Cisco

Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior: Engineer, Artist, Business Leader, Sage

Padmasree Warrior tells TechRepublic how she integrates her work as a technology leader with family, art, meditation, and the culture of her community.


Padmasree Warrior is the CTO of Cisco.
Padmasree Warrior is the CTO of Cisco.
 Image: Cisco Live 2012
 At the end of each day, Padmasree Warrior finds a quiet space wherever she may be, turns off all her electronics, and meditates.

It's a long 20 minutes, and it took a while to get here. Letting go of business, schedules, meetings and plans is difficult. But putting her work in perspective is important. Tomorrow will be waiting, and after this, she will be more rational and calm when it does come. In these moments, Warrior's only job is to simply be.

Warrior is the Chief Technology and Strategy Officer (CTO) of Cisco Systems and the former CTO of Motorola, Inc. Almost every year, she is named to many of the most important lists in technology and business:

Warrior received her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi before she came to the U.S. to earn a master's degree in chemical engineering at Cornell University. While working on her doctorate, she took a job with Motorola at a semiconductor factory. She planned to stay a year or so, but ended up staying for 23 years, eventually becoming executive vice president and CTO. While she was at Motorola, the company was awarded the 2004 National Medal of Technology.

In 2008, Warrior became CTO of Cisco. In 2012, her role expanded to chief technology and strategy officer and she now oversees partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, and new technologies. Warrior describes her position in the company on an even broader scale: "Together, with my team, we shape Cisco's strategy to lead the company through a major transformation that provides even greater value to customers and benefits to all of humanity, as we deliver on the promise of the Internet of Everything."

During a speech about innovation in the enterprise at Stanford University last year, Warrior talked about the future of technology and IoT with her typical sense of humor and passion.

"We joke at Cisco that at some point we'll have children born with an IP address and maybe that's going to be the profound change in how we are identified," she said. "Not just through our name, but something that's more unique than that."

SEE:   Photos: Artwork by Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior

When she started at Cisco, Warrior was one of only a few women. In previous interviews, she has stated that it was "a really daunting experience" at first, since she had no direct female support system in the male-dominated tech industry. Still, only 23 percent of Cisco's employees are female, but Warrior is adamant that women can leverage the statistics and stand out to help propel them forward in their careers.

Even more powerful than her resume, however, is her influence as a working woman and mother. Warrior has made it her mission to change the way we see women in technology, and for her, that starts with simple linguistics. 

Padma Art 3.jpg
Warrior was inspired by street music in Chicago for this painting.
 Image: Padmasree Warrior

When describing her work and life, Warrior doesn't like to use the word "balance," as the term suggests the two are mutually exclusive and in constant competition. Exact balance of work and life can never be achieved, and we are always striving too hard for perfection, she said. So she chose a more accurate word: integration.

"Ideologically, integration is just being mindful that there more areas that are important to be aware of and it's not necessarily an equal distribution," she said. "Work, family, self, community—I find that I get more satisfaction and am a better leader and calmer in my decision making if I am mindful of the fact that my family, myself, and my community are as important to me as work."

Expanding her mind and spirit in ways that reach beyond the world of technology and business have had profound impacts on how she interacts with people, Warrior said.The time spent on her various passions may not always be equal, but these other important things—family, self, community—always have a place in her schedule.

Family is of the utmost importance to Warrior, who has a husband and a 20-year-old son. She entertains family and friends at her home frequently. She loves to host parties, take her family to art shows, and cook dinners for them, though she never follows a recipe or replicates anything.

Making time for herself is key, especially when she needs to channel creativity. She reads often, but sitting on her desk is an untouched pile of business books given to her by friends and colleagues. Warrior prefers literary fiction. Learning about worlds vastly different from the one she resides in day-to-day intellectually recharges her, she said. Most recently, she finished White Teeth by Zadie Smith, but she finds comfort in reading Irish poetry as well. She also paints, writes haikus and poems, and is beginning to dabble in photography.

Padma Art 2.jpg
Warrior loves to paint, as well as write haikus and take photos.
 Image: Padmasree Warrior

A sense of community is another aspect of life she finds inspirational. Warrior takes time throughout the day to focus on her Cisco employees, her closest community. She walks across the office to their cubicles and pops in to chat. At first, she said, the employees were thrown off by the visits from an executive, but now it's something they all engage in. They share ideas, concerns, and general information about their lives and the company itself.

"I miss it when I'm traveling. It recharges me and is something I really look forward to," Warrior said.

"We joke at Cisco that at some point we'll have children born with an IP address."

During her career, Warrior has also focused on empowering a larger community: women in technology. She continues to mentor female entrepreneurs, business executives, engineers, and others about work and life in a male-dominated field.

"What women need is encouragement that it's okay to share doubts and ask for advice, as long as we create that environment where we can talk about what excites them, and what they're afraid of," she said.

Concerns like when or if women should postpone work and have a baby, or make a career change, or choose to leave the corporate world to become an entrepreneur. "There's no right or wrong in all of these examples, she said. "When you're making career decisions, nobody knows the right answer."

Warrior said she never knew the right answer in her own career. She just advises people to take the path she has always strongly believed in: seize opportunities as they come along, even if you aren't sure of the timing. 

She has a jam-packed schedule, thousands of engineers working under her, and the business and technology world watching her every move, so Warrior has learned to take it all in stride, one day at a time, and appreciate any peaceful, quiet moments she can find.

And believe it or not, some of the most peaceful moments for this well-known CTO are her lunchtime walks around the Cisco building.

In her own words…

What is your biggest advice for aspiring tech leaders?

"I would say don't ever feel like you have to give up something important to you in order to get something. What I mean by that is that day to day I think we second guess ourselves and shy away from opportunities." 

What do you love to cook?

I would call my cooking "global," meaning that I like to experiment and mix things up. It's always a blend of everything, of tastes. People ask me for recipes and I have no idea.

What is your favorite tech tool right now?

"Twitter of course. It's my fun place to go find out what's happening and post what I am thinking about. I also like My Fitness Pal to keep track of my exercise and diet and stay disciplined."

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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