The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here.
Hello and welcome to the Our Birkbeck podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to showcase the impact members of the Our Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends and whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their stories. To find out more about the Our Birkbeck initiative please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk.
In this episode of the Our Birkbeck podcast, Bianca Smith speaks to alumnus and chief digital officer of Unum, Arvinder Mudhar.
[BS] Hi Arvinder. Thank you so much for joining me today on Birkbeck’s Alumni podcast. I hope you’re keeping well and a happy new year to you.
[AM] Happy new year Bianca, I’m really glad to be here and looking forward to this conversation.
[BS] Thank you. For all you guys listening at home, we’re speaking with Arvinder, who is the chief information and digital officer at Unum. He’s been in his current position since March of 2020, the ever-dreaded year. Today he’s going to speak to us a little about his time at Birkbeck, a little bit about his career, and why he’s so passionate about his work and talking a little bit about the importance of computer science and economic recovery following the pandemic. I thought what would be interesting is to give you all a little bit of an overview of the relationship that we hold with Unum, as it stands.
Unum have been very, very generous supporters of Birkbeck for the last three years and what they do is they ensure that, through the help with financial bursaries, ensure that our student’s financial barriers don’t get in the way on their journey of achieving higher education. So yeah, it really plays an important role in allowing us to widen access to all students and ensure that we support them on their journeys. Thank you so much for your support Arvinder, it is very valuable.
[AM] I am really, really pleased to be a part of it, I mean I am a Birkbeck alumni myself and when I joined Unum I was really, really pleased to understand that we had this relationship with Birkbeck, and I wanted to use the experience I had as a student at Birkbeck and kind of build that into the role I do and kind of create a long-lasting relationship with Birkbeck. Leverage what I’ve learnt, but also kind of continue the outstanding journey I’ve had with Birkbeck.
[BS] Yeah, fantastic. That leads quite nicely into what I want to speak about next. So, you know, we really are interested to hear about your Birkbeck experience, and it would be great to tell everyone what you actually studied with us and when, and a bit more about that experience yourself.
[AM] My day job is that I basically run a large digital change infrastructure on IT departments, so I studied computer science along time ago and I’ve worked in IT and IT related disciplines all my life. One of the things I realised, as you get more senior in role actually, the thing you do is not important as working with people and I always had an interest in career mentoring, career counselling, and for many years I knew that Birkbeck had a master’s degree in career management and counselling and for many years I used to pick up the prospectus and look through it and think I should really apply to this they always put it down. Then one year my wife said to me look, just stop faffing about and just do it. So, I did and that was 2013, I think. It was the MSc in Career Management & Counselling. At Birkbeck, it was a part time and distance learning over two years. And it was, by far away, one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever been involved in.
A number of things, firstly, when going back university after having been out it for so long was a challenge.
[BS] For Sure
[AM] The other thing is that Birkbeck is a fantastic place to learn, the quality of the education the quality of the lectures we had, and the structure was brilliant, and I learnt a huge amount about myself. About what I wanted to achieve, and also about what the subject matter was, Career Management & Counselling, is not it’s not something that is taken lightly. And one of the things I’ve really been able to do is to take what I’ve learned and inject that into my day job.
So, you would look at it and think, well you only work in IT, what’s that go to do with IT? I spend most of my time managing, mentoring, and counselling people to help them grow. I’ve also been able to work with a number of entrepreneurial start-ups. I do a lot of work helping people in the medical and pharmacy sector, and in the charity sector, so people that are in a career so are either been in long term careers and are looking to do something different or a working out what they want to do, and it is massively interesting. So, I’ve always had that as something I’ve done.
When I joined Unum, my role is kind of split into two things. One is running all the traditional IT, but the other is, kind of, how do we transform Unum, who are an insurance company at heart, from being an insurance company that effectively insures corporates, to actually being a much more data centric and digital centric organisation. So, what’s been really interesting is, working with Unum and then working with Birkbeck, you’ve got all these fantastic people within Birkbeck who we work with in terms of the bursaries we use, how we put that together. The role at Unum, when someone asked me what your three priorities, and I said my three priorities for Unum are data, data, and data.
