The five-minute CIO: PK Agarwal, Northeastern University-Silicon Valley

10 Feb 2017

PK Agarwal, regional dean, Northeastern University-Silicon Valley. Image: Northeastern University

“I fear a few missteps on immigration could break this wonderful engine of innovation that is Silicon Valley,” said PK Agarwal, former CTO of California and current regional dean of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley.

Originally from Delhi, PK Agarwal is one of the most celebrated technology and academic leaders in Silicon Valley.

He is playing a pivotal role in helping the San Francisco Bay area tackle a tremendous skills challenge.

From October 2005 to April 2010, Agarwal served as former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief technology officer, a role in which he helped transform the state government’s IT system, saved taxpayers $60m through consolidation and streamlining, and raised the state’s national web ranking from number 47 in 2006 to number one in 2010.

Agarwal also held the distinction of having a US national annual award named in his honour from 2000 to 2007: the PK Agarwal Award for Leadership in Electronic Government.

Agarwal was also vice-president of Xerox, CEO of TiE Global and chairman of the board of the Future 500.

He serves on the advisory board of Sierra Ventures.

Northeastern University-Silicon Valley is the latest addition to the university’s global network, which includes the flagship campus in Boston; regional campuses in Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina; and more than 3,000 industry partners worldwide.

What were the key moments in your career that brought you to where you are today?

I had the good fortune of being in California around the time that the tech industry was born in the early 1970s. Along the way, I took a few risks but what got me really excited was the early days of the internet in the 1990s. I was so intrigued by hypertext and the computer mouse and all of these things that were happening.

Nobody had figured out e-commerce yet, and what triggered my imagination was a small book store in Palo Alto that used to be called the Future Fantasy Bookstore, which sold science fiction. The owners decided to put their catalogue online, not to take orders, but then they started to get orders from all over the world. And that store was the birthplace of internet commerce, which led to e-commerce and the services we enjoy online today.

A typical government does thousands of transactions of various sorts, from taxes to paying parking tickets, and I just started to talk about it. At the time, I was the president of the National Association of State CIOs and had a soapbox, and so as we were looking for terms, and e-commerce wasn’t even a term then – that led to e-governance over time.

I came up with the landmark of five stages of e-government, which became known as ‘PK’s Ladder’. That gave me the confidence to speak out and I started to do keynotes on the topic. A rising tide lifts all boats.

In the role of CTO of California under Schwarzenegger, what was your biggest achievement in running the IT for the state?

Essentially, the single biggest achievement in my five years managing state infrastructure was that there was no major outages or security hacks.

Nobody calls you to thank you for having 100pc uptime for the last week and nobody knows what’s happening behind the curtain.

But really, the most interesting thing is that while increasing the capacity, I managed to reduce the state expenditure for IT by $60m at that time.

I just felt it was an issue of public trust.

I observed that technology itself was getting cheaper and that was my fundamental belief. And as it gets cheaper, we are consuming a lot more of it.

One of my reasons for joining the team as CTO was that the state was getting a lot of pressure from the public, and titans of tech industry, because in 2005, California was ranked 47th out of 50 states. That was a source of some embarrassment. That was one of the reasons I spoke to Arnold and his advisors – it was about what needed to be done and my belief that I could deliver it. That was the big challenge.

I thought about back office and the things that need to happen. It took us a good four years but we did make it to number one.

It was a remarkable journey of politicking, persevering and cajoling people.

To put it in perspective, the state of California spends about $4bn a year on IT. And some of the systems are so large and time-critical. The most visible system is the public safety system – the same system that the highway patrol uses to check if a licence is valid. The number of telecoms POPs that these transactions go through, and the servers to deliver – even the large companies get very uncomfortable thinking about it.

The state of California was a huge portfolio with more than 12,000 software applications and systems to manage.

That’s a bit of the picture of the life of a CTO of a large enterprise.

In terms of leadership, what qualities make good IT leaders?

It is very much the same for every occupation. Once you have reached a certain threshold and start moving into senior leadership, you wouldn’t be considered if you didn’t have the right professional competencies. At that point, it starts to get into leadership qualities and soft skills. One of the things I learned when delivering technology programmes in the Valley [was that] integrating soft skills into every aspect of it was crucial.

My belief is that soft skills are super important, and the most interesting soft skill is selling.

It is all about selling, in a sense that it involves persuading other people to go along with you. They can never be sure what you are saying is true, and that is the risk-taking element of it; but to be an effective communicator, to make your vision clear and make it inspiring to other people, you have to be good at selling.

At Northeastern, we tell students that at some point in their professional journey, only 15pc of your success will be attributable to your hard skills; the other 85pc is attributable to soft skills. I have had some very good mentors in life and took a lot of public-speaking classes. I found an accent reduction coach and did all kinds of things. In the end, it is all about the ability to communicate and sell your ideas, and encourage people to buy in and trust you.

Changes to the visa system by the Trump administration could hit California hard. How do you feel about this?

Obviously, the events of the past few weeks have everyone in Silicon Valley extremely concerned. There is no question about it. It is not only going to affect the whole start-up scene, but [there is] also the fact that so much of the people infrastructure of tech is global in nature, from a resource standpoint. Quite frankly, Silicon Valley is the golden goose for California.

Any missteps could slow this whole thing down. There is a global race for innovation and no one can sit still, so I think everybody is very concerned.

I am hoping that our industry speaks out and some degree of sanity will prevail.

It is hard to speculate exactly, but it doesn’t feel right.

I fear a few missteps on immigration could break this wonderful engine of innovation that is Silicon Valley.

Without immigrants, can America field the number of people who can fill the tech jobs?

Using US department of labour figures, at present, we have a demand-supply gap of 400,000 in the IT workforce in the US, and it is expected to grow to 1m by 2020.

The point is that if the US is going to maintain its global competitiveness in the IT sector, and if for three years you have vacancies of 1m jobs, we have only two options at that point: you either move all of those overseas or lose your competitive edge.

There is also the question: ‘Can I take a C programmer and turn them into a machine learning scientist’? Yes, I could, if I had five or six years to do that. But when you are living in internet time, that is the challenge.

The tide of technology is so fast and furious. You need their skills and, to some extent, the market conditions take over.

I don’t believe there is an issue of displacement … it is characterised in the political scene that these people are taking American jobs. If there were plenty of qualified people, this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.

The Northeastern view, realising that we have to increase the size of the pipeline regardless of immigration visas, is that there are lots of programmes aimed at encouraging kids to code.

But while well-meaning, the outputs will only show in eight to 10 years, when these kids come through the education system and at some point, cultural forces take over – in 10th grade, a lot of girls decide IT is not cool.

One of the things we are doing that is innovative is taking people with undergrad degrees in a non-IT field who are somewhat left-brained and can deal with analytics, and giving them a pathway to a Master’s in computer science in three years, integrating it with work experience.

Another programme is an 8-week boot camp into the world of data analytics for people from non-tech fields. Universities are stepping up to these challenges, and the only way to increase the pipeline is to bring people from other disciples and see if we can move them into IT.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years