Zscaler Chief Technology Officer Syam Nair describes his career journey as “planned happenstance.” He explains that by keeping an open mind, continuously learning, and building new skills, opportunities came his way along his path to a C-suite role. In fact, Syam says that he sees “a direct correlation” between his approach and maintaining a growth mindset in his current role at Zscaler.
How he got his start in technology involved a little more fate. Syam trained to become a naval officer, planning to join the Indian Navy, when a medical issue prevented him from that course. He chose an alternate path and earned a master’s degree in computer science. His first job in technology was managing a computer lab, which meant, as he says, “I ate, slept, did everything in the lab, and did everybody’s projects.”
While Syam says that he is an “accidental software engineer,” what he likes about it is the impact you can have. “Software engineering is probably one of the easiest ways to start solving customer problems,” he explains. “The amount of productivity you can affect, the impact you can have, helping customers get their jobs done more easily – that's what kept me in this profession.”
Along his career journey, Syam remained committed to his personal values when making big decisions. He describes his core values as purpose, belonging, and integrity. As he says, “I want to do something which has a good purpose, I want to do something where I have that belonging with people in terms of achieving that purpose, and I want to do something where integrity matters.” He applies those same principles to his role as a business leader today.
Key Traits for CTOs Today
According to Syam, the most important qualities for a CTO today are not that different from any other business leaders’. These are the four skills he thinks are critical for success as an executive:
- Customer obsession.
Syam believes that one of the most important things is customer obsession. He thinks that technology leaders should be able to answer, “How is technology going to make the customers’ lives easier? Or, how will it help them solve a problem?”
The second most important thing is how to build a solution at scale. “More often than not, it is not building a solution, but a solution that works at scale,” he explains. “How do you approach building it effectively and efficiently? That is the harder part.”
- Active listening.
Syam also believes in the importance of not approaching problems as if you already know the solution. He describes this as “actively listening and learning, and having a beginner's mindset to think differently.”
- Clarity of vision.
Bringing others along and making them feel included in your vision as a leader is also key, according to Syam. He says, “Having that clarity, that vision, and creating the energy so that everybody feels like they want to be on that vision… And then, empowering people to get the job done.”
Top Challenges & Opportunities for Technology Leaders
In terms of where Syam is focused now as CTO, he says, “My most important priority is to continuously delight our customers.” As he points out, happy customers in turn create more happy customers with a “force multiplier effect.” And, as the provider of a mission-critical service, he also says that “reliability and availability are essential.”
To be best-in-class, we have to be reliable and ensure the mission-critical service is always running.”
While continuously delighting customers is his top priority, Syam sees opportunities to expand their business, leveraging AI and the cloud to protect customers. On the topic of AI at an enterprise level, Syam sees opportunities for both predictive and generative AI. He says that predictive AI is “not as hyped as generative AI, but we have not yet realized the full potential of it.” Ultimately, AI will help all organizations eliminate repetitive tasks and make technology more productive.
The biggest challenges for CTOs today, in Syam’s view, range from keeping up with the fast pace of technology and cybersecurity to talent and having the right leadership in place. He points out that as technology and AI become more democratized, they are available to bad actors as well as good providers. “It's a $10 trillion productivity loss – or even financial loss – for enterprises across the world from cybersecurity incidents. How do we get ahead of that? That's one of the foremost challenges for CTOs.”
The other challenge he sees for technology leaders? Simplicity. “You can solve all of [these problems] with complex projects, complex solutions, but how do we solve a problem with simplicity?” He points out that automation is valuable, but no one wants their job to be replaced. It’s important to think about technology as “the true copilot, in terms of automating and increasing productivity, where the enterprises and their employees are continuously feeling engaged and productive.”
Energy, whether it is negative or positive, is always contagious.”
Syam leverages his personal principles and applies them to his leadership role at Zscaler. He says that the simpler you can make your vision, the better, and that the energy you bring is critical. He values diversity of thought and having at least one devil’s advocate on his team to keep the dialogue honest. He looks forward to the opportunity where the world of infrastructure, cloud, security, and AI are growing and how organizations can unite these disciplines.
Syam will be speaking to CIOs and CISOs on “Cultivating a Strong Security Culture” at the upcoming Seattle Executive Summit on December 14. Syam’s session will explore how leaders can leverage their skills to cultivate a strong security culture and foster inclusive conversations on cybersecurity throughout the organization.
Special thanks to Syam Nair and Zscaler.
by C-Level, for C-Level
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