Meet the Pinnacle Awards Finalists: 12 Questions for SAIC’s Chitra Sivanandam

Chitra Sivanandam, SAIC

Chitra Sivanandam is vice president of analytics and simulation at Science Applications International Corp. and a Pinnacle Awards finalist in the Artificial Intelligence Industry Executive of the Year category. Here, she shares key career achievements, taking professional risks to start a small business, overcoming time management and work-life balance challenges, advice for aspiring leaders and more.

What key achievements did you have in 2018?

Over the past year at SAIC, we’ve made great strides in enhancing and developing our analytic capabilities, with a focus on IT Modernization as well as progressing the acumen around data science, AI, machine learning, automation, and Robotic Process Automation, both internally and for our customers.

We’ve successfully integrated our new colleagues from Engility, and the combined organization has been pushing forward on growing critical talent through a variety of programs grown internally and in conjunction with university partners.

We’ve also enhanced and grown our partner network to include new startup engagement activities through accelerators and incubators such as Capital Factory, Catalyst Campus, T-REX and the Techstars Starbust Space Accelerator, all with a mindset around building better bridges with the entrepreneurship community and facilitating rapid advancement in algorithm, concept or prototype development.

What has made you successful in your current role?

I think it is my ability to work across boundaries. Analytics and AI are challenging for an enterprise because it inherently requires an understanding of your people, processes and tools; a mindset for continuous improvement and optimization; and the ability to influence activities across organizations.

I’ve found that in my career, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to challenging problems across a number of domains, and work with executives who are inherently disruptive. This has helped me tremendously in learning how to navigate hurdles and cross boundaries.

What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?

After completing my MBA, I made the decision to join In-Q-Tel, and it set me on the path that has defined my career since. My time there allowed me to hone my skills in identifying and interpreting common solutions for common problems across a wide variety of customers. I built my confidence and learned to trust myself, move quickly, and pivot where needed.

The results weren’t always what I expected, but this approach has helped make sure I always stay on track toward the vision.

What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?

It’s hard to pick just one thing, so I’ll pick two. First, I’m very proud of the culture we’re building as an organization. It’s especially hard when people are working through challenges around things like two large companies integrating together, growing new business while executing on existing ones, developing new capabilities, recruiting and trying to improve our corporate tooling. It’s easy to develop a defeatist attitude, but I’m proud to see our company, my colleagues and my team working together to move forward and manage concerns in the light of growth and change.

I’m also proud of our overall sense of citizenship at SAIC. The commitment to charitable giving at both the corporate and personal levels that I have seen here have been stronger here than I’ve seen in other companies.

How do you help shape the next-generation GovCon leaders?

At SAIC, we’ve taken a new strategic direction in how we attract, retain and grow our next generation of talent. In addition to traditional learning and development, we’re taking steps to expose these young leaders to aspects of the government contracting world that they may not otherwise see until they are mid-career. It is my belief that if young leaders have passion, then broad exposure along with formal and informal networks become the key accelerants to helping them grow in leadership.

I am also currently involved with Amazing Women in the IC, an organization dedicated to the development of professional women serving the U.S. national security mission and continue to mentor entrepreneurs that have an interest to work in and around the government. And I’m on the board of directors for the DC Chapter of AFCEA and hope to stimulate more active engagement in AFCEA to include identifying leaders to participate in Young AFCEA and related committees.

What specifically makes you stand out from your industry counterparts?

People that know me would probably say that what stands out the most is my passion and ability to connect disparate concepts. There’s never a moment where I’m not generating a new idea. I’ve been lucky to be able to have the perspective of looking at every challenge we encounter as an industry or as a nation as an opportunity to find creative solutions using lessons from other industries, sectors, technologies or individuals. I believe strongly in the concepts of creative collisions, and believe that extends well beyond the workplace.

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?  

Some of the best technology and best concepts that I have seen came from companies that couldn’t get off the ground. But from each of these there was progress, whether it was better-informed thinking around a problem, resetting the understanding of what’s possible or just changing the approach for the second or third time around.

Which rules do you think you should break more as a leader?

Any rules that create silos and prevent the types of creative collisions that lead to progress are ones that we should be willing to break. And I think I’m pretty good at breaking those rules if I need to.

What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?

The biggest risk was when my husband and I endeavored to start our own small business (we own and operate The Craft of Brewing in Ashburn, Virginia). The timing and financial risks, especially with young children, make for interesting challenges. But it has enabled me to think about risks and priorities in a completely new way.

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of? 

I’m very proud to say that challenge doesn’t deter me. I’ve been lucky in the type of work that I’ve been exposed to, and fortunate to work with people who have a genuine interest in problem solving. Based on that, I’ve been able to continuously learn and grow my thought processes both personally and professionally.

What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?

My biggest struggle is prioritization and time management, especially in regard to work-life balance. I’ve been taking concerted steps toward working through family priorities first, especially on weekends, and have found that this is an area where corporate culture makes a profound impact. Being in an organization that values flexibility and understands that employees have lives makes a difference and enables finding balances between personal and professional priorities, and is accepting when those worlds collide.

What’s your best advice for aspiring leaders who want to follow in your footsteps?

First and foremost, work in an organization that you believe in and that has a good cultural fit. If the culture matches your values, it makes it easier to trust in your leadership and in yourself.

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