As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharmila Mulligan.
Sharmila is the chief strategy and marketing officer at Alteryx, the analytics automation company, responsible for the company’s strategic planning, global alliances, technology alliances, global go-to-market strategy and marketing initiatives. Sharmila also leads the company’s growing Silicon Valley-based operations. She joined Alteryx in the company’s acquisition of ClearStory Data, a modern data analytics company enabling automated business insights from disparate data, where she served as CEO. Sharmila has spent 25-plus years building game-changing software companies in a variety of software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) markets.
Prior to Alteryx, Sharmila held executive roles at Aster Data Systems (acquired by Teradata Corporation), Hewlett-Packard (HP), Opsware (acquired by HP) and Netscape Communications, with previous roles at Microsoft and General Magic. She has driven the creation of several multi-billion-dollar market categories, including application servers, data center automation and Big Data analytics.
Sharmila sits on the board of directors for ConocoPhillips and Lattice Engines, and serves as an advisor to numerous enterprise software and consumer technology companies. Sharmila earned two bachelor’s degrees in economics (BA) and computer science (BS), and received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m originally from Hong Kong and India but arrived in the U.S. to attend Northwestern University. That was the first time I lived in the U.S., and it was a shock to my system. Culturally things were different, people were more independent, pursued their dreams and weren’t as boxed in here as they were in the places I lived prior. I reveled in that and the opportunity to be independent and pursue a career.
When I graduated, I initially thought I would pursue a career in investment banking. When I graduated, I changed course and decided to pursue a career as a programmer and moved to Silicon Valley. I discovered I loved defining and steering product features, marketing and selling to customers, so that eventually led to me move to the business side, specifically product marketing. After a couple years, I decided to return to Northwestern and get an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management.
My fever for startups, where you can be close to defining a product and defining a market, brought me to a startup back in the Valley. The startup eventually went public, and following that, I partnered with entrepreneurs of several companies from early stage to IPO and acquisitions. Throughout, I found I loved building teams, helping people grow in their careers and leading high-performing teams to break new ground in business. I decided to start my own company, which Alteryx acquired in 2019, where I now help lead our global strategy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My most interesting story is my career shift — I went to college to be an astrophysicist and my dream was to work at NASA, but I found out there were several other requirements to get that job and it would be a longer road to get there than I had thought, so I instead turned my focused on engineering and business. Having the combined experience in business and tech has been invaluable in my career — I can be an informed business leader with deep product acumen. I wouldn’t be where I am today if NASA gave me a job, but if I can stick with my business and technology roadmap maybe I can jump on a space ride with Richard Branson in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite quote is, “do what you love, and the money will follow.” I’ve never approached my career thinking about what I’m making or what I want to do next, I approach it with love for what I do. It’s not a job for me, it’s a passion. If you go after your passion and love what you do, everything else will come with it, money included.
Often people are keen to get ahead by making money and are focused on that aspect of their careers.
My advice is to focus instead on loving what you do. Truly loving your work will make you passionate about it. When I got a summer internship in college, as a database engineer at a bank, I realized how much I loved it. When I eventually got promoted and my compensation increased, I realized I had never thought about how much I was making or what I even wanted to make. All I cared about was that I loved what I did, and that showed in the output and results. I believe if everyone does what they love they can reach levels they never thought they could.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
This may be surprising, but I don’t read business or leadership books. In fact, I was just talking with one of our board members at Alteryx recently and we were joking, why would you read those books when we live it?
There are, however, people in my life who have made a significant impact on my leadership style — everyone from Ben Horowitz, to my uncle, who was driven, successful and important to me. There are many people from different generations, both inside and outside this industry, who have had huge impact on my life who I love spending time with and learning from. In my experience, people make a greater impact on leadership style than books.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Alteryx is the leader in analytics automation. Companies today are struggling with the vast amounts of data swirling around their business, and Alteryx provides the tools and platforms to harness this information so that our customers can make informed, data-driven decisions. More than 7,000 of the world’s largest companies across a variety of industries use Alteryx to produce growth and discover efficiencies. These data-driven insights can be truly transformational — one Alteryx customer was able to increase sales by $1.5 billion by optimizing its merchandise across more than 2,000 stores, while a healthcare provider saw an annual savings of $20 million by reducing unwarranted variations in healthcare delivery.
But what really makes Alteryx stand out is the power of our platform to train and upskill workers to create the next generation of data scientists. Both through the platform itself, and through our new free education program, SparkED, Alteryx customers can build an internal pool of talented data workers who have the skills, desire, knowledge and analytical skills to be successful. These programs are lifelines for employees to develop a mix of soft, technical and digital skills for future career success.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I love to spend time with young people andI spend a lot of my time in mentorship roles. I do this both within and outside of Alteryx, with college and high school students and with people who seek out guidance. There are two things that consistently come up.
First, young women want to talk about how they aspire to successful careers while still having a family. I truly believe you can have both. Women should be encouraged, not made to feel like you have to make a choice between one or the other. Don’t be afraid of doing both, I personally find it wonderfully fulfilling.
The second major topic is career changes. People go through career changes much more often now, starting in one field before wanting to move into another functional area. The tech industry especially is full of opportunity and flexibility soI encourage people who want to move because they want a diverse set of experiences to do so. But my advice is, don’t do too much hopping around and don’t be too quick to judge a role before you give it enough time to experience it to the fullest. You need to take the time to see if you have an innate passion for it. Don’t be too quick to judge, give yourself fully to it, the other functional areas are not going anywhere. Like I said before, do what you love, and the money will follow.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Years ago, I received some advice that ultimately, I am glad I did not follow. After I had my first two kids, I felt that I wanted to have another child. People said to me, you must be kidding, you’re an executive and investor, you sit on boards, you’re involved in so many things, you don’t have time for that. So, I didn’t have a third child for a while. But then eventually I thought, why is somebody else telling me whether I should do this? So, I had my third child and it’s the best thing that ever happened. I could not be happier that I did not take that advice and was able to grow my family and still be successful in my career.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first is don’t just execute a task, but really think about the impact of the task on the overall initiative of the company. An innate understanding of impact is so important. Focus on the bigger output rather than all the smaller tasks to do this week. Especially as a leader, thinking about the short game is important but you mostly have to think about the long game. If you can do that, that stands out as a quality that will take you a long way.
