CDO to CDO Podcast: Asha Poulose Johnson - Part 2

March 4, 2021 Chris Knerr

The CDO to CDO podcast is hosted by Chris Knerr, Chief Digital Officer of Syniti.




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Chris Knerr (00:04):

Welcome back. I'm Chris Knerr, chief digital officer of Syniti, a world leader in enterprise data software. Very pleased to welcome you back to part two of my interview with Asha Poulose Johnson, VP and global CIO of analytics at GE Healthcare. In part two, let's talk more about your growth as a leader in this space and how that fits into some evolution that's happened over at GE in the course of your career there. So one thing I think would be very interesting, if you can share, if I understand correctly, you have a global role, but you've always been based in India. How common is that within the industry or within GE, are there some particular challenges or points of interest that you'd share on your growth as a leader for a multinational company, but based out of India?


Asha Poulose Johnson (01:02):

Yeah, I think that's a great question, Chris. So, like I mentioned in the first part, I have been with GE for 20 years and I've had the great opportunity to start as a developer, and now in the position that I am in, which is a global role to lead data analytics for GE Healthcare on the enterprise side. So if I look at this 20 year journey, I think a few things that have truly enabled me with this, the one is obviously the whole company itself, a big believer in diversity and inclusion and also on meritocracy, has been a huge enabler to that. I've had the opportunity to work in different roles in different businesses and develop deep expertise and also a lot of context. What has really helped me?


Two, three things I think has helped me in my career, is one thing is definitely, I was blessed with some good problem-solving skills. And my engineering background, I have a Master's in engineering from IIT Bombay, actually helped me to just a little bit. But that's just the starting point, right? Then when you come into your career, I spent the first few years in the research center, that really helped build that problem-solving and curious mindset quite a bit.


From there, I went on to roles which were either in technology, or in partnering with businesses to solve difficult problems. I think the one thing that has really helped me, is not to just stay in one domain and try to navigate without really having to leave the company. That's something that GE offered to me, with the various businesses that they have in India, in Bangalore, because I really did not want to move or relocate. I had several opportunities to relocate to other parts of the world as part of my career, but I chose not to do so, because of personal reasons. But really did not become a barrier for me in my career growth.


I went after experiences in developing overall, I would say, capabilities. Sometimes I took risks with my career. Some of them worked, some of them really did not work that well. But I think, also what helped, is a series of great leaders that we had within the company, who are good coaches, mentors, very good global leaders, who I had the opportunity to work with, who were also big sponsors and supporters of my career. Eventually, I do believe in technology, I'm deep down a technologist. I spent a lot of time in staying current, participating in forums like this and sharing knowledge. I do a lot of work with the young talent coming out of colleges, which helps me learn a lot from them as to what is happening in the industry. Because I am in a space which is constantly evolving every single day and to be doing well in your career, staying on top of that is very important.


The other part that I have learned, is also to do a lot of good practices around relationships and people, and that really helps you navigate and grow within the company. So I would say part of it was the culture of GE, what it offers you, but it offers that to everybody. Part of it is how do you take advantage of the global nature of the company, create relationships have the courage to go and ask for the tough jobs sometimes, fail sometimes and be okay with it, and then just move on.


So that were some of the things that I think at least worked for me. I think it would be amiss of me, if I did not say the great support I have from my family, who are big cheerleaders for me in this, sometimes, very challenging role, especially when you are in a global role and your day and night all gets mixed up so many times. They have been big cheerleaders for me. So that's been a big, positive, and a big blessing for me as well.


Chris Knerr (05:02):

That's terrific to hear. Thank you, just so sometimes towards the end of these interviews, I ask leaders what advice they have for people coming up in their career. And I think that the key points that you just shared, are just so important and maybe just to play a couple of them back. I love working with people who've shifted back and forth between business-facing and more technical roles, because it really gives you a unique perspective. I think working in different businesses, being willing to sign up for the harder thing. I got advice early in my career, when I was choosing between two different roles. One of the best questions is, "Which one makes you more nervous?" Take that one.


