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Alka Asthana, Chief Technology Officer, Bharti Infratel

January 05, 2018

Alka Asthana, Chief Technology Officer, ...

With two decades of rich experience in the industry, Alka Selot Asthana brings a welcoming new perspective to Bharti Infratel, as chief technology officer. Her transition from telecom public sector undertaking Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) to a Bharti Group company opens a wide plethora of opportunities. The transition from the government to the corporate world would have been extremely challenging were it not for the professional and welcoming environment in the Bharti Group. Infratel provides her the widest canvas and a conducive environment to ideate, evaluate and implement technology solutions.

Asthana, who joined the Indian Telecom Service in 1993, has seen change sweep across the telecom landscape, transforming the life of the country in the more than two decades that she has been active in it. However, she wonders if crossing the generations of technology in these years has made the customer experience much more measurable and addressable amid the robotic exchanges that take place in customer call centre conversations. With customer awareness and expectations touching a new high, the need to address their ask for quality service remains unmet.

“Technology can solve the problems. In fact, the best part about technology is that it is problem-centric. However, we should be able to identify the problem first in order to get the solution,” she says. For this to happen, she believes, analysing the mass of data generated is vital. Data is not being looked at properly to see what is missing or what is important; for example, how much electricity has been consumed at various sites versus how many hours of electricity was meant to be available. That’s just one small example. Her point is that solutions will emerge once problems have been identified and this, in turn, depends on investing time in looking at the data.

During her extended telecom career, Asthana has had a very wide spectrum of experience: mobile (GSM, CDMA and Wi-Fi), landline intra-city and long distance, transport (microwave and fibre), IT, internet of things, and smart cities. Her career has encompassed policy formulation, digital transformation, governance, technology transfer, project implementation, operations and process engineering.

In 1996, she was a part of the team responsible for installing and commissioning the first Siemens EWSD TAX Exchange in Ahmedabad in record time. In 1997, optical fibre was being spread widely by the Department of Telecommunications, and she handled the Gujarat circle, going around in a red Maruti van to the interiors to supervise and check the depth of trenches; handling a potential explosion of staff unrest in MTNL Mumbai in 2003, arising from the smart automation of customer care services; managing the landline network optimally and ensuring regulatory compliance at MTNL Delhi in 2005; arresting the alarming losses in MTNL Delhi’s CDMA network in 2006; and installing and commissioning the very first 3G GSM network pan India in 2008.

In 2013, as director, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Asthana was in charge of complex schemes and projects across the country. The deputation posting provided her with an enriching experience of spearheading national-level schemes and insights into the complexities of India’s social fabric, national polity and local nuances. It was also the time when the idea of smart cities was conceived.

Now, at Infratel, from conceptualising smart cities, she is now responsible for making them happen.

“Urban areas need a civic overhaul. Cleanliness, toilets and safety are just some examples that have to be citizen-led rather than policy-led if we want to have our cities at par with global urban centres. If we can bring everything together, get all the systems and people to work together and help those with responsibilities to make the right decisions, we will be able to move towards a more liveable city”, she says.

In April, Bharti Infratel won the Bhopal Smart City project to provide the infrastructure for improved mobile broadband coverage, energy efficiency, public safety and sustainable solutions like electric vehicle charging. Smart cities are not a panacea, but if just one city can deliver and become an example, other cities will follow. Bhopal has started on the journey to becoming a smart city and Asthana is confident it will succeed.

India needs a greater zeal for perfection, she says, for changing the chalta hai, jugaad approach. It needs to see the difference between something that is average and something that is outstanding. The younger generation gives her hope. “They are exposed to so much more. When I was growing up, I didn’t know what a street in Singapore looked like unless I went there. Now, with the internet, they can see what other countries look like and if they see higher standards of living, they should want to replicate them,” she says.

But, while she is hopeful, she is aware of the infirmities. What are young Indians doing with all the knowledge and exposure? Chatting or playing games? Where is the engagement with issues? “As well as playing games, they should be developing them. As well as watching YouTube, they should be making short movies themselves. If you look at the number of people working as engineers and the number who are bringing in innovations, the ratio is very skewed.”

In terms of industry trends, Asthana says the subscriber is getting more demanding, especially in terms of data rates. “The landscape of telecom use cases is becoming increasingly more complex and variegated. Hence, all developments in fields such as medicine, sports equipment, entertainment or automobiles end up creating a set of parallel demands on communication including interworking, operability, integration, standardisation and monitoring.”

If Asthana has risen to the top of the industry (one of the very few women in an overwhelmingly male sector), it is in part due to the fact that her parents always told her that the sky was the limit. Ambition was a given. “Many families do the opposite – urge women to tone themselves down, not to expect much or want much. I was never asked to do that. I was expected to top in everything I did,” she says.

So, when she chose her subjects in school, she didn’t choose the safer subjects because her family had never told her not to do maths or science. She was among the few in her class who chose maths while the other girls opted for biology and the arts.

The reason why so many women do not enter the industry, she says, is due to the barriers erected at various stages of their lives, which end up excluding them from the field. It begins with the subjects girls choose in school and later in university. Few choose engineering and those who do, prefer the “safer” specialities rather than civil engineering or mechanical engineering, which are “for men”.

Then, after their education, some women decide not to work. Or, if they work, leave after a few years to raise children. Even if a woman continues working, she may not be considered for some posts because employers think she won’t be able to travel or put in long hours. “There is filtration at every stage. The pool of available women keeps shrinking.”

Like most women, Asthana has been troubled at times at leaving her children, Ishaan and Ananya, to travel for work. She never once took sick leave, dragging herself to the office when she was feeling ill, because she wanted to make sure she had enough leave at all times to be able to rush home if her children were unwell.

In her career, she has never held herself back in any way because she is a woman. “In fact,” she says with a laugh, “men probably hold themselves back in my presence and try not to be abrasive. I handled all-male teams on projects from an early age, whether it was union leaders in Mumbai or workers in Gujarat laying optical fibre. My way of making the workers around me feel comfortable was to sit in a dhaba, sharing tea with them. It breaks barriers.”

Asthana’s style with her teams is to make friends, give everyone the chance to contribute by encouraging them to speak through extensive discussions (while making it clear that the final decision is hers), talk to staff about their problems and generally connect with them. “When you connect with them, they feel the pride of working and delivering as a team. It isn’t a delegation of tasks; it is rather a mutually agreed division of work such that we collectively deliver the results in a positive frame of mind.”

There is more to Asthana than her work and family. She writes a blog and poems. Several of her poems were published earlier this year in an anthology by K.G. Publications. It came as a total surprise to her as she had written them purely for her own pleasure and for their therapeutic value. “If you are all the time gathering inputs, absorbing, interacting with people and reading, this leads to a kind of churning. When you can transmute this and give expression to it in a structured fashion, it feels complete, as though you have kind of closed the loop,” she explains.

She describes her husband, Sharad, as the “wind beneath her wings”, and talks of how, whenever she was stricken by doubts over leaving Ishaan and Ananya, he used to reassure her and reason with her, telling her it would all be fine and dispelling the sense of guilt that women often feel when they are compelled to choose between work and family.

Work for Asthana has not yet lost its ability to thrill her. She loves having opportunities to throw ideas around. The fact that there is always something new to be done motivates her. “If I can bring about even Kaizen steps, small changes, little improvements, perhaps a different way of doing things, educating people on how things can be done differently or maybe motivating someone to bring out an idea, I get an amazing feeling,” she says.


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