February 2006 found Padmasree Warrior in the Oval Office, smiling for the camera as she received the 2004 National Medal of Technology on behalf of Motorola from President Bush. As executive vice president and CTO, she was a good choice. After all, a group of engineers that had reported to her had contributed to the design of the Razr, one of the most successful mobile phones ever created.
These days the climate is tougher for Motorola. Warrior says the challenge for the entire mobile device industry is to serve an extremely broad spectrum of users. “How do you balance the resource allocation and the innovation to create these solutions, both for a market which demands a device to be less than $40 and for a market that demands a device that is $700 or $800 and has all kinds of capabilities?”
For Warrior, the answer is twofold. “We’re trying to…shift away from the focus on devices as physical objects to thinking more about experiences,” she says. That means designing devices, software, and services to embody whatever concerns the user most: music, messaging, mobile video, a stylish look, and so on.
More fundamental, however, is the intrapreneurial culture Warrior established shortly after she became CTO of Motorola four years ago. “We had great ideas coming from our researchers, but they could never flourish or develop as a product or as a market, because if they were outside the bounds of what the core business was nobody wanted to hear about them.”
Warrior’s answer was a process called Early-Stage Acceleration. “We set aside a fund which is separate from our budget for doing normal development and research. And we have a Web-based system, where anybody anywhere working in Motorola…can input their idea.”
These ideas are vetted by internal and external panels of experts. If they pass muster, a small group of Motorola MBAs writes up an informal business plan. And then Motorola funds the project. “It’s almost like having a VC function for inside the company,” she says. “It’s been very successful for us. We’ve been able to cut the time from research lab idea to product by [a factor of] almost 2.5, and nine times as many ideas now get into products as they did before.”
The intrapreneurial approach was not exactly smooth sailing at the start. “When I first went to my peers with the idea, they looked at me and rolled their eyes, because they thought it was just another idea to get backdoor R&D funding. Then I convinced them [to] try a couple of meetings. They loved it. They loved the energy of people coming with ideas. And now I can’t keep them away.”
As one of the few female CTOs at a high-tech company, Warrior is accustomed to swimming upstream. She is also a vocal advocate for women and minorities in math, science, and engineering. When asked if she has advice for women in high tech, she offers lessons from her own experience: One is to become a domain expert in a certain area and getting recognition as such. Another is to actively combat the lack of self-confidence many professional women tend to suffer. And finally, she says, make sure to pick good people for your team, because that’s what leadership is really about.
“It’s not so much you as a person and what you can do,” she adds. “It’s really how you create an environment where people feel that they can perform to their full potential.” Warrior has clearly taken her own advice to heart as she and her company conjure new arrays of solutions for next-generation mobility.