CIO Spotlight: Naveen Zutshi, Databricks

What's the best career advice you ever received? “Take a lot more risks. I was originally very conservative when it came to risk-taking, but every time I have taken what I perceived to be a risk at the time, it has turned out to be a huge benefit to my career.”


Name: Naveen Zutshi

Company: Databricks

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: January 2022

Location: San Francisco

Naveen Zutshi is the Chief Information Officer at Databricks. He was previously the CIO at Palo Alto Networks for the last six years where he was responsible for corporate wide analytics & AI, applications, global infrastructure, operations, and corporate services. Prior to this, Naveen was SVP, Infrastructure & Ops at Gap responsible for Corporate & E-Commerce infrastructure, overall security, and global operations. Zutshi has also worked in a SaaS startup as VP, Engineering and was previously in various IT management roles at Cisco.

What was your first job? My very first job was actually helping my uncle build our family home when I was in middle school. But my first job in tech was for a data company in India working on a criminal information system where we were building a fingerprint based system for the police force.

Did you always want to work in IT? Honestly, I didn’t really know what IT was when I came out of college. I knew that I wanted to work in technology, primarily in computer hardware. But there were very few jobs in computer hardware in India, so I decided to pursue software development. Initially, I worked in a software engineering group, and then later moved to IT.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? In university, I majored in computer engineering, so I worked with computers quite a bit and developed my passion for technology. Later on, I returned to school in the US for a masters in business administration and finance. Along the way, I learned and built systems using C, Java, Python, Informix, etc.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I’ve always had a passion for technology and been part of technology teams throughout my career. From those early software engineering days, I went on to work in IT for both retail companies like Gap and Walmart, and technology companies like Palo Alto Networks and Cisco. In between my retail days and my technology company days, I took a slight detour into two different startups as VP of Engineering. 

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? We are looking to transform our consumption motion end-to-end at Databricks. We are one of the very few consumption-oriented companies, which comes with the advantage to customers of only paying for what they consume. We are focused on making that process more efficient from the customer journey all the way to our backend systems.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As a company, we have three major priorities right now. The first is continuing to own the data lakehouse category, which we initiated. We’re supporting the IT end of this by maximising the advantages customers see of putting all their data and AI in one system. The second priority is making it simple to do this for our customers. The system we have is very powerful, but we want to continue to make it very simple for customers to use. The third priority is to build an ISP ecosystem on top of the lakehouse, since the lakehouse is a platform and not just a product. My team is working on making onboarding ISP providers seamless so that customers can work with the technologies of their choice on top of the lakehouse.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? It depends on what the CIO’s organisation is working on. Increasingly, CIOs at tech companies act as internal CTOs – that’s the vision I have for my own role and what it means to be a CIO moving forward.

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? For us, first and foremost, we want to grow seamlessly. We want to grow without slipping on banana peels, and that’s something IT can help do. You do that by building systems that are scalable so that as the company grows, they can do that without needing a lot of manual IT band-aids along the way. That scaling mindset is essential to both the company’s growth potential and its operations. 

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? When I joined Databricks a few months ago, we did not have established IT KPIs yet, but we have been working to put those in place. These are mostly around net promoter scores for internal employees, availability and performance metrics, and project delivery metrics.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? My goal is to have a mission-led culture, where we have clarity on priorities that map well with the company's objectives. A prospective employee would fit well in the fast paced culture if they have a proven track record of executing against goals in creative ways. At Databricks, we look for employees that are focused on how they can help the company overall succeed regardless of the team they belong to. I also like to cultivate a culture where each employee has a clear growth path within the company where their relationship with work is mutually beneficial.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? I think some of the skills that are hard to find are skills that are still very niche, and often these custom development skills put IT in competition for talent with engineering teams. This requires IT teams to develop a strong brand so that they can entice full stack developers at the same level of quality as engineering teams. The role I think is hardest but most important to fill with the right person is that of product managers. They need to be a perfect combination of creative and technical. I have seen product managers in IT make a massive difference in the value that IT can create, so it’s key to get that hiring decision right.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Take a lot more risks. I was originally very conservative when it came to risk-taking, but every time I have taken what I perceived to be a risk at the time, it has turned out to be a huge benefit to my career.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I always look to build a strong and diverse team. I like to hire people with complementary skills so that we can fill each other’s blind spots. Because we are on a massive transformation journey in a company that is growing so fast, each member of the IT team has the opportunity to do something impactful and interesting and grow from that experience. But in a fast-growth company, you are also thrown a lot of curveballs. As a team we need to be stronger than any one person so that we can hit those curveballs out of the park.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? I think, in addition to not being afraid to take risks, I think every IT leader needs to map out a personal growth plan and approach it with a mindset of continual learning. Any time you feel that the growth curve on your personal learning is flattening out, you need to make a move, whether that is within your current company or elsewhere.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Seeing members of teams that I’ve worked with achieve massive success in their own careers and hope you had a small part to play is most humbling and gratifying. It is immensely gratifying to see someone you worked with went on to become a CIO/CTO or built a successful startup or otherwise succeed.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? If I had a choice, I would have moved to California sooner to get ahead of the “gold rush” in tech.

What are you reading now? A book by Walter Isaacson called The Code Breaker. Jennifer Doudna’s dogged persistence is very inspiring, and it has opened my eyes to the amount of competition there is in academia.

Most people don't know that I… am from a very small place in India called Kashmir, and we were fairly isolated from the rest of the country. I grew up not being very exposed to the world. People also might not know that I moved to Arkansas when I first moved to the United States.

In my spare time, I like to…Splay with my kids, travel and read.

Ask me to do anything but… manage my own calendar. Thank goodness for my assistant!