What we’ve learned through the last year of the pandemic, is, it we see the charts every day. We look at the data every day. Actually, how you interpret and use the data how you extract value for yourself, for society, for your firm, is massively important and a lot of that is down to being able to understand where the data comes from, how it’s used, how you translate it into something people can understand. That’s really been a challenge for all of us, but actually computer science and the ability to consume large amounts of data it’s been it’s been the real pivotal point over the last few months.
[BS] Yeah, it’s fantastic. It sounds like the course you studied has been hugely influential in your ability to work closely with people and make a difference in their careers as well. And I think some of what you touched on about how it was quite daunting to come back as a mature student, Birkbeck do have another alumnus that I was speaking sum it up quite nicely, when they said that Birkbeck meets people where they are on the journey rather than creating a one size fits all model that expects people to mould to them. So, I think you summed that up quite nicely as well.
It would actually be really lovely to kind of hear what you think is so special about the Birkbeck community as it had a massive impact on you.
[AM] I think what’s special, you used the phrase it’s a community. On class I was in there was a huge range of people who were there for a huge range of different reasons. When you go to a traditional university at eighteen, nineteen, whatever, everyone is there to have a good time to learn a bit. The reason people go Birkbeck is that everyone is on a different journey.
I think that was massively important, but you weren’t just with a bunch of like-minded people, you with some very different ages, different sectors, different backgrounds.
The other thing that this particular course delivered every year were three residential sections where we spent a weekend with, not just our course, but other courses like occupational behaviour, occupational design and you got to meet people from all over the world and it was it was pretty fantastic.
The key thing is just the quality of the teaching. It shouldn’t be underpaid. I used to lecture at UCL, and I was very, very impressed with the quality of the research and the teaching that went on there. I came to Birkbeck, and it’s as good, if not better, because there’s a real passion and desire to kind of work with different levels of people on different parts of the journey. You can’t teach everyone the same thing because, as you said, everyone is a different path of where they’ve come from. That’s, I think, the real power of Birkbeck.
[BS] Yeah, absolutely. I really have heard some incredible storeys about people’s different backgrounds, and I guess you know like you mentioned the traditional university does kind of feed in quite nicely to students that have come straight out of secondary school and have quite a sort of a unanimous, I guess, model. At Birkbeck, I’ve heard stories about people who are refugees and people who have six children, and they took their eldest to a university fair and ended up being so inspired that they ended up joining Birkbeck for an evening course, I think that is really, really special. Obviously, it would have been really quite challenging year for many Birkbeck students having to adapt to an online environment and maybe not necessarily just related to that but is there any advice you give to a Birkbeck student who’s currently studying with us to.
[AM] One of the things that we were told when we when we started that course was that life events are going to get in the way. Because we’re all at different levels of age maturity family life, personal life, everyone is going to have to deal with different things, don’t assume that you follow the same part as everyone else. The course I was on it was two years, but you can extend it to three years by running your dissertation for an extra year. Then there were some people who were actually remote working, like one chap who was remote working from Switzerland, so everything is different for everyone. What we realised was that when you talk to your colleagues and you talked to the teaching staff, they’re happy to support whichever way you want to work what works for you. Don’t sit there and think. No one else is in this same situation as me. The chances are people will have been through it and will know what to do now to help.
[BS] Yes. Absolutely I think yeah that’s a pastoral support that goes beyond just the educational support is really at Birkbeck and is very much to your point that we have had such a diversity of students come through, that, it is highly likely that someone will have been through the same sort of I guess trial and tribulation as you. So, to reach out and kind of I just feel that unity is really important as well. Thank you so much for elaborating on that a little bit.
You kind of touched little bit on your role at Unum and how that tied in with the course you studied with us. It would be great to hear a little bit as you do sound so passionate about the work that you do. It would be interesting to know, what’s your drivers and what gets you out of bed in the morning.
[AM] I’m passionate about delivering change and, quite often, that change is not something you plan for. So, if you think about, kind of, a year ago, when I joined Unum, I had a very specific business mind about where I want to take the firm in terms of becoming data centric and digital first. What I’ve realised, actually, if you look around at the firms and the people that have succeeded during the pandemic is people who’ve effectively had more digital dexterity. Well to adapt quickly to be able to respond and change their business model, change the way they work, we have to change how they work and who they work with. And that’s only going to accelerate so that the people who can adapt quickly are the people who will survive and thrive. If you think of the people who, not everyone has done terribly during the pandemic. If you’re if you got a delivery company, they’ve probably been very successful. So how do you get better at that. Say, if you’ve got a restaurant and only do takeaways, you probably doing okay just isn’t always to do with IT but actually the people who have been online delivering stuff, delivering services, IT, delivering teaching or anything. If you think of Joe Wicks, the PE teacher, he’s been massively successful because he’s gone only digital.
