Season 1 · Episode 7
Mobilize Your World: Driving Innovation with AT&T Business EVP of Customer Service & Operations
Be a lifelong learner and always believe in yourself, be self-aware, and work hard, says Sorabh Saxena, EVP of Customer Service & Operations at AT&T Business. Listen in to learn why he says adversity and pressure can be great motivators.
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion-dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax, with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth.
Narrator: As EVP of Customer Service and Operations at AT&T Business, Sorabh Saxena is no stranger to delivering excellent experiences to a growing list of nearly 3 million customers worldwide at AT&T. Sorabh's passion is connecting brilliant people and their ideas to accelerate innovation, to solve micro and macro-level challenges in a truly digital software-defined world. In this episode, you'll learn why transformation is a series of well-executed, wave-like motions. Hear about what it's like to serve a bigger cause than yourself. Sorabh's three Ms of inspiration and his three daily mantras. You'll even hear why he believes the key to personal growth and industry-defining innovation is collaborating with diverse individuals from just as diverse backgrounds.
Chet Kapoor: Welcome Sorabh, great to have you here.
Sorabh Saxena: Chet, always a pleasure to talk to you. Looking forward to this podcast.
Chet Kapoor: Tell us about your background and the journey that got you to AT&T.
Sorabh Saxena: Thanks a lot, Chet. Let me start with my upbringing as that's where you build your character DNA. I grew up in a middle-class family in India, in Delhi, to be more specific. Not to date myself, but back in the 70s and 80s, India had a long way to go. So, a middle-class family meant modest material comforts. We had access to running tap water only for two hours in the morning and evening, and believe it or not, my dad didn't get his first car until I was 14. But, what's the lesson? Well, I learned that material goods are not as important as having the right values and exposure to diversity. I was fortunate enough to have exposure to a strong focus on education, values, character, a rich set of diversity, and a look at all economic strata while growing up.
Sorabh Saxena: In my opinion, developing a worldview hinges on being open and compassionate towards all. And thanks to my upbringing, I developed a deep-seated belief early on that everyone is equal and everyone has equal potential. I like to look for the light within every individual, and that requires becoming a lifelong learner. So Chet, everyone has a story and I'll just share a bit of mine. And as a result of that, I carry three key takeaways with me daily.
Sorabh Saxena: First, believe in yourself. Faced with the reality that, back in those days, and it's well-documented, becoming an engineer or doctor was important. Otherwise, you get swallowed in the common masses. At the age of 17, I decided to put all I had into getting into the top engineering college in India. Many told me that that was a long shot because I wasn't the top of my class, graduating up until high school. And typically kids started studying in eighth grade. And here I was trying to make an attempt in my final year, but I believed in myself.
Sorabh Saxena: Second, be self-aware. I looked at myself hard in the mirror, understood where my areas of opportunities of growth were and embraced feedback completely. This helped me avoid blind spots. And very importantly, while I approached the self-discovery process with humility, I approached the development process with confidence and worked hard at improving in my areas of weakness.
Sorabh Saxena: And third, hard work. There's absolutely no substitute. I was studying at times 14 to 16 hours a day, and I was also surrounding myself with the best of friends and family and learned from them by osmosis. So, it was a continual learning process. With all three combined, it clicked luckily, and I was accepted to my dream school and it paved the way for me to come to the U.S.
Sorabh Saxena: I really believe adversity and pressure can be, actually, great motivators. There's a quote I like to use, "a diamond is a piece of charcoal that handles stress exponentially well." It's not always about where you start, it's about the journey and what you make of it. So that'll be my answer to your question, Chet.
Chet Kapoor: That was great. Gives us a good view on what got you to AT&T. You've now been at AT&T for 25 years and in different roles. What comes easy and what is hard?
Sorabh Saxena: You're quite right. I've had the privilege to lead in many areas of the company. Be it IT roles, technology roles, business operations, customer-facing roles. And I've had the great opportunity to have breadth and depth like nowhere else. Most importantly, in leading continual transformations. So AT&T, 25 years have been a continual learning affair. And what comes easy, connecting with people. Developing people is a passion of mine. I'd say whatever you're passionate about actually comes easy and you have to tap into that. For me, keeping up with technology, engineering, and solving multi-dimensional, multi-variant problems is what I enjoy. So, I don't know if it comes easy, but when you enjoy it, it just makes it look easy.
