Female Disruptors: Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix, Is Shaking Up The IT Industry
“As a leader in my industry, I want to be part of the solution. I believe that in my lifetime we are capable of getting it right and having the diversity of senior leaders, companies and boards represent society more equitably. To that aim, I recently joined the board of directors of Girls in Tech, a global non-profit focused on the engagement, education and empowerment of women in technology.”
I had the pleasure to interview Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix.
What is your “backstory”?
I’m currently CIO at Nutanix, but before that I led technology teams at companies like GoPro, Yahoo!, Cisco and others. My interest in technology began when I was a junior in high school. I learned about a contest NASA was hosting where the winner would have the opportunity to research and work at NASA. I decided to submit my idea for the contest and, to my surprise, I won the contest and was requested to leave high school one day a week to work at NASA.
My school gave me permission, but my parents were worried the opportunity would interfere with my future success. They were concerned there weren’t jobs for girls in science or math, so I promised to take secretarial classes on the side so I’d have a way to support myself and be a contributing member of society. Ultimately, this early experience energized me to excel in school, at work, and in life. And since that time, I’ve made sure to pursue the technically challenging opportunities that I find compelling. After all, if something doesn’t work out, I can still type 100+ words a minute!
Why did you want to work in the IT space?
My experience at NASA made me realize that I loved working on large scale computer systems. This was in the 1980s when PCs were just starting to be used. I was fascinated with basic computer programming. While I knew I wanted to be involved in IT, I didn’t know which area to focus my attention. I got my degree in business and took computer classes along the way. My first few jobs were more math-focused and on the periphery of IT technology — a GPS navigation company and an early graph visualization company paved my way.
As my career progressed into the 90’s, the tech sector boomed in Silicon Valley. From early 90’s onward, I had a tremendous passion to help companies bring interesting technologies to market. I was fascinated with Cisco Systems who, at the time, was instrumental in the IT market. I had a hunger to be associated with them and play a key role in enabling transformative technologies. My role at Cisco was to apply the technology Cisco sells externally, to run Cisco internally. Later, I had a similar role at Yahoo! I learned that I was passionate about helping companies to take advantage of their own disruption.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
For the last couple of years I have said that I believe IT as we know it is dead. IT departments around the world are dinosaurs. Traditional IT should go the same way as the dinosaur. However, there’s an opportunity to take the best of IT’s DNA and apply it to our modern tech environment. Think about the crocodile for instance. Crocodiles are perhaps the closest modern animal we have to dinosaurs alive today, but they were able to adapt and thrive in the contemporary world. We’ve now reached an inflection point with new technologies coming into play and IT needs to be adept at using infrastructure as code and machine learning and leveraging public cloud at scale. My work with Nutanix and the company’s OS, which runs virtually any workload anywhere, is key to the survival and progression of IT — it’s enabling IT to thrive like the crocodile!
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
I’ve had many mentors throughout my career, but three stand out. The first is Ethan Thorman, my boss at Cisco, who helped me to understand how to balance leadership and strength.. Another mentor is Ash Patel, one the of inventors of Yahoo’s core technologies, who helped me present my own technical skills and abilities without apology.. The third is Bradley Horowitz, a leader at Google. He helped me to understand how to achieve measurable results while doing multiple things in parallel.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Now that I’ve had a few years to be more senior in my career, I realize my voice is valuable as an agent for transformation, and the need is greater than ever. In fact, statistically, our industry is actually losing ground in terms of gender diversity, and we’ve lost also lost ground in terms of the percentage of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies in general.
As a leader in my industry, I want to be part of the solution. I believe that in my lifetime we are capable of getting it right and having the diversity of senior leaders, companies and boards represent society more equitably. To that aim, I recently joined the board of directors of Girls in Tech, a global non-profit focused on the engagement, education and empowerment of women in technology.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
My first piece of advice is to keep showing up. The principal of persistence really pays off. It took me 8–9 years to earn my bachelor’s degree. One of my professors encouraged me, saying that any class I passed would help accumulate credits to my degree, and eventually they’d have to give it to me. Unless women show up to the table, they won’t be able to take advantage of opportunities. In the end, persistence and drive pays off, no matter your gender.
My second piece of advice is that it’s not a race. Sometimes the pressure we feel to succeed and achieve is a real positive force, but the pressure to accomplish something by artificial deadlines we put on ourselves (by a certain age, tenure, etc) can be destructive. Life is a journey and sometimes readiness takes time. As long as you are making forward motion, no one can put that pressure on you except yourself.
My last piece of advice is to stop thinking imitation will lead to success. As women, sometimes we think we must act like a man in order to get ahead. However, women have advantages in terms of their ability to multitask and operate on multiple levels. Women should be their authentic selves and use their own unique skills in order to achieve success.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
In the last 10 years, I have learned the most from great sports coaches. I listen to a CBS Madden Podcast everyday, which is NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden’s podcast. His podcast teachings offer life advice that can be applied both on and off the field. My favorite recent advice from him was “Success is the best deodorant.” Even if you’ve had a significant failure, making the next engagement a success can go a long way to erasing the negativity. If at first you don’t succeed…
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :)
I would love to meet Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors head coach. I deeply admire his politics and his ability to transform the Warriors, yet still remain humble.