a simple, back-to-basics, low-cost solution that served the organisation very well. Zero trust is actually a newer form of whitelisting and has been presented these days as an effective manner to prevent attacks.
CIO India: What would you do differently in your career if you had a chance?
Lamba: I would have probably started my own company after spending four or five years in the corporate world. I was always interested in entrepreneurship and the risks and rewards that were part of the process. Though I had many ideas, I could never get the chance and could not muster the courage to take the plunge. Those days, the only way one could start a business was by taking loan from a bank as there was no concept of crowdfunding that is available for today’s startups.
CIO India: Business and technology are evolving fast. What are you doing to keep yourself relevant for the future?
Lamba: The startup ecosystem creation process exposed me to the wonderful world of risk takers and disruptors. These were the people who were not shy of challenging the status quo and reimagining business models. It has become my biggest source of learning lately. The trends, new technology use cases, and the nuances of technology are best learnt from this brilliant tribe of professionals.
Other than that, I always had a habit of creating a learning path for myself and then completing those courses to update my repertoire. This not only helps in my own knowledge upgrade but also motivates my team to go for the courses as they have an example in front of them.
The other sources of learning for me are conferences, round tables, peers, research analysts, and consultants. These expose us to different point of views and keep us abreast of what is happening outside our industry vertical and geography.
In addition to keeping abreast of new technology, it is also important to keep updating behavioral, influencing, and leadership skills.
I follow an unorthodox method here. I have learnt a lot from books, movies, and cricket. In fact, during my days at Kellogg School of Management, some of us had this pact that we will either write a book or create video content that is entertaining as well as educating in three years from that date and will share with each other. Seven of us did that. My contribution was my book The Shankh. It was my first book and surprisingly did very well against my expectations, so now I am getting more requests to come up with its sequel from my publishers. Let’s see if I have the content in my me to take the story further.