As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need to Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sanjeev Katariya, Chief Technology Officer at InVision, the leading digital product design and development company, and has over 30 years’ experience leading and implementing global consumer and enterprise products and technologies for organizations large and small. He is a hands-on senior executive, having led diverse teams of product managers, engineers, scientists, economists, quality engineers, and infrastructure engineers. Sanjeev has managed high profile (Fortune 1000) enterprise global customer relationships, labs, services, vendors, and budgets for products worth approximately one billion dollars. An expert in artificial intelligence, Sanjeev also serves as AI and Technical Advisor to AI In Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, MIT Solve at M.I.T., the Dearborn AI Research Center at the University of Michigan and the AI governance-based Startup Credo.Ai.
Before coming to InVision, Sanjeev was the Vice President and Chief Architect of eBay AI & Platforms shipping the Marketplace product (ebay.com) and developer platform (developer.ebay.com) where he was directly responsible for the global full stack technology portfolio and all mergers and acquisitions of new technologies and businesses. Sanjeev also served as the AI leader for eBay driving the AI strategy of ebay. Before joining eBay, Sanjeev spent 24 years at Microsoft where he served as a senior executive both in managerial and individual contributor roles as part of the teams that created and shipped multi-billion-dollar products like Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Dynamics, Windows 8, Windows Server and Windows NT, MSN, MSN Search, and core Technological platforms that enabled Speech, Handwriting and text natural interfaces for all of Microsoft products. Sanjeev has over 40 patents and various publications in several diverse areas of computer science and engineering.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was 13 or 14 when I read an article about “networking computers” back when the Internet was a “educational institution” thing. I thought, wow — if people across the globe can talk and work together this could change so much.
It’s that idea — that technology can bring people together, and allow them to collaborate, no matter where they are or what their background — that has held me all these years. “Networked experiences” were the dominant theme of my early career, first from the operating systems up into the application space. That started my journey at Microsoft, from the first versions of Windows NT, to the first versions of MSN, to Web Search back in 1995. AltaVista was the first search engine that had indexed an astonishing “one million documents.” That’s nothing now, of course, but it was amazing at the time. The rest is a historical walk through time with Microsoft, LinkedIn, eBay, and now InVision.
I love engaging in things that materially change the world. I love where I am now, as InVision will change how organizations around the world build all kinds of digital experiences. It changes how people work together and collaborate. These are the basic ideas that drew me to the internet in the first place.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’ve had 30 years in this space, so there are… a lot of them. That’s a lot of time to make mistakes after all. The key is to be able to look back and laugh.
Back in 1991, a bunch of us in the Windows NT Build labs put some adult beverages in the fridge. We were on the Microsoft version of the night shift, doing the nightly build. We would spend our evenings managing the build labs, stress testing the operating systems, coding, testing, and solving algorithmic problems with great zeal. During one of those happy moments, around 12:30am, we spilled our adult beverages and nearly fried a line of build and test servers in the lab. Fortunately for us, our build lab manager knew something like this was bound to happen sooner or later and had the great foresight to surge and power protect all server racks. I’m not sure my career would have survived that night had the lab manager not had such great foresight.
Team building is incredible, and it’s important that teams like each other and celebrate with each other. But understand the limits. And one big limit is not to drink while sleep deprived while coding on expensive equipment (laughter!).
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Like you say, every person builds their career on the shoulders of the people who lifted them up. So I’ve had countless mentors and friends along the way. I want to share two who were particularly important, though, when I was just starting out.
My boss S. Somasegar (1991 — Windows NT — the very first version) was responsible for collective stress testing of the operating systems and much, much more. The hours were brutal. In one of my moments of exhaustion, I walked into his office “fed up” with the lack of work-life balance. He turned to me and very gently reminded me “You are responsible for finding that balance.” He provided me so much good advice when I worked for him, but the most important thing that he taught me that day was to take ownership and accountability for what I did and how I interacted with others.
