Anupama Raman, Global Head-Software Academy, Continental Automotive on the challenges of training during Covid, the charter of the Academy and the participation of women in auto.
Today’s world is that of the software-defined car. As the global head of Software Academy, how does this all fit into Continental’s own vision and mission
The automotive sector globally is undergoing a software transformation and the car is nowadays perceived as a computer on wheels. We at Continental Software Academy aim to prepare Continental globally for the software transformation that is ongoing. We have a structured upskilling approach to skill various types of audiences based on various aspects of software, starting from awareness to basic to advanced and different levels of skills. We organise transformation events globally and we undertake all these activities to support and enable software and agile transformation globally across all countries. This is steered globally from India.
What were the challenges you faced during the pandemic?
At that time, everything was virtual, but the projects continued and we did not stop the process of software transformation. In fact, the demand actually peaked because of global demands. The main challenge faced by the Software Academy was that till then, we were just running a transformation charter, which itself was quite heavy in nature. It was always augmented by the local R&D and learning and development teams that existed in these 50-plus countries where we operate but suddenly when this pandemic set in, the classroom training and all other local upskilling activities were stalled.
All these expectations were, therefore, directed towards the Software Academy which was indeed a big challenge because we had to scale up massively. Our user base more than trebled and we had to cater to the ever-increasing needs of the projects and go beyond our charter. For example, project readiness. There were software projects from OEM customers that demanded specific skills. Since there was no option but to get trained on those skills, it came to us as an additional activity. We had to hunt globally for subject matter experts to make this happen. It was not easy, but we did receive a lot of support globally. The success of the Software Academy was perceived as a very positive story during Covid and was appreciated at the global level.
What structure did you put in place and how did you help them cope with their soft skills?
We were not fully prepared, but we were able to quickly come up to speed by means of prioritisation. We did decide to put certain activities on hold in order to prioritise other skill-building activities which were a priority for the customers or for the upcoming projects. As far as that goes, we came up with a structure, we had to double up as programme managers or did three roles when they were hired just for one. They tried to find out the subject matter experts, and manage the various activities and there was also a need for recording. Soon the vendors also came up with the virtual modes and with it came the need to record the session which was quite a task because each session would last for 6 to 7 hours. Recording the session, and making them reusable, scalable, available, and tailored for the global audience was also another big task. My team had to scale up and take over 2-3 roles. Additionally, we got colleagues from internal global teams for support. We also tried to collaborate with the existing HR teams, strategy teams, and some other functions existing in various biases who could support us in driving these activities.
It wasn’t easy to look for skill sets globally, so how did you cope with multi-country projects?
We had to face a lot of challenges as many team members were going through a lot of emotional and physical stress. The physical stress was more due to Covid and the post-Covid implications, especially during the 1st and 2nd waves which were quite bad. We also faced the loss of team members or team members who went through the loss of a family member or the prolonged absence of some of the members. Despite all this, we had to develop and work on projects and compensate for the missing team members while carrying the emotional stress. At times when we had to organise meetings, we were not sure whether our colleagues would turn up or not. Thankfully, we are now in a much better state and happy to think that all those times are now slowly coming to an end.
The auto sector is in transition from the IC to electric mobility and cleaner emissions. What do these mean for your skilling and training programmes to do?
Electric Mobility is now handled by Vitesco, our spinoff. But sustainability is part of our focus. We have in place all our plans in place to make our products sustainable, reuse software, and reduce our carbon footprint in the next 15–20 years. We have the Continental Automotive Edge platform which is the software-defined vehicle offering from Continental. We have several enabling technologies, namely, Cloud, High-Performance Computing, and zone-based architecture. But whenever one talks about the Cloud, the topics of security, safety, etc. need some additional dimension because data from automotive is slightly different from the data that one receives in a typical software domain, because there is a lot of data from the vehicle pertaining to the driver which needs to be captured for several insights that can routed back to the driver.
