Surya Avantsa‘s career journey strongly affirms the adage, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When he enrolled in a NIIT course in 1984 in India, with a Chemistry background, little did he know that the next four decades would be dedicated to the technology industry. Progressing through roles like Programmer, Systems Executive, Sr. Programmer, and Director, and currently serving as the founder and CTO, Surya Avantsa’s career in technology has come full circle.
Surya Avantsa firmly believes that with passion, risk-taking, creative thinking, education, support, and love for one’s work, a successful career path can be carved. A memorable moment from his past involves an entrance test for the NIIT course where the question was, “What comes from North, West, South, and East?” While most responded with “wind,” Surya Avantsa’s answer was “NEWS,” leaving a lasting impression.
This same zeal was evident when he was tasked with developing and deploying a software solution to transform employment exchanges in an Indian state in 1993. Surya Avantsa didn’t view it merely as a software project but as a digital transformation initiative, revamping outdated HR processes at a time when the term “digital transformation” didn’t exist. Remarkably, the software application endured for an impressive 28 years before modernization in 2021.
Surya Avantsa’s career journey is filled with such anecdotes, transitioning from one venture to another, from innovating and improving processes to bolstering cybersecurity for organizations. For him, each opportunity was a doorway to a new role, a new place, a new challenge, and a new avenue to learn and grow. We present to you the remarkable career journey of Surya Avantsa, packed with insights to guide you on your own journey.
Describe your career progression from the start to where you are and what were pivotal decisions, moves you made, circumstances, and other facts that facilitated your growth.
My journey in IT began in Chennai, India, where I studied Chemistry as an undergrad. I landed a job as a Medical Sales Representative at a big pharma company, earning INR 1,000 per month. But fate had other plans for me. A friend of a friend invited me to check out a computer training institute called NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology). I was young, naive, and adventurous, so I went along. I took the entrance test and aced it with flying colors. They were impressed by my creative answer to a question: “What comes from North, West, South, and East.” Apparently, most people said wind, but I said NEWS. They commented that I had a knack for thinking outside the box. They offered me a spot in their course, where they would teach System Analysis, Design, and Computer Programming in COBOL. The fee was INR 5000 (a fortune back in ’84). I had to choose between a safe and boring job vs a risky and exciting course.
Now the question is whether I spend more of my dad‘s money and do a course for which I do not know if I am going to be successful or not or take up the job at hand. A total stranger gave me valuable advice: “Do what you love for a living because you will spend most of your life doing it.” How did I know what I loved? Well, in high school, we had a course in flow charts for developing computer programs. I was fascinated by it and did well but I was sad that it was not part of the final exams. I also hated the idea of being a sales rep, waiting for hours to pitch drugs to doctors. I wanted to create something, not sell something. I followed my heart and told my Dad I wanted to do the course. He supported me and I enrolled in it. That was one of the best decisions of my life. I spent the next 38 years in IT, and I am still going strong.
The way my career journey began provides numerous valuable lessons for future generations:
- Follow Your Passion: I chose to pursue a career in IT because you were fascinated by computer programming and system design, even though I initially studied Chemistry. This shows that it’s important to follow your passion, even if it means changing your career path.
- Think Outside the Box: My creative answer during the entrance test of the computer training institute highlighted your ability to think differently. This is a crucial skill in any field, especially in IT where innovation is key.
- Take Risks: Despite having a secure job offer, I decided to take a risk and enroll in a computer programming course just to follow my passion. This demonstrates the importance of taking calculated risks to achieve your goals.
- Value of Education: Despite the high fee, I chose to invest in education to gain the necessary skills for my desired career. This underscores the value of investing in oneself through education.
- Support System: My father’s support played a crucial role in my career decision. This highlights the importance of having a strong support system when making life-changing decisions.
- Do What You Love: The advice you received, “Do what you love for a living because you will spend most of your life doing it,” is a timeless lesson for everyone. It’s important to choose a career that you love and are passionate about.
My journey is a testament to the fact that with passion, risk-taking, creative thinking, education, support, and love for what you do, one can carve out a successful career path.
