Is it possible to build a stellar IT career and have fun at the same time? Mittu Sridhara, vice-president of information technology and product management at Sabre Holdings, the $2.8bn-revenue IT travel services supplier, thinks so. In fact, his own career is a testimony to the fact.
Yet Sridhara has always been deadly serious about fun. He believes it is the mystery ingredient that turns an average performing IT team into the kind that surpasses management expectations.
He says, "We have all got jobs to do. But when we wake up in the morning, we can either go about our work, get the job done and feel depressed and cynical about it or at the end of the day we can return home thinking that we did the job and had a laugh while we were doing it."
It is not a bad philosophy for any IT professional. But it is especially important for those who have reached management roles and need to motivate their teams to improve their performance in a climate where the business always wants more.
"Two plus two can equal five and not four when you discover how to fuse the intellectual and emotional qualities of the people in your team," says Sridhara. It's a valuable insight. Many people who go to work take their brains into the office, but leave their feelings in the car park. Sridhara makes a key but often overlooked point: if you can get your team members to combine their intellect with their passions, they will deliver much more. And the secret? Make work fun.
At Sabre, Sridhara has helped this process along by introducing novel ways of communicating with his team, which is spread over 21 locations. There are podcasts and videos to communicate new ideas. And underlining his fun-at-work philosophy, Sridhara has introduced a pair of cartoon superheroes, the Solvinators, whose comic-book style adventures punch home messages such as teamwork and customer focus.
"All these help us to address and find answers to common issues that we're facing," explains Sridhara. "It's a way of engendering a sense of common identity in an IT function whose members are spread around the globe."
So the answer to that opening question - can you combine a great IT career and fun? - is plainly "yes". But advancing through the ranks of IT involves more than a laugh a minute, as Sridhara's career shows. Having fun is one of the principles that has driven him on, but it is not the only one.
From the very beginning Sridhara has underpinned his career with some solid business thinking. "My starting point has always been understanding how what I was going to lead or deliver would add value to the company," he says. "If you see your role as creating business value for your firm, you have to understand the impact of what you're doing and how it will add value to the bottom line."
Any IT novice would be well advised to learn that lesson well. In the management suite, the debate still rages about how - or even whether - IT adds value to a business. IT pros who show they are plugged into value delivery do their career prospects no harm, as Sridhara has found.
Before taking on a new role, he has always carefully assessed whether he will be able to make an impact in it. "I believe the biggest factor in my career has been the ability to understand what customers want and deliver it," he says. "When I've been offered a new post, I've always wanted to understand upfront how I could go in and deliver the transformation that was being asked of me. So it's been important to me to make sure that the environment was right. That's meant the organisation's culture has had to be roughly aligned in style and values with my own."
After taking on some tough IT jobs with companies in Europe and North America, Sridhara has won a reputation for building effective teams. It is something in which he clearly takes personal satisfaction. So it is not surprising that it has also been one of the drivers in his career.
"One of my passions is developing teams," he says. "It's obviously important to me to get better at what I do. But, then, having put the frameworks in place, it's very important to mentor, teach and help other members of my team get there sooner, better, faster."
In doing this, Sridhara draws on his own experience of valued mentors at earlier stages in his career. "I was fortunate to be able to work with Joan Kuehl, who was senior vice-president of Sabre at the time," he recalls. "She provided not so much day-to-day mentoring, but a working environment where you felt you were safe to take risks, learn and grow.
"I could be confident that if I made a mistake, there would be somebody who would come to help me correct it. More importantly, the environment was safe in the sense that you felt initiatives you took would be supported and rewarded. If you started a promising project, they would provide resources to help you take it forward."
Yet for all the talk of learning from mistakes, it is the risks that result in innovative projects delivered on time that build an IT professional's reputation. Sridhara reckons he has had at least three such "defining moments" in his career.
The first was back in the early 1990s when he was a project manager at American Airlines Decision Technologies. He headed a team that delivered a workflow-based system that was a forerunner of the customer relationship management (CRM) systems that later became commonplace. "It was a key moment in my career because it was the first role in which I went from being purely a technologist to leading the development of a product for a marketplace," he recalls.
The second defining moment came a few years later at Sabre, when he led a team which delivered innovative products that helped the company generate around $250m of additional revenue from some important customers.
And the third was during Sridhara's time as CIO for Avis Europe, when his team delivered a customer-facing system based on then new wireless technology. "There was an entire broadband network behind the system," he recalls.
What is the secret of being successful in projects such as these? "The most important thing is to understand the customers and what they are looking for from the products or services you're planning to deliver," Sridhara says. "It's also useful to understand the market trends which form a backdrop to your project.
"More than that, you have to get a clear view of the capabilities of the team you're going to work with: their skills and their ability to deliver the end results."
But Sridhara points out that defining moments only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. "When I've taken on new roles, I've usually not been aware of making a big step. I've been more focused on getting the job done. At the same time, I've probably been aware that the role would mean some growth for me personally."
Defining projects can provide great learning opportunities for IT professionals. And, for Sridhara, continuing to learn is as important as having fun because it enables him to grow into more significant roles.
"Learning has been a key imperative for me, all through my career," he says. "Every defining moment typically comes with some learning, and you should grow with that learning. You're either learning or you're dead!"
And that's no fun at all.
• 1988 Graduated from Visvesvaraya Regional College of Engineering, India, with mechanical engineering degree and began working as design/sales engineer for Thermax Private, an Indian conglomerate, in Mumbai, on waste-heat recovery systems.
• 1992 Completed his Masters in industrial engineering and operations research while research associate at North Carolina State University, US.
• 1992 Led multi-disciplinary team on ERP/CRM project as project manager/consultant with American Airlines Decision Technologies.
• 1994 Set up and worked successively as senior consultant, programme manager and director of Europe/Asia strategic IT business unit for Sabre Technology Solutions.
• 1998 As senior director at Sabre Inc, modified and implemented corporate strategy for technology services delivery in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
• 2000 CIO at VersaPoint, a pan-European broadband services company.
• 2001 As Group CIO for Avis Europe, given the task of re-establishing the company's technology leadership in the car rental market
• 2004 Rejoined Sabre EMEA as vice-president of product marketing and IT.
• Mittu Sridhara works from west London and reports to Sara Garrison, Sabre Holdings' head of global development and delivery.
• Sridhara has five direct reports: chief architect, head of development, head of product management, head of customer-facing units, and manager handling programme management and shared services.
• The IT function under Sridhara's responsibility has 240 staff in 21 locations around the world. The three largest concentrations are development teams in Krakow in Poland, Dallas in the US, and Bangalore in India. The other locations keep IT staff close to Sabre's customers.