Moreover, as we are talking about global standards, we need to keep all these perspectives - the GDPR regulations and the new security and privacy standards. If we talk about the architecture within the car, we are talking about sound-based architecture, and high-performance zone-based architecture and high-performance computing. This also includes software updates or OTA updates which are required to ensure updates of security patches and other components to the software-defined vehicles of the future. We work on all these aspects. The Cloud is a very important component. The main aim of our Software Academy is to make the workforce of Continental future-ready by equipping them with all these necessary skills which are related to cloud, high-performance computing, etc. Also, virtualisation which is related to the cloud, and with this in mind, we launched the Continental Cloud Guild.
We wanted to create awareness and our target audience was not just restricted to software engineers but consisted of everyone, starting from a non-software engineer to a non-engineer. It was essential for everyone to understand the cloud and its important use cases. Some basic minimal understanding of how data is stored was required as also awareness of various cloud concepts and skills required for a software-defined car. Our game plan was to focus on building basic and advanced level skills on various cloud-based technologies and for the first iteration, we partnered with Amazon Web Services. We recently also organised the graduation, that is the completion of the first six months. We could see the momentum or buzz created globally across Continental. Everybody talks about the cloud because of our programme.
We not only provided a skill-building platform but also a platform for expertise sharing, and best practice sharing that took place globally. Our plan was to bring all of it together by offering fora where experts could share and also offer something called Office Hours where colleagues stuck with issues related to the cloud could get these resolved. We also launched the innovation-based campaign here with the objective to trigger thoughts around cloud-based innovation. The response was overwhelming, and we now want to take some of the ideas to the next level in terms of integration to the software-defined vehicle, and how it can help Continental in the future, in terms of either a mid-term or a long-term road map. This is what we talk about in terms of Cloud Guild which we started in October, last year.
The creation of software and the reuse or repurposing of the computer module has environmental implications because there's energy used. And how do you address that?
When you try to reuse modules or reuse code, it reduces the need for processing capability, memory storage, and other aspects that in some form contribute to sustainability. So that is one perspective, but another is about the usage of cloud-based resources like you keep most of the processing on the cloud and you keep the processor nearer or between the cloud and the car, which we call the Edge Platform so that we do not compensate on the bandwidth, latency and computational power and topics related to it. Still, we are able to deliver the performance that is expected by customers. These are some aspects that could take some dimensions of sustainability.
Your location in Bangalore gives you access to the wealth of India's IT talent. How do you enhance the skills that they bring to the table?
Every new joinee has to go through the new hire onboarding programme hosted by the learning management system. We prefer to reduce the dependence on physical training or in-person training and this was also very helpful for us to handle or tackle Covid. A new hire can be classified into multiple categories. One is a campus hire, another is new to automotive but has good software experience or software coding experience, and the third one maybe knows both, software and automotive domain but might be new to Continental. In order to tackle these categories of joinees, we have customised learning paths for each of these categories, within the learning management system. When a new hire joins any location globally, except a couple of locations, these new hires have onboarding plans assigned to them, and are expected to complete this within the first six months because they have a lot of training based on the category. So that is one step. The next is we have a master job and profile-based training plans tailored for various roles. For example, take a software architect role. When you talk about a software architect, there are various levels like an associate software architect, senior software architect, and principal software architect. Each of these roles requires a different combination of skills. Therefore, we have a training plan customised as per the skill needs of each of these proficiency levels, and that is also set up within the learning platform. Colleagues who join the organisation can pick the ones relevant to the role or it can be assigned by their supervisor or HR business partner. We at Continental promote lifelong learning.
How many people do you train in India?
We have 25,000 users globally and over 4000 users in India which covers 80-85 percent of the software population in Continental India. We see this going up in the years to come. At the Software Academy, we have global training budgets which we have to maintain during this programme even as we ensure that they are globally reachable and sustainable. Our budget includes both, Indian and global numbers. This is a long activity, and it gets assigned globally to all my cost centers and we take the activities from there.
What are your thoughts about women's participation in automotive, software and otherwise?
First, let me talk about the perspective of women in software in India. Bangalore as a talent hub is predominantly due to the availability of both male and female talent. But we have observed that a lot of participation from women can be seen, and this is backed up by data, at the entry-level and up to middle management. But as we go higher up to senior and top management, there is a steep decrease in women employees. One of the main reasons is the maternity break they take. Some studies by the UN, for example, indicate this. Only 30 percent of them come back, most of them continue with their cycle and they don't return. This is the reason why there is less representation of women in middle management and above.
