Dr. Shantha R. Mohan: Software Engineering Leader and Entrepreneur

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Shantha graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1971. After a few years of designing electronic instruments, she took a break to raise her daughter and went back to school to earn her doctorate in Operations Management from Carnegie Mellon University. Her leadership in product development and software engineering spans more than thirty years, multiple generations of products and technology upgrades. She co-founded Retail Solutions Inc. that became a leader in its niche. There she grew the technical team from the ground up to distributed teams across the globe.  Currently, she has a portfolio career of mentoring, teaching, and writing.

Early Life

Shantha was born in a family of eight on October 15, 1948, in a rubber estate in Thenmalai, a small town at the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Her father Dr. B.S.Ramaswami was the Chief Medical Officer at many of the tea estates and rubber plantations in Kerala before retiring and settling down in Madurai as a private practitioner.  Her mother Savithri was a homemaker who enjoyed singing Carnatic music and playing the veena.

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Shantha spent the first two years of school at her aunt’s home in Mayavaram, as the schools in the rubber estate were considered not suitable.  Once her father moved to Madurai, she attended St. Joseph’s Girls Higher Secondary School and completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) in 1965. She went on to complete the Pre-University Course (PUC) at Fatima College, Madurai.

Shantha was academically at the top of her class. She was the class pupil leader in every grade, and became the assistant school pupil leader, losing to someone who won the students over with candy! Even though she came from a Hindu family, the Catholic school and the nuns who ran the school held great fascination for her. Every morning she would arrive at the school earlier than other students to help the nuns with their religious duties. In the summer, she helped the teachers get ready for the next academic year and volunteered in the headmistress’s office. Her excellent performance in the SSLC won her the National Merit Scholarship, which funded some of her expenses in college.

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Shantha idolized her father. She attributes her love of reading to him.  He introduced her to several genres of books, including novels by James Michener; some of those novels made her romanticize life in the USA and probably played a role in her moving to the USA later on. She watched her father treat patients with compassion, sometimes waiving the fee, or asking them to pay what they can afford and this created her attitude of being fair in any situation. She learned the skills of being a good host from her mother who never let her guests leave without serving some refreshments.

The role model in Shantha’s childhood was her immediate older sister Girija who excelled in everything she did – studies, music, painting, crafts, and tailoring. She was also the one who counseled the younger sisters in all things related to school and childhood anxieties. Shantha remembers that when she started PUC, she found the mathematics and physics classes hard because she had not taken the algebra track in high school and found the theorems and riders unfathomable. Every day she would come home and get frustrated with the homework, but Girija was there encouraging her that she could do it.

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Shantha wanted to become an engineer because as a young man her father had wanted to become one but because of circumstances ended up a doctor.  However, Shantha traveling to another city to attend engineering college was not very appealing to her parents. Girija convinced them this was the right thing to do, and Shantha, a naive teenager at the time, set off to Chennai, to join CEG in 1966.

At CEG

Shantha was one of eight girls in her class, and one of four female CEG students who had to find accommodation at the Women’s Polytechnic (WPT) hostel. Her seniors Prema and Nalini were very supportive, and the camaraderie Shantha and her classmates shared at the hostel is something she still cherishes.

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Shantha developed her love of western pop music, especially the Beatles, Jim Reeves, and The Seekers, by being glued to Listener’s Choice on the radio in the hostel warden’s room late Saturday nights.

At CEG, the women congregated in a room allocated to them very close to the Principal’s office to have lunch and rest between classes. Shantha remembers a day of Holi festival when several male students burst into the room and threw colored powder on the girls, and being very scared having never experienced something like that in her small town.

In her second year, Shantha was struck with typhoid fever and spent several weeks in a hospital close to the hostel. When she went back to school, she was so far behind that she thought she might not make it through the year. Yet, she managed to pull through and entered her third year as an Electronics and Communication Engineering student.  She excelled in her classes and graduated as one of the top students in her batch with a B.E. (Honors) degree in 1971.

Career

Shantha taught at the Government Polytechnic College for Women (GPCWCBE), Coimbatore, for a semester before joining Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL) in Hyderabad in 1972 as a Technical Officer Trainee.  As a Technical Officer there she was responsible for designing ultrasonic instruments such as Metal Flaw Detector and Fetal Heart Beat Monitor.

