A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Mani Thiru, Head of Space & Satellite @ Amazon Web Services Asia Pacific, former Strategic Alliances Asia Pacific @ Marketo and Digital Transformation @ Cognizant, Capgemini, Optus, and NetApp.
What is your background?
I lead the space and satellite business for Amazon Web Services (AWS) across Asia Pacific, Japan and Australia. I have a specialized team that supports government agencies, start-ups, and commercial operators building space products or solutions to accelerate their mission with cloud. Under the aegis of retired Airforce Major General Clint Crosier who leads the global AWS Aerospace & Satellite industry business vertical (he’s often referred to as the “architect” of the US Space Force) - our team focuses on innovative solutions that uniquely meet the needs of aerospace-focused customers and partners. Space infrastructure, space exploration, and satellite services are where we have a significant impact on our customers’ missions.
I’ve been with AWS for over four years now. Prior to that I worked in a range of technology and consulting environments. On the personal front - I was born in the UK and grew up in Sri Lanka. My family fled the civil war early on, so technically I grew up in Zimbabwe and then New Zealand. I completed my undergrad (Physiology) and post grad (Tech) in Auckland before taking off to work in Amsterdam. I learnt Dutch while living the Netherlands, ate lots of cheese, drove on the wrong side of the road and started a Masters in International Relations. I then worked for an American company that allowed me to spend time in the Bay area where I had the privilege of going to Stanford University. My peripatetic existence meant that I needed a new passport by the time I got to Australia in 2011 where I promptly fell in love with the stunning beaches. Australia became home – it was the longest time I’d ever spent anywhere. And then in the middle of the pandemic in 2021, I had the exciting opportunity to move again – this time to Singapore with AWS to build out a regional business around the space and satellite market.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I guess I could talk about building highly diverse teams, creating solutions that drive revenue for the company while enabling success for end customers. These have resulted in industry awards and recognition which are always gratifying. In the last two years, I was humbled to be nominated for Singapore’s list of 100 women in IT, win the Emerging Leader’s Award from Women’s Agenda in Australia, accepted into the Forbes Technology Council and profiled at the Australian Space Discovery Centre and Mission Control Centre as “people in the space sector”. But if I think carefully about my accomplishments, it’s less individualistic “me” achieving anything on my own and more centered around moments when my customers succeed; when a launch mission is a success, when we’ve supported the commercialisation efforts of a university spin-out, when TRL levels advance and space products are validated by the market to win contracts or receive investor funding – I’m ecstatically doing the happy dance with the founders and team. I feel a similar sense of accomplishment when my own team is kicking goals, when my staff or mentees advance to the next stage of their career and when I have had a small role in inspiring the next generation of students or a group of emerging women leaders to break through their barriers. I’ve been reframing what success means to me and lately - it’s these moments that I value most as my accomplishments.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
There's no one degree or university that was the magic bullet. I have benefited from multiple teachers and institutions in a multi-disciplinary approach. I’ve been fortunate enough to gain an arsenal of skills from studying science and technology in my early years. Then adding policy, political science and management studies in later years. (I’m not done yet either! I’m flirting with creative writing next). I think the more you know about a variety of topics, the more you can connect the dots. That constant craving to constantly know things, learn, understand and absorb, build and play will eventually lead to the ability to see patterns, trends and derive insights from all that knowledge. It’s in the synthesis of all these that creativity/innovation spark emerges.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Enjoy the most – people! Enjoy the least – people! Let me explain 😊
The bulk of my day to day is spent understanding my customers’ missions and working out how I can help them with AWS cloud services. How to take customers into different markets, extend their international research collaboration, provide access to VC’s. Through this - I meet very cool people who are leaders and experts in their chosen fields; start-up entrepreneurs, professors, astronauts, researchers, diplomats, educators, – hard working, brilliant, funny humans who want to make a difference. I’m constantly learning and inspired by these interactions.
I’m also fortunate enough to be surrounded by an incredible team of men and women at AWS – the space sector is home to highly skilled professionals around the world and some of these very folks are my colleagues. They are inventors and engineers who hold patents, veterans of the satellite industry, servicemen and women with field experience, ex-space agency and government personnel and young graduates who are trailblazing new pathways for themselves. And they come from all over the world with such rich diverse backgrounds to problem solve, innovate, create, deliver. I couldn’t think of anything more rewarding or enjoyable.
I’m also an introvert - someone who is energized by having plenty of time to think and ponder and recharge (alone, preferably), and who is drained by too many interpersonal interactions and activities. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had to push myself from being the kid at the back of the class terrified of being called on to present by the teacher to literally presenting at conferences. Those who identify as introvert will understand the rising tide of panic and anxiety at the mere mention of public speaking or the prospect of the spotlight falling on you at large events. The work of Susan Cain on the power of introverts and on workplace diversity (cognitive diversity in addition to gender, age, ethnicity) has made it encouragingly clear that introverts can be successful in business. And there’s plenty of tactics for all introverts to deploy in the workplace to stay sane while being part of the melee. Still, I occasionally shudder when I see a three-day extended team offsite show up in my calendar.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Software (digital literacy and cloud fluency) will continue to accelerate digitization and automation in space, health, education and sustainability. In November 2021, AlphaBeta compiled a study commissioned by AWS titled “Building Skills for the Changing Workforce” - it revealed the pressing need for digital skills for employers and workers. The study showed that the most in-demand skill sought after by employers by 2025 is the ability to use cloud-based tools. Recognising the importance of this, AWS committed more than $1.2 billion to provide free education and skills training opportunities to more than 300,000 of our own employees to help them secure new, high-growth jobs. AWS also started an initiative to provide free cloud computing skills training to 29 million people around the world by 2025.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation? Ouch...this makes me feel old! I have two things to offer: