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From intern to VP: Growing a career at NM

Ahmed Headshot 2 (1) (1)

In 2001, Ahmed Azam joined Northwestern Mutual as an intern, where he fixed bad code in an area then known as Applications Support. Today, he’s the vice president of Infrastructure and Cloud Services, overseeing a team of over 700 people.  

So, what was the key contributor to his steady rise? 

"The successes I've had at NM are because of the people," he said. "Culture and people are just as important as the technology. Every time I got an offer to move roles, I would think: Is this an opportunity where I get to enjoy working with people I like?" 

Rounding Out His Business Acumen 

Early on in his career, Ahmed had the opportunity to do a business rotation. Armed with a financial background, he spent time in NM’s business area of Managed Investments, which was eye-opening. 

"I was able to understand how our people viewed our technological systems. Like when things aren't working, it really impacts them," he said. "I built a lot of understanding and empathy for how connected technology can be to a positive employee experience.” 

"I started troubleshooting. Any minor enhancements that were needed, I did. Then I moved on to more complex problems." 

Leaning into his Trusted Circle 

Though he was being trained for a leadership position in Managed Investments, he decided to step out of his comfort zone and take a position delivering large corporate projects. 

"I thought it was time to start something new," Ahmed explained. "Not only was the job different and interesting, but there was also a good leader. That was the first time I leaned on my mentors and asked their advice." 

His corporate experience paired with technological expertise led to a job opportunity in NM’s Infrastructure function. 

"The theme that carries on in all of my work is starting at the operational level," he noted. "You learn a lot about what happens day-to-day. You understand the pain points. The philosophy I maintain is being very close to the work." 

Tech Has a Seat at the Table 

Ahmed is amazed at the technological changes he's seen at NM since the early 2000s. 

"The company had been somewhat of a laggard in their adoption of technology when I first started," he recalled. "There was process for the sake of process and resistance to change.” 

"Now I would put our tech on par with anybody. We went from a cost center to a place where technology is an equal, valued partner." 

A few years back, Ahmed ran into someone who had left Northwestern Mutual. The individual said he wouldn't come back because of the inferior technology at the company. 

Ahmed said everything had changed. There was more automation; Northwestern Mutual adopted the latest and greatest in languages. 

"When he interviewed with Northwestern Mutual, he could hardly believe it was the same company," Ahmed said. With little surprise, the employee came back. 

Looking ahead, Ahmed sees a bright future for technology at Northwestern Mutual. 

"At my level, when we have conversations about where we're investing, a lot will be in technology, whether it's our Client Experiences, Field Experiences, underwriting systems, investment systems or elsewhere," he said. "You want to drive deeper relationships with our clients. None of those priorities can be met without technology at the table."