April 16, 2010, 2:57 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Born into a culture with limited choices and high expectations, Harry Labana, CTO of Citrix Systems, found that the best way to succeed was to get away and find out who he really was. "Practice curiosity," he says. Harry doesn't believe in getting too comfortable in your career -- and when you get too comfortable, it's time to leave.
You learn more by working at several companies than you would by sticking with just one. From his upbringing in an immigrant community in West London, to being a part of the exciting financial community on Wall Street, Harry's career was one of exploration, learning, and a little good luck thrown in. Now as CTO of Citrix Systems, we can see just how successful his career strategy has been.
Tell me about your educational background.
I went to school at University of Manchester, with my degree in electronic systems engineering.
What led you to get the degree in electronic systems engineering?
I'm of Indian background, and the truth is, you had three choices. You could be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. You didn't really have much choice in those days, so it was, which one did I hate least? My goal was to get away from home when I was younger, as far away as I could possibly go, and get a degree that my parents would approve of. So there was some cultural pressure that I grew up with. I never really wanted to be an electronics engineer, but I ended up getting a degree in it, that is the truth. I think, in the '60s when a lot of immigrants came to the UK, they very much expected you to be in vocational careers, and there was clear direction as to how you could establish yourself there. Doing anything outside of what they understood was always a tough battle. In the end it worked out well for me.
What was the high school experience like for you?
I was born in the UK and grew up in West London. I went to high school in a predominately immigrant area, so I was in a high school full of Indian people. My first English friend was when I went to University. It was an isolated, segregated upbringing, and high school for me, was a cultural clash between the immigrant population. We were a bunch of youngsters trying to find our identity in England, who we were, what we were, and what we were supposed to do and what we couldn't. That was part of what drove a lot of the desire to get away and discover ourselves and who we really were as people. That was probably the wrong reason to go to university, but that's what drove a lot of it. Who were we? We were not Indian, but we were born in England, but we were in this isolated pocket in West London. So who were we? We were British Asians, but what does that mean?
So when you went to university, you saw a more mixed group, that must have been quite a culture shock.
It was to some extent. Fortunately for me I had always played sport in high school. I was always pretty good at getting out there and mixing with people, so I played sport all through university. I used sport as my vehicle to get to know people and build relationships.