Six months (now 11) into her tenure as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the Mayor’s Office of the District of Columbia, Archana Vemulapalli is on a roll. The 36-year-old engineer manages more than 33,000 employees, oversees 21 departments, 33 independent agencies, roughly 69 legislatively mandated offices, and five regional bodies. Aptitude made it possible for her to begin her journey, but attitude has been critical to her success.
Attitude Begins at Home
Vemulapalli says growing up in a home without gender role stereotypes gave her the confidence that she could pursue anything she wanted. Her father is a doctor. He made it clear that her stay-at-home mother, an economist, was the head of the household.
Says the new CTO, “There was no ‘This is what a man does; this is what a woman’s role is.’ It was about respect and making sure you had an equal relationship.”
When her mother mentioned learning to cook, it was in the context of something that is nice to know how to do to survive on your own.
She told the crowd at StartupGrind DC:
“I have a four-year-old at home and I was trying to find him books that teach him that women can do anything. I could only find one book about this girl called Rosie who’s an engineer. One book. You want to teach girls that they can get into engineering? Look at kids’ books. That’s where it has to start.”
She thinks schools also need to get more creative about their approach to engaging girls in technology.
Doing What She Loves
Vemulapalli came to the U.S. from India in 2000. She was 20, had a B.E., Electronics & Communications Engineering, from the University of Madras. She came to the University of Pennsylvania for an MSE in Telecommunications & Networking. Then, she moved to Washington, DC, to sharpen her leadership skills at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She followed her interests to the Women in Technology Foundry Program. By 2015, Vemulapalli was selected to engage in intensive, in-depth discussion of regional issues with senior leaders as part of Leadership Greater Washington’s Signature Program.
She says matter-of-factly: “I’ve always liked to do engineering and I’ve stayed with it. I’ve never really taken no for an answer and never really thought about it.”
The Journey From Private to Public Sector
Vemulapalli found success as a consultant and as CTO of a corporate real estate facilities manager with about 1,700 employees and $100 million in revenue. However, she missed seeing the start-to-finish impact of what she calls her “PowerPoint exercises.”
One day she was surfing the web, found the DC CTO job online, and applied. During the interview process she had conversations about how technology could help DC be better. It never occurred to her to ask how many other job candidates had applied.
“I really don’t think working for the government brings completely different sets of issues. I think the scale at which you measure changes,” she says. “In the government, you are always in a situation where you have more needs than you have funding available. It’s not that different from a startup.”
With limited funding, the DC government needs to do more with less. Its new CTO envisions taking a lean approach to getting things done. “It’s really critical we get into the mindset of saying any investment we make must be giving maximum value to the City,” she says. “It’s not that different from a startup. Only when you add value will people want to buy your product.”
She sees the biggest problem to be the traditional mindset of sitting, thinking, strategizing, and building grand visions that are 10-20 years out. “Technology 20 years ago is nowhere where it is today and you can make a case for that. We’re just moving on stuff.”
Part of the CTO’s strategy for moving swiftly on immediate tech needs is to identify how to engage startups instead of building from scratch. Beyond traditional requests for information (RFIs) and requests for proposals (RFPs), the team reaches out for information and promotes DC technology at major tech events. WeDC was a prominent display promoting DC tech companies at SXSW.
DC is actively working on nailing down its procurement and processes to support a startups-in-residence program. Vemulapalli called San Francisco’s tech team to learn more about its startups-in-residence program. She says:
“I think the beauty of startups in DC is you guys understand government way better than they do in other areas. California is just figuring it out now. We see more companies now from California coming here to pitch to government because they realize it’s a good, stable client. I want to make sure we create the opportunity for businesses locally, too.”
Coming soon: Watch for DC government hackathons, pitches, and reverse pitches to match up needed and existing technology from local startups. In addition to serving individual agencies, the CTO has begun to use data to run what she calls a Smarter DC.
Advancing on Potential vs. Accomplishment
There is an insidious practice that Vemulapalli feels both men and women need to recognize and address to truly level the playing field in technology. In her experience, women get opportunities based on demonstrated ability, not potential. She has not always seen this to be the case with her male counterparts. She explains:
“Every job I got, I got only because I was delivering above and beyond. Every promotion I got, I would always get the feedback of ‘hey, you need to be performing at that level and then you can move up.’ But I didn’t see that always apply to my male counterparts. Either they had a separate conversation or they were like ‘this candidate has great potential.’ I always heard this. I heard potential and then when it came to me it was always performance.”
Ask for What You Want
Vemulapalli suggests that instead of pushing to excel and prove beyond reason that they’re great at something to get promoted, women should be direct and ask for the opportunity to show their potential.
“The single biggest disservice you can do for yourself is not asking,” she says. “What’s the worst someone’s going to say, no? At least get a plan for what you can do to get there. They know you’re interested. I think most of the time we assume someone else is going to understand what we want. We have to articulate.”
Don’t Forget to Relax
“The best advice I got is to never take things too seriously,” Vemulapalli concludes. “You only live one life and life is short, so whatever it is just forget about it and go to sleep. I truly believe that. I won’t take anything too seriously. I do what I have to do, but at the end of the day I shut down. If you stick with that life gets a lot better.”