This is a candid series on product leaders making an impact across the globe. You can find more stories here.
Our guest this week is Kavita Krishnan Kamani.
She is the Principal Director of Product Management, Supply Chain Engineering at Microsoft. She started her career at Microsoft as a Software Design Engineer for ASP.NET team in 2000. Over the last two decades, she has had a breadth of experience across Microsoft’s ecosystem— from Web Services, Rule Engine and Business Workflows, Microsoft Lync (a collaboration tool), Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, OneDrive, SharePoint to Supply Chain Engineering for Microsoft Devices, Azure, Stores and Finance organizations.
She is a graduate of Delhi University with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Master of Science in Computer Science from University of Pune. She has an MBA in Technology Management from University of Washington and an Advisor for their Product Management course.
You can follow her here.
One of the things that stood out to me during my prep for this interview was that you’re a hiker! You scaled Washington state’s highest peak. What made you take up such challenges and commit to it?
I love setting goals and working towards it. It gives me immense motivation and focus. In 2017, I lost my father to cancer. Ever since his diagnosis in 2015, life was stressful and unpredictable. I made 5 trips to India in a span of 18 months all planned within minutes of a phone call. I started hiking after my dad passed away and I found being out in the mountains quite peaceful. I had tried to sit down and meditate but I tend to get fidgety so it didn’t help me. Hiking was therapeutic to me.
An opportunity came up to sign up for climbing Mount Rainier, WA’s tallest volcano and one of the most glaciated peaks in the United States. The goal gave me an opportunity to keep my mind away from personal challenges and I decided to sign up for it and take my dad’s pic to the summit with me. Since then I have been hiking and climbing regularly.
Tell us a bit about your roots.
I am a Tamilian but grew up in Delhi. My paternal grandfather was a personal assistant to former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and they moved to Delhi early on. Both my parents were working class people and coming from a lower middle class household, my parents were big on working hard and getting the best education.
It was not until my Master’s in Computer Science at University of Pune that I truly got to be independent and live in a different city. I went on to work as a Software Engineer at Novell for a brief period. I met my husband during my master’s program. He joined Microsoft in 1999 and I followed in 2000. And just like that we have completed 2 decades at Microsoft in the Pacific Northwest!
Whoa! How has the journey been for you?
Change has been constant – either initiated or the business/priorities changing – my role has changed in some way or another every couple of years, so I have never felt stagnated. I’ve contributed to our developer tools such as Visual Studio, .NET framework, where as a PM, my customers were developers. I was on the Lync team where my customers were professional users – information workers and IT administrators. When the Skype acquisition happened, we experienced a lot of cultural shifts in our approach to building collaboration tools as the teams and cultures merged. Working as a PM on platforms, client UX, mobile experiences, devices, admin experiences gave me a 360 degree experience in product management.
About 2.5 years ago, I was looking for something different to do – I talked to a leader I admired and had worked with, and came over to my current team — Core Services Engineering and Operations. It’s the part of Microsoft that manages how Microsoft runs itself. Everything from running our payroll systems, financial systems, sales and marketing engine, HR systems to our supply chain systems. The perception the team had was that it focused on execution and a typical internal focused IT team. However, there was a huge opportunity to transform this team – A lot of Microsoft’s customers were asking how we run our own internal solutions and in particular, our supply chain so they could learn from it – and that required us to think broader than just delivering on internal features, and instead build a great solution and tell the story and really think of it like we think about our external facing products.
So the team has been on that journey and I’ve been a part of it. We have two supply chains at Microsoft — one for the cloud selling services – storage and compute capacity and one for our devices such as Surface, Mouse, PC Accessories, HoloLens, Xbox etc. My team builds the software to run these supply chains end-to-end from defining bill of materials, demand and supply planning and forecasting, working with suppliers that deliver components to us within the required lead-times and with high quality following various compliance audit requirements, collaborating with third party manufacturers to build our products and getting it to distributors and warehouses, finally getting it to customers, handling their returns and exchanges and so on. It is a pretty exciting space, and critical to managing the overall cost, efficiencies and time to market.