In 1974, Shantha got married and continued to work at ECIL.  In 1976, she and her husband moved to Mumbai. She was expecting a child at the time, so she took a break from work. In 1978, the family moved to Pittsburgh in the USA for her husband’s doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  In 1980, when her child was ready to go to pre-school, Shantha joined the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA), now called Tepper School of Business, at CMU, for her doctoral studies in Operations Management.

The family moved to California after graduation, and in 1985 Shantha joined Consilium, Inc., as a software engineer to work on algorithms to plan the activities of semiconductor wafer fabrication (fab) facilities. The company was a pioneer and leader in Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES). Taking on increased responsibilities over the years, Shantha eventually became the vice president of product development for the semiconductor business of the company, managing multiple incarnations of their products. While she headed the product development group, she was a strong advocate for customer satisfaction and believed in hearing about the use of the system directly from the customers. She traveled all over the USA and countries such as Germany, France, Japan, Singapore, Scotland, and Taiwan visiting semiconductor wafer fabs and talking to the customers directly about their problems and needs. One particular visit to Oki Semiconductor in Japan is memorable for a meeting she had in its smoke-filled conference room with all men except for just one other woman there who served tea.

In 1998, Consilium was acquired by Applied Materials Inc.  In 2000, under Shantha’s engineering leadership Consilium launched a next-generation MES called Fab300 for the 300mm wafer production. The development of this system was funded by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and resulted in a patent on Computer Integrated Manufacturing techniques.  Shantha stayed on as head of Consilium’s software engineering group until 2001 and then left Applied Materials to start her own professional services company called Kaveri Inc. and was joined by her husband. Kaveri Inc. provided expertise to companies in managing software vendor engagements; conducting architecture reviews; and product and project management. Shantha also worked with the west coast campus of CMU in curriculum development and mentored student teams in their Masters’ program in Software Management.

Over the years Shantha has published several peer-reviewed technical articles, and book reviews.

In 2003, Shantha was approached by Jon Golovin, Consilium’s founder, to join him in his new venture on radio-frequency identification (RFID). RFID was at the height of its hype cycle, and the opportunities seemed limitless.  Richard Swan, who was working at SAP Labs at that time on RFID was already onboard and with Peter Rieman, who used to head the semiconductor business at Consilium, the four founders started a company called T3Ci. The name stood for “The Tag Tracking Company” and it was going to track the life of an RFID tag from birth to destruction and use the data to provide business intelligence to the users.

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The promise of RFID was never realized and in 2007 T3Ci pivoted to Retail Solutions Inc. (RSi) to leverage traditional Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) retail data such as point of sale data and supply chain data in a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model to deliver applications and analytics.  Retail Solutions became the leader in this niche.

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As a founder and Chief Development Officer, Shantha had wide influence in the running of the company. She built the product development group from the ground up; the group grew to include globally distributed teams in Mountain View, California; Providence, Rhode Island; Shanghai, China; Pune, India; and Richmond, England; and it developed all the SaaS product and service offerings of the company.  Her interactions with users included multinationals such as PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle and Kimberly Clark; and retailers such as Walmart, Ahold, Walgreens, and Safeway. Under her leadership, RSi developed highly scalable and available SaaS applications and analytics. In 2012, Forbes carried an article on RSi that asked What’s the biggest SaaS company you’ve never heard of?

At the end of 2016, Shantha retired from Retail Solutions. Her engineering team and others in RSi bade her farewell in person and through emails:

“You have been an absolute inspiration. A constant motivation for me to work hard.  You might not even know but I have learned so much from you every single day- especially respect my work and give it my best shot!” 

“I’ve never worked at a company where the Chief Engineer was involved with as many levels of the business as you and from my perspective, it was always VERY comforting to have you actually on customer calls”

Since 2017, Shantha has been mentoring individuals who want to become entrepreneurs, and those considering career transitions, as well as those who have just graduated. At CMU, as an alumni mentor, she mentored students, delivered course contents and participated in curriculum development.  In 2018 she joined CMU as an Executive in Residence, formalizing her role there.

She has always been passionate about continuing education and sharing her knowledge with others. Since 2017, Shantha has had time to engage on social media and share articles of interest and her points of view.  She has also written a number of long-form LinkedIn articles on subjects such as robots, sustainability, and product management.

