An Interview with Balaji Iyer, MS, MBA

Balaji Iyer Balaji Iyer, MBA, MS
Vice President, Systems and Solutions, Comverse,
Past - Director, Product Management/Roadmap Planning, Polycom
Past - Director, Engineering, Polycom.

Balaji Iyer has 17+ years of experience in voice and video over IP industry. He presently serves as the Vice President of Systems and Solutions at Comverse, a leading global provider of telecom business solutions. Prior to joining Comverse, he worked with Polycom since 2000 and has held several leadership positions in engineering and product management driving strategies for public sector, enterprise and service provider segments. At Polycom, he focused on innovations relating to conference room and desktop devices, mobile applications and cloud based video experiences. He has a patent on instant messaging and videoconferencing. Prior to Polycom, he was Director R&D for IP telephony business unit at ECI Telecom. Balaji received his Master's degree in Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management, M.S in Computer Science from Louisiana State University and his Bachelors from Government College of Engineering, Tirunelveli. In this interview, he gives career advice to students interested in pursuing a career in fields such as Telecom, Computer Science and Management.

You started your career as a software engineer in the early 1990’s and now you are the Vice President of a multinational company. Can you talk about your journey from then to now?
Upon completion of my Master’s degree, I started my career as a software engineer with a telecommunications company. During this period, VOIP (Voice Over IP) technology was rapidly changing the face of the entire telecom infrastructure to the IP world and I saw a lot of opportunities in this area and joined a startup company specializing in the software and hardware infrastructure for IP phones. This startup company was later acquired by ECI Telecom, a telecommunication equipment manufacturer. At ECI Telecom, I led the team that was defining IP/ATM softswitch architecture. In 2000, I joined Polycom, a multinational company that sells telepresence and voice communication solutions. At Polycom, our specialization was on high end videos. We focused on creating high end video and audio experience for large conference rooms that required an immersive experience like bigger screens, better resolution and better audio technology etc. After 10+ years of work experience in the voice and video IP industry, I got my executive MBA (while working with Polycom) from Northwestern University - Kellogg School of Management. By the time I started my MBA, I was the Director of the engineering at Polycom. An MBA degree gave me the opportunity and experience required to take up a product management role as the Director of Product management and roadmap planning. In year 2011, I moved to India as the General Manager of Polycom-India where I led the India development center transformation to a full fledged end to end product group. In November 2013, I joined Comverse Technologies as the Vice President of their Systems and Solutions group. Comverse is into monetization of telecom services for the Communication Service Providers (CSP) like Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone, Verizon etc.

Your work at Comverse sounds quite different from your past work at Polycom?
Yes, you could say that. Before I worked on the actual passing of data over the video and voice over IP. Now, I am working on how to monetize the data that is being passed. It is different but still related to the telecom world and communication technology, except that I am now looking at the backend aspect of it. However, it is still very relevant to my past experience because as we go into the 4G/LTE networks, we are going to have lots and lots of videos / voice over the IP on the cell phone. 80% of the internet data traffic is going to be video in a couple of years and the CSPs are struggling to find a clever way to monetize without limiting the growth. On a 4G/LTE Data connection, we need a fair way to charge the users, because one person may be using the entire bandwidth while the other person in the same network will be using very little of it. So, people would like to pay for what they use in the network and that has not been figured out yet. In addition to data usage, there can be many services that can monetized. One model is to monetize through advertising and leave the services free like email, search and social. On the other hand, some people feel insecure about their personal information and browsing patterns being monitored out there on the internet. These are the some of the challenges that we are facing presently and unless we solve them, we will not be able to build a new infrastructure or a next generation services that are sustainable. With latest innovations in internet of things and wearable devices, we need better way to monetize new services that can be created and offered. This is why it is an exciting area to think about.

Looking back at my career trajectory, I started out as a software engineer, then I did engineering management and software architecture for a while, then moved to do some project management. During my MBA, I got into product management where I worked on creating product strategy, roadmap planning and pricing strategy. For the past couple of years, I have been doing general management work like building high-performance teams, innovation and setting vision direction for R&D units in India. This is very important because most software companies built for services and we generally look for direction from HQ in North America or Europe. India has tremendous talent and it is time that we start to think differently and build our own core R&D products in India. I am happy to say that there are several companies that are starting to do it in the past few years.

