C-suite careers advice: Jo-ann Olsovsky, Salesforce

C-suite careers advice: Jo-ann Olsovsky, Salesforce

Name: Jo-ann Olsovsky

Company: Salesforce

Job Title: EVP & Chief Information Officer

Location: Dallas, Texas

Jo-ann Olsovsky is Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Salesforce. In this role, she oversees Salesforce's global IT organisation. Prior to joining Salesforce, Olsovsky was the CIO of BNSF Railway. She has also led technology teams at GTE / Verizon and AT&T. Olsovsky is very active in the CIO and local communities, serving on several educational, customer, and Hispanic Chamber boards as well as Chairman of the Board for Railinc Corporation.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? I was fortunate to have many mentors - some who were quite tough - coach and guide me a great deal in my formative leadership years. A couple of great pieces of advice they gave me:

"Don't sacrifice long-term gains for short-term rewards." Sometimes we, as motivated people, get hung up on immediate recognition - such as a pay increase or promotion - and if it doesn't actualise, we might pass up on an opportunity or role. Instead, we need to think of lateral movements as development opportunities and view our career as a marathon rather than a sprint. To become well-rounded professionals, you need to create and build upon a solid foundation of experience, and continue to learn and take on stretch projects.

Similarly, "Don't jump for the sake of jumping." You must be thoughtful and proactive in your career planning. I've turned down many roles after careful consideration because they were not the right fit for me (the industry wasn't of personal interest, the location or culture wasn't a match, etc.). Ultimately, a role should contribute to your development and be beneficial to your long-term career aspirations.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? "Don't work in IT or your job will be outsourced." While many of us do work closely with partners, everything in our lives at work, at home, in our hobbies, etc. relies on technology. In my opinion, IT professionals are highly-adaptable, flexible, and in-demand. I think if you are in IT or a STEM-related field, you have a job for life.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Stay motivated, open and curious, and continue to invest in learning and your own personal growth - amazing results and exciting adventures will follow.

Did you always want to work in IT? Growing up, I loved science and math but certainly as a youngster, and even in my early career years, I was not always supported and often times was the lone woman. I'm extremely glad I persisted - I was the first in my family to graduate from college, earning a degree in Electronic Engineering followed by a B.S. and MBA while working at AT&T and progressing into IT as an engineer, project manager, and manager. I was fortunate to have many mentors encouraging and teaching me along the way. Today, I'm a huge advocate of both K-12 STEM education and involvement with local public schools.

What was your first job in IT? My first job in a STEM field was as a technician troubleshooting modems when I was just 19. I spent my first five years in that role as we were downsizing and opportunity was scarce. I then became a field engineer, project manager, and IT manager.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? I would list a few areas:

Misconception #1: IT has been traditionally seen as a cost centre that runs infrastructure, computing, help desks, client services, etc. While we do that, we do so much more. We are a key player in enabling and differentiating our respective companies through innovative application of technology. We are change agents and we challenge the status quo. We envision the future and imagine the art of what's possible. We proactively engage with both our internal business partners and our customers to understand their near and long-term needs so we can enable them with technology solutions. I am still surprised to see IT organisations that don't directly engage with customers. You learn so much by engaging directly.

At Salesforce, we meet with customers regularly to exchange experiences and learnings on how we run Salesforce on Salesforce. Salesforce IT is Salesforce's customer zero, meaning we are the first customer of our products and releases. This gives us the opportunity to provide feedback and help influence capabilities, ultimately making our products even better for our customers.

Misconception #2: In speaking to young people who are early in their careers, there's a belief that IT has no work-life balance and/or it's just for males. I think the notion of no work-life balance certainly has moments of truth given demands du jour, but it's up to us as both leaders and contributors to work smart and foster an environment where people have great work-life balance. Also, I think we are all responsible for ensuring we have diverse candidate pools and for fostering wonderfully inclusive environments that are welcoming of all.

We should all engage with our communities and schools to share our stories of what a career in technology looks like. Personally, I think because of technology, we have more work-life flexibility than ever before.

