At a conference with a strong diversity theme staged by a company with a public commitment to female equality at work, two of the tech industry’s high-profile women leaders provided insight into their personal careers and worldviews.
Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud, and Ginni Rometty, the ninth CEO in IBM’s 106 year history, sat down separately with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at last week’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco for the proverbial fireside chats.
While clearly with much in common, they also made for contrasting figures. Greene presented as the seemingly more reclusive of the two, someone with a host of wisdom and powerful insights, but who needed those to be coaxed from her by Benioff, a friend of 20 years standing. It was telling that Greene kept checking with the audience that they were actually interested in what she had to say. (They were!).
In contrast, Rometty, fresh from a red eye flight from Brazil the night before, was immediately the more openly confident, sparking with Benioff amusingly. When he asked her if she had ever imagined being CEO of IBM, her rejoinder of, ‘Of course not! Did you think you were going to run Salesforce?’, won her a big laugh - albeit one that was immediately trumped by Benioff 's quip of, "Well, when I started it I did!”
What unites both women are remarkable careers in an unfortunately male-dominated industry in which each has made her own mark in no uncertain manner. Greene has founded two successful firms, VMware and Bebop, as well as now driving Google’s fastest-growing arm, while Rometty as CEO of IBM sets a global agenda for the future of the technology and business worlds.
They are also both greatly admired by Benioff. He said of Greene:
I don’t think there's another story like this in Silicon Valley. The story of a great entrepreneur, great visionary, but also this great love affair you've had with [husband Mendel Rosenblum] and how it's influenced our entire industry... It's probably one of the most successful stories in the software industry, and I don't think there's been a more successful female CEO.
Meanwhile of Rometty, Benioff said:
Ginni, you have become the top female CEO in the world. There's no doubt in my mind.
Both women are clearly exemplars and inspirations to other women in the tech industry, a point made by Benioff who asked each to talk through their experiences that brought them to the Dreamforce stage.
For Greene's part, she studied naval architecture at grad school level at MIT for grad school before going to work in the oil industry. She learned FORTRAN and returned to school to study computer science at Berkeley, where she met Rosenblum.
After a time as a stay-at-home mom, the husband and wife team set up VMware, based on research work into virtualization that Rosenblum had carried out, where Greene served as CEO from 1998-2004. With hera at the helm, VMware enjoyed 100% year-on-year growth, leading to a planned IPO in 2003, which in the event was dropped in favor of being acquired by EMC.
The road to her current Google role began with being invited to become a board director seven years ago, but she didn’t join the company as an employee until 2015 after Google acquired her 2013-founded start-up Bebop. She had already been helping the Google board to find someone to head up the enterprise cloud business. Now all the pieces were in the right place at the right time:
They weren't finding someone 'Google-y' enough, I think. I think the reason I fit the bill for them is I really love working with engineers, I have a technical background and yet I have a lot of fun on the business side.
Her leadership style hints back to the self-deprecation seen on stage:
I don't really like to tell everybody what to do. I like for people to figure out what to do. And yet I don't like chaos. I very rarely have to say, 'No don't do that'. People just do the right thing.
As for Rometty, the road to the IBM top seat began with a stint as an auto industry engineer, a role which was ultimately not satisfying enough and led to a 36 year career at Big Blue. When it comes to leadership philosophy, Rometty talks a lot about values and trust and empathy, both internal and external to IBM:
Everyone has values, but it’s what you do when no one is looking that matters. We have a dedication to every client’s success, to innovation that matters, and to fostering trust and responsibility in all relationships. You have to be willing to change everything about yourself but your core values. And, at its core, it’s about innovating technology and applying it to business and society. It was true then; it’s true today.
When you talk about trust of clients, I think clients have trusted us with their most precious asset, which is their data. … This is something that IBM has always believed. For our clients and our clients that we share together [with Salesforce], which is about 5,000 [in] common, we say, ‘Your data is yours, not mine to give away.’ If it’s Artificial Intelligence, you own the insights, you own the algorithms. If it’s free flow of data, the IBM cloud was built so you decide what country the data sits in, not a government. Or if a government asks for access, we’re the only tech that can say that we’ve never given a government’s surveillance program access to that data.
Today, the relationship between Salesforce and IBM is built on their respective AI offerings, Einstein and Watson. Rometty is conscious of the societal and ethical issues around such tech, as well as the technological ones:
There is a huge obligation on all of us. Man and machine will be in everything. We have to prepare the world for that. You can’t turn your back on any of that. There is a lot of fearmongering around AI killing jobs. It’s happened with every era of technology and yes, some jobs go away and some will enter. An MIT study recently suggested 10% of jobs will go away, but 100% will change because of this era.
This is about the man and machine working together. Not only is that a job you need to prepare the world for, we’re already seeing difficult problems of the world, such as healthcare, being solved by this era.Yes it will change jobs but we will prepare the world for that, and it’ll solve so many problems.
Of course, as female leaders, both Greene and Rometty have been on the forefront of championing female equality in the male-dominated IT industry. Greene related an anecdote about finding herself seated next to feminist author and activist Glora Steinhem on a nine hour flight and discussing the fact that when Greene had entered the business, it had been at the highest point for female representation in proportional terms. Since then, it had been a process of diminishing presence. Steinem was able to explain why:
Whenever a field is starting out, there's no established ways of doing things and gender doesn't matter. And everyone is investing in this new field. But as soon as money comes in and status comes in, the men come in and take over.
Greene noted that things have improved and that there are successful initiatives across the sector to improve the male/female balance. It’s something that resonates at IBM as well, but Rometty made the point of arguing that it's important to get better attitudes hardwired into the corporate DNA than just to look for levels of representation:
You have to progress from diversity to inclusion and that means having employees who feel comfortable to give and participate. Representation is necessary but it’s not sufficient. There’s no silver bullet to this, it’s about pervasiveness. Stay on it, and it permeates everything you do.
But be aware, she cautioned, this isn’t going to be an easy ride, adding that there's a degree of nerve involved:
You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Ask yourself, when did you grow the most, and did you feel at risk? Almost 100% of people will say yes. It’s true for people, it’s true for companies and it’s true for countries.
Both of these Dreamforce sessions were a privilege to sit in on. Two powerful, empowered and empowering female leaders of the tech industry, each offering her own invaluable insights and advice based on her own experiences. In both cases, this is leading by example and it's something we need to see a lot more of.
(Headline with due apologies to Oscar Wilde.)