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Dan Bognar: From alfalfa sprouts to top of the tech tree

The corporate world was a very different place when Dan Bognar took his first full-time job, a cadetship at Price Waterhouse (now PwC), but it didn't take him long to shift the way the business operated. That experience set him on an entirely new career path.

When Dan entered the taxation practice of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse as an undergraduate, each floor of the building was equipped with just a single computer — a DOS-based IBM 386. Staff booked the use of that hallowed machine in a paper diary.

Typically, a client’s tax return would be typed on a mechanical typewriter by a secretary pool. Employees would use a calculator to double check that everything added up. If there were mistakes, they would mark up the paper with a pen and hand it back to the typing pool. The secretary would re-type the entire report from scratch.

“Most of the work was done on typewriters but then, when the spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 was released, one of the partners came to me with a box of floppy discs,” Dan recalls.

He smiles. “The partner said, ‘You’re a young kid — you should be able to work this  out and see if there’s any value in it for us’.”

Dan eagerly rose to that challenge — was there any value in emerging technology for a firm like Price Waterhouse?

“I was young enough and eager enough to teach myself how to do it, and that differentiated me from everyone else,” he says. “I also quickly realised spreadsheets could drastically improve the work processes. When I showed them how spreadsheets worked, it revolutionised things. Today, it seems trivial. But back then, it was a huge transformation.”

At that time, Dan explains, he knew nothing about technology, but he quickly went from working out what a spreadsheet was to building applications on spreadsheets.

“Over time that morphed into leading quite sophisticated technology projects — it was really by chance more than anything. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity by one of the senior partners who became my sponsor and mentor.”

We caught up with Dan to chat about his path from tax accounting to a career in tech — and with a little digging we soon found out we’d need to go back further than that first computer at PwC to get the full story.

Can you tell us about your first job?

I was relatively entrepreneurial as a teenager. For example, I grew alfalfa in my bedroom and sold it to local businesses under the brand ‘Bogo’s Alfalfa’. I actually had a booming business at one stage, but had to wind it down when the doctor diagnosed me with an alfalfa allergy.

Why does a teenager in Sydney begin farming alfalfa?

My aunt, who ran a cafe, was complaining one day about the rising cost of alfalfa. She said, ‘I’m sure this is something you could do’. So I did.

I went to a local health food store and did a deal with the owner. I said that if he gave me a bag of alfalfa seeds at no cost, I would supply him with alfalfa. He gave me a 7kg bag of seeds, which was very difficult to lug home, and soon I was supplying fruit shops and other stores in the area.

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And then, allergy struck. Could be a good thing — alfalfa hasn’t been seen on many cafe meals in a while. Tell us, what was Price Waterhouse like in the early ’90s?

I found lots of opportunity there. One of the senior partners spotted something in me, became my sponsor and looked for opportunities to give me responsibilities outside my job. So at the age of 21 or 22 I was driving programs across Price Waterhouse in different parts of the Asia Pacific region.

That taught me the value of sponsorship and of giving people opportunities where they don’t necessarily have the experience, but they have the aptitude. That has become an important aspect of how I lead, as I focus on paying this forward.

I was with Price Waterhouse for close to a decade, but resigned while I was on the path to partnership.

That was around the dotcom boom. Did that have something to do with walking away from a partnership?

I saw the internet as something that was going to change the world and I didn’t want to watch from the sideline. I joined a company called Siebel (which was eventually acquired by Oracle) as an individual contributor. I had no real experience in CRM and had never been a Solutions Engineer before.

I took a drop in pay and a drop in title, and went from having a corner office and an assistant to being an individual contributor at a shared desk. But that experience was phenomenal. It was one of the best things I ever did. I stayed for 10 years and rose to VP, running a part of Oracle’s financial services business across APAC.

After some time with a Silicon Valley startup, you came to Salesforce. What position were you in, at first?

