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“IT was considered a cost center for many years, but not anymore,” says Jo-ann Olsovsky. “A CIO today has to be a leader enabling technology-driven change.”
Olsovsky just joined Salesforce as Executive Vice President and CIO, following more than a decade at BNSF Railway, part of Berkshire Hathaway. She shared her background and views in the following interview with Salesforce Newsroom Managing Editor Sebastian Rupley.
Please tell us about your background. How did you get into the information technology profession?
As a kid growing up in Florida, I loved science and math. I graduated early from high school and then completed my Associate’s Degree in electronic engineering. I was hired at 19 by AT&T as a technician repairing their modems and network gear. I completed my B.S. and MBA while working at AT&T, progressing into IT as an engineer, project manager, and manager. I managed network and server engineering and support functions for AT&T, and then became a Director of Enterprise Network Services and Technology Support Services at GTE/Verizon.
In 2006, I joined BNSF as Assistant Vice President of Telecom, responsible for their vast data, fiber, and microwave radio network. Railroading is an outdoor sport, so network connectivity is critical for train movement and people’s safety.
I was promoted to Vice President and CIO in December, 2007. In January of 2017, I was promoted to Senior Vice President and was the company’s only SVP with responsibility for IT plus various business functions, corporate strategy, and operations research.
What brought you to Salesforce?
I was impressed with the innovation, energy, enthusiasm, and passion for people that I saw not only in people that worked for Salesforce but in the related CIO and IT communities. There is a lot of great buzz — it’s incredibly contagious! I am very excited to be part of the Ohana.
The role of the CIO has changed dramatically in recent years. What are some of the biggest changes you saw during your time as CIO of BNSF Railway?
IT was considered a cost center for many years, but not any more. A CIO today has to be a leader, enabling technology-driven change and partnering with the business functional teams to position companies to deliver great products, services, and customer value. In my former role, we drove safety and reliability to all new heights, created and delivered a strategic roadmap, became recognized as industry leaders for our technology focus (as noted in this article in Progressive Railroading) leveraging UAVs, visioning systems, and predictive analytics.
I keep my eye on Moore’s Law and the rapid pace of new innovation with cloud, mobility, analytics, vision, sensors, and IoT. I also follow new techniques for rapid delivery, whether infused by design thinking, DevOps, or agile development. All of this results in much needed functionality, intelligence, predictive capability, and ease-of-use for our customers and stakeholders. Put it all together and magic happens.
Looking into the future, what are some of the technology trends that you think will drive the most change?
I think we will continue to see great innovation in automation, as companies seek better ways to drive efficiency and leverage employees for performing new types of work. Also, we will see transformation from artificial intelligence, energy storage, the Internet of Everything, computer vision and image recognition, and advanced analytics. Each of these will contribute to delivering more powerful insights, more proactive operations, and predictive maintenance.
Blockchain and distributed ledgers are poised to impact many industries but will likely take some time to progress. Advances in medical technology, wearables and healthcare will also reach new heights benefiting humanity. In addition, how we interface with systems will progress, with more user friendly voice, touch, and haptic technologies. Among enabling technologies, great progress is being made in delivering faster compute processing and storage capacity, and LTE 5G will drive much improved connectivity allowing us to compute and connect from anywhere.
You’ve been involved with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and workforce development. What are you thoughts on the current state of those two areas?
I think we’ve made good progress over the years but we still have much more work to do and everybody needs to get involved in advancing education for all. It is very important for kids to embrace their education and in particular, STEM. As a young girl, I was pushed away from STEM and I’m glad that I was persistent, as I have had the greatest career ever. My family and I are immigrants and I am the only one to graduate from college.
In the workforce, we must continue to invest in ourselves and our people. We must make learning and personal growth exciting adventures. Amazing results will follow.
What’s the most valuable career advice you’ve been given?
Don’t sacrifice long-term gains for short-term rewards.
What’s at the top of your music playlist?
It depends on where I am and my mood — whether I am chilling, beaching, or working. My eclectic mix is: Eagles, Bob Marley, Pink, Creed, Santana, Sam Hunt, Rihanna, Nickelback, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.