India has long been known as a global software service provider but on the innovation front, there has been very little development. Now that more and more companies are doing core R&D work in India, it looks like as if things are finally picking up momentum in the innovation and development section. Can you talk about the progress India has been making on this front?
Any company creating jobs in India is good for us. Due to companies like TCS, Wipro and CTS, thousands of jobs have been created in India and it has changed the economy of the nation. They took the initiative back in the 1990s and did whatever they could to create jobs in India, which is wonderful. These companies will continue to exist but it is time that we start focusing more on innovation development as well. We now have to use this as a platform to build the next generation of value creation. We have superlative talent in India. There are lots of new startups that are upcoming in India like Flipkart, InterviewStreet, InMobi, iKen Solutions etc. Also, there is a lot of positive change happening in the R&D section as well. Big companies like Cisco, Juniper, Adobe, and Qualcomm are now doing core R&D work in India. These companies make some their products completely conceived and developed from India. For example, at Intuit, a product called Fasal, they inform the farmers with personalized information on their mobile phones through SMS about the latest best prices for their crop and the buyer information. This service makes farmers to make better business decisions. They use additional revenue to better educate themselves and to make better investment decisions. So, these are ways in which we can change India through technology and innovation. Presently, 45% of the world’s top 500 R&D spenders invest in India, so there is a lot of R&D work going on with people investing money. Polycom has signed an MoU with IIIT, Hyderabad to set up an R&D center in order to work with the students of IIIT. So, innovation is not just about working within your company's R&D team, it is about creating an ecosystem of universities, institutions, labs and companies working together to create great value and products. This system is well established in the United States but yet to find a strong foothold in India. We still need to make it easier for startup companies to come up by making it easier in terms of investment and government regulations etc. Changes will take time but they are happening and we are moving in the right direction.

You did an executive MBA after 10+ years of work experience. Was getting an MBA always at the back of your mind or something that you felt was necessary for your career at a later stage in your life?
If you are keen on doing an MBA, an ideal time would be after 5 to 6 years of work experience in your core field. I did not take that route due to personal reasons but I was always sure of doing an MBA somewhere along the line. When I decided to do my MBA, I had already established myself pretty well and wanted to understand how the business side of things work. An MBA will be help you understand the bigger picture. I will always be an engineer at heart but understanding the bigger picture puts things in context and actually made me a better engineer. As you grow in an organization and move to higher level positions, it is very important to understand business and management. Having a firm grasp of both engineering and business side, has made me a better manager today. After my engineering career, I was in product management for a couple of years and now my role is that of a general manager of product development center. Doing MBA has been very useful for my career. However, none of this was planned during my MBA. I decided to do an MBA in order to understand the bigger picture of how organizations work, not just to be a general manager. The opportunity came along, I took it and I am very grateful for that.

Unfortunately, MBA is very expensive, especially when you do it in USA or UK. Do you think an MBA is imperative in order to understand business and management?
Is an MBA necessary to understand how the business side of things work? Absolutely not. There are many people who do not have an MBA but have very good business acumen and insight into the world of business. But some people require a formal education to understand things better. A formal education accelerates learning and understanding of the business world. Yes, it is expensive especially if you want to do an MBA in the United States or Europe. I certainly found value in my degree but I can’t speak for everyone else. All MBAs are not created equal. There are people with an MBA degree who possess poor business acumen. So, it all depends upon your interests. You have to do your research and make a call on whether it will be of worth to you or not depending on what career path you have chosen. But, I wouldn’t say it is absolutely necessary.

Students usually do their MBA following their undergraduate degree or after a few years of work experience. When do you think is the ideal time to pursue a management degree?
If you are an engineer and looking to make a career change to product management or marketing strategy, then a good time to do an MBA would be after 4 - 5 years of work experience as this will give you enough time to develop a strong foundation in your core work area. Then, you have people like me who are experienced professionals with 10+ years of work experience. I was not looking for a career change, I was just trying to understand the big picture so I could do a better job at my work and be a better manager. So, I decided to apply for the executive MBA program. All my classmates at the executive MBA program had similar profiles to mine with 10+ years of work experience. So, it all depends on what you want to do with your career. If you are looking for a career change, then do an MBA in 4-5 years but if you are looking for just an enhancement of your chosen career path then establish yourself within a period of 10-15 years and then do an executive MBA.

Do you think an MBA from the IIMs or ISB is as good as an MBA from reputed institutions in the United States or the United Kingdom?
I have met and interacted with many management professors at ISB and the IIMs and I found all of them to be equally capable and smart as the professors at Kellogg. ISB and the IIMs are highly revered and there are some excellent professors there. If you get into these schools, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be on par with the graduates in the top schools abroad. Yes, the exposure is better, the placements are more impressive because most companies based out of the United States will prefer to hire their own students as opposed to coming to India and hiring students here. So, if your goal is to work in the United States, then do your MBA from the US. But, do remember that many students from the IIMs and ISB do get placed abroad but your chances of working in the United States will be higher if you graduate from an american university. So, you need to make the decision based on you want. I did my MBA from Kellogg because at that time I was living in the United States. If I had moved to India before that, then I would have done my executive MBA from ISB or IIM.