In my first job, as a fledgling Programmer Trainee, I found myself in a position to make a significant impact. The organization’s client, a prominent insurance organization, was caught in a whirlwind of inefficiency by our organization. The key to their salvation lay in a simple, yet overlooked question: “What do you want?” For six long months, this pivotal question had been neglected, leading to wasted time and resources.
Undeterred by the status quo, I took the initiative to ask this crucial question. With the client’s requirements in hand, I embarked on a journey of creation. I meticulously crafted a program that not only produced their much-needed report but also paved the way for progress. This marked the end of stagnation and the beginning of advancement. We were finally able to bill the client and got awarded with another project.
I demonstrated several key traits that contributed to my career advancement:
- Initiative: I was not afraid to step up and ask the crucial question that everyone else had overlooked. This shows a willingness to take charge and lead, even in a trainee position.
- Problem-solving: I was able to identify the root cause of the problem (lack of understanding of the client’s needs) and address it by asking the right question.
- Technical skills: I was able to use my programming skills to create a solution that met the client’s needs, demonstrating their competency in my field. Even though I was taught COBOL at school, I learned HI-BASIC then and there for this project, because my employer did not purchase that compiler.
- Perseverance: Despite the ongoing issues and stagnation, I remained undeterred and focused on finding a solution.
- Impact orientation: I understood the importance of their role and its potential impact on the organization and took a small step in my career that resulted in a significant leap for the organization.
- Communication: I effectively communicated with the client to understand their requirements, which is a critical skill in any job.
Next, embarking on a journey through the dynamic landscape of technology, I transitioned from one venture to another. Each opportunity was a doorway to a new role, a new place, and new challenges. It was a thrilling ride, a rollercoaster of learning and growth, where every twist and turn introduced me to new technologies with a magnified scale of opportunities.
One of the most memorable chapters of this journey was when I took on the role of a Senior Programmer at AP Technology Services. I was entrusted with the responsibility of leading a team to create and deploy a software solution that would transform employment exchanges in a state in India. This was no ordinary task. It was a challenge that tested our mettle, but the rewards were beyond measure.
We were not just developing a software solution; we were creating a catalyst for change, a digital transformation. Our project aimed to streamline all processes of employment exchanges, keeping in mind the kind of changes that can happen in the next 5 to 10 years in legislation, and other environmental factors, Y2K, and enhancing the efficiency and transparency of the state’s labor market. But we didn’t stop there. We also revamped their business processes, elevating the quality of candidate-job matching.
The year was 1993 when we deployed this application. It stood the test of time, running efficiently for an impressive 28 years before it was modernized in 2021. Looking back, I realize that this project was not just about creating a software solution. It was about making a difference, about leaving a lasting impact. It was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of my life.
What are the key takeaways from this experience?
- Vision: I had a clear and ambitious goal of creating a software solution that would transform the employment exchanges and the labor market in a state in India. I envisioned the future needs and challenges of the project and planned accordingly and communicated this to my team.
- Responsibility: I led a team to execute the project. We were accountable for the quality and success of the software solution and the business process revamp.
- Innovation: We were not satisfied with just developing a software solution; we embarked on a journey of digital transformation. We introduced new and improved ways of streamlining the processes that in turn improved the data quality and matching the candidates with the jobs.
- Impact: We made a difference in the lives of millions of people who benefited from the software solution and the business process revamp. We left a legacy that lasted for 28 years before it was modernized. We also contributed to the development and growth of the state and the country.
In 2002, I undertook a transformative journey with the MTA Bridges and Tunnels Authority as an Embedded VB Programmer. My mission was to automate the collection of EZ Pass numbers at toll plazas when overhead antennas failed to scan the tags. However, we soon realized that our application was frequently out of service due to rising support issues, costing the agency money for every hour it was down.
Undeterred by the situation, I took it upon myself to not only address these support calls head-on but also to delve deeper into the root cause of the issues. I discovered that the applications we built and installed were being lost because end users were not regularly charging the Pocket PC.
