How Tech Guru Keyur Desai Built a Career Successfully Blending Cutting Edge Technology & Sound Business Strategy

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“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do high end computer stuff–NASA type projects.” Starts Keyur Desai when explaining his life long fasincation with technology. “It was natural for me to go into engineering.”

Desai’s first professional job was as a network engineer which he started even before he graduated university. “I quickly realized that the job I wanted to do and the job I was doing were two different things. The job I wanted to do involved the latest cutting edge technology.”

Instead Desai was stuck doing projects involving mundane tasks. “I worked with a little black box. Someone told me the inputs and what we needed for the system to output. I had no idea how that compontent that I was building was going to be used. It could be used in a voice mail system, in a spaceship or a toaster. I also had no input on how it should be used.”

It was then Desai knew he needed to make a drastic change in his career direction. “So I started to do research – where were all the cool engineering jobs I wanted to do? I found out through asking a lot of professors and doing research on the internet that if you wanted to do the cool jobs you have to go to the States especially at the University level there. So I had to apply for a Masters there and that was one thing I didn’t want to do to: move away from Canada.”

Desai understood that Canada possessed a more service-orientated economy as well as the fact that he had to be on-call 27/4 with little job security, no benefits, no overtime nor sick pay. “So what I wanted to do was do a masters in business rather than in engineering. But before I could do that I had to change jobs. I ended up choosing the financial sector because it’s huge in Canada.”

Desai ended up applying to several banks and other financial institutions and was eventually hired by Manulife. “I never heard of [them] before I applied for the position. The only way I found out about the job was when a family friend who worked there told me about the job posting and thought it would be a good fit for me. So I applied and the first job I got there was as a contract position.”

“Because of my experience at Manulife I always think of the business side first and technology always comes second to me”

Little did Desai know that he would embark on an amazing career journey at Manulife that would span almost 8 years, several promotions and various career-defining projects. His first role at Manulife was to input information from some clients into the system. Desai explains, “Usually companies would login to the Manulife website to change benefits and update information, but with bigger clients like Air Canada or Home Depot they would provide their own feeds. So my first job was to take a feed from one of our bigger clients and load that into the system. So typically a client like Air Canada provides their data in their format. I would manually massage it to fit the Manulife format and load it into the system. The files that we would get would usually take upwards of 4 hours to get it to fit and working with our system. After a couple of months I went to my manager and said I could automate this.”

It was at this point Desai made his calculated risk that would change his career path forever. He proposed to his manager that they use automation technology to streamline the process. To his surprise, they approved it. Desai wasted no time acquiring a license for development software. “I then went about automating the files. One which would have taken 4 hours before took 30 seconds now because of the automation. Then I spent the next couple of months doing the rest of the files and when I finished my name kind of spread through Manulife–that I could work wonders with automation. Then my manager started to loan me out to other teams.”

Desai then notes, “My contract was coming up so they ended up letting me apply internally in the group.” Desai evaluted the files from the new company and quickly came up with a plan to build a prototype of development software in order to intregrate these new files. Desai’s work didn’t go unnoticed. He was then hired in a full time capacity.

“Everyone really liked the prototype so we rolled it out to over 300 users in distribution, At first it was just contacts and then the users started to ask if we could add other data like sales, then we quickly added other important data that could easily be accessed by Manulife.” He continues, “Then different areas within the company started coming to me and asking me about the system I just developed. So instead of 300 people which it was intended for there were 2500 people across the globe using this system. At that point the system needed upgrading so I was given approval to build my first team of 2 developers. Before I was doing coding–now these 2 developers were doing the coding.”

“What I would do all the time is use technology because I was so comfortable with it

Desai immersed himself in the business side and the leadership team started engaging him in strategy sessions. “I was able to add a lot of value–a lot more than I thought and a lot more then the leadership team thought. So then I started a massive project to restructure how the distribution team ran. We spent about a year and half building out the entire plan and then the stock market dropped and leadership didn’t want to go through with the whole plan. I went back to them and said instead of the whole project lets just do a little piece.” Desai was assigned to the project which he created and executed building a team of 10 people which he trained and mentored.

“I was then promoted and was in charge of the back-end part of distribution. I was responsible for financial reporting, sales reporting, external and internal compensation, broker rewards, training and development, event planning and technology. And what I would do all the time is use technology because I was so comfortable with it. We were reporting billions of dollars of sales internally and externally just using a team of 2 or 3 people because everything was automated.”

After 12 years at Manulife Desai decided to look for a new challenage. “I needed to drive the business more and needed more of the ability to have an influence because I think there is a lot I can do. So I ended up at another company called People Corporation. I learned a lot there. Manulife was a 40 billion dollar company and people corp was a 250 million dollar company.”

Desai relished his experience at People Corporation. “Because Manlife was so big; whatever I did did not have an impact on stock prices. Now if I hired 2 people at $100,000 each it would have a direct impact on the stock price. I became much more aware of how things work, how things flow from the business to the outside world and while I was doing that I was applying the same principles that I developed at Manulife keeping technology in my back pocket and putting it on the table when we needed to. I was known as the business orientated head of IT.”

After working at People Corporation for several years Desai noticed there was a gap between technology and business. He notes, “Since the beginning of my career I have seen numerous projects fail due to a communications gap and lack of understanding, businesses don’t quite understand how IT works and IT doesn’t necessarily understand the challenges faced by the business. Most of my career I’ve bridged this gap at Manulife and People Corporation.” Desai continues, “And over the last year at People Corporation I started thinking a lot about this. I could help bridge this gap between business and technology for others and I would get a lot of satisfaction out of helping businesses move past these challenges.”

Desai became very serious about striking out on his own. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it and building a business plan. Eventually I started my own business called Imagis. And the idea is that we do start with basic consulting. We help businesses understand their challenges, prioritize their needs then help them develop an action plan. We don’t have packaged products or solutions. As we worked through our first set of clients, we realized that SMEs did not have the same access to leading edge technologies or offshoring like the multinationals. So, we introduced a risk free/worry free near shoring and off shoring solutions. We provide the quality and quality and standards you expect of onshore projects with speed and cost effectiveness of nearshore and offshore teams by having a dedicated local team that facilitates all of the outsourced work. We also offer access to Robotic Process Automation (RPA) with artificial intelligence. Traditionally RPA is prohibitively expensive for SMEs however, our product is targeted at SMEs.”

Desai’s company focuses on relationships rather than big contracts. “We don’t complete with Deloittes or KPMG. The big contracts. We want to have relationships with businesses and help grow with them. We don’t look for contracts that are millions of dollars. Instead we look for contracts that are the right size for the clients and delivers value to them.”

Desai is founder and partner of Imagis Inc based in Mississauga, Canada whose primary objective is to bring leading edge technologies, out sourcing capabilities and top tier consulting to business that don’t think they can afford them. You can learn more about Imagis Inc and read his insightful blog on robotic process automation at Imagis.ca

Image: Courtesy of Keyur Desai

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