I started with Salesforce in 2012, leading the Solution Engineering (SE) team across APAC. At the time we had a small team of SEs locally — we’ve now grown the team across APAC, and continue to grow at a phenomenal rate..

And that growth means opportunity for all of the SEs I work with. I’ve been given so many career opportunities here, including growing this incredible SE team, sponsoring a really meaningful volunteer project, getting onstage and speaking in front of thousands of people at our Salesforce World Tour event, and more.

Dan Bognar speaking at Salesforce World Tour

Recently I’ve been offered an opportunity to functionally lead the SE organisation across our International regions. And that expanded responsibility includes ensuring that we’re able to identify and nurture SE talent across the organisation.

We’re able to share best practices internationally and to build a tremendous amount of opportunity for SEs to grow their careers. So I’m really excited by that.

You mentioned leading a volunteer project — why was that so meaningful?

We love this project — we built an app with La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) that helps parents to assess their kids on their phones for signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

OTARC had approached Salesforce for funding to develop an app-based, early-childhood autism assessment tool. They weren’t successful in securing investment, but they didn’t give up.

They reached out to me as somebody that had responsibility for technical resources in the company, and said they needed technical volunteers to help build the app.

That evening I went onto Chatter, our internal intranet, and asked for volunteers — every Salesforce employee has 56 hours of paid volunteer leave per year. I only needed five people, but I was flooded with responses from people all around the globe who wanted to help.

La Trobe’s plan was to launch in 12 months, but we delivered much faster than that. Now more than 20,000 Australian children have been assessed via the app — it’s just phenomenal.

Employees are increasingly looking for a sense of purpose beyond the pursuit of profit. I think one of the main reasons people like working for Salesforce, and people are attracted to work here, is because it provides them with that sense of purpose.

And this was an important project. OTARC’s world-leading autism researchers had educated nurses in early-detection techniques, and those nurses had then fed back information from tens of thousands of cases into Salesforce.

So the researchers had so much data that could help parents of kids who might be on the spectrum, but the kids had to get to the centre in Melbourne to complete assessments.

The ASDetect app means that anyone, anywhere, can assess their child using a scientifically robust rubric, and a traffic-light system suggests their next action should the child be at risk of being on the autism spectrum.

How do you manage work/life balance, and really switch off?

I have to think about that every day, and it’s the number one thing I talk about with my team. My wife also reminds me of this constantly!

We’re pretty lucky here because Salesforce is intentional about ensuring everyone knows that employee wellness is a priority — we’re encouraged to list personal goals in our V2MOMs so that we’re accountable at work for ensuring we spend time on those priorities. So someone might leave work early to take their child to soccer practice, or duck out between meetings to have a workout.

Employee benefits also support wellness — rebates for gym membership, massages and other wellness costs for example.

But little things can have a dramatic impact as well. We regularly celebrate each other’s wellness — when we’re focusing on our wellness we take a selfie and post it on Chatter with the hashtag #wellnessselfie.

Dan Bognar looking after his wellness with his dog.

We might see photos of somebody dropping their children to school in the morning, or working out at the gym, and each image promotes an important lifestyle concept as well as normalising and encouraging balance.

And what do you do outside of work?

My family is super important to me — I’ve been married for 20 years and have two beautiful teenage kids.

Dan Bognar during his VTO with his teenaged son.

I’m obsessed with music, and particularly live music. I’m always in the mosh pit of some concert. And the type of music doesn’t matter. If I see something that’s raw and passionate, that isn’t manufactured, and that captures the human spirit, then it doesn’t matter what genre it is.

I’ve also been a Swans member for 22 years — so I make sure I get to a few home games with my son and extended family.

Want to blaze your own trail in a career at Salesforce? Find out how here.

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Salesforce Staff

The 360 Blog from Salesforce teaches readers how to improve work outcomes and professional relationships. Our content explores the mindset shifts, organisational hurdles, and people behind business evolution. We also cover the tactics, ethics, products, and thought leadership that make growth a meaningful and positive experience.

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