In India, we have always given tremendous importance to things like getting admission into prestigious institutions both for undergraduate and graduate studies, getting high scores in board exams and in college, doing a Master’s degree or MBA (irrespective of whether you want it or not) right after your B.Tech and this longstanding obsession with engineering degrees. What do you think about this whole mindset?
Again, it all depends on what you want to do in life. Graduating from a big university with great grades positions you to a lot of options, it opens a lot of doors for you. But, it is just a means to an end, not the end itself. Companies like Google, Facebook recruit students from the IIT’s and NIT’s through campus placements but they don’t come to all universities across India. Universities like Stanford or Oxford are well aware of the quality of students from IIT’s and would prefer to admit them as opposed to a class topper from a relatively unknown university in India. That’s how the system works when it comes to recruiting at the undergraduate level in India. But, if you look at the job statistics in the United States, it is not necessary that you have to graduate from a top notch university in order to join Google or Microsoft. You can do your master’s or undergrad from any university in the United States but as long as you are great at your work, you will get a chance to work in these places. Yes, graduating from a big university definitely helps in terms of recognition, developing networks and contacts. But once you get a job in these places, you will be treated equally. No one is going to treat you differently based on where you come from. Irrespective of where you come from, you will have to prove yourself through your work. Everyone is the same in an organization and it is your performance that matters the most. There was a time when I was working with 3 people for a particular project. Two of them were from MIT and Stanford and the third guy used to flip burgers before getting into computer programming. Guess who was my best performer? It was the guy who used to flip burgers. He ended up doing very well for himself and is presently the leader for software architects. It is what you contribute at work that matters more than your degree or grades. You need to make your decisions based on your goals. If you aspire to join Google R&D right out of undergraduate studies, then aim for the IITs, BITS or NITs. If you are doing your undergraduation from a lesser known university in India and your aim is to work for Google in the United States, then go for a master’s degree and work hard at it. That’s one of the ways to go about planning your career. Also, there is a new trend with engineering graduates from top schools both in US and India to work for start up companies where they get to learn and express their creativity better. I once talked to a HR person from Google, he told me that their biggest threat of losing people is to start-up companies.

Which area do you think is upcoming and will produce a lot of job opportunities in the coming few years in computer science, telecom etc?
Mobile computing will continue to dominate the market because of the LTE/4G and increasingly powerful processing power in the smart phones. In addition to that, the next biggest thing, in my opinion, will be wearable devices like the google glass, Big Data Analytics and Internet of things. Everything in your house will be connected to the internet, be it your car, fridge, alarm clock or watch. Your bandwidth and IP addresses are set to increase. Twenty years ago, there was just one IP address for every home with a personal computer. Now, everything will become internet enabled with IPv6. So, internet of things and wearable devices will provide the services and the 4G/LTE will provide the bandwidth required. I will recommend that students look into these areas as there will be a lot of development and job opportunities in the near future.

What advice would you give to young students of the present generation?
I would suggest that they set a very high bar for themselves. It is important that students set big audacious goals and let go of preconceived notions like not being good enough to achieve those goals. In India, there is this widespread mentality that if you are not from a prestigious institution or from big city, get low scores in one of the board exams, then you cannot succeed in life. I totally disagree with that and I have seen lot of incidents to prove it. Never let other people tell you what you can do and what you cannot do and set your limit. During my undergraduate student days, I was the only student in my college to write the GRE. Nobody in my class thought about going to United States for higher studies at that time. I took a big risk and decided to pursue my master’s degree in the United States in early 1990s. It wasn't easy, but I persisted and worked hard and luck favored. So, never say that this is where I am coming from so I cannot do certain things. Anything can be achieved if you work hard. Keep a high bar for yourself, make big goals, dream big and keep working at it and you will be amazed by what you can get done. Please note big goals does not mean making lot of money but real value creation to society. Money follows achievements and success but it is never the goal. India is full of amazing talent and there are lots of brilliant students from every small village. We need to stop fearing, let go of herd mentality and step out of our comfort zones. In order to realize our full potential, we need to start acting like leaders and so that one day we can become one. Being leaders means, having very high bar for our work output, commitment to excellence in everything we do and passionate adherence to our values of integrity and honesty.