Maneesha Aggarwal, AVP of Academic, Emerging Technologies and Research Services at Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT), says that so much goes on in her work, a new project is always waiting to begin before the last one finishes.
CUIT certainly keeps Aggarwal busy with meetings, vision-boarding and solutions thinking with her team. But, most importantly, she tells us that these tasks aren’t just busy work — she enjoys them because they allow her to dream.
“I am a dreamer at heart, and these are my most exciting moments,” she says of her day-to-day collaborations. “Dreaming up the solutions, hand-waving and seeing how everything will integrate and fit in with other services is so rewarding.”
Thanks to the resources available to her at CUIT — from workshops to leadership programs — Aggarwal is able to see her dreams to fruition. She started as a Junior Developer at the organization years ago, but keeps learning, growing and leading her team to success as she climbs the organizational ladder.
In the interview below, Aggarwal walked us through her career experiences and the opportunities at Columbia that have empowered her to strive for more. She also shared how she’s changed her approach to work since becoming a leader, and her best advice for women who are making a management transition — or who dream that for themselves.
Tell us a bit about your job. What’s your current role, how long have you been in this role, and what were you doing previously?
My job is to oversee teaching and learning, research and emerging technologies services for the university. What this means is that my team provides tools and services in support of these areas, and we work with students, instructors, researchers and administrators. In my portfolio, I have more than 22 services, and my current role, amongst others things, is to understand the university needs and provide strategic direction in support of the university’s mission. This involves meeting with a lot of people, like instructors, researchers, university leaders from various schools and the provost office. There is always so much going on, and there is always a new project waiting to start before the previous one completes.
I have been with CUIT for as long as I can remember. I started with AcIS, which morphed into CUIT. Right after my Ph.D in India, I came to Columbia as a postdoc and started at the School of Public Health. As a postdoc, I started taking courses in computer science and programming, which gave me a thrill and instant gratification unlike research. One thing led to another, and I took up a position as a Junior Developer with AcIS and became CourseWorks Programmer when the service was launched.
What about your work do you find most exciting?
I will begin that my job is a lot of fun. It involves a lot of interactions and listening to faculty members, researchers, senior leaders and some student leaders. Most times, we are talking about their new needs or issues that they may be facing. I take these conversations back to my team and to the drawing board (virtually, in these pandemic times), and we come up with solutions to meet those needs. I am a dreamer at heart, and these are my most exciting moments. Dreaming up the solutions, hand-waving and seeing how everything will integrate and fit in with other services is so rewarding. Some of them have resulted in creative solutions and new services.
I also get to dream a lot about new technologies. Currently, we are working with several researchers and instructors in using the emerging technologies of AR/VR. These are not only exciting, but also provide a new way of looking at things. For example, instead of reading a textbook, students can have an immersive experience when looking at body parts, or walking through an old monument, or stepping into a shoe of a person in historical times. We are now brainstorming on creating a virtual CU experience that will be great for pandemic times and beyond.
How has your day-to-day work changed since you went into leadership at your organization? What about your overall approach to work?
When I assumed this leadership role, my calendar was laced with many more meetings with our school partners and university leaders from the provost office and the libraries. These meetings are mostly focused around design thinking and strategic planning. During these COVID times, these meetings have become more frequent and even more valuable as we continue to come up with solutions for everything remote.
In addition, this role also allowed me to focus my attention on my staff and services. On the people end, I am bringing like-minded people together to meet and work together on a regular basis, even though they are spread across different groups — i.e. the developers, support specialists and business analysts. This allows the people to be more cohesive in approach, learn from each other, share new ideas and work together on urgent needs. It also allows people to become leaders in their own ways and take responsibility for more than just their own work. I enjoy understanding what people aspire to be and try to offer opportunities to help build their skill sets and help them rise within the organization. Having a happy staff translates to higher productivity and new leaders and new ideas.
My overall approach to work has a few key principles:
Be available to our users, and offer them services they have come to expect.
Listen to them, sometimes knowing that we may not be able to solve all their problems.
Build solutions that are scalable and can be used across disciplines.
Connect with every member of my team, and get to know them personally.
And most important of all: Be happy, and enjoy work.
Managing people — especially if you’re new to it — is not easy. How has Columbia University Information Technology set you up for success?
So true. Managing people is harder than managing projects which, of course, I learned the hard way. But I am blessed to be in an organization that makes many resources available. Many years ago, as a new manager, my colleague introduced me to the “managers’ toolkit,” which became my go-to resource for everything. Over time, I have taken advantage of various short courses and workshops from central HR and attended leadership programs. Attendance of such events is always encouraged in my organization. Now, as a seasoned manager with a larger organization and more complex problems, I am able to take advantage of folks from the talent service group. I am able to discuss issues in confidence, understand options and work to resolve the issues together.
How is this kind of support reflective of the overall culture at Columbia University Information Technology?
My organization has a simple principle: One team. We are all a part of one team and work together and collaborate. Be it a celebration of successes or a time of need, we all come together to slice and dice and take it upon ourselves to resolve. My CTO says it best: Sharing is caring. This is also very well reflected in the launching of new services in which subject matter experts from different areas come together for a common goal. Our talent services reinforce the togetherness by creating various activities like lunch-and-learns, workshops, and, of course, game days!
What opportunities did Columbia University Information Technology provide that ultimately helped you land your role?
I started at CUIT as a Junior Developer many moons ago, and I never imagined that, today, I would be in this leadership role. When I look back and think, I realize that I was given many opportunities that helped shape who I am today. These are too many to list, but to name a few: access to mentors, trainings, leadership programs, new ideas, complex tasks, brainstorming sessions and sounding boards. Plus, an environment of teamwork and work-life balance.
I have had the opportunity to work for some wonderful supervisors who have always encouraged, trusted and recognized hard work. But I have also had my own share of failures, which have contributed to my learnings.
What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective?
Be open and transparent. Be encouraging, but don’t be shy about sharing constructive criticism. Most people don’t understand that feedback, when provided correctly, is usually very well received.
What is your no. 1 piece of advice for others who are moving into leadership?
Don’t be afraid to fail. Unless you try, you will never know if your crazy ideas will work.
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