Fast forward to 2001, when I worked for Kaifu-Lee, changing the world of Natural Interfaces. He was a Corporate VP back then, a magnetic personality, an excellent researcher himself and, more importantly, an excellent leader of other researchers. I had the pleasure as the architect and development manager for MSN Search of working with him when he was in China spinning up Microsoft Research Asia and later coming to the US to lead the Natural Interfaces Division. I remember on one of our trips landing at Beijing airport visiting MSR Asia, and being surrounded by an endless stream of students (undergrad and grad school) simply wanting to “interact with him” and hear what he had to say. Ever since then, that view has stuck in my mind and propelled me to do more, to interact with talented individuals as much as I can, and to create an environment of excellence and innovation that draws the best and brightest from all walks of life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
InVision has a mission, absolutely, and it’s one that’s critical. We believe in bringing design-driven innovation to every organization in the world. Companies and teams must collaborate better as they develop the digital products that matter so much to business and to our world. Modern products are far too complicated for any one mastermind, or even any one team, to create. Today, the work of design requires inclusive collaboration between teams, within organizations large and small. InVision works every day to ensure that people can work together effectively to create delightful customer experiences.
InVisioners believe in the transformative power of collaboration rooted in design-centric principles that allow teams to build amazing and innovative digital experiences. It has been InVision’s ethos since day one. We are devoted to it. I’m proud to play a role in this culture.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Challenges confront us all, and neither I nor the teams I’ve led are exceptions. Some of the challenges are beyond our control: market dynamics force massive pivots, core initiatives are reprioritized, strategic initiatives are sacrificed to make room for “right now” tactical priorities, and budgets get cut. As a leader, my job is to be transparent, to be honest, and to treat the people I lead with respect. That means I must tell them the “why” of a decision that negatively impacts them. Even if they do not like or agree with the “why,” they’ll at least understand it, and understanding goes a long way. Of course, I don’t always get this right and there is more to learn from every situation, but this is what every leader needs to do: take feedback and act on it in the future to improve.
Inspiration is also critical. It’s my role as a leader to keep people’s focus on their higher purpose and their end goals, even as distractions and challenges arise. They need to be invested in what they’re doing.
Finally, as I learned at Microsoft from the adult beverages in the middle of the night (smile), it’s important to celebrate wins. Achieving goals has to feel good, and a good leader is also a cheerleader — especially in difficult times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m human. Yes, there are times when it all gets to be too much. But during those times of doubt, one has to keep a couple of things forefront in mind. I remind myself of my company’s higher purpose, and why that higher purpose means so much to me.
I also remind myself about the people I count on and the people who are counting on me — people whom I genuinely care for, people who make my daily life better. They help me grow and learn, and I hope I am helping them grow and learn, too. Teammates work for each other as much as for their companies, and collective strength will always be greater than individual strength.
Finally, perspective is critical. We haven’t landed in the ER with a life-threatening condition. This too shall pass. Lean on your people to pull through the challenging times. Soon enough, you can break out of the funk and continue building the now and the future.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Stay calm and stay steadfast! If things are truly on fire, being reactive and unsteady will only turn that fire into a roaring flame. If you’re steady, though, you can remember who you are and what you value.
Once your feet are beneath you, you can inspire, lead and navigate through ambiguity transparently and collaboratively. You can be open and honest about the challenges. You can avoid saying niceties that don’t add up — niceties that ultimately insult the intelligence of people you work with.
Finally, hard times make it that much more critical to celebrate each win, each step back to equilibrium and, ultimately, to the opportunity that exists in almost every challenge.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Seek out opportunities. Stay steadfast. Tap into your people to help and then act as one unstoppable team (E Pluribus unum) — the power of many outweighs the power of one (Vulcan philosophy).
To boost morale, I try to be as open and honest as possible about the challenges a company faces, but also point to a clear objective and get people excited about achieving it. Clarity and transparency will allow people to focus on what matters and collaborate with one another. Show incremental wins and successes and celebrate them even in tough times.
