“We collaborate fiercely and without boundaries” – an Interview with SUSE CEO Melissa di Donato

Today the SUSECONdigital 2020 starts! Upfront the cloud report interviewed Melissa di Donato. Have a spectacular SUSECON.

SUSE prides itself as the largest independent open source company in the world. With the appointment of Melissa di Donato to CEO in August 2019, SUSE started a new chapter and put itself on the path to global growth. In this interview, Melissa explains how her style of leadership matches perfectly with the vision of open source, the role of women in tech leadership and how fierce collaboration inspires SUSE and its customers.

Leadership is all about making an impact on the (business) world. To begin with, what is your individual perspective on the challenges and opportunities that businesses face today?

I once said to my mother, “I want to leave a mark. I want to do something. I want to change the world.” Although this is by no means an easy feat, throughout my career, I have always dared to be different to affect change and drive impact in the world around me. I bring this perspective into every role, and SUSE is no different.

I believe that one of the toughest challenges that some businesses in this industry face is that they are very prescriptive when it comes to adopting their entire IT stack. Vendors put a lot of pressure on their customers to fully adopt their products and perspectives. SUSE takes more of a “Lego” approach, where we offer a broad portfolio of agnostic offerings that com­ bine to form industry­leading solutions. Customers have a choice and can swap out one of our blocks for another and advance as technologies change and develop. The offerings we pro­ vide are defined by what success looks like to our customers; our agenda is the customer agenda. In a world where we choose to simplify, we havemore complexity than we could ever imagine. SUSE is here to help our customers simplify their business by crafting a path to greater efficiency, data security, and economies of scale.

How does your perspective impact your understanding of digital leadership?

I mentioned earlier that I pride myself in daring to be different. At the center of this is having a deep understanding of the customer and ensuring they are top­of­mind in all that we do. This is core to SUSE, a company that is inherently customer focused. I mentioned before, at SUSE, our agenda is the customer agenda.

Prior to SUSE, I created the first compensation model to support customers based on their success. This meant that bonuses were based on go­lives and utilization of the software, as op­ posed to signed deals. As a result, this brought significant change in how employees within the company were compensated while putting the customer’s needs first.

In a previous tech leadership role, I also built the very first inside sales and commercial sales team, which was focused on cloud solutions for mid­market to large enterprises. I had implemented the Customer for Life Program, where the team supported customers with their deals, providing them with a 24/7 support and sales model. With the goal of retaining customers, they also provided a Customer Success Man­ ager for every deal closed. By looking beyond just acquiring new customers, I worked towards maintaining a relationship with these customers with a goal of 100% renewal.

 

“I’ve learned throughout my career that openness and collaboration are critical to any organization.”

 

You are currently in a very exciting situation: You just completed the first six months of your tenure in a company that prides itself as the leading independent opens source company in the world. How did your style of leadership play out so far?

In this time, I’ve challenged everyone at SUSE to keep the customer at the heart of all initiatives, while being fiercely collaborative as a testament to our open source ethos. I had the opportunity to meet with 95+ customers and dozens of partners from around the world to understand their business goals, to see how SUSE fits within their strategy, and how we can drive the most impact together. The insight gained was instrumental as it gave me a greater understanding of how SUSE can become a more strategic partner, and it directly impacted our near­term business strategy and go­to­market.

During this time, I also made a concerted effort to invest in our talent with development sessions aimed to empower each of our employees to understand the SUSE strategy and go­to­market. I also kicked off two mentoring programs. The first program paired every new employee with a mentor outside of their direct team to help them with their journey in the company. The second is a more formal role­specific mentoring program. As one in five employees have signed up to be a mentor, we are continuing to scale and formalize this program.

What immediate results do you see for both the company, but also for the clients, initiated by your leadership style?

As I mentioned earlier, the meetings with our customers have defined the short­term FY20 and mid­term three­year strategy for SUSE. Our customers have made it abundantly clear that they want to rely on SUSE to simplify and optimize their apps and data in their existing IT environment, modernize their business by bringing these apps and data into the modern computing world, and accelerate innovation to help them improve or even transform their business models. To meet these needs, we rebuilt and adjust­ ed our go­to­market strategy. Not only do we want our customers to succeed, but much like we aim to be the difference in this world, we empower them to be the difference they want to be through our innovation.

Do you see a unique flavor of leadership that is imperative for an open-source environment as SUSE stands for?

One of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career is that openness and collaboration are critical to any organization. These traits are also fundamental to the open source identity and deeply entrenched in SUSE’s culture. As a leader, I want to ensure the culture at SUSE remains rooted in the history and values of open source, that we are continually inspired by our openness and diversity – where we collaborate without boundaries and learn from one another while giving back to our community.

Your communication puts a great emphasis on diversity and female empowerment. How does this commitment and our understanding of leadership relate?

As a woman, I’ve encountered various obstacles in the traditionally male­dominated field of technology. Being one of a handful of female software developers at my first job, women were even encouraged not to wear trousers as coders. Companies need diversity and inclusion at every level of their organization as it not only enhances performance, but it assures employees that they are valued, and their voices are heard. I am so proud to have been able to launch two employee networks to promote inclusion within our company, namely Women in Technology and Pride at SUSE. These groups are open to all, and new members continue to join every day. Furthermore, I am also set to launch the sustainability employee group, #GoGreen. This will be an inclusive network of employees who promote, collaborate, and execute pro­environment ideas and sustainability initiatives across SUSE.

We’ve seen you visiting hundreds of SUSE offices and SUSE clients personally during the past months. What are the responses and insights that you accumulated during these visits? Could you share with our readers how these important conversations will shape your plans and leadership?

The conversations that I have had with our customers have been invaluable. I mentioned before, they have directly shaped our near and mid­term strategy. Our customers want to de­ pend on SUSE, and we’ll be there to help them succeed whatever their transformation journey looks like.

After meeting with employees from around the world, it is profoundly clear that we have some of the most passionate and talented employees I’ve ever worked with. My goal is to ensure our team remains fiercely collaborative with each other and that we continue to keep the customer at the center of all that we do.

As a person, you’ve grown into a position of role-model for many aspiring women in the global tech community. If you could share one final piece of advice, what would it be?

Step beyond your comfort level and dare to be yourself!

Thank you for the exciting and open interview!

 

 

The interview was conducted by Julia Hahn / Cloudical

Figures © Kurt Rebry / SUSE

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