Second, give recognition to people and team members by highlighting what they do and their successes. I don’t believe in managing up, in buffering your team to senior leadership. I believe the whole team should be exposed to leadership and credit should be given to everyone.
Third, be willing to hire people better than yourself. This demonstrates that you’re secure in what you do, but more importantly, that you want to see people in the organization that can level-up the business. Hire people that have a unique way of thinking or way of managing that complements the way you. I’m always looking for strong people not only better myself, but better the organization.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
I can expand on one thing I just mentioned — as a C-Suite member you’re playing the long game. You have to see anywhere from three to five years down the road and chart the way to growth. You have to be able to see the forest from the trees. This goes back to thinking about impact rather than tasks, as well. That’s not always easy for everyone else to see, and sometimes people can be lost in tasks and tactics versus thinking about the long game and the outcome. The job of the C-Suite is to steer the company and build strategies for long-term growth.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The myth that women in executive positions can’t lead from the C-Suite and have family. The idea that you must sacrifice having a family to get ahead in business is wrong. You can have both. It’s hard, there are major expectations in both roles, but it’s worth it. Women executives are now becoming more open about this, about being parents, and I love seeing it and that young female entrepreneurs are seeing it too.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A mistake I often see is an inability to lead with humility. To acknowledge that you don’t have everything figured out and that you can learn from your team. This goes back to a willingness to hire people better than yourself. As an executive leader you should want to see people in the organization that are smarter or more experienced or have different perspectives than you. This is especially true for someone coming in to lead a new team. You will earn your team’s respect if you come in with humility and a desire to learn from them, and you will ultimately lead a more successful team and organization.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I wish someone had told me that as a C-Suite leader you have to be a ‘rock’ and extremely resilient. Whatever difficulties — when business is good, or when business is not so good, when markets are great and when they are tumultuous — you have to be resilient and never give up and operate at your highest level even if others around you cannot do so. It really is a test in resiliency, adaptability, inner strength and conviction. In extreme situations of company or team challenges, often you are left to ‘self-soothe’ as no one else is going to empower you to push through other than your own inner strength.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
To succeed, first and foremost, you must have a great product with excellent product-market fit. But no matter how great the product or the market fit, what success really comes down to is building and motivating your team. Building a team where they believe in the vision, have the conviction to execute on it, and with everyone rowing together to succeed and ‘win’ in the market. It’s easier said than done, and takes a very special team with far more energy, time and investment to get it right than the product-market fit itself.
Two others I’ve mentioned previously, you have to be a ‘rock’ and resilient in the face of challenges and as a C-Suite member you need to focus on the long game. The latter is difficult, everyone has their own lens on what their job and mission at work means to them. As a C-Suite leader I play the long game, not everyone does, nor can one expect them too.
Another thing I touched on briefly is growing my career while raising a family. I never imagined the adjustments one needs to make to be a parent and an executive. Balancing the two is a juggling act and you have to learn to set firm boundaries so your time with your family is truly spent with them, with minimal work interruptions. But that means you are burning the candle at both ends; you invest a lot of your energy being there for your team and inspiring them to succeed and love their work. Then once you finish your workday, you do that again but with your kids and family. So, it’s a 24/7 outpouring of yourself into the people in your life and I never imagined the level you need to give emotionally to be present for everyone day and night. Being a parent and being a C-Suite leader is a test of one’s emotional energy. I’ve learned a lot about myself and am grateful to be able to do both because I love every moment of it.
Finally, I wish someone had told me it would be so exhilarating and so rewarding be a C-Suite leader. The impact you can have moving the needle to win in your market is the most rewarding experience. That aspect is beyond anything I imagined and it’s what makes me get up every day with endless energy, excitement and passion. To work with great teams, with positive energy, to build an impactful business is the most satisfying and exhilarating experience.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
It’s important to have empathy, passion and love for your team. I love the teams I manage; I love to see them excel and be proud of their work. I’m thrilled when something is accomplished, especially when it was a hard task. I know the feeling of exhilaration when that happens, when someone says it can’t be done, but they did it anyway.
I have a diverse role at Alteryx, managing several different groups. But despite how much is going on, I’m involved and hands on because I want to help my team and grow with them instead of delegating everything. We’re growing fast, everyone has a lot going on, but I’m not one to pass off everything. I never want the team to feel like the load is on them. I’ve found that combination, both love for your team and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and help, creates a fantastic work culture.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Having an analytical skillset is something that more people should have. It’s invaluable and I want to do anything I can to help people gain this knowledge. This is not just a dream of mine, I’ve started doing it already. I am personally funding initiatives for people in need who wouldn’t otherwise have the option to gain analytics skills, which is the greatest thing I can do. I’m incredibly passionate about my job and being in the tech industry, particularly in the data space, which I find incredibly fascinating. I am doing everything I can to help people realize that they can have studied in any field, gone to any school and no matter what still they can still build skillsets in data and analytics. I wish I had recognized this 30 years ago, but I realized it a decade ago and I hope by taking these steps I can help people realize the experience I had.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn and on Twitter, and you can read more about all the great work we’re doing at Alteryx on our website.