And so I think, a kindred approach to that and just thinking about that. So that's really interesting. So, on a related note, at one point in your career, you took on a major, additional leadership role, focused on diversity and inclusion, and I think the audience would really love to hear about what that was like, what you learned from that? It's something that's obviously a huge challenge in the technology industry overall, and what did you learn from that and how you were able to help, I'll say, advance the game in terms of diversity and inclusion within GE?


Asha Poulose Johnson (06:38):

Yeah, no, that's a great question. Thank you for asking that question. I'll be very honest, being a technologist, you are in love with technology most of the time. You don't really think of yourself as a man or a woman and all of that. So until I was, I think, very senior in my career, people used to tell me, "Hey, you should probably get into different diversity initiatives. You're successful, you can help others." I don't think I took it very seriously. Maybe that's something I would have gone back and changed, if I had an opportunity. But at some point I did feel that it's something that I need to give back and do something about it. So that's how it started.


And my whole perspective was it's going to be me, going to be the giver and others are going to be the takers. But what I soon found out, as I started getting into many of these initiatives and starting to hear from people about how they have overcome many biases and other things and grown in their careers, even small or big, and defining what success means to you, I actually learned a lot. It helped me, I used to be a good technologist, but it also made me a better leader and a better people-leader. As I tried to understand really diverse perspectives and worked with many women to get them interested in long technology careers.


But one of the things I was seeing, is that we have, we, India as a country, we have 50-50% of engineering graduates who are men and women, who pass out from their engineering degree. But as we go through our careers, we see less and less women in technology roles. Part of that is because when you have children and other family commitments, you don't want to do technology roles, because technology has moved on, unlike some of the other management functions, where the nature of change is much lesser. So I did try to work, and try to find and help in ways how people can stay current on technology. Being active on social networks. Even when you are not really fully working, and I actually did some of that when I had my kids, and I had to take time off and all of that.


I also coached, and like I said, I worked with a lot of young talent, because I learn from them more than probably I learn from books or other materials. This is a very new generation. I'm just amazed by how well they have adapted to situations like COVID. They're very digitally, much more than what we can, and it's a big strength of them. So some of these things are lessons I learned, and I was able to really help alleviate that fear, "That if I choose a technology career, I don't have a career after some time," which is a big fear I see in some women, by working with them or giving them examples and all of that.


The other thing that I think I'd have done a lot of, which I found, is a lot of diversity initiatives are actually not about women, but having the men and women partner in making the diversity initiatives successful. Because end of the day, the decision-makers, whether we like it or not, in most scenarios are men. So unless they believe in this whole agenda, it's going to be very difficult for us to make progress. So that's a lesson that I learned as well, because I used to think this is all about women or something like that. Which it is not. I think those were the two things that I really learned and I contributed, which I think are sustaining. I continue to support that initiative, even though I'm not in the forefront of that. So like I said, I thought I was going to give something. But I learned so much, and I got so much back from the time that I spent on those initiatives.


Chris Knerr (10:24):

I think that's wonderful Asha, and some great insights in there. And I've done some teaching over the years and I had the same thought, that I was just giving, and I ended up learning so much by doing it. But I think he have a couple of really important observations around what we can do in technology and data and analytics to support diversity. And in particular, women's inclusion, is not take for granted some of the things that are perceived as structural limitations and really provide that coaching and support so that we can over time reduce the problem. And the statistics very much bear this out, is that people advance in their career, and then the senior people become less and less diverse over time.


Then of course that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I think that the work that you did, to start thinking about how can we think about perceived structural limitations in a different way, so that they're not limitations, but in a way actually opportunities. And then provide, I think, it's actually psychological and emotional support for emerging women leaders in technology fields. Then I very much agree with your point too, on this isn't about women doing it versus men. We've had a lot of very interesting discussions in our company and in the industry, related to some of what's going on in the United States about allyship. I think this concept of allyship, if you're the non-diverse leader, is super important and something that all of us need to take very seriously.


I agree with you that that's going to be part of a key to unlocking this over time. So, on that note, just a couple of things, a lot of conversations that I have with CIOs, chief data officers, technology leaders, if you ask them what they're worried about, usually on their top three, is talent. So two part-question, again, just because I like those. Do you think there's a talent crisis, call it a supply-demand imbalance, particularly in the field of data and analytics. And then on the diversity front, do you think we're getting better or staying the same? I guess, I have a hypothesis that if we did better on diversity, to the extent we have a talent crisis, it would be less of a crisis. So I'm, you've really been deep into this, in an interesting context. So I'm very interested on your view on that set of issues.


