Interview with Vishal Saxena, VP Global SaaS Operations at Aktana

Published on Dec 30, 2019

14 min read

image for Interview with Vishal Saxena, VP Global SaaS Operations at Aktana

Vidal: Today I have Vishal Saxena here with me on the show. Welcome to Managers Club, Vishal.

VISHAL: Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to our discussion. It’s great to be here.

What’s your background?

Vidal: Awesome. Maybe you could start out a little bit. Tell us a little about your current role, what you do, I guess a little bit of background on yourself.

VISHAL: Sure. I’m Vice President of Global SaaS Operations at Aktana. Aktana is an AI-based platform that enables customers to make data-driven decisions. Prior to joining Aktana, I was at Opentext for two years managing the SaaS team and before that, I was at Oracle for over 10 years.

How did you get into management?

Vidal: That’s awesome. Yes, I was looking at your background. Maybe tell us a little bit more, how did you get into management? How did you break into management? What was your motivation for getting into management and leadership?

VISHAL: It may sound like a cliche. I became a manager by accident. I started as a shipping and receiving for a local system integrator and from there moved into the help desk and a couple of years later I joined a small company Brio Software again as an individual contributor, and after two years Brio was acquired by Hyperion.

VISHAL: During that integration, I was promoted to a senior manager managing a small team including the manager. A couple of years later Hyperion was acquired by Oracle and the economies of scales changed. From managing the team of 10 I was managing each team over 50 people when I joined Oracle. And that number change to over 110 by the time I left.

Vidal: How many was it by the time you left? You said it was 50 and then I went to how many?

VISHAL: About 110.

Vidal: 110, okay thank you. Sorry, go ahead.

VISHAL: No problem. It was a very global, diverse team and it was fun to be part of the team. It did bring its own challenges, but it’s the dirt that comes with the rain. I enjoy managing the team, mentoring them and learn from them.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Vidal: Okay, that’s great. Well, since you mentioned the challenges, maybe you could talk to us. What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?

VISHAL: One of the biggest challenges is that many still struggle to accept change. See, change is inevitable. It’s going to happen and sometimes you need to take a step back and understand why the change occurred and try to be in the shoes of other people. But at times it’s hard to accept and I’ve been in those shoes where it was very hard for me to accept that change. But what helps is to take a step back and see from other’s perspective, I then tried to motivate myself. Once you’re able to do that, you’re able to motivate others within your team. If you don’t agree with the change don’t stick around, it’s not good for them, it’s not good for you.

Vidal: Do you have an example that comes to mind?

VISHAL: For example, since I was part of Oracle, organization changes were very often, right? And you’re moving from one org to another role or while you are being moved into the roles and at times you don’t like to be in that role, but you are moved into that role. And for example, let’s say you are managing a data center team. All of a sudden now you are moved into managing lab rather than managing the whole data center. Now you’re managing fewer people, but smaller team. Sometimes people don’t like that change.

VISHAL: All of them where you are managing a large datacenter and large group of people, all of a sudden you have been moved into a smaller team and managing a smaller group of people. There you think that it’s not bringing value to the team and that’s where people get very unsettled. But that change, sometimes people are thinking about the reporting structure or how many people they are managing and so on. And that’s when it just starts demotivating you.

Vidal: I see then it starts demotivating you. Sorry to interrupt. Go ahead. You were going to say something more?

VISHAL: No, no, that was it. So organizational change because I’ve seen that so often at Oracle. That’s one of the things that came to my mind. But there are, I’m sure there are other examples and I think I’m sure I can come to you with those, but definitely changes that impacts you directly demotivate at times I say.

Vidal: These kinds of reorganizations, were demotivating at times potentially.

VISHAL: Correct.

Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?

Vidal: Got it. Could you share with us may be a lesson you have learned as an engineering leader? Some specific lessons you’ve learned.

VISHAL: Certainly, but let me first start that we are all humans and we all make mistakes. I was leading one of the critical projects during the Hyperion and Brio software integration. Then I was promoted like I mentioned, I was an accidental manager. When I was promoted, I was more fear of bringing the team that I came with like from the Brio team rather than giving equal value or listening to my management, managing them equally. I was a little bit inclined towards the team I used to work with. And one of the lessons that I learned from that was to give your team equal opportunity and get to know them and team what that really means.

VISHAL: Team means transparency. Be transparent to what you’re doing, let them know what you’re planning. Is empathy, show them that you care. Listening to them have a one-on-one with them. I appreciate the hard work. Celebrate the small and big wins and [inaudible 00:06:47] about motivating. Guide them, create a safe culture where they can innovate by not be afraid of the failure. That’s how I look at the team and that was a lesson that I learned during that ruined Hyperion merger that’s happened and how you create that trust across and you have a solid team from those.

