The Yin and Yang Connoisseur: Prativa Mohapatra
On a chilly winter morning, Team MM caught up with Prativa Mahapatra, an alumna of the 1992 batch of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Currently working as a freelancer in the cognitive solutions and AI sector, she was recently on campus to attend the reunion of the 1992 batch of engineering. Read on to learn more as she shares her experience with the MM and gives some pointers from her experience in the industry.
Monday Morning: A woman of your stature can be easily searched online and researched upon. How would you describe yourself, all your online descriptions aside?
Prativa Mahapatra: I see myself as a professional, working at the intersection of business and technology, strongly believing in work-life integration. I live my life, one day at a time. The fear or apprehensions of what the future holds isn't really there in me. Adding to that, I would say that I work hard and play hard (laughs).
MM: Please share with us, some of the cherished memories of your childhood & school-days that have shaped you.
PM: I was raised in a large joint family in Bhubaneswar; I am the youngest and have four elder brothers and numerous cousins. Being the only girl in the family, I always had a special place in the family. Growing up in a large family, I learnt the art of sharing and caring from early days. During my school days, I was a good student, always among the top 3-4 of my class. During my higher secondary (ICSE), I topped my school and was one of the top rankers in the state. It infused in me a new kind of confidence on what I could achieve if I had the right focus. In my early childhood, I never experienced any gender bias. I would play cricket, gilli danda with my brothers. When I moved from a girls only school to co-education for my senior secondary and later into engineering, I carried my conviction and confidence with me. These experiences, exposure, environment and upbringing shaped a lot of what I am today.
MM: Please tell us about your days after schooling.
PM: It was during my senior secondary days at BJB College that I was first exposed to the prevalent gender bias in our system. Girls always occupied the front rows and moved around in groups. They would fear catcalling and snide remarks in the college premises and hence preferred maintaining a low profile. However, my grounding was such that I found all this very abnormal and often went against the norm. I concentrated on my studies and secured a place amongst the top ten students in the state. My belief in hard work and perseverance as the most important traits regardless of any biases stood the test of time. Throughout this period I would engage in multiple sports, debates and other extra-curricular activities. These events instilled in me the resilience that comes with ups and downs in the competitive world which very much carried on into the later parts of my life and into the corporate world and life in general.
The next big question after my intermediate studies was - what should I pursue next? I would say, getting into engineering was kind of a ’default’ choice for me. I saw many of the guys preparing for Engineering Entrance examinations. Without any prior coaching, I applied and appeared for the test. I secured a rank of 20 and thus, could opt for any branch and college of my choice. I zeroed in on Computer Science Engineering at REC Rourkela.
MM: Share with us your experiences at REC and how it has helped you in your accomplishments.
PM: REC (NITR now) shaped me to face the real world. NITR itself is a mini representation of our country. People from varied parts of India come to acquire quality education here. There were about 30 girls in my entire batch with the female populace being a meager 10%, which unfortunately hasn’t changed much over the years. We were a mix of girls; hard-working, studious but tentative about themselves and their future, others from metros and bigger cities across the country - girls who were much more confident about themselves and their lives. Thus there was this amalgamation of cultures that taught us life skills, gave us the repertoire of values and beliefs which have steered us all these years.
Then again there were adversities. We could not park our bicycles just about anywhere as the boys would puncture them, we avoided walking in front of the A-V Hall, fearing catcalls.
Outside our cohesive group of 30 girls, there was this beautiful college campus which was serene and gave us energy and happiness. In my branch, we were a cohesive gang of boys and girls. My knowledge of Odia made me a mediator among my branch mates as well. I was actively involved in sports during my college days and would acknowledge that sports have taught me a lot of things which helped on the professional front. I used to play badminton and the thrill of success, the fear of losing and the determination to keep the team together no matter what, are some of the virtues, I acquired from my time on the field.
I owe to REC for shaping my personality and giving me the confidence to take on several roles in my personal and professional life.
MM: What was the reaction of your parents after you graduated from REC, with a job In hand? What did they feel about your choosing to pursue MBA instead of taking up the job?
PM: They quite didn’t react much to my choice of career path. Parents did not know much about the details of higher education or MBA per se, so they really didn’t have an opinion at this stage. In fact, I could say that my parents were quite supportive in all the decisions I took. They were happy that I was inducted into XIMB, as their daughter was returning back to her hometown. My mother was especially happy about that but I had to stay at the hostel owing to the nature of the MBA classes/projects etc. However, my doting parents would send a car to the hostel every weekend to get me home. This would cause huge embarrassment to me, as my peers would peer at me queerly. My parents care and affection seemed like over protectionism.
MM: When did your professional career at PWC begin?
