CIO Spotlight: Sharon Mandell, Juniper Networks

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? “For me, the formula is simple: people come first, and technology comes second.”

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Juniper Networks

Name: Sharon Mandell

Company: Juniper Networks

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: June 2020

Location: Sunnyvale, CA

Sharon Mandell is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer leading Juniper’s global information technology team. In this role, she leads the ongoing enhancement of the company’s IT infrastructure and applications architectures to support the growth objectives of the company. She and her team are also responsible for showcasing Juniper’s use of its technologies to the world.

What was your first job?  In my final year of college, I worked for the Philadelphia Stock Exchange supporting their Honeywell GCOS-based Word Processing and Data Entry systems – PCs and LANs hadn’t been adopted yet –and I learned a lot from the feed systems that processed stock and options data to and from the NYSE.

Did you always want to work in IT? I can’t say I had today’s IT industry in mind when I started, but I became interested in computers after speaking with an advisor in college who asked what I liked and subsequently recommended computer science after a thorough run-down of my likes and interests.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a BA in computer science from Temple University and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Focusing more on delivering results that demonstrated my experience instead of certifications, I also completed the majority of a Masters in CS from Georgia Tech and worked on parallel compiler and distributed system research with professors at the university.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. During and after my time in undergrad, I worked as an engineer for a variety of software companies before co-founding Plannet Crafters and serving as VP. In that role, I spent time toggling between running business operations and developing software and realised I had an interest in both. I needed to feed both sides of my mind and wanted to better understand the business decisions by getting my MBA while working at Tribune Company.

From there I served in a variety of roles including VP of Technology at Knight Ridder, SVP & CTO of BlackArrow, and CIO of Harmonic and TIBCO before I moved to Juniper Networks.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year?  Creating business value from data is a main focus for me this year, which is where AI comes in and is already playing a huge role. Internally and with customers, our AI is being used to answer routine help desk questions and free IT teams to spend less time doing rote or routine activities and more time solving problems that create value. Business value doesn’t just come from engineering. IT’s ultimate purpose is partnering with the business to deliver great experiences to employees and customers, and delivering shareholder value.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As CIO, my two objectives are to enhance our internal infrastructure and support our customers. To be successful, IT must have a clear vision of how technology can make an organisation and all of its stakeholders more productive and valuable. In this regard, AI will be a top priority. It’s a critical aspect of our strategy to serve our customers and we’re also integrating it across our entire portfolio. Since the acquisition of Mist, an AI-driven wireless vendor, in April 2019, Juniper has been bringing the company’s AI-driven analytics and virtual assistant into Juniper’s wireless, wired, WAN and security products and I’m excited to help lead the march of AI at Juniper as we continue to expand these capabilities at such an exciting time.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I think that really depends on the size and maturity of the company and its IT strategy. The reality is that if you’re constantly working to keep the lights on, you aren’t able to have those strategic conversations about creating great customer experiences and business value. I have what I call the “CIO’s Hierarchy of Needs” that I refer to, with essential operational tasks at the bottom and proactive business leadership initiatives at the top. Ideally, performance, budget, and security tasks are being handled and running smoothly, so CIOs can focus on high-level, business leadership tasks and “having a seat at the table,” but inevitably that’s not always the case.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? As I recently joined the company, I am evaluating business needs and working to set the course of our organisation to ensure we continue meeting the needs of our customers, partners and employees. I believe transformation has become a constant and what isn’t digital today? Currently Juniper is on its journey to become more cloud, software based and increasingly AI driven in its product delivery. This has implications for how we operate across the company and that’s the transformation I’m currently supporting.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Juniper as a company aligns around a set of overarching OKRs to drive results, and my department has its own set that tie and roll up into those.  Often KPIs are a good way to measure or quantify the key results that drive objectives.  We constantly evaluate and get feedback from stakeholders to ensure IT is providing value and is an enabler of business success.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?  For me, the formula is simple: people come first, and technology comes second. Cultivating it is more complicated as IT leaders need to balance being empathetic listeners, effective communicators, and strong negotiators, but it really comes down to trust and partnership. You have to be transparent.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Finding people who have a balance of passion for technology combined with a desire to truly understand the business is always a challenge. For me, it’s not just about tech skills, but tech skills that can be applied to Juniper’s unique business challenges.

What's the best career advice you ever received? My Italian computer science professor had a version of Wayne Gretsky’s “don’t skate to where the puck is, but where it is going.” Essentially, don’t take the job that uses the skills you have now, take it for the skills it’s going to give you for the future. At the time he was talking about coding in assembler on a VAX in a health tech company vs. learning C and a variety of UNIX variants while developing networking software, but I’ve applied the concept to all types of skills over the course of my career.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Succession planning and evaluating operations to advance technology strategy must be an ongoing process for any IT leader. This is especially true during COVID – which may create near term “step into someone’s shoes” challenges vs needing true succession. With the use of AI becoming more prevalent, the technology can help take away the mundane tasks, reducing the need to train a person on tactical elements, and instead freeing up time to cross train on more mission critical skills to solve the harder problems that teams will encounter.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Be a student of the business you’re in and do something you’re passionate about and feel you can have an impact on. Learn from others who’ve gone before you but realise you’ll need to learn new things, over and over. Any hard, tech skills you learn today likely won’t be the right ones tomorrow. Invest in relationships with others.

What has been your greatest career achievement? My best career achievement is twofold – being thought of as the right person for the role I’m occupying right now and seeing people who’ve worked for me have as good or better career success than I do.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? While I’m not a person who spends a lot of time contemplating “what ifs” and I’m usually only looking at my past to inform my future, it’s been a great ride. I’ve had tremendous opportunities and diversity of experience and I feel that all of it together makes me the perfect person to have the role I’m in now.

What are you reading now? I recently finished So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo with my CTO group book club and am currently reading Together by Vivek H. Murthy and Technology as a Service Playbook by Thomas Lah & J.B. Wood.

Most people don't know that I… am a ballet and hockey fan. I pride myself on converting ballet lovers into hockey fans and hockey fans into ballet lovers.

In my spare time, I like to…Ride my bicycle, visit wineries, and cook with my friends and family.

Ask me to do anything but… Prepare the same meal twice.