Misconception #3: IT is all about cost cutting. While organisations and leaders have a financial responsibility to automate and run smart businesses, it's incumbent upon all of us to be strategic, too. Entire new products and ecosystems have been created thanks to technology. It's up to each of us to take initiative and be a trailblazer - to create a smart business plan or technology roadmap, to gain executive sponsorship, and to pursue awesome ideas.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Listen to your team. I surround myself with people who call it like it is. I've seen so many leaders falter because they surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear. Collaboration, trust, and transparency are a huge part of our culture at Salesforce. We foster a safe environment so that everyone is empowered to voice their opinions. It makes us better individuals and a better company.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Honestly, I started my career as a technician and aspired to be a director. Others I worked with would tell me I would be CIO one day, and I would chuckle to think that could even be possible. Sometimes you don't see potential in yourself that others may see. I'm very thankful - it has been an incredible journey and I've gotten to work with awesome people.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? "My time, your time, our time, family time" is our family's guidepost. Yes, I definitely feel I have work-life balance. Certainly any executive or professional role is demanding - I have a sizable organisation with many people who depend on me and I travel frequently. I also have four sons and extended family demands to keep up with. 

Fortunately for us at Salesforce, culture is a huge part of what makes us so successful. Family and wellness are a big part of our culture, and we have global programmes in place to promote wellbeing across all teams. Our employees are part of our Ohana, our family, and we want to be sure that they are healthy and happy.

Family is incredibly important to me so I prioritise time with them. I often spend my weekends with my husband and four sons at sporting events, whether it's a game my son is playing in or a family outing to watch the pros. I am also very physically active and have a personal passion for wellness.

Everyone's different - you need to do what works for you. You and your partner, spouse, family, friends, etc. together define what success is for you. But, to make it all work, certainly being at a company that prioritises personal and work balance is paramount to your ability to achieve that.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. I'm both who I am and where I am today because of my previous work experiences. In telecommunications and transportation, I worked on business-critical systems such as Emergency-911, voice services, field service, and railway safety and transportation systems. These priority systems simply cannot be unavailable - every moment is crucial - and our customers and operators trusted us to make sure they were continuously available.

Even though my roles have changed through the years, my values haven't. My #1 priority is trust. That means ensuring the security of our systems, being transparent with stakeholders, and delivering reliable services for our company and success for our customers.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both are wonderful options that open doors, but if possible, I would aim for a combination of the two. Coding bootcamps and skills courses, including Trailhead, are great career enablers, but I would couple them with other applicable business, technology, and/or project management classes. We have amazing public and private universities worldwide with every curriculum imaginable. If possible, take advantage of them. I started my career with an Associate's Degree in Electronic Engineering, and worked my way through school finishing my B.S. and MBA as an adult. It can be hard, especially if you are in a situation like I was where you don't have financial resources, but we shouldn't let that stop us. Find a motivator to help keep you going; for me, it was my mom.

How important are specific certifications? More than just specific certifications, I believe continual skills development and lifelong learning is critical. Salesforce supports various programmes and initiatives - including PepUpTech, YearUp, Vetforce, and others - to help train people of any background for the jobs of the future. In fact, we offer a free online, gamified learning platform, called Trailhead, that allows anyone to learn in-demand Salesforce skills at their own pace. We also offer our employees education reimbursement to encourage and promote their professional development.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Beyond one's functional background and expertise, I look for these qualities:

Motivation: I look for people with a great attitude who are passionate and motivated about what they do, what they want to learn, and how they can contribute to our team. These are the folks who not only do their job, but go above and beyond because they want to make a difference. Whatever your role, be awesome at it.

Collaborative: Salesforce IT is all about working in a collaborative environment. We help each other, work closely, and build strong, collaborative relationships between the technology team, internal and external business partners, customers, and industry experts. We leverage those strong relationships to gain a deep understanding of our business partners' perspectives, which enables us to find the best solutions for them.

Inclusiveness: Equality is a Salesforce and a personal value. We welcome and celebrate different perspectives and different backgrounds. Diverse teams bring a variety of perspectives to the table, which inevitably fosters innovation.

What would put you off a candidate? At Salesforce, our core values - Trust, Customer Success, Innovation, and Equality - are deeply ingrained in our culture and guide what we do every day. Because of this, our recruiting process is very thoughtful - we want each and every one of our new hires to share the same values that we do so that we can continue to grow our culture at scale and drive positive change in the communities where we live and work.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not bringing your authentic self to the interview: We celebrate different backgrounds and perspectives in a big way at Salesforce. I would much rather hear a candidate's passions and unique perspectives than just generic or overly-scripted responses.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Depends on the role actually. I think it's like a pendulum - in some roles, you might need a detailed technical understanding; in other roles, you may only need to know the fundamental basics of your systems, or somewhere in between.

Our business partners look to us to provide them with solutions that enable them to work faster and better. To do this, we need to empathise with the business and understand what they need and/or where they'd like to improve. To ensure that we're offering the best solutions possible, we have to be in the know about emerging technologies and understand how things work from a technical perspective, such as whether a technology is a good fit for our ecosystem and how well it will scale over the years.


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