Data center's desi link

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A bright red salwar kameez, big bindi, kohl-lined eyes and mangalsutra may not be the attire of choice for power women in corporate India but Jayshree Ullal, 46, senior VP, data centre, switching and security technology group, Cisco, doesn’t shying away from her Indian identity.

Ullal, amongst the three highest-ranking Indians in Cisco today, heads a business that contributes one-third to Cisco’s $33 billion revenue. Named as one of the twenty Powerful Women to Watch in 2001 by Newsweek magazine, Ullal is one of the four women on CEO John Chambers’s executive leadership team. And with age on her side, we’ll put our monies on her going to the very top at Cisco.

The data centre which Ullal heads is a critical part of a company’s IT strategy, and the rise of Internet and web-based technologies have only made it more critical. “The data centre is the spine that connects everything in an enterprise,” explains Ullal. Last month Cisco unveiled a new data centre network architecture called the Data Center version 3.0.

Cisco expects the new data centre products to improve business productivity by optimising application performance and efficiency. Take a simple application like creating a PowerPoint presentation by a team. The same file travels back and forth several times after each team member makes changes slowing down the wide area links significantly. Instead, Cisco has come up with an innovation that only mails the changes to the presentation instead of the whole file. As a result the file that took minutes to send now takes only seconds.

Last year Ullal’s unit spent $1 billion on R&D some of which went into work on new products like Data Center 3.0. Bangalore, Cisco’s second largest development centre outside San Jose, has contributed significantly in that development. Of the 3,000 employees in India, 600 work for Ullal’s division. “India contributes between 10-30 percent of our development, we are looking at increasing it to 50-80 percent. In the next few years we may move our entire switching platforms to India. The engineers here will own the product definition, development and go-to-market strategy,” says Ullal.

Ullal joined Cisco in 1993 after it acquired Crescendo Communications where she was VP marketing. Crescendo was Cisco’s first acquisition and since then it has bought over about 100 companies. “I never imagined I would stay with Cisco for so long. The beauty of this company is that it transforms and changes every two-three years so I get to work on something new and different” she says.

Ullal came to the US in the late seventies to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering from San Francisco State University and Master’s from Santa Clara University. She then worked for eleven years at AMD and Fairchild Semiconductor. “When I was at AMD and made my transition from engineering to business and marketing it was scary. For an engineer everything is black and white, in business and marketing everything is shades of gray” she says.

Ullal admits that the high tech industry is extremely competitive. “It is a constant treadmill, every year I have to grow my business by $1-2 billion. I am tough on myself and my teams,” she says. One of the ways Ullal has succeeded is by not paying too much attention to her gender. “Often the barriers constructed by women are their own,” she says. “I have been in industries where gender did matter. The semiconductor industry was much more stodgy, whereas IT and networking do not care about that too much because they are growing so fast” she says. 13 percent of VPs and above at Cisco are women.

Ullal personally credits Chambers, who she says is her mentor, for her rapid rise at Cisco. She says Chambers tried to recruit her for years when she was at Ungermann-Bass but she wouldn’t join because it was Cisco’s competitor. “He jokes that he had to buy a company to get me to join, but I more than repaid that” she says. From 1993 to 2000, she grew the Catalyst LAN switching business from zero to $7 billion.

Ullal says that she is constantly looking to hire more women managers. “I am not able to do enough because the pipeline is ridiculously small,” she says. The problem according to her starts in middle and high school because women are turned off by science and math. “Then you lose them to motherhood and their belief that they won’t be able to balance work and home” she says.

Ullal admits to taking several shortcuts in juggling work and her household duties. “I wasn’t a superwoman in all departments, we didn’t eat fresh food everyday and I couldn’t keep a clean house”, she says. There were moments when she questioned her choices. In March 2000 Ullal took a long leave to clear her head and devote more time to her two daughters. She grew restless within eight months.

“I realized that I was a better mother if I could balance work and home. Anyway I wasn’t that great a homemaker,” she says. “My mom to this day bemoans my inability to do art and needlework but I have to channel my energies into what I am good at” she says with a laugh. Chambers wouldn’t mind that at all.

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