Some of this is knowing how to do it, and there’s plenty of education and courses out there to teach you how to do it. Some of this is, just pick stuff up and learn. Anything and everything you ever wanted to learn about everything is on Youtube. You can go on Youtube and search “how do you peel a cucumber” and there is thousands of things about how to peel a cucumber. All that kind of stuff is there so don’t shy away from trying to find out.
[BS] Absolutely, yes exactly like my mum yesterday discovered YouTube and its revolutionised her life. I guess something on their programming matched. And obviously you know at the pandemic is highlighting the massive importance of digitization and that feeds really nicely into what you were saying but I’d love to hear a little bit deeper about how you feel about that, and I guess outside of economic recovery, will rely so heavily on the digitization and how you see that occurring and perhaps the role you feel you play your position.
[AM] I think, unfortunately some roles in some job sectors may not come back the way we used to know them, and yet they may have ended up leaving completely online so that didn’t need to educate people to understand how technology works, how it’s not something that sits in the corner and you should be afraid of. It is part of everyday lives. We can almost teach the entire population online now with measures of success. What we need to understand is how do we build people who can deliver these services and systems in the future. Some of that is strictly to build a system to get computer science and learning about computer science it goes a long way on that line. The other is how do we innovate and a lot of the people I speak to in the entrepreneurial community say it’s all been done before. But it hasn’t it hasn’t all been done if you think about companies like Uber or AirBNB, whatever you think of them, they weren’t around get five, six, eight years ago and there is more those coming.
If you look at simple things that you can’t switch on the TV now without being bombarded with adverts for home food deliveries companies who will now deliver you a packaged meal that you just put in a pan. Technology is underpinning that, but it’s the idea have now, and if you have the right technology support you can deliver it and make it a success. I’ll use that phrase again, digital dexterity. You need to be able to moderate how you work and what you work with to use some of those tools and it’s relatively easy to learn, as long as you ask the right questions because quite you will learn by asking the right questions and yet. Sometimes you’ll ask some stupid questions, and sometimes you won’t.
[BS] Yeah, fantastic. That digital dexterity that you keep touching on, it’s incredibly important and perhaps even asking the wrong questions which might send you on the right plan and it certainly an interesting twelve months ahead especially with the six-month lockdown period we’re all facing now.
I thought would be really nice if touched on a little fun one now. Obviously, you’ve spent a couple of years with Birkbeck and I failed to mention at the start that through Unum you’ve stayed incredible connected but also, very kindly, you take your time to mentor our students at Birkbeck as well this year. It would be great to hear three words that you would use to describe Birkbeck.
[AM] I’ve thought about this for a while. The first one is open because that’s exactly what Unum are, open to support you and how you want to learn and what can fit in around you.
The next thing is caring. You’re not just a number in a sausage machine trying to get through university because everyone is so different. There is an element of care around it.
The third one is professional. You end up with a very, very high-quality qualification and that makes a huge difference. To the point where if I get to CVs through, and someone’s got Birkbeck on their CV, I think that, to achieve that given how people go through that it’s a massive achievement in itself. So, I think that open, caring, professional are the three words I’d use if I think back to my experience there that that’s what I take away from it.
[BS] Well, fabulous. That’s 2021’s marketing campaign. Thank you so much for your time today. I know that you’re an extremely busy man we are very grateful for the support that you and Unum provide us. It’s been really great to chat with you and as I mentioned, obviously, we are extremely grateful for the support that you Unum have provided to us. We will share a link in the podcast that will share a little bit more about the relationship with Unum. Thank you so much for your time today and all the best the year that is to be.
[AM] Thank you very much Bianca. I really look forward to working with you in the future.
[BS] Happy New Year
[AM] Happy New Year.
That’s the end of this episode. we hope you have enjoyed listening to Bianca and Arvinder. If you’re interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to learn more about the impact our community is having around the world.
Thanks for listening, and until next time.