This realization sparked a quest to devise a novel method of installing applications. I envisioned a system where the device, once recharged, would automatically reinstall the applications without any human intervention. This innovative approach successfully eliminated 90% of the hardware support issues.
The agency recognized my dedication and ingenuity, honoring me with a certificate of achievement. Let this story serve as a testament to the power of perseverance, innovation, and problem-solving. Remember, every challenge is an opportunity for growth and learning.
This experience offers several key lessons for future executives:
- Embrace Challenges: Challenges are not setbacks, but opportunities for growth and learning. When faced with a problem, don’t shy away. Instead, take it upon yourself to understand and address the issue.
- Innovation is Key: In today’s fast-paced world, innovation is not just desirable, it’s necessary. The ability to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions can significantly improve efficiency and productivity.
- Understand the Root Cause: It’s crucial to delve deeper into issues and understand their root cause. This allows you to address the problem at its source and prevent it from recurring.
- Perseverance Pays Off: Persistence and dedication are often recognized and rewarded. In this case, the agency honored the hard work with a certificate of achievement.
- Inspire Others: Your journey and achievements can serve as an inspiration for others. Share your experiences and the lessons you’ve learned to help future generations.
Setting about on a journey in the Cybersecurity space, I spearheaded a team of secure code auditors, enhancing the security of over 200 applications. We established a robust process and framework, crucial to the success of our agency’s mission. This role was a departure from my previous ones, where I was innovating and improving processes. Here, I was operating to bolster security.
How did I thrive in this distinct role? Was there a thread connecting these diverse roles? On introspection, I discovered a pattern – the ability to identify commonalities across tasks, harness transferable skills, and adapt them to new environments. Recognizing this as my forte, I embraced a multitude of roles with gusto. One such instance was when I led an HR team to recruit 33 Oracle DBAs globally for our company.
What can one learn from this?
- Adaptability: I have demonstrated the ability to adapt to different roles and responsibilities, from creating new processes to running operations to improving security posture. This adaptability is a valuable skill in any professional setting.
- Transferable Skills: I identified that I have skills that can be applied across various tasks and roles. Recognizing these skills can help you adapt to new environments and challenges.
- Leadership: Leading teams in different contexts (secure code auditors, HR recruiters, software developers, data associates) shows my capability to manage and guide others toward achieving a common goal.
- Process and Framework Implementation: Setting up processes and frameworks to achieve success in my agency’s mission indicates my strategic thinking and planning abilities.
- Recognizing Strengths: Realizing that my strength lies in seeing the commonality between various tasks and extrapolating to suit the new environment is a significant self-awareness insight. This awareness can guide your career decisions and growth.
- Global Collaboration: Hiring Oracle DBAs from across the world shows my ability to work and collaborate in a global context and my ability to negotiate salaries to benefit my employer.
Not all experiences went too well all the time. Sometimes I failed but learned valuable lessons from those experiences.
In my role as the Director of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), my responsibilities encompassed all aspects of team management, including hiring and firing decisions. However, an unexpected incident served as a stark reminder of the complex dynamics within the organization.
One day, a key member of my team was let go by a Human Resources representative without my prior knowledge. This action prompted me to question the decision-making process, as they were under my purview.
As I navigated my transition into this role, I was gradually exposed to the organization’s shadow culture, a stark contrast to what one might anticipate. My HR contacts were constantly in flux, moving on to other opportunities one after another. Amidst this change, a newly appointed HR manager took it upon herself to make decisions independently.
When I sought clarification, she found support from a Senior Director located in the same offshore building. This resulted in an unexpected power dynamic that left me at a disadvantage. The incident had an unforeseen ripple effect, leading to an adverse reaction from my manager and CEO, who was also present in that building at the time. While he acknowledged that I should have been consulted, he maintained that HR did the right thing.
This experience, while challenging, was a valuable lesson in organizational dynamics and the importance of clear communication channels. It ultimately led me to seek out new opportunities where I could apply these learnings and continue my professional journey.
These are the key takeaways from this experience:
- Resilience and Learning from Failure: Learned valuable lessons from these experiences. This ability to bounce back from failure and learn from mistakes is a crucial leadership trait.