Vidal: I see. So you observed this team and this like treating them equally and being like fair with them and giving them all those same things. That was something that you were…..

VISHAL: Correct. That has stuck with me for the last 17 years now. Whenever I work with the team, I make sure that I’m being fair to everyone.

Vidal: How long have you been a manager?

VISHAL: Give or take about 15/16 years now.

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal: Oh wow. That’s a long time. You know a very important part of being a manager is hiring, recruiting and then maybe you could talk a little about what’s your approach to hiring and recruiting. This can be a real challenge, you know in the tech industry obviously.

VISHAL: Yeah, so I look for three things, humility, hunger and passionate, but it’s very hard to judge a person in the first meeting. When I’m interviewing, I’m looking for what are they passionate about, do they have the hunger to learn new things. I’m looking for more of the softer skills at my level rather than digging down on the technical side. Then I can sense that the person I’m interviewing is hunger even though he may not know everything and no one knows everything, but he’s hungry to learn new things and especially at about what they are doing. I’ll definitely call them for the next round to meet the team to see how they interact with others in the field. Those are the three mantras that you can say I look for when I am trying to hire anyone in my team. I see.

Vidal: All right. Now I think, so you said that you’d been a manager for a while and you’ve managed like relatively large organizations, so I assume you’ve managed other managers too, right?

VISHAL: Yes, I manage, the managers and directors.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Vidal: Awesome. Maybe what would be your advice maybe for new managers or managers who are just starting out to succeed?

VISHAL: I’ll set up three things that they need to look for, right. Learn to listen. When they have one-on-one or when they are talking to them give them undivided attention. That is one thing, thank and empower them. Let them make the decisions, manage the results, not manage the task. Otherwise, you are falling into the trap of micromanagement. And a very important thing that I think has to be open for critiques. I’m not perfect and it gives me an opportunity to grow and learn from my team and from others. So those are the three things. Learn to listen and empower the team and don’t micromanage and be open for critique.

What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

Vidal: That’s great. You know, one thing managers, you know they have a lot of stuff on their plate. There’s always a lot of things to do. I wonder what’s your workday like? You know, how do you manage your time, your emails, your calendar, tell us about, you have any specific tips or strategies or techniques that you use?

VISHAL: Yeah, so right now my work schedule is too hectic because I’m trying to onboard myself some time to get into the saving and to get into the same speed as others. But yes I believe the three things again that I do prior to the week of that started like on Sunday or Saturday and I will sit down and look at what other meetings that I’ve got for the next week and take out the notes So where I’m looking for some updates or action items for the team or follow up on the issue that may have occurred the last week.

VISHAL: The second habit that I have cultivated in the last two or three years that during the day I always take a break of 30 minutes around and go for a walk. That helps me hear my thoughts and think where I want to focus the rest of the day. Then on Friday afternoon, this was something that I’ve learned from one of my coworkers. Try not to have any meetings after lunch and analyze the whole week. What kind of issues, what they are, what slipped, self-clean yourself, learn. I go on to, you know, read articles and that will help in my current role or help me motivate and pass along that to my team members or to my peers.

VISHAL: And it’s like you said, it’s a hectic world but you need to give, sometime you are yourself take a step back and that’s what I’ve done the last two or three years. And by taking a step back, walking away for a couple of minutes and going to the parts and emotion, sometimes you are sucked into the high emotional side, what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s a very crucial conversation and you don’t need to respond and maybe we could take a step back and these walks or taking a Friday afternoon, many things have helped me to do self-reflection and that would be my advice to the new managers or even the managers who have been managing people/ Spend some time on self-reflection. That helps.

Vidal: I think that’s really great. Yeah. If you can take like you’re saying 30 minutes a day or you know Friday afternoon, so you kind of reflect on stuff. I often like to ask people if there is a personal habit that contributes to our success, but I think what I’m hearing from you is it would be self-reflection, is that correct?

VISHAL: Correct yes.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

Vidal: That’s great. Is there maybe some internet resource or tool or app that you really liked? Did you find useful that really helps you in your professional work?

VISHAL: Yeah, really I’m more active on LinkedIn than on any other social app. You get to get the views off a lot of people and you get to learn a lot of good articles that have been posted by the different magazines, like posts or CNN or I’m part of those groups and LinkedIn is one of my favorite apps. That’s where I’m more socially active almost every day.

If you could recommend like one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Vidal: Okay. Yeah, no, LinkedIn is great! If you could recommend like one book to managers, what would it be and why?

