Sajan Paul, Managing Director and Country Manager, India, Juniper Networks

With the bulk of his 27-year-long career spent in the area of technology, it was a leap into the unknown for Sajan Paul when he moved over to sales. He is currently managing director and country manager, India, Juniper Networks. Three years earlier, a short spell handling two quarters for the company gave him some idea on what to expect in sales. But essentially, he is a technologist at heart, a technologist by passion, and a technologist by training with diverse experience of working in the telecom and networking industry in the region.

Before he took on the new job in February, Paul had been working as head, business enterprise and strategic accounts, since 2018. In this job, he pioneered business growth and market relevance in the enterprise sector. He spearheaded some of the largest deals in this sector.

Prior to the enterprise head role, Paul was leading India’s systems engineering teams for quite some time. Continuing in technology would have been easy. He was at the top of his game, had made a name for himself, demonstrated significant thought leadership, and commented on recent trends and the telecom market at large. Why not continue indefinitely?

The decision was tough, he says. Bold and risky. But worth it. If he decided to jump into the deep end by getting into sales, it stemmed from a desire to move outside his comfort zone. “The transition was tough, mainly because I did not anticipate the huge shift it would be to move from the technology domain to running a sales team with a quarterly target and weekly reviews. Sales guys are only as good as their last quarter, right? Luckily, I had a lot of mentors in the company who helped me navigate the combination of logic, art and stats that make for good sales,” he says.

What also helped is that there was one common feature between his last job and the new one – the customers. “You get respect from customers because you come from the technology domain and talk sense. You cannot go with your gut feeling. You cannot ignore your brain. You know what technology will work and what won’t, so I already had some credibility, which helped,” he says.

When the lockdown was announced, Paul was in Bengaluru, where Juniper is located, along with his wife. His daughters, both studying medicine, were at the medical college in Mangalore but were able to make it home where they have continued their courses online.

For Paul, the lockdown coincided with the end of the first quarter. Closer to the time of the lockdown, the company saw quite a bit of pressure from customers to close deals. Now that they are into the second quarter, the Juniper staff is managing fine. Nearly all are working from home. Since no one in the world had anticipated a global lockdown and almost 100 per cent working from home, Juniper, like every other company, had to increase capacity, bandwidth, security and draw on some specific tools.

Now, towards the fag end of the lockdown, he finds that quite a few customer decisions are being put on hold or “de-prioritised”. “Technically speaking, from a connectivity point of view, we do not see any difference. We managed fine. We are ready for an extended lockdown if necessary,” he says. Customers are recalibrating their requirements. Some of them, say, ITeS companies with hundreds and thousands of employees, need 100 per cent connectivity if all of them are to work from home, which is tough.

In fact, Juniper Networks has just released a solution called Enterprise at Home, which helps extend a company’s network to securely connect from employees’ homes. The technology uses a combination of customer premises equipment and AI-driven wireless gear.

Working from home has not meant a shrunken day or week for Paul. His day starts at 8.30 a.m. with meetings scheduled for the entire day till 6 p.m. Apart from the scheduled calls, there may be ad hoc calls stemming from immediate requirements or new projects. The first call of the day is to the team to make sure the sales numbers are in place. They opt for video calls on occasion just to create a sense of being connected.

The only thing they cannot do in a lockdown is meet customers, have a face-to-face conversation to develop a value proposition, and walk them through the deal cycle from inception to closure and execution. Nor can he meet the finance team to negotiate deals or the project team. “These physical engagements and multiple touchpoints are the only challenge of the lockdown, but all of us, including customers, are adapting to this. With old customers, there is already a high level of trust and comfort. It is more of a challenge with new customers with whom we need to build a relationship,” says Paul.

Juniper works with all the major internet service providers (ISPs), which currently need a large amount of broadband because so many people are both working from home and spending more evenings at home. Paul says ISPs are on a war footing to augmenting capacity to meet the ongoing demand. “What we are seeing is that internet junctions are getting choked so capacity expansion is happening on an ad hoc basis. ISPs are buying gear and equipment outside their normal buying cycle to make sure they are covered.”

In the case of Juniper’s enterprise customers, even after the pandemic dies down, they will have to look at a systematic business continuity plan, which would include compliance related to contracts and preparing a roadmap to manage a long-term work-from-home scenario.

Prior to joining Juniper, Paul worked with Cisco Systems as vice president, systems engineering, IT/ITeS, for over a year. He has also worked with Nortel and Avaya.

His passion – and in his case the word is truly justified – began as a little boy. His father would fret that he spent so much time building gadgets, assembling things, testing things, making transistor radios, electrical motors, transformers, alternating circuits, and amplifiers, that his studies would suffer. But all Paul did was segue from school to do a degree in electronics and communications from the Vellore Institute of Technology.

Luckily, his passion and joining the workforce coincided with India’s switch from analog to digital, which happened just as he launched his career in the early 1990s. “I was lucky to be there for the transition to digital because it was a chance to get to know the technology. At one point I was working closely with an Israeli company on indigenising some of the new technology to ensure it was suitable for the Indian environment,” he recalls.

Over the years, he has realised that as a manager no one gets to choose their team. Rather, they inherit it. This team will have varying abilities and varying levels of IQ and EQ. “What I do is understand each person’s strength and see whether they contribute or damage my larger cause. If it is the latter, we coach them. If that fails, they have to go,” he says.

The team has to keep abreast of new changes, he says. Big changes keep happening, not just from analog to digital but from 2G to 5G. So the underlying architecture keeps changing, which means that the required skills keep changing too. As a manager, he needs to understand what skills may be required in the future and invest in people who have some expertise in that domain.

“Essentially my management style is to trust everyone unless there is reason to do otherwise. My ideal situation is to work with a set of people I can trust 100 per cent but that is usually unrealistic,” he says. “I am a good judge of character when it comes to technology people. I know in five minutes who is going to be good. But with sales people, my antennae is not so sharp so I call in my seniors if we are hiring so that they can give their views. In many cases I have seen that I tend to judge a person higher than my peers or seniors so it works for me to get others giving me their viewpoint to balance mine.”

Though Bengaluru has been home for the Pauls since 1992, he is originally from Kochi in Kerala, where his parents still live. When asked how philosophy became an abiding interest – it is listed on his CV – he laughs. “It was my midlife crisis!” he says.

Paul is an active member of the Syrian Christian Church where he acts as a lay leader and sometimes preaches the sermon if the pastor is absent – these days the sermon is aired on Zoom. “It is funny seeing 80-year-olds trying to dial in to join Zoom,” he says. From this began his interest in eschatology or the “science of last things”, namely, death, life after death, heaven and hell. He explores these ideas both from a biblical point of view on what the Bible says about human suffering, the dogma of the rapture and Armageddon and also from a wider perspective on the purpose of human life and life after death. “I enjoy going deep into this domain and spend a lot of time at weekends looking at it from various angles. I have enrolled into an online theology course,” he says.

When he is not probing the depths of eschatology, Paul’s idea of a perfect weekend or holiday is being in the company of his wife and daughters. The moment the lockdown is lifted, they will drive their daughters back to college in Mangaluru to resume their studies.

“This time, being together during the lockdown, has been special and unexpected. Otherwise, between their studies and getting married, where would we have had these moments,” he asks. The beautiful drive to Mangaluru and a few days enjoying the food and the beaches will be the Pauls’ way of celebrating the end of the lockdown.