CIO Spotlight: Colleen Berube, Zendesk

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? “The ‘conventional CIO’ role has transformed. The modern CIO has moved from command and control to guide and govern.”


Name: Colleen Berube

Company: Zendesk

Job title: CIO & SVP Operations

Date started current role: January 2019

Location: San Francisco, CA

As Zendesk’s chief information officer, Colleen Berube is reshaping Zendesk's benchmark for modern IT at scale and a customer-centric workforce. She is passionate about the role of both customer and employee experience in the digital age. With more than 20 years of experience across multiple industries and an ever-changing technology landscape, Berube is a digital- and business-model transformation leader. Her innovative strategies help companies put their customers at the centre and create work environments focused on collaboration and open communication.

What was your first job? I was a checker at Wegmans grocery in upstate New York. At the time, Wegmans was on the cutting edge, using scanning registers!

Did you always want to work in IT? I never imagined wanting to work in IT. I started my career in operations as a quality analyst, and I was always tinkering and looking for ways to be more efficient using any tools I could get my hands on. The director of IT tried to recruit me for three years and when I realised I could have a career where I could do this all the time, I knew I was on the right path.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I graduated from State University of New York College at Potsdam with a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, followed by a Master’s of Business Administration from the University of North Florida.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Following my stint in operations I joined SAP, which at the time was starting to grow and expand rapidly in the North American market. I was part of the first group of people who were formally trained for their professional services organisation, and I loved it. I spent nearly six years implementing SAP in all different kinds of companies all over the world - it was a tremendous learning opportunity, and hard work but fun. I then moved from consulting into industry, and held senior IT leadership positions at SAP, Palm Inc, Cisco Systems and Adobe. After Adobe, I took a year of personal time (which I highly recommend) and then joined PwC, where I served as Executive in Residence helping the firm increase their engagement with CIOs, and enhance their ability to engage with senior IT leaders on digital transformation. It was a great opportunity to share my experience, and also do work of a completely different nature which helped me be successful in my role at Zendesk in ways I hadn’t imagined.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Zendesk is focused on driving growth and scale. We are expanding our digital reach and evolving our customer experience, starting with improving self service and the experience whenever we engage with our customers, whether it’s starting a trial, purchasing online or getting help. In addition, to support our overall growth rate and the need to scale operationally, we are improving our end-to-end measurement of the business, simplifying processes, and automating wherever we can.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? We are on a mission of bringing radical simplicity to enterprise software. This concept of ‘radical simplicity’ is of utmost importance when we think about how businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, and how we will start to embrace a new, hybrid way of working. It has to be easy and seamless, which means doing away with a lot of old, legacy ways of thinking and working.

One of the biggest shifts we saw last year was that our customers were no longer thinking about transformation in multi-year timeframes - there has been a dramatic acceleration. That pace means we can no longer be ok with hard and complicated - our new fight song is simplicity. And this applies all across our business, from the tools and solutions we equip our employees with, to how we serve our customers.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The ‘conventional CIO’ role has transformed. The modern CIO has moved from command and control to guide and govern. Technology today no longer requires fully dedicated IT teams to implement and manage it, and furthermore the workforce overall is more technology savvy. What this means is that CIOs can move away from running everything, and take a larger, more strategic role of ensuring that the entire ecosystem supports and advances the company’s aspirations.

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? Our focus is on delivering simplicity in all our customer and employee experiences, and we have embarked on a series of transformations across our business to support this. Ultimately, when these are done well and consistently, they will deliver the growth we are committed to deliver on, build our company for scale, and at the same time minimise process and technical debt. The balance of the two always involves considering speed to completion vs. the debt created. We consider this tax as part of our decision-making process and keep visibility on the debt we created.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? While we are working on improving consistency, we measure the value IT brings in terms of the business impact, and that is measured through business metrics. These include: revenue growth, customer retention, and how quickly our customers and employees are able to get resolution to a problem. We strive to identify those metrics at the outset of an initiative, estimate the anticipated impact, and then measure the actual results over time.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? At Zendesk, we have three core values: focus on relationships, practice empathy and be ‘humblident.’  ‘Humblident’ is a homegrown word made from combining ‘confident’ with ‘humble.’ Everywhere you look at Zendesk you see the manifestations of these values - nowhere more so than in our people. We hire for diversity, but also for people who embrace these values and our culture of being helpful.

Since transitioning to a fully remote way of working, we realised that how we cultivate our culture, as well as how we support our people, needed to change. As a result, we’ve been hyper-focused on collaboration, employee education, diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as mental health.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Finding great engineers and security talent right across the board is a challenge. These are areas with high and increasing demand globally and are tough to hire. We have found that our expanded approach to hiring post-pandemic has greatly enhanced our access to great talent. We expect these trends to continue given the acceleration to digital across all industries. 

What's the best career advice you ever received? Work life balance is a batting average. Sometimes you will need to focus on your work and your family will need to support you, and sometimes you will need to focus on home and work will have to give.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. While a succession plan is not as yet formalised, I’ve built a great leadership team. When building my team, I am focused on bringing together diverse skills and backgrounds, while looking for a common thread that matches our values and needs as a company. For example, at this point, having leaders that can reach into the details and teach their teams while also knowing what performance at scale looks like is key to success at Zendesk.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Learn as much as you can about the business you support and what makes it successful.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Watching people who were members of my team go on to achieve great success in their own right.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Walked more, ate less.

What are you reading now? A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

Most people don't know that I… Am a rower.

In my spare time, I like to…Head out at 5am for a row! This passion of mine has taught me countless lessons about discipline and teamwork.

Ask me to do anything but… Go where it’s cold - I like being warm!