VISHAL: If it has to be only one book it would be definitely Crucial Conversations by I think Kerry Patterson and Joseph Greeny. I mentioned earlier, communication is one of the key challenges and that interpersonal communication is one of the skills that many of us feel. Sometimes you’re being a one-on-one or sometimes you are in a heated conversation or you know that you are going into a conversation that could get very sensitive. I still skim through that book. It’s a very good book. I’ll advise everyone to at least read once Crucial Conversations.

What’s your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

Vidal: That’s a totally great book. What would be your approach to mentoring, coaching and developing members of your team? What do you do on that?

VISHAL: Let me first start by saying that for me personally, mentoring and coaching are not one in the same thing. Mentoring comes from trust and it’s a long term relationship that you build and develop or like I have employees who are still remained in touch with me after 17 years and we have a mutual trust and respect. Then we share costs and ideas and that’s where the mentoring function goes. Coaching on the other end is like guiding individuals and helping them through those difficult situations, what they are doing, it could be a project, it could be a communication issue between the two individuals. That’s where the coaching comes in a heat of the moment where you’re guiding on a weekly basis or daily basis to the team and like how do I coach them. Again, be a good listener and I always make sure that I have one-on-one meetings, at least with my direct and if possible like I could just skip-level meetings as do some other key people in my organization once a quarter.

VISHAL: And another thing is, the second thing is if you promise that you’ll get back to them, make sure you do. Follow up on your promise because you are also setting the precedent around this you’re holding them accountable. If they are sending something that they’ll get back, they should get back. So make sure you also follow what you say. I preach, and the last thing, like I said earlier, create a safe culture, don’t slap them on their mistake them and correct them, guide them, have a discussion with them that in the company for a reason and you just need to make sure that you are utilizing the skills and the strength they were hired for. And that’s where the coaching comes from. Mentoring is a long-term relationship. Building the trust and coaching I guess is a pathway to that mentoring area, building those through the conversations on a weekly or daily basis.

Advice for Working with IT & Dev-ops

Vidal: I see you have a lot of experience in, you know as a Director of IT Operations. What would be helpful for engineering managers or leaders to know about IT, dev-ops that they like generally misunderstand or don’t understand in working with your teams?

VISHAL: Let’s compare that to stages of development. Right before the cloud came and how software development was being done. So the engineering organization will develop a product and they will do a product delivery and their work was done and they will give it to the IT for the product deployment into the data center. Now when the deployment was happening, they were running issues, they were firewall issues or the database documentation wasn’t there or some permission issues and the product go live, they suffer because now IT is struggling to get the product installed. They think it should be installed and the product development team made assumptions about they build the product, how they think they’ll be deployed into the production. So even though they have communication, but there was no integration of IT infrastructure and development together, that cohesiveness wasn’t even just throwing over the wall to IT.

VISHAL: Then IT was a struggle and there was no one to blame. That’s how most of the organization worked. And the reason dev ops picked up is the way I looked at it as moving operational team more towards left. What that really means moving into what’s left is basically getting closer to development and using their development framework to integrate the infrastructure. So when the development team will start planning for the new product IT is sitting with them and suggesting okay or working with them collaboratively. This is the size of a VM. this will be firewall rules and they will package this together. So move the operational side more into the left where they are planning development at the same time and integrating the development and the IT infrastructure as a code. Now that is called together. So by the time, it gets into the deployment stage, all those that IT used to run in the past are now resolved earlier in the pipeline.

VISHAL: So the speed to market reduced from months to maybe hours and that’s why the dev ops engineers or SaaS companies are looking that technical folks, finding the right people. But that skill set is challenging because sometimes people are just code development or core operational, but finding an individual with both the skills is always challenging

Vidal: I see. I get it. So you’re saying previously in the past development teams would develop something, kind of throw it over the wall to it and there would be kind of problems and now it’s moved more towards where you’re saying IT has moved, kind of moved more to the left like with dev-ops as working more closely with the team so that instead of just the deployment and everything infrastructure it’s kind of part of the development process, is that what you’re saying?

VISHAL: Yes, so now the IT, our operational team is using the framework of development organization, all the code in the framework, all the develop the code, what are the sprints they are using, the scrum Kanban boards and using the same methodology to integrate, bringing that infrastructure into the code and building it together and getting it ready for deployment.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal: Got it. Well Vishal, thank you. It’s great to have you here. If people wanted to learn more about you, what would be the best way to connect with you or learn more about you?

VISHAL: They can always find me on LinkedIn. Like I said earlier, I’m very active on LinkedIn and they can get to know me and learn more about me.

Vidal: Okay, awesome. I’ll include a link to that in the notes. Thank you again so much for being on the podcast.

VISHAL: No, thank you for inviting, these are great questions and I definitely struggled in some of them in my early career and I still do and, and those times I go and talk to my mentors and clear my head.

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