Be vulnerable and inclusive, and pull in exceptional people at all levels into the leadership process, allowing them opportunities to take on more and spreading around the opportunities to shine. Connect with the organization frequently.
One of the things we introduced at InVision is celebrating our wins during All Hands through Live Demos. This gave the opportunity for the individuals who were responsible for bringing the features or technology to life had a forum to proudly share their work. This creates both inclusion and boosts morale.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and drive forward with integrity balanced with maturity and messaging that lands well and achieves the right outcomes. Count on the goodness of the team and organization to be part of the solution. Understand the talents that other people at your company have and rely on them to do their jobs. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and you will lose focus if you try.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You’re only a good planner if you’re able to follow market dynamics closely and if you’re willing to listen to informed people. Smart collaboration with experts is critical, as is seeking feedback from customers.
Here is the thing: you might need to shift priorities given shifting market dynamics. That happens. When things shift, be sure you understand what you do best and base your work on the bedrock of quality. And never shut off your capacity to learn. Particularly when things move so fast, learning will be your lifeline.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
People ALWAYS come first. So be human and humane. Invest in them, inspire them, give them the space to navigate ambiguity, make mistakes, learn, evolve. Treat them with respect and seek out their counsel. Our greatest asset in navigating turbulent waters is people’s innate, diverse characteristics; their thoughts, their approaches, their talents, their communications styles. A good leader makes the most of those, particularly during the rough patches.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Not focusing enough on taking care of their people and focusing too much on the numbers
- Prioritizing the short-term over the medium and long-term by cutting budgets to the bone leading to a gross imbalance between the tactical and strategic investments.
- Shortchanging the quality of the products you ship to make short term quotas
- Not speaking openly and honestly about challenges with employees and not letting them be part of the solution
- Finger pointing under duress. As my first boss at Microsoft taught me, it’s critical to collaborate and take ownership
This answer comes easy to me because common mistakes are just that — they are common, and we have all made them, myself included. Avoiding them can be hard and sometimes impossible, but the important thing is to seek feedback. Leaders must set out to build a culture of candor with compassion, which is an InVision principle and something we all live deeply every day.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It is extremely important for leadership teams to understand and build financial revenue plans, growth plans, investment plans, sales and marketing plans and much more — together as one team. A balanced plan requires a balanced approach, one that considers short-term needs (revenues in the here and now) and long-term needs (sustainable profitability/growth). This balanced approach creates clear OKRs (Objectives, Key Results), including tactical and strategic investments.
Leadership teams must also look for appropriate partnerships which maximize distribution of your product/product lines and provide win-win opportunities. Companies don’t have to do everything alone.
Finally, leaders should look at their technology investments and see what is really working or really critical for their team, and what isn’t serving overall objectives. Ultimately, technology needs to be about your priorities and what helps your people do their best work.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Care deeply about your people. Stay connected with the organization on what’s working and what’s the challenge. Be part of the solution, roll up your sleeves and work with them. Hands on behaviors build great teams and trust. For example, when I joined, I met with all the teams to get to know them, their technology and what they needed. I continue to have 1:1 with individuals across my org which allows me to stay connected.
- Lead with courage and conviction leveraging diversity of thought and involvement.
- Keep the focus on the prize (core business and technology focus) through incremental evolution. State it often and frequently and show wins, no matter how small, along the way.
- Always stay customer centric. Be their advocate, live and breathe their success and challenges, speak their language and represent them in what you do and how you do it.
- Always celebrate and reward excellence within your company at all levels, frequently. No win is too small, no recognition is too small.
- As a leader, be out there, be vulnerable, show you’re human and prone to error, own and correct.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There isn’t one. One quote is too limiting to reflect the enormity and complexity of life. So here are a couple that stand out for me.
“Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.”
“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”
- Henry David Thoreau
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
“No legacy is so rich as honesty”
– William Shakespeare
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
The quotes make it rather obvious how they impact what I do and how I do it. They are not easy to follow, I err and falter like every human, but strive to achieve what they state.
How can our readers further follow your work?