Asha Poulose Johnson (13:21):

Yeah. I have a very, little bit of a different perspective on this topic. When we look at talent in the technology industry, there is a constant observation that I have. In a lot of these, the needs for technology, is around problem-solving. So I think if we, the first thing that we need to do, and we actually do in a lot of our education system, is to teach people to problem-solve. That's the first thing. The second thing is technology is changing so fast. I think it's the fundamentals that matter. Today, like for example, in our world, right now, we do more functional programming. Earlier, we were doing, different way of looking at data. But end of the day, it is just a top layer on the coding-part that is keeping on changing. But the basics of how technology works, has not dramatically really changed over the period of time.


So the point I'm trying to make, is some of this gap is because we are not really trying to think out of the box in how do we use talent, and how do we develop talent, by investing in primarily problem-solving and some basic technical skills, and then use this talent in multiple ways, by doing some top-of training or other things. So if you look at that population that's available, that's much more massive than what you would traditionally consider as technology talent, right? So that's one reason that we feel a gap.


It's literally like economics, it's the gap between the producer and the consumer. What the consumer wants, is not what the producer is producing. So how do you actually tune what the producer is producing, to tune the need of the consumer to that. And I think a lot of this talent gap can go away. Because I see a lot of employment in many countries, including mine, with very good talent, and we continue to say, "We have a talent gap." So I think that's something, if as an industry and as conglomerates, we can do something, it will be a great thing.


When it comes to the second question of yours, around diversity, like I said, I have a view which is very global as well as very regional. Let me talk a little bit more about the regional view. In India, we, as a country, today we have a very good technical, diverse talent coming out of our engineering colleges. Our problem is not there. It is more losing them as time goes by and as they go through their career. So that's a different problem to split.


When I look at it globally, I think there is a lot more need of investment in having girls getting into STEM in many countries, because if they're never in STEM, they're never going to be able to pursue some of these roles. How about teach them some of the other topics skills that are thinking about? So it is improving. I think the first thing is awareness. So there's a lot of awareness that's happening. The second thing is problem-solving. The third thing is actioning, and then sustaining. I think we're doing decent on awareness. We are getting to problem-solving, but we've always been challenged in actually solving it by taking some bold steps, and then sustaining is the most difficult part. So maybe we are improving, but it's a very slow improvement, is what I observed. Because we continue.


Chris Knerr (16:46):

Yeah, so I think you have a couple of really interesting observations that I'm going to play back what you said, in maybe slightly different language. Almost what you're advocating for in technology, is what's traditionally thought of as a liberal arts approach. And the whole idea of, and this is a Euro-American thing, but it is significant. And this just happens to be my background too. The whole idea of liberal arts, is that you learn how to learn and you learn how to think, and you learn how to think critically. If you do that, then you can become autodidactic, and you can teach yourself anything.


I think you're correct that, and in part it's because of the nature of change, and the nature of hyper-specialization. But how many times have we all had the conversation? You have a brilliant person, but you're like, "Oh, she's..." Which is SAP speak. She's not going to be able ... Or he's just a Python-person. So I think that structural thinking around problem-solving. And then I want to connect it with what you about your own career and how you took chances, as leaders we need to be willing to take chances on people when they're not exactly like a square peg in a square hole.


If we think that they've got the capabilities to grow into some additional technology and analytics roles. Maybe also synthesize that with your point, that if we were to give advice to technology folks and data folks, who were coming up in their career, going deep is great, but going broad is also important. Because it's going to force you to turn one kind of knowledge into a different kind of knowledge and, I sound like a techie, but create that platform or that framework for yourself as a learner, going forward. So I think those are really some terrific insights.


Asha Poulose Johnson (18:41):

Yeah, technology skills have become a big commodity. I'll give you, three years ago, everybody wanted to be a data scientist. I mean, that was a big technology-craze. Data scientists are still important, but a lot of data science is now available in libraries and things like that. Where your skill is truly problem-solving, it is about understanding the problem. How do you look at all these libraries, figure out the one to use, have the statistical understanding and solve the problems. So what I'm trying to allude, is if you spend too much time learning certain skills, which are highly focused on a technology, you may become obsolete very fast. You need to develop fundamental skills, which can serve you much better, but you need to be adaptive and you should have to constantly be able to learn, to your analogy that you are using.