Shantha is a staunch believer in gender equality. Throughout her life, she never gave it a second thought and went about securing her place in the corporate world, often the only woman at the table. When gender equality became a hot topic in 2017, Shantha decided to work on creating a strong mental image of women-engineer role models for young women.  She started chronicling the lives of the women engineers who graduated from CEG in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.  She has written more than twenty-five life stories with the eventual goal of publishing them as a book. In the process, she has rediscovered old friendships and has made some new ones that she cherishes.

In 2017, Shantha got involved with the North American chapter of CEG and is on its board as director of Education, Career, and Entrepreneurship. She was instrumental in delivering a successful 2017 annual event where for the first time a fireside chat between two women engineers, both CEG alumna, held the interest of the attending alumni and their families.

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Family Life

Shantha’s father passed away in 1978. Her mother is past ninety and lives with Shantha’s younger sister in Coimbatore.  Shantha’s immediate older sister Girija who was her mentor and role model as a youngster was a pathologist. She was sadly struck with multiple sclerosis and passed away at a young age.  Shantha’s other older sisters – Seetha, Meena, and Rajam – are homemakers. Shantha’s two younger sisters – Saraswathi and Janaki – have master’s degrees in science, and chose to be homemakers with interests varying from music to developmentally challenged children. Shantha’s only brother, Dr. L.R. Subbaraman has a Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry and was a Senior Manager R&D, at Futura Polyesters Limited, Chennai, and after retirement a consultant to them in patent development, and human resources planning. Shantha has a huge extended family of nieces, nephews and their children living in different parts of the world.  She enjoys keeping in touch with them personally when possible and through social media.

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Shantha married VJ Mohan in 1974. They met while working at ECIL, Hyderabad.  Shantha had been against traditional arranged marriages in India, questioning the practice of dowry.  She came from a Hindu Brahmin family, but VJ’s mother was a Catholic and his father a Hindu. While there was some apprehension, the families supported the decision and they married in a simple ceremony with officiating help from a priest.

VJ had received his B.Tech. in Electronics from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, and later obtained his Ph.D.  in Computer Science from CMU. He held positions of research and development engineer in Hewlett Packard Labs, Mentor Graphics and Electronics For Imaging (EFI) Inc.

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Shantha and VJ’s daughter Anita holds a J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence, a graduate professional degree in law) from The University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. After litigating for a number of years, she decided to become a full-time writer, her passion since childhood. She now divides her time between writing fiction and poetry, ghostwriting, and reviewing books.

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Her short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent, won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Contest and will be published this year. Anita is married to Steven Felicelli, who is also a writer.  They have one daughter and twin sons.  The little darlings are the source of much happiness for their grandparents who love to spend time with them every chance they get. Shantha’s son Jay is working on a degree in audio technology. He also composes music.

 

Leader and Entrepreneur

Shantha’s career in software engineering fulfilled the promise of her engineering education, taking her to leadership roles and the creation of a software company. At times in her life, the family took priority, and at times her career.  Shantha says:

“When you are young, you don’t know where life will take you. Being flexible and prepared for the twists and turns can help you lead a happy and fulfilled life. Engineering education gives you the ability to think systemically – needed more and more in the increasingly complex world enabled by technology. It is something you can use whatever you choose to do in life.”

Acknowledgements

My family keeps me grounded.  My immense gratitude to them.

Note

This is story number twenty-seven in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.

You can read the life stories of other CEG alumnae on LinkedIn (use #CEGalumnae in the search for posts/content) or my website Mathisarovar.

 

 

8 thoughts on “Dr. Shantha R. Mohan: Software Engineering Leader and Entrepreneur

  1. Wonderful story, very well written. It is a delightful blend of traditional and modern family lifestyles and a great career with loads of accomplishments in education, experience and expertise. It is great to see you so engaged in CEG activities in the US and to read the stories you have been writing. Kudos to you!! Warmly, Nalini Uhrig

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent writeup Shantha and enjoyed reading without a break. You have nicely touched upon all salient features in a brief manner. To be frank I have understood your personal traits more than ever now. I am proud of you being my sister. Our group picture is very appropriate. God
    bless.
    Love
    Ramanna & Manni

    Like

  3. Shanta, I really didn’t know much about your academic and professional achievements. I’m now amazed at your progression in all walks of your profession. I’m really sure you’ll be a role model for all engineering graduates, especially girls.

    Like

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