By MIT CIO | May 19, 2008
Wow! Now say that thrice. This was exactly what I did when I hung up the phone after my conversation with Niraj some days ago. Niraj Patel is currently Partner at Witmer Partners, a financial consulting company. Just a few short years ago he was the CIO of GMAC Commercial Mortgage. I spoke with Niraj about his amazing career. Niraj shared his underlying philosophies that made him one of the youngest and most successful CIOs in the world. Meet Niraj Patel – presenting an exclusive conversation only on the MIT Sloan CIO Corner.
Niraj, thank you for taking the time to talk today. You have a very impressive track record including probably the title to being the world’s youngest CIO. When and where did this amazing journey start? I started my career at Unisys. This was my first job after graduating from Temple University. I spent about a year and a half at Unisys and joined GMAC Mortgage. I joined GMAC as a network resource working to integrate Unix in a Novell environment. This was a very challenging initiative and I worked very long hours. One night I heard a lady complain about some fire-drill she had to complete. The Eastern desire to help and do the right thing kicked right in. I walked over to her cubicle and asked her what the issue was. She explained that it was the end of the month and that she had to send some numbers to General Motors. I sat at her terminal, worked through the issue and figured out a temporary solution for her reporting problem. I stayed with her till the reports ran and left for the evening. The next day I got a call from the CFO and in his office was the lady I had helped the previous evening with the manager of the help desk. They recognized me for staying around and helping them resolve this issue. That was when I was first noticed and given bigger responsibilities. About 14 months later there was a re-organization and when the CFO became the CEO he gave me larger role from network analyst to leading all of operations for IT including telecom, support etc.The lessons I have for our readers is – have a genuine desire to help others, stay with them till the work is done, and be confident in that the outcomes can be accomplished.
What was it like to step into a larger role? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Soon after I moved to my role I was struck by how different the expectations on me were. It was initially difficult to break old habits and embrace a new way of working. Let me give you an example. Soon after I assumed the leadership role there was a network issue. The network analyst in me soon jumped into the issue and I started trying to resolve the outage. My CEO reminded me that I had to leverage my staff to accomplish this task and that he had bigger goals for me to accomplish. It was a lesson in getting out of my comfort zone when accepting a new set of responsibilities.
From that point onwards we moved very fast. We did a lot of first-mover changes in technology. We were the first implementor of Novell Netware 4.01 (1000 User) worldwide. We were the fourth customer on MCI’s original Frame Relay network which was known as HyperStream. Also we were the first to utilize .NET for application development. We learnt to apply new and innovative technologies, and we learnt very quickly.
When I felt something was going over my head I went to classes – for example I went to a sales force class. I did not need to be great at it but just needed enough to understand it. From the sales force class I understood how sales force compensation works and I would know better what to ask. I may never be the greatest expert but it gave me insights and vocabulary on what needs to be done.
That sounds like an absolutely exhilarating change. Where did you go from there?
GMAC formed a new division called Commercial Mortgage. For a while the technology was co-managed. A lot of times when a new team forms, the ‘established’ IT team does not provide support. I could not understand that. I maintained my relationship with the new team and helped them through the initial launch. This proactive assistance was recognized and I became VP of technology for the combined company and eventually moved to the CIO role. I grew with the company for 10 years.
What are some the lessons that aspiring CIOs and perhaps even established CIOs can take from your amazing career growth and experience?
First of all one needs to be really good at what they do. Second you need to always think from a customer’s perspective. Then one needs to learn to take calculated risks. In my case we took risks with new technologies but also made sure we got the publicity for these first mover changes. My company was very supportive in allowing me to do press releases. I had very good relations with everyone and that helped me get support for getting press coverage etc. From a personality perspective I would say be outgoing and don’t be afraid to talk to people. Ensure that you clearly articulate what you need to do and be confident in what you say. This really boils down to having conviction in yourself and do what the right thing is. I would also caution to not let the political mess get in your way.
I also learnt to fine tune myself as I worked with other executives. I learnt how to think without boundaries and do what was required when the situation demanded. I took the opportunities when they came like stepping forward when others did not want to help. This got some people complaining but in the end it benefited the company. Focus on capabilities and delivery and take on assets that others don’t take on. From my CEO I also learnt how to think without any constraints. I saw no constraints but the ones I put myself! This made me take risks… I took some extreme risks but hedged the, to make sure that the results were delivered.
Finally I would say never set personal goals in terms of compensation, hierarchy etc. Ask yourself – Did you have fun? Did you make a difference? Do the right things and the right things will happen to you. You have to let things play out the right way … you can influence something but let things happen as they do …
Niraj, can you leave us with some parting thoughts?
Know what you don’t know and how to bring people to help you to compensate for what you don’t know. When I need to compensate I do.
Take facts you have based on best of inputs from people. if you found out later it was dumb and have to change based on new facts you must have that ability to change. Take emotion out of it because things change and you need to accept it.
Ensure you have some basic skills and build on these by learning. Be outcome driven – i.e. I want you to have your own unique factor but want outcomes to be what it should be. So ask yourself “If I have no restrictions what would I do”. Then ensure that you are taking more ownership of this process … it’s your process. I always want to come to an agreement in terms of outcomes for that’s what really important. And I want you to have your signature on how the outcomes are reached – for that’s when it becomes meaningful to you.
You got to play out your destiny yourself. When I left college I did not contemplate becoming CIO, let along in 5 years. There are so many great things to do and you should see value in everything. The question really is what makes you passionate and don’t give up on value you see. Always help people deliver the value.
Thank you Niraj for inspiring us through your amazing career and life story. We hope many others will get the opportunity to meet you on the 21st at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.