From a larger automotive viewpoint, the perspective of a woman is changing, but traditionally I'm sure you would agree that woman in automotive was always a skeptical thing even for women as well as for the managers. Everyone wonders if a woman will be able to handle the challenge which involves vehicle testing and some aspects of handling the machinery. The auto sector has always been perceived as a male-dominated industry. But, several countries and organisations like Continental have taken strong steps even at the Executive Board level to include a certain percentage of women colleagues globally. I do hope other organisations will also get inspired along these lines. We are women-friendly at Continental.
However, there are companies like the Tatas giving women a chance to return to work and resume their careers?
Last year, Continental launched a program called Launchpad which exclusively targets women who want to return to mainstream work. They are offered training, coaching, mentoring sessions, and motivation to face the corporate world after a long break. More than the employees, the supervisors should be trained and coached to give motivation. Otherwise, several things could be new for them including the corporate work environment. The women returning require support and empathy from their direct supervisors and a lot of motivation. In addition to training, supervisors also should be given guidance on how to handle such colleagues or candidates. The programme has been very promising and has got a lot of positive responses from both, the market as well as from the segments within Technical Center India (TCI). I'm sure the way that we are moving ahead, it will make a difference.
There is a lot of talk now about the hybrid model of working. How do you think this will go forward with the hybrid model?
I would highly recommend the concept of hybrid work. It helps you to strike a very healthy balance between, work, family life, and also health because the time that you spend on the road, stuck in traffic can be used for a good walk or a yoga session. Meditation will improve your state of health, as well as state of mind, and also in turn will contribute to higher productivity in projects. So having said all of this, 100 percent work from home may become challenging because of the social aspects such as getting to meet the team in person is also very important for the emotional well-being of people. Hybrid for sure is the most recommended model for the workforce to operate at the optimum level of productivity.
How do you as a woman balance your professional and personal commitments?
In my view, one needs to definitely give away the superwoman syndrome, which many women have. Women have these thoughts to be the best at everything, be it cooking, work, or family management. You are still able to achieve it possibly in the early stages of your carrier, where the workload is not much, where health and age are in your favour. But as you advance in terms of responsibilities in terms of age, it tends to show up in your body, eventually impacting your productivity.
One way to handle this is to consider the possibility of outsourcing, say for example, instead of me spending a couple of hours cooking if I can hire a cook. Then one should definitely choose those two hours, maybe to spend some time with your family, do something for your own health or do something for society. There are so many valuable things. Also, should you decide to hire a cook, you’re also offering a livelihood to a person. It should be perceived in that way. Even if you have somebody to help you balance your work, you still need to make things available which is again a task.
I feel if women are able to get rid of the superwoman syndrome, one is already 80 to 90 percent successful. This is how I maintain a healthy balance at home as well. I have an adequate support system and wherever required, I set my priorities right be it for professional purposes or for personal purposes, and I follow it.
Looking back at how you handled the pandemic, is there something that you think you could have done differently?
Looking back, maybe the only activity that I could have done better was better workforce planning or resource planning of my team. When I look at the outcomes and the deliverables, and the impact which we were able to create globally, I have no regrets, or I don't think of any missed opportunities or missed decision-making. We have several things to be proud of and several things to look back at and cherish. I would definitely give a lot of credit to my highly supportive team in India and the global team which stood by me.
Who do you personally admire whether it's in the auto sector or without?
I have several women role models within Continental itself. We have Dr Ariane Reinhart, Member of the Executive Board, HR, and Director of Labor Relations, Sustainability. She is a great role model because she advocates for women to really do well and come out with their extra talent. She is a very inspiring person. Then there is Maria Anhalt, CEO of Elektrobit who is a mentor. The head of Technical Center India Ms. Latha Chembrakalam is also a highly inspiring woman. These women leaders try to do their part to bring up and also mentor other female talents in the company. Outside of Continental, I do admire our late president, Dr. Abdul Kalam whose perspectives of life have left a long-lasting impact on me.
This interview appears in the September 1 issue of Autocar Professional.
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