Sorabh Saxena: As I touched upon, an insatiable thirst for continuous learning, because of my deep-seated background centered on education. Enjoying these subjects comes easy and it's a passion. And what I'll touch upon is what helped me overcome hurdles, is great mentors and coaches. Having a foundational element to look at things objectively and analytically, and understanding what unique motions are needed to overcome hurdles. Unique because all hurdles are different. They require careful analysis and a purpose-built playbook to overcome them. That's why The number one job of a leader, if I may say so, is to align teams in collective vectors of genius, because you can only inspire high performance. You cannot demand it. So, leading by example, and helping your teams align in collective vectors of genius, as I would like to call it, is an important task that my mentors and coaches taught me.
Chet Kapoor: I love the fact that inspiration always works out better, right, as a leader who is demanding? Even though at some points, you do have to ask for people to deliver. We have all been in situations like that. Any specific tips and tricks that you would share with us?
Sorabh Saxena: Yeah. You have to make the goals clear, but accountability is important. But how do you get to the goal, could only be a pathway paved via inspiration and motivation. That'll be my simple point to you, Chet. And to help inspire and motivate along the path, you have to be personally engaged and you have to come across as somebody who cares for them as much as you care for the goal.
Chet Kapoor: That's a beautiful way of putting it. You have now driven the digital transformation journey at AT&T for many years, and are focused on making sure it's also a data-driven enterprise. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sorabh Saxena: Absolutely. To me, digital transformation is about data and facts, first and foremost. As a leader, you have to connect to logic and facts, not to ego or false notions of what's right and wrong. Data was very critical to our digital transformation. We had to create an operational data store where we pre-aggregate data, apply business logic in advance. So we can provide high performance, always available experiences to our customers and employees alike in a reliable fashion, seven by 24.
Sorabh Saxena: And how does Cloud play into this? This hitched on Cloud because it provides the infrastructure, the application stack flexibility, platform elasticity and scale, and the scaling and scale-out features that are needed. We use these capabilities to build infrastructures and applications as service offerings. A good example is how we use Cassandra. We leverage Cassandra in the Cloud architecture and turned it into a mature open-source data platform with help of key partners. We have around 60 data applications in 2000 Cassandra nodes in use today in a cloud infrastructure, serving our digital properties. The NoSQL databases allow us to scale-in and scale-out, while enabling us to grow across multiple geographies. So this combination of business-ready, and data and cloud allows us to build intelligent applications very fast on-demand and serve our customers anywhere they are through any device at any time.
Chet Kapoor: Wow, that's awesome. As you look at the technology landscape, and I know you're a geek at heart, what is exciting that you see coming down the pike that will actually significantly change your journey to be a data-driven enterprise?
Sorabh Saxena: Well, I would say it's the convergence. Never before have I seen such business-ready, scaled technologies available. Be it the Cassandra NoSQL technology that you're helping mature, be it cloud platforms, or be it digital technologies. And of course, networking, which is absolutely becoming more and more software-defined. But to me, the biggest fun in all of this, Chet, is systems engineering. Said differently, how do you integrate it all to serve for business purposes? And that's what I'm hard at work, along with my great team here, to solve for macro challenges, while understanding the micro technologies.
Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. How do you inspire transformation at speed, right? Because there are many folks that'll talk about, "Here's the transformation. Here's the inspiration to get there." But how do you do that at AT&T scale at speed?
Sorabh Saxena: I love the juxtaposition of those two because transformation is a series of well executed, wave-like motions that result in a new mode of operation. You must have a transformation engine, in my opinion, running in perpetuity. So you always stay ahead of the change. Like an elite athlete is a good analogy. They don't know what's coming their way in a soccer match or football, but they have the confidence of knowing that they can thrive and adjust no matter what.
Sorabh Saxena: So for us, we needed a strong foundation that allowed us to build iteratively with speed and scale. So let me just share a little bit about our transformation framework. A framework keeps everything in balance. So, and we declared our North star as a triad of value. We aim to execute with speed and quality and scale. We declared that straight up, we call it ‘And Leadership.’
Sorabh Saxena: How do you deliver on all the three goals simultaneously? Well, underneath it, we have four pillars, people, process, technology and culture. While we are geeks at heart, it is very important to understand that the 360 degree success is achieved with all those four legs of the stool working together harmoniously.
Sorabh Saxena: And the most important of them, I would say is culture. A high-performing culture is one of the most important jobs of a leader, and we have to drive that thoughtfully and smartly. First, you have to establish a sense of purpose, like I talk about with the triad of value. Then a sense of urgency to always produce excellence and the And Leadership model. Then very importantly, drive for borderless collaboration, because you can't deliver at scale unless you have, as I touched upon earlier, gotten people to be working in a collective vector of genius.
