Over her 25-year-plus career, Saleema Syed has seen the information security industry from a variety of vantage points, all while championing women in technology. Syed worked as director of business systems and data management for Duo Security before rising to vice president of information technology. Later, after Duo was acquired by Cisco, she transitioned to new roles within the larger organization and now heads up operations for Webex Marketing. In this position Syed brings structure across different functions of marketing including brand, events and technology while also serving as chief operating officer for Chief Marketing Officer Aruna Ravichandran.
“I fell in love with the culture, the kindness, the heart of this company,” Syed said.
Recently, she shared her passion for problem solving and inclusion with the Duo Blog, along with the advice she gives mentees navigating their own career paths.
Not Staying Comfortable, But Always Staying Kind
What about your work energizes you?
Saleema Syed: I like chaos and I love putting a method to the madness. With marketing we have to react to the market, react to the business, react internally. What energizes me is there’s never a dull day and there is always this ability to bring some overall end to end process.
I love running towards a burning car and figuring out how to put it out. I love change. I know change is the only constant and rather than running away from it, I thrive in it. I like to look at it and ask, “What can we do to break it down and figure out what we need to do?”
My brain works in terms of boxes and flows and charts and spreadsheets so when I look at something I’m like, “Okay, what is a box? What is a process? How do I untangle it?” I like sitting in the discomfort and understanding what to do to get out of it.
What drives your career decisions in terms of transitioning from different roles and parts of an organization?
Saleema Syed: There are three things I always keep in mind when I look at what I’m doing and where I want to be. One is, at the core of it, does it fill my cup of empathy and allow me to be true to who I am in how I treat people or how I build a team?
The second thing is, will I have the opportunity to influence and impact the people on the team or my family? How do I show myself to my daughter who is growing and seeing how to become who she is as a career person?
The third thing is, is it something new and am I learning something? Continuous learning is a huge part of who I am, so that drives me to get out of my comfort zone constantly.
When I’m changing jobs people usually say, “You’ve set up this team, you’re so comfortable. Now all you have to do is sit back and execute.” And my answer is, “That’s exactly why I am moving.”
If I am comfortable I’m not learning, and I don’t know if I’m adding any more value than I’ve set up. That means it’s time for me to move on and elevate somebody. What I’m doing is sending the elevator down to somebody on the team to grow.
That’s why I’ve had people who work for me for many years follow me through multiple organizations, which as a leader has been my pinnacle of what I call my success. Success is not my role; it is how many people I have impacted and influenced.
How do you determine the types of problems you want to solve and challenges you want to approach professionally?
Saleema Syed: I keep going back to Duo because working at that organization and meeting those people defined me as a human being. One of the strategic pillars of that organization is to be kinder than necessary.
However complicated the work challenges are, those around me must be aligned with what my integral values are and who I am. They have to have empathy and kindness in their heart. If that is not there, no matter how much I love solving challenges and know I can solve them, I’m not going to go for it. I’ve been extremely lucky at Duo, Cisco and Webex that I’ve been around those kinds of people.
If you look at Webex, I love the core of what we are, the journey we are on, the inclusivity. We are not just selling Webex messaging or other products. At the heart of it we are looking at how we are influencing people and things around us by making sure that there is inclusivity in the collaboration tools that we are launching.
Leading Through Inclusivity + Advocating for Women in Technology
What is your leadership style?
Saleema Syed: My leadership style is pretty simple: nobody works for me; people work with me. I lead with making sure that people know this is the problem you’re trying to solve, here is the context of what we are trying to do. Now, let’s figure out how we solve it. That is something that has helped my team be part of the problem solving that I love to do.
When I interview people my first questions are, “What does the job bring to you? How would this job fill your cup?” That throws people off every time. You can teach any technology, you can teach any skill set, but if you don’t have the basic passion, the attitude to be able to do this job, then everything else can just go out the door.
As a leader who is a woman of color, what particular challenges, triumphs or learning have you experienced?
Saleema Syed: I have a very diverse background. I am an Indian by birth and grew up in the Middle East. When I went into engineering, finished my education and started my career, one of the things I realized was that as a woman of color, I always wanted to apply for positions that I was fully qualified for. I wanted to make sure I knew everything about the job because a very big fear was being asked a question in the interview I didn’t know. LinkedIn’s Gender Insights Report found that women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men despite similar job search behaviors. That has been a very challenging mental barrier for me to break.
Trey Boynton, who was at Duo and now she’s leading Cisco in a beautiful journey of diversity as the senior director of inclusion and collaboration strategy always said, “We have to have that bicycle lane on the road, whether it is for females, whether it is for people of color or any LGBTQIA+ community members. That is how we get people to bring that confidence in to learn, grow and then they can merge easily.”
“Passion is a part of who I am and is contributing to my growth.” – Saleema Syed
Whatever I faced as I was growing up, whether it was my dark skin, whether it was my accent, whether it was, “Oh, you’re way too passionate” has been some of the feedback that I’ve gotten. In my career if I’m told I’m way too passionate I turn that around and say, “Passion is a part of who I am and is contributing to my growth.”
How else do you advocate?
Saleema Syed: Within Webex, within Cisco, I try to be part of anything that I can do in terms of giving back to the community. I’m definitely a big proponent of women in technology. In the local Dallas area I run a program by myself and go into schools and advocate for girls in STEM. Cisco is amazing in how it gives us time to volunteer. I love that educating kids is part of my journey of giving back. That’s the generation you can influence.
How do we enable children and women to be more open to technology and being part of the technology field? Let’s look at the percentage of diversity in the technology field and be aware of it. It’s not only about the diversity numbers, but are we bringing in candidates at the leadership level and giving them not just a seat at the table but a voice at the table, too?
You also have to talk about what you do and with passion and energy because if you don’t, people get intimidated. If you can influence one person who comes from an underrepresented community, imagine what you are doing, not just for that person, but for his household, for his family, for his extended community. I have a lot more to do, but as I get into the next decade of my life and my career, that is something that is a huge focus for me.
What advice do you have for people navigating their careers and wanting to enter tech and cybersecurity?
Saleema Syed: First and foremost it’s very important to spend time and understand the business and the products in whatever industry you’re going into. It is key to your growth. Especially if it’s a security industry, take time to understand the products, the technology or the function that you’re trying to get into. Contextual understanding and product understanding are extremely important.
The second piece is to keep learning. Cisco is amazing in trying to help you learn and support you financially to be able to do it. I went back and got my executive MBA four years ago. Give yourself a goal of learning a new something, whether it is a new function, new technology or new leadership skill.
The third piece is to create a spreadsheet of where you want to be in two years. Put that out there and then work back just like you would do a project plan. Work back month by month, quarter by quarter. What are the skill sets you need to learn to get there?
The last part is: Do the job you want versus the job you are in. Of course, you have to do the job you are in, but do the job you want to get to. Don’t wait for a title, don’t wait for a promotion to act. No. What do you want to be? Show that to your leaders and yourself. The title will come, money will come, everything will come, but am I doing the job that I want and enjoy and I want to get to?
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