Chris Knerr (19:34):

Yeah. Well, and I guess, my other observation, is that it's really important, and this goes back to something we talked about earlier. It's really important to be able to step back and understand why we're working on something. And my observation very much, it's an occupational hazard of Data folks and technologists that they love the problem-solving piece so much, that they sometimes lose sight of why we're doing all this work to begin with.


So in talking to technology organizations and talking to data leaders, I feel like I spend a lot of time saying, "Just remember, we're doing this to improve a customer outcome, or a customer experience, or to grow top line-revenue, or in your phrase, to create a new horizontal solution, so that we can bring a new product to market. And that's the point of doing all this work." So I think that for technologists and especially in their mid-career, please don't lose sight of that part, because that part is extremely important. And I mean, look, you're a great example of this, right? You started off doing something very granular, very technical, then grew into this technology and business leader by doing all this stuff that we're talking about.


So maybe in closing, Asha, I want to return to something we talked a little bit about earlier. So we've talked a bit about the frantic pace of change and new needs that this is putting on data organizations for interoperability, for external data, to really get the fundamentals of data management and data operations right. Do you have any predictions you'd like to share on a five to 10-year horizon for the fields? Part one, because I love to do this. Then part two, does the field of healthcare have a special role to play in shaping that broader data technology landscape over a five to 10-year horizon?


Asha Poulose Johnson (21:43):

Yeah, sure. I can definitely share my views, but these are just my personal views, right?


Chris Knerr (21:49):



Asha Poulose Johnson (21:50):

Yeah, sure. I think there is been a lot of inertia within large enterprises on how much we invest in data analytics. I mean, everybody says data analytics is important, but there are two parts to it. One is how much are we investing in analytics and the technology and the platforming? And then how much are we investing in data and the improvement of data? The challenge that I have seen, is that it's very difficult to immediately measure benefits of some of these investments. They are hard, they're long projects, and they take time. I think in five to six companies, which don't do that today, are going to be not existing. Because every business is becoming a digital business, and the only way digital business can be successful is with good data.


If you don't have good data, your customer is probably going to be more annoyed with you than happy with you. If you are showing them digital stuff. So, that's one very important shift I see. The importance of platforming, the importance of data management is going to get very real. It's not that one thing we talk in conferences and other areas, which is what I have seen at least in many places for the last several years, and we don't really do. So this whole mushrooming of chief data officers is because enterprises have taken notice of that. So that's one trend that I definitely see. I would see that a lot of people addressing it, because it is almost becoming like a life-threatening thing for a company and an organization not to do that.


The other thing that I do, is really the adoption to cloud and the movement that is needed, not just for using it for storage, but using it for compute and using for true analytics, because that's the only thing that we will give speed and scale. You know what? Just moving to cloud can give you more cost optimization, but if you really do not start doing a lot more orchestration and lot more things which are automated for AI ops and things like that, I think, that's some trend that I see picking up dramatically with that once mentioned data science. So it's data science for improving data management, data quality, how you do data ops, all of that, is the other big trend that I see.


And I think the third trend I see, is really around citizen everything, citizen admin, citizen data scientists, citizen developers. Because soon every, it will be everybody's job to do something with data. It's not going to be a specialized team, like what I do today, sitting and saying, "Hey, we are the data analytics organization." Everybody's going to be the data analytics organization. Probably I need to find a different job. But that's how I see it evolve.


On your question on healthcare, even though I don't deal so much with and products selling, the thing that I see is embedded analytics and customer experience, really about being omni-channel, whether you're buying something online, digitally, in the store, how does the experience remain the same? How are we be able to manage that customer experience seamlessly? I think it's going to be important. And I think patients are going to be both benefited and challenged. The benefit is, they'll have numerous new opportunities and models hitting them and even the hospitals.