Sorabh Saxena: And then another phrase I like to use, Chet, is democratize innovation. The ivory tower model doesn't work. So you have to engage the hearts and minds of everyone. And ideas and innovation is not the purview of a few selected, it is something that everybody can contribute to and everybody wants to. So how do you enable democratizing innovation through frameworks, like I touched upon, so you can engage the hearts and minds of everyone? And these cultural tenets that I'm touching upon have a halo effect, and you generate openness and transparency, create neuroplasticity among people and among organizations. Ensure collective ownership for any problem, but also for the solutions. And so I'll stop there, because to deliver on these angles that you were asking about, Chet, while we have a very strong framework, culture is the most important of the four legs.
Chet Kapoor: It is the consistent feedback I get from every CIO, CTO, CEO I talk to, which is, culture is the fuel. You can keep talking about everything about how a car goes from zero to 60, but the reason it can actually in 4.2 seconds is how the engine works inside, right? And so culture is the cornerstone of everything we do.
Sorabh Saxena: Very well said. That's why there are transformation engines, number one focuses on culture.
Chet Kapoor: Shifting gears, you're very involved in supporting STEM education in Dallas. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sorabh Saxena: Sure. AT&T at large is known for being the best-in-class role model for corporate social responsibility. STEM, and in fact I would say STEAM, adding 'Art' in between, because the left and right brain has to work together, in my opinion, is absolutely a passion of mine. I like to paint, but I also love all the sciences, technology, engineering and math, of course.
Sorabh Saxena: So bringing that together, not just for me and my family, but very importantly for underprivileged kids is absolutely a passion of mine. So we have done multiple things on the platform that AT&T provides. Then in low-income families, or in low-income neighborhoods I should say, we have held workshops on robotics, automation, but also on how do you build a robot? We worked with many other schools to do so. We have actually lent computers to underprivileged kids who otherwise will have no access to it. And we have gone and done workshops, over a hundred through our various employee resource groups in and around Dallas. So, Chet, where we get an opportunity, we absolutely try to participate in education, children, and starting the STEM and STEAM journey really early on, especially in underprivileged neighborhoods.
Chet Kapoor: I'm sure you're certainly an inspiration for the folks you lead, as well as for the folks you work with on these education initiatives. My question is who inspires you?
Sorabh Saxena: That's a great question. I thought about it long and hard. I try to get inspiration from everyone, but let me start with the three M’s. Michael Jordan, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Quite a varied set. Michael Jordan for his limitless pursuit of excellence and never say die attitude. Mahatma Gandhi for taking on a cause bigger than himself. He showed the world a brand new way how to solve a highly complex problem. And people don't use the word innovator in the same sentence as Mahatma Gandhi, but I think he was a true innovator in that sense.
Sorabh Saxena: And then Martin Luther King, for courageous leadership, leading by example with his words, deeds and character. One thing which is common in all three, is they all overcame adversity, had nerves of steel and unbending commitment to their cause and inspired millions in their generations. And, of course, in generations to come. That's at macro level, but at the day-to-day basis, as I was starting off, I'm inspired by everyone. By my team members, by unexpected learning moments that pop up all around at unexpected times. And everyone turns out to be a teacher.
Chet Kapoor: Love that, the three M’s. Absolutely love that, Sorabh. What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
Sorabh Saxena: I kind of touched upon it at the start. I would say, number one, absolutely have confidence in yourself, but marry that with humility. Absolutely focus on continuous learning and continuous improvement. What I would tell you is, the battle is more within than outside. So focus on connecting with yourself, being true to yourself and always try to do something bigger than yourself. Serve a cause bigger than yourself and things will happen.
Chet Kapoor: That is great, Sorabh. Thank you very much. Deeply appreciate your perspective on so many different subjects. I think I'll remember the 3 M’s for a long, long time to come. Again, appreciate your time. And thank you for joining us.
Sorabh Saxena: Thank you, Chet. Always a pleasure.
Narrator: So many great takeaways from this episode. Like Chet, we hope you'll never forget the three M’s of inspiration. Michael Jordan, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and how they all overcame adversity to inspire millions in their generation and generations to come. And how clever to change STEM to STEAM, adding the A for 'Art' because the left and right brain must work together. Given that, focus on being true to yourself, to find the passion that leads to your hardest work.
Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come. So stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released, and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at InspiredExecution@datastax.com.