You could say that Pavan Pidugu wasted little time in landing a dream job: Scarcely five months since completing his Executive M.S. in Technology Management at Columbia University, Pidugu was sworn in (remotely, due to the pandemic) as the Chief Technology Officer of the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
But as he has settled into his new role, with a mandate to update and optimize technology and processes that increase transportation safety, he reflected in a recent conversation on the decades-long journey that brought him from a small town in southern India to the C-suite of a U.S. federal agency.
Growing up in Tirupati, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Pidugu recalled that he wasn’t initially a top student. As the son of a chemistry professor mother and bank executive father who instilled in him the value of education, he performed adequately but didn’t push himself until, as an undergraduate, he came to recognize a sense of responsibility to inspire his peers by setting an example. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more,” he said, “that's the kind of leader you would want to become.”
As for choosing a professional path, Pidugu didn’t see himself pursuing a career in technology. “When I graduated high school, the majority of my class was going to be engineers,” he said. “I didn't want to be one among the many.” Instead, he studied business administration and went on to complete his education in the U.S., at the Maharishi University of Management (now called the Maharishi International University), in Fairfield, Iowa, where he earned his MBA, in 2003.
After a stint as a management consultant in Connecticut, however, Pidugu moved to Minnesota to work for Target in what was essentially an IT role, helping the retail company’s off-shore operation in India with technology development and accounting in financial services practices. He leveraged the role as an opportunity to learn through a number of “first-time experiences,” to raise his hand and develop a “brand” as a go-to problem-solver who was up for any challenge.
When Target no longer offered those challenges, Pidugu moved to Walmart, where he was tasked with initiating and implementing project management strategies that were new to the retail giant. He further burnished his reputation as a risk-taker who wasn’t afraid of failure, particularly when it comes to showing initiative. “Never be afraid of going in and pitching an idea or asking for something that you want to do,” he said. “In the worst-case scenario, you will be told, ‘No. The best-case scenario is you might actually be given that opportunity to do what you want to do.”
That fearlessness also led him to turn down a promotion at Walmart because it lacked the sorts of strategic challenges he craved. He instead moved to North Carolina in support of his wife, who had enrolled in Duke University’s MBA program. There, he continued his work in retail technology with a stint at NCR before returning to Walmart, to oversee global customer experience and payment systems, when the company recruited his wife.
In spite of his steady rise in the management ranks, Pidugu felt he lacked two key prerequisites to attaining a C-level role: a degree from a prestigious institution and the professional network that often comes with it. He found the solution in Columbia’s Executive M.S. in Technology Management and enrolled in the fall of 2018.
The experience was both deeply inspiring and deeply humbling, beginning with the welcoming remarks from Dr. Arthur M. Langer, Ed.D., the program’s Academic Director, who warned the incoming students that disappointments surely lay ahead but assured them that the program would give them the tools they needed to make the most of their opportunities. Recalling how impressed he was with the talented, accomplished peers in his cohort, Pidugu said, “I remember early on, joking with my wife that I had just invested a lot of money to learn that I'm dumb!”
He was gratified, however, to find that the sense of humility was mutual. “Our cohort was very down-to-earth,” he said. “We had great relationships, and we’re looking forward to helping each other as we take on new challenges. I can definitely say that I’ve made new friends for a lifetime from Columbia.”
With so much about the program still fresh in his mind—the thesis process that enabled him to practice his defense and apply new learnings over time; the chance to hear from scholar-practitioners like Xerox President & COO Steven Bandrowczak (“somebody whose name I only read in business cases and Forbes or Wall Street Journal”)—Pidugu is confident that the experience will be put to good use in his new role at the Transportation Department.
You can already see how much the industry values the graduates of the program. I've only been three months as an ex-student of the program where I already am seeing results.Pavan Pidugu ('20SPS)
“I'm definitely going to put in a lot of my learnings from Columbia, whether it is communication techniques or identifying the right problem or identifying the right talent,” he said, noting that he also has met a fellow program alum who is a chief information officer in the public sector and agreed to act as a mentor.
“You can already see how much the industry values the graduates of the program,” Pidugu said. “I've only been three months as an ex-student of the program where I already am seeing results. So, I hope to be able to stay close to the program and the school and contribute to the next batch of students in whatever shape or form.”
As he looked forward to the challenges ahead in his new role, from modernizing legacy systems to implementing new problem-solving approaches, Pidugu paused to reflect on his journey and the guidance and mentorship he benefited from along the way. “Truly,” he said, “I have been able to become what I am only with all the help and blessings I’ve received.
Learn more about the Executive M.S. in Technology Management program.