How has the supply chain engineering priorities shifted with this new global economy? When supply and demand have become quite unpredictable for a lot of industries, how has it impacted your team?
With COVID-19 in particular, there have been a lot of disruptions, closures and geo-political tensions. We are focused on building more resiliency into our network and driving visibility and connections between what were typically silos in our supply chain. Technology plays a huge role in quickly enabling and onboarding additional nodes in managing the flow of these devices through a much more complex network. Our engineers are used to travelling to the factories before things went to mass production, and now we’ve had to build a lot of remote tools to allow them to still be productive.
Many peers who work for Microsoft keep mentioning that the leadership places a tonne of importance on workplace safety and that they do feel quite safe at work. Given it’s grown to a huge company, how does this look from your vantage point?
Microsoft genuinely believes in Diversity and Inclusion and it isn’t just a checkmark, especially under the leadership of Satya Nadella. We are building products for diverse people and so we’ve got to have diverse perspectives on the table. Leaders here are accountable to have a diverse team. Gender is one among many other aspects of diversity that we encourage here but there are other aspects of diversity as well that are about being open to broader perspectives and expressing curiosity. Our interview loops have diverse representation.
Here’s an interesting fact: We do not make an offer until we have had diverse people interviewing with us for the same position.
Microsoft makes a ton of investment in diverse communities including (but not limited to women’s groups), sponsors women’s events and has pipeline programs where school girls can come in and shadow women at Microsoft. All of these are genuine efforts to make a change at the grassroots level.
What major challenges have you tackled at work as a woman in tech?
One challenge I’ve faced is people tend to label you with colors such as red, green, blue, and yellow based on your personality and the way you work with people. As a woman, if you stand up for yourself, you could be labelled as red — meaning you are aggressive. I’ve been labelled like this and have had to watch myself – this makes a lot of women not advocate for themselves or be unsure of speaking up. I am very aware of it, and try to think actively about how I can make myself heard and contribute without coming across as “aggressive” or being labeled as so.
There is a lot of focus on allyship now, which helps others advocate and help women. For instance, we have a big focus on encouraging inclusive behaviours. So if someone has been trying to voice their ideas in a meeting and they are being interrupted or if they cannot work up the courage to speak at the right time or have their hands raised (virtually) for a long time, we make sure we hear them out and invite them in.
How have you used your role to bring up other women in your org at Microsoft? How do you make time for these things?
I definitely feel I have a big role to play at my org and help more women in their careers. I used to look up to people when I was starting out and not as confident. Now, I know many young women observe me at work and I try to help out as much as I can.
I mentor a lot of women and participate in panels for Ignite which targets grass roots efforts getting girls into STEM. I started a series called LevelUp in my org to focus on career development topics. Topics have been – how to reach out for mentorship or sponsorship, how to ask for a promotion, how to create a brand for yourself, how to pitch your idea for a GHC topic and so much more. These things take time –
one of the approaches I’ve recently adopted is to not have recurring standing meetings for these, but encourage the person reaching out to be specific about the help they want or need and I either try to help them directly or connect them to others in my network.
How does your spouse support you at home and work?
I’m someone who likes to keep myself busy doing things all the time, and he loves to chill :). Thankfully, he fully understands me and is appreciative of our differences and very encouraging for me to pursue my passions – as long as I don’t drag him into it 🙂 Since my dad passed away, my mom has also moved with us so I also have her support. I also leverage the help of a nanny with children’s activities.
There’s no such thing as doing everything – you have to prioritize what is important, and get help/delegate what you can. This is the only way to build in some time for self-care so that you can be a good professional and a good mother and wife – I definitely encourage people to carve time out for this and prioritize what is important to you and lean in to others for support.