- Responsibility and Accountability: As the RPA Director, I assumed the responsibility of hiring and firing in your department. This shows my willingness to take on important tasks and be accountable for my team.
- Communication and Conflict Resolution: When an HR person fired one of my key members without my knowledge, I sought clarification and tried to resolve the issue. This demonstrates my communication skills and my ability to handle conflict.
- Adaptability: As I was transitioning into a new role, I faced unexpected challenges due to the organization’s shadow culture. Despite this, I adapted to the situation and later moved on to other positions. This adaptability is another important leadership trait.
Remember, every experience, whether positive or negative, provides an opportunity for growth and learning.
Presently, I am working at SSV AI, LLC as the CTO. I am working on identifying intractable processes that can be solved exclusively by AI. As the leader in this organization, it is my responsibility to find the product market fit, develop, market, and sell the product and services. In this journey, I am seeing the importance of networking with industry leaders in my customer segments, finding sponsorship, technology partners, and so on.
What are some key milestones or achievements that tech executives should aim for at various stages of their career to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles?
- Are you an order taker or a problem solver? (Insurance Organization, Employment Exchanges, MTA)
- Are you going above and beyond your team, section, or department and reaching out to people and trying to help them? (Employment Exchanges, MTA)
- Are you throwing positive energy or negative energy?
- Is it about you or is it about the other person?
How important is it for tech executives to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities to advance their careers? What benefits can they derive from such relationships?
Mentorship is very important. While I provided mentorship to many others, I also had a mentor at one of my jobs. He provided some valuable insights into how to transition from a developer to an Architect role, especially from a presentation perspective of my experiences.
In your experience, what role does professional networking play in the career progression of tech executives? How can tech executives effectively build and leverage their networks?
Tech executives must invest time and effort in networking with fellow professionals not only from their tech field but also from other associated fields, such as Finance, Operations, Sales, Marketing, Legal, and so on. It is critical to form this network for the future when you want to start new ventures.
Are there any specific certifications, advanced degrees, or executive education programs that can significantly enhance the career prospects of tech executives in the tech industry? Which ones would you recommend?
In the current environment and competitive landscape, a master’s degree in managing a technology-driven firm from a university of repute is a necessity. Certificate courses and certifications in the technology areas relevant to your career are helpful too. It is not necessary to be a hands-on expert and focus on content that gives you a good overview of the technology, its use cases, strengths, and weaknesses, and future trajectory.
Can you share any examples of notable tech executives who have successfully transitioned from one role (e.g., CIO) to another (e.g., CEO) within the same organization or industry? What factors contributed to their success?
As I was doing my CTO course at the Wharton School of Executive Education, I met a cohort who was doing this course because his employer was setting him up for a promotion to a CTO role. This person has leadership experience in the past at other organizations and this course is meant to prepare him prepared for a higher role in the current organization. Others are currently CTOs in small firms but doing this course to be able to take up similar roles in larger organizations. I know another cohort who is presently working as a CIO in an organization and is doing this course as a continuation of their lifelong learning strategy to keep themselves abreast of the latest research in the C-Suite world and who I know is being promoted to a CTO role (from CIO)
How important is it for tech executives to cultivate a personal brand and establish thought leadership within the industry? What are some effective ways for tech executives to showcase their expertise and gain visibility?
A C-Suite person is supposed to have an excellent view of the internal and external matters pertaining to their industry. It is even harder to be aware of yourselves and the environment around you, in the constantly changing IT industry. So, one must maintain a personal brand around their value system and their knowledge.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring tech executives who are looking to accelerate their career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry?
All tech executives must realize that this is all about people.
- It is all a team effort. No one can perform in isolation. Behind every successful leader is a group of followers. Without those followers, no one is a leader.
- Think outside the box and operate outside your comfort zone without losing focus on the present.
- Create ties, but weak ties. Create networks around you but with structural holes.
Read more CXO Ladder stories:
Iliana Quinonez: A Career Journey that Inspires More Women in Tech
Massimo Marchi: Right Decisions Elevate Career Trajectory