More women should realise their potential to start their own ventures, says IBM’s Shalini Kapoor
If the naysayers had their way, Shalini Kapoor would never have become an engineer. Growing up at a time
where women were told that they were more ‘naturally suited to being doctors’, Shalini, who is Director
Watson IoT (Internet of Things) and Education at IBM India, says her love for maths and science drove
her to appear for the engineering entrance exam, which she passed with flying colours. Despite not
knowing much about computer science, her love for challenges made her determined to pursue the subject.
What finally tilted the balance in her favour was a professor telling her father that students of Computer
Science (which she had opted for) sat in air-conditioned rooms, and not on the shop floor. However,
it would be another year before she saw her first computer.
Today, she leads engineering, support and services teams that are driving the architecture of new IoT
solutions for ecosystem partners including IBM's Global System Integrators, and the development of
new IoT Solutions and apps.
In a career that spans over 17 years at IBM, Shalini, who also holds a Masters in Information Management
from S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, has worked in multiple capacities. Starting
as a pre-sales architect, she was tasked with designing software solutions for customers.
“I was based out of Mumbai where I worked with multiple clients in the banking industry . It was a great
exposure as the city is the banking hub. I then moved to Chennai as my husband was transferred. Through
IBM, I started working with Global System Integrators like TCS, Wipro, Infosys and Cognizant. That’s
when I realised the critical role architects play along with systems integrators in recommending technical
solutions to global clients,” says Shalini.
She tirelessly worked to set up a new mission of Global System Integrators, and within five to six years,
they became key influencers for deals across all industry sectors. Along the way, she became a mother
to two boys, and optimized her maternity breaks to prepare for IBM certifications to become the first
woman Senior Certified Architect in IBM India.
Evolving with the times
After 10 years at IBM, Shalini moved to a completely new area – research. “IBM Research was a completely
different experience. Here, we were not just conceptualising, it was the stage that preceded that,
when we were seeding thoughts on what technology will be needed by various products and services in
the future. It was a very exciting journey for me. After completing two years in research where I focused
on anticipating the needs and future initiatives for emerging markets, I started my initial work on
She later moved to the India Software Labs team where she could implement those ideas. “I was one of
the first few people in this space, and had studied customer requirements. So I could help define what
products they would need,” she says.
It was also a time when she started working with several device and ecosystem partners and the end solutions
started taking some shape.
Rewriting the recipe for success
One of the key innovations Shalini has pioneered
is the concept of IoT recipes. “IoT involves connecting many devices and there are so many heterogeneous
protocols, firmware and applications on one device itself, and you are expected to connect to all of
them. We were creating an IoT platform and the challenge was understanding how to harmonise the entire
market and ensure that we connect different components to each other. I founded the concept of IoT
recipes (a developer-friendly mechanism of integrating devices, gateways, applications, and platforms
to Watson IoT platform on IBM Bluemix) and made it Open Source, so that any developer across the world
interested in connecting the device could download it from Git Hub (a web-based hosting service for
version control mostly used for computer code.) and use it.” The momentum has grown and IBM developerworks
now host close to 800+ recipes. . “We also provided client libraries which made the whole path easy
for a developer. There has been a lot of interest from within the ecosystem. Today, when clients say
they have a set of devices, and ask how easy it would be to connect them, we tell them it takes less
than two to three days and that they can even do it themselves,” she says.
Smarter education for a truly digital India
One of the areas where Shalini would
like to see growth is in education, and Watson Education is investing a lot in this space. “We are
using Watson technologies to transform education and make it more personalised."
They also work with several startups which are playing a greater role in education and the growth of
IoT. “There is a great need for innovative products that can hit the market fast. There are a few cloud
platforms that exist, but how do you apply them to the domain, be it in medicine or agiculture? There
is so much scope. According to industry estimates the largest number of startups are in the IoT space
in India. There is also a lot happening in the education space and Watson is aiding that. You can scale
to x, but if you want to scale to 10x, you need cognitive tutors, and that is what we provide."
The evolving demographics of technology
She says that there are more women in technology
today than when she first joined. “It’s a funnel effect as there are more women graduating. In my time,
we were only 25 women in a batch of 150, which is not a bad number. But things are different now. Today,
it’s nearly 50-50. But once women enter the workforce, organisations must support their growth at various
stages. IBM does this, and offers so much flexibility. It’s not just about the perks you give, but
the culture you create. The biases are still there, but you have to repeatedly do gender sensitisation
to reinforce a conducive culture.”
As a member of the Chamber of Indian Industry’s (CII) IoT core working group, Shalini works with industry
leaders on designing India’s IoT policies. She says she has seen that while there are several women
who are influencing decisions at CII, the numbers are fewer compared to the men.
The trillion-dollar journey with IoT and IBM
With our economy growing rapidly,
there is a greater need than ever for connectivity for us to grow into a trillion-dollar digital economy.
"With cities getting smarter, the demands on the infrastructure are increasing and technology is key
to keep up the pace. That’s where IoT comes in, and the potential is huge. For IBM, this is a huge
opportunity. The India market is growing well for us and cognitive technologies are going to percolate
across the board," she says.
As an advisor to NASSCOM’s IoT startup hub where she advises and mentors several startups, she wishes
she would see more women starting their own ventures as the economy opens up. "We see a lot of people
coming in to pitch to us, and I don’t see a lot of women there. I don’t think it’s about taking risks,
but about women not realising their potential."
Striking a balance
Shalini also works with underprivileged school children and
has founded an NGO, Ankurit Foundation. In 2014, they organised Escape Velocity, a first-of-its-kind
fair for school children where over 3,000 children got to try technologies hands-on. The effort was
supported and funded by companies such as IBM, Dell, Microsoft Research, Xerox Research, TATA Steel
and Cisco. “This is the best time to spark that interest in technology in children. You stimulate that
curiosity and let them see first-hand how things happen,” she says.
She spends all her free time with her kids. A runner, and someone who enjoys yoga, Shalini recently started
training again in Kathak after a not so fruitful interlude as a child. She even writes skits for children
for their annual community events…and all this when she is not helping build the future, one connected
device at a time.