I think the difficulty will be making the right choice. There's so many opportunities, and options will come. And how do you actually decide what is the right choice? So I think these are some of the things that I see happening. But mostly extremely positive in us being able to handle a lot more health crisis better, being able to support the situations and finding better solutions to many of our larger issues our patients have. And having a better experience as a patient, and being able to really manage your life cycle as a patient, the patient history and all of that, a lot more better.


Chris Knerr (25:49):

Yeah, those are, boy, those are a really terrific insights. Maybe if I start in reverse order. On healthcare, I think part of the reason I asked the question, is I have a hypothesis in two dimensions. One is, and you've mentioned this earlier, there's such a big data interoperability challenge with very complicated sets of data. So it's PII data, it's external data and it's enterprise data, which all should work harmoniously to get good outcomes. So, and because it's healthcare and it's people's health and people's lives, it critically highlights the importance of this. And as a life sciences-person, I have a keen recognition of that.


The other theme that I think that industries like healthcare and also financial services have a special place in, is around data trust and data integrity. So it's different than selling a fast moving consumer goods. Those are very important too, but I think that all of that trust, especially as data becomes more and more ubiquitous, and we start mixing B2C and B2B models. I think that healthcare and financial services probably have a special role, almost as like the tip of the arrow, to play on that.


So just, I think, it's just connecting a few of the dots from our discussion. Cloud, 100%. So, what I think we've seen in the past five years, and I agree this is going to continue, is that it's not even really just storage and it's not even really just compute, it's services. And the hyper-scalers being able to build in more and more of these capabilities. In a sense what they're doing, in a good way, is commoditization things that used to be done by human data scientists. That bears on the talent issue that we talked about.


So it's like we've got to get smarter in problem-solving and business problem-solving. Now that there are all these microservices around data and analytics that are built into these and similar platforms, how do we ... Anyway, so some really terrific observations, and I want to give you special credit, Asha, because almost everyone I asked that question to says, "Well, that's a big question." And I'm thinking, "Well, I know it's a big question. That's why I asked it, because I wanted to hear your point of view." So I think those are some some really interesting trends and some really interesting predictions. Any final words of wisdom you'd like to leave the audience with? And can people connect with you online, on Twitter and so forth?


Asha Poulose Johnson (28:44):

Yeah, sure. I'm more active on LinkedIn, and I'm also on Twitter. So I'm more than happy for people to connect with me, more for learning purposes, I hope. The thing that I will tell you, is a lot of the people, folks who work in the data space know there's so much change and evolution happening. People have this fear of not learning some technology, or the fear of being left out, or left behind and all that. The thing that I have learned, and I will advise everybody, is have a few areas where you're deep. Develop that area well, develop business-thinking, like you said, married with problem-solving and technical skills.


It's okay if you don't know every answer, you can always learn. I think it's going to be a world where you can learn, and where you will never know all the answers. So, especially if you're in the data world, you have to always be curious, you have to always be learning, and you have to be very humble to learn from others. Because every other person is going to know something that you do not know. So I think if you keep up that attitude, I'm sure most folks can do well in whatever you're trying to do, be it a student, be it a professional, be it the senior leader, and continue to grow in you're career. So that would be my final parting thoughts.


Chris Knerr (30:07):

Wonderful, thank you so much. This was really a terrific conversation, and I really loved how we ranged over digital strategy, but then we talked a lot about people too, who in the end make it happen and talked about data fundamentals versus just data and analytics. And I really like your focus on that and very much agree with that. So terrific conversation, Asha. Thank you so much for joining me. And for our audience, we have some, some additional interviews you can look at, at, and thanks so much, have a terrific day.


Asha Poulose Johnson (30:45):

Yeah, thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I truly enjoyed talking to you, Chris. It really spurred some thoughts in me, on some of the questions that you asked. I wish the audience all the best, and I wish CDO Magazine, all the best. Thank you so much.


Chris Knerr (30:58):

Thank you.

About the Author

Chris Knerr

Chris Knerr is Syniti's Chief Digital Officer. As a former Fortune 50 Client Executive Sponsor for large-scale data migrations at Johnson & Johnson, as well as a Syniti alliance partner, Chris serves as a powerhouse whose proven success, background and experience helps accelerate Syniti’s data strategy, analytics organization and offerings.

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