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A transformation leader challenges the status quo

Aparna Sharma

Cloud transformation leader

IBM Consulting

From adrenaline sports to cultural expectations, Aparna Sharma loves to push the boundaries. It’s an attitude and perspective she brings to her work, helping companies break through business-as-usual to transform, modernize and thrive. An engineer by training and now the managing partner for Hybrid Cloud Transformation at IBM, Sharma challenges her teams to think creatively about every engagement. It’s not just about “upgrading.” It’s about having the vision to imagine entirely new ways of working and delivering new experiences and outcomes.

Okay, tell me a little about yourself? What’s your background?

I was born in India. My father had a transferable job, and so I grew up in different parts of India. Then I got into engineering school, and I went to Kanpur. I did my engineering in computer science. It wasn’t that common — I was probably the only girl in a thousand boys. Challenging the status quo and channelizing it to do different things, to push the boundaries, to create new things — I just love doing that.

My first job took me to Germany. It was too cold for me, both climate-wise as well as culturally, at the time. I was like, “Okay. What’s the best place for a technologist to go? Silicon Valley, California.” For 24 years now, Silicon Valley has been home for me.

I know your job title, but what do you do?

I run a large business for IBM. It’s part of IBM Consulting. We are helping our clients leverage technology. We build new things for them, build new platforms for them, build new applications for them, and help them digitally transform their companies. That’s what we do.

And, at a basic level, what is hybrid cloud transformation? What does that mean?

Some of these enterprises — large insurance companies, large banks, large telcos — still rely on mainframes. Whether it’s filing your taxes or making an airline reservation, it’s all running on the mainframe. Mainframes are these super-specialized computers that have been doing a lot of the heavy lifting, that have been the horsepower for our technology industry for just about 60 years. They’re very powerful machines. They process a lot of transactions — millions of transactions a second.

In the last 10 years cloud has picked up. Cloud is where you can do a lot of compute, a lot of processing in real time, with new capabilities such as 5G or IOT or AI, and so on. Now our clients are trying to figure out, “How do I blend the two? What does that hybrid architecture look like?” That’s what we help our clients with.

It’s a really creative process. A lot of times our clients don’t know exactly what they want to deliver. They want the creativity from us, from our designers, from our technologists.

So they can’t just move everything to the cloud?

Because these are mission-critical applications, core applications, they can’t afford for them to go down. The mainframes have less than three minutes of downtime in a year. While cloud technology has really matured, enterprises still want to leverage the investments they have made in their on-prem and mainframe systems and drive “fit for purpose” workloads across multiple platforms.

And mainframes are still innovating. For example, earlier in April we launched the next generation of the mainframe. It’s known as z16. The z16 is one powerful beast. Not just in terms of everything that it offers with respect to security resilience and processing millions of transactions a second, but also now it has modern technologies infused in it — you can do AI for some complex use cases on the platform and that reduces latency and improves both performance and scalability.

What does creativity mean to you, in this context?

I define creativity in two ways. I’m bringing creativity every day to these client engagements, always asking myself, “How are you using all of these different technologies?” But technology is just one aspect. More importantly, how do you identify new problems, and new use cases, and give new experiences? That is creatively bringing new value, new experiences to our clients.

The second creative process is the business of creating business. Identifying problems — customer pain points — and helping launch new capabilities and building out new business for IBM. You’re helping clients, but then you’re seeing patterns. You’re seeing that these are common problems. How do I step back and build a methodology, or build an asset, or build a capability, or build an offering to be able to provide a solution, not just for one or two or five clients, but for a thousand clients?

Why do you do it? What keeps you motivated?

I just love my job. Apart from technology and innovation, the other aspect is people. Interacting, collaborating, solving problems with a large set of people, whether it’s our people in IBM or it’s our clients; doing that together. That really energizes me as a people person.

I think the biggest satisfaction is the impact that we make for our clients. We all know the stories of the Kodaks of the world, or the Blockbusters of the world. More and more large enterprises are perishing if they’re not able to innovate. Personally, for me, if we are able to bring in that innovation, bring in that creativity, bring in that transformation — not just help them survive but thrive — and really drive leadership in their segment, that brings more satisfaction than anything else.

Big picture, where do you see your work leading?

I think as we age and grow, we care about certain things in terms of ... not commercially, but also how technology is helping humans at large, society at large. That brings a very different type of satisfaction.

For example, connectivity. If you think about connectivity and internet access, that’s a fundamental right. But there’s a very big population in the world that does not have that connectivity, does not have access to information that you and I take for granted. This has caused a digital divide between haves and have nots. To be able to provide connectivity across the world to a wider population, that’s a problem worth solving.

Similarly, I think of what is happening from a sustainability standpoint. How are you storing energy? How are you harvesting rain water, or doing water desalination, or carbon appropriation, right? When we are working on those projects, that becomes even more exciting, because the outcome is not just for business; it affects us as humans, as society at large.

What’s something surprising about you that maybe a lot of people don’t know?

A lot of people are surprised when I share with them how much I love some of the adventure sports. They’re absolutely surprised when I tell them about bungee jumping, white water rafting, or zip lining — or sky diving.

The butterflies in your stomach just before you jump, feeling that weightlessness, feeling that you’re free, you’re a bird. We are in planes all the time, but that’s a very constrained view. When there’s nothing around you and you’re able to get the full aerial view, it’s unlike anything else.

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