PM:.I secured a job at PwC through campus placements at XIMB. At PwC, my first project was to make a financial rehabilitation package for a cement company in Nepal. This required my knowledge of Finance and skills at FOXPRO/ ORACLE. Thus began my techo-business career.
MM: Can you give us a walkthrough of your career at PwC and IBM.
PM: I worked at PwC for 8 years and after that PwC was acquired by IBM in 2002. I moved to IBM as part of that acquisition. In essence, I never changed any job. I worked for the same company for 23 years and took up various challenging roles in that tenure. The quality of my work made my employers assign to me, creative and challenging projects.
In my initial projects, I worked as a business consultant and developed systems using Foxpro and Oracle. I loved the opportunity to work with business users, understanding their issues/ challenges and at the end providing them with a feasible & rational solutions. Over the years I have built several trusted client relationships.
I also got a chance work in Florida, USA for a year during the early years of my career. I unleashed the traveller in me to visit every part of US during that period. Visiting new places is a sure shot way of de-stressing is a hectic work life.
As my tenure in the States was getting over, I was offered a job by PwC, US to stay back with a permanent role there, which I politely declined. Primarily because I always wanted to and continue to feel the need to stay close to my roots in India and secondly I was all set to start a new phase of my life -- marriage. I shifted back to Delhi, and was certified by SAP Labs. After that, it has been more than 20 long years in the consulting sector, in several roles across business lines, industries, and countries.
MM: Currently you are an Evangelist of AI & Cognitive computing. Why such change of roles?
PM: It was a personal choice. I see life in 4 quadrants – self, profession, family, and social. At every stage one needs to see the balance of these quadrants and depending on life stage one needs to lean in a little more into a particular quadrant.
Having been a part of IBM for 23 years, I had performed every possible role I could within India and had reached a stage where I did not find the work challenging enough. In my last role, even though I was heading the Cognitive Solutions and AI business for IBM in India, the large end clients were not ready yet for adoption. My ability to make small dents and impact a large base was not something I could do from within IBM. Desire to push the AI adoption in India – in organisations, institutions and academia made me take this step to go on my own. Around the same time I wanted to also shift gears and slow down a bit so that I could give time to my only daughter who is moving into to Class 10th . I left IBM, 4 months back in Oct last year and right now enjoying the change of pace.
MM: How do you suggest the current generation to have a balanced work life and personal life, while flourishing in all quadrants, which you have done so wonderfully?
PM: What do you think? What do you feel ? What do you say? - I believe every person should have clarity to these 3 questions and have a convergence. Else, one would end up in a conflict – with others and within one’s own self.
MM: Apart from education, what all other aspects shape a student’s professional life and growth
PM: It is the experiences that matter, the current and even the future trends will be based on experience(s). I already spoke a lot about sports, travel, debates and how they shaped me. Its important to indulge in these to gain experiences and incorporate into ones personal and personal life. Another very important aspect - Make friends, build networks, the real connections not only the ‘social media’ connections.
MM: After a hard day’s work, what is the thing that you value the most when you return home and do you have any hobbies which you picked up during your college days?
PM: Badminton is something which I played during my college days and continue to play now as well. I was never really competitive about it, but that is one thing which I really go back to. Apart from that, I like spending quality time with my daughter and young kids in my complex. Nothing is more energizing than engaging, teaching and learning from the youngsters. Keep Walking – my fitness recipe. I do that whether I am in town or am travelling for work.
MM: As you suggested initially that you live in the day and this protects you from the apprehensions of future. But there are many people in the world who worry and think a lot as to how things will fold and pages will turn, instead of actually doing something. So what would your message/word of caution for such people?
PM: The scale and timeline for everything is shortening. The pace of Industrial Revolutions from 1.0 to 4.0 has shrunk. It’s a dynamic and ever changing world – life of companies, relevance of professions are all uncertain. So its important to stop worrying about a future which is anyway uncertain and do something here and now.
Nowadays, in a new job you will not be asked - where do you see yourselves in the next 5 -10 years? - because nobody knows what the future holds. So think in terms of experiences to gain in a certain span of time, not where you would be in x-y-z years. Growth is a function of pocket of experiences. So focus on getting your new experience today.
MM: What do you feel about the changes in the institute, as you have visited it after a span of 25 years?
PM: There has been a lot of infrastructure development. The greenery, cleanliness are very visible. The scale of the girls hostels, the sports facilities are awesome. One thing that I felt is that the institute is pretty understaffed. The college needs more faculty and also some industry experts coming for 2 week or 4-week courses as adjunct faculty would definitely help.
MM: What is your success mantra which you would like to convey to the readers for them to follow?
PM: My mantra for a successful work life is
Live your life to the fullest - plan your week as to what all need to be achieved and also plan your weekends as to how you would rejuvenate.