We caught up with Upland Altify’s VP Alliances, Helen Joo, to find out what makes her tick.
What would you describe as your most memorable achievement?
Mine are life achievements rather than a specific career achievement: I was born in Korea and moved to the US when I was nine, with no knowledge of English. I became the first in my extended family to go to college. My parents never imagined that their child could be at a global company travelling the world for business. The notion of the ‘American dream’ frequently comes up but I would say that I have lived that because throughout my life I have had wonderful opportunities. For anybody who thinks that they cannot achieve something, there are so many opportunities out there and you just have to reach out, take a risk and go after them.
What first made you think of a career in technology?
I was recruited out of university and started out in the payments industry before changing my focus around the time of the mortgage crash in 2008. At this stage, there were two factors that led to me transitioning into tech: living in San Francisco and my husband working in a SaaS company. It was through LinkedIn and a cold call that I got my first chance in tech. Most companies will hire based on specific industry experience but the start-up world is slightly different. Leaders are often willing to take more of a chance as long as skill sets match and I was fortunate that someone took a chance on me.
What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
I pride myself on being both a coach and a partner; which I model on knowing how I like to be managed. When it comes to junior employees, I look to help them become an expert in their area. If you can foster an environment where each team member becomes an expert in a critical aspect of the business, you have succeeded. This is a crucial lesson that I have learned from my current boss, Pat Morrissey (General Manager, Upland ESM), who is probably the best manager that I have ever had because he respects each member of the team for the expertise that they bring. He is constantly proactive in augmenting the areas that I seek to improve on.
What do you think will emerge as the technology trend of 2020 and why?
Thinking about this in terms of the current work from home situation, virtual engagement is immensely interesting. For me, working from home is a natural part of my day but it’s a very real and novel challenge for much of the workforce. Beyond work, when I look at my kids for instance, they are not ready to fully embrace virtual engagement. For some, this change is such a drastic shift and it takes a serious re-calibration to embrace the ‘new normal’. Looking at schools as an example, in a physical classroom you have different personalities, some have an outgoing personality whereas some are quieter. This idea of personality variations is amplified across the virtual world because it is hard for a teacher to look around and see who is responding and who is not. There are huge implications beyond just working from home in terms of social engagement.
What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?
Again, being where we are now, the initial concern is going to be to retrench and secure the assets that we have rather than to expend significant outgoings on investment. If a company has a steady recurring revenue this can be slightly different and less of a concern but generally companies will look to shore up their assets. There has just been a complete system overhaul in terms of investment patterns in the last six weeks or so. In light of this, retrenching will take priority over investment, you have to look at cash preservation, at preserving what we have. Proactive companies might not buy today but they certainly want to be prepared when all this is over.
How do you deal with stress and unwind outside of the office?
Having gone through this shelter-in-place experience, I’ve learned how important physical human interaction is to me. I missed it severely – just being able to go to a restaurant with my family and friends, seeing people in everyday social circumstances. Part of the way that I unwind is through exercise – in particular, group classes. I used to take classes like Zumba or kickboxing classes and I miss the motivation that comes with working out in a group.
If you could go back and change one career decision, what would it be?
Heavily influenced by my parents, I went into college thinking that I would be a lawyer. However, once I entered the workforce and got my first job with a bank, I didn’t look elsewhere or analyse other opportunities. When you start out, it is so easy to get tunnel-vision and think that you are going to be doing something for the rest of your life, but there are so many more opportunities out there. Stop, take a second and assess the market, decide what you are interested in. For me, I wish I had explored technology earlier, you don’t need to be ‘techy’ to be in tech, you just need to be inquisitive, with a huge drive to learn.
What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in Europe?
The uncertainty in the business environment due to Brexit is certainly a challenge. That doesn’t necessarily mean implementing software is any more complex but it does affect our ability to strengthen partnerships and close deals.
What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
Pre-acquisition, Altify was a small start-up and had around 100 employees. Now, as a part of Upland, we’re an international public company with almost 30 products. It is a great opportunity to be part of an organisation that is going through such significant growth. With the acquisition, there has been a significant shift in my role and responsibilities and an opportunity to take what we are doing from an alliance perspective at Altify and imprint it on a vaster scale. The challenge is finding balance between doing the day-to-day job while developing scalable processes and providing leadership across the board with limited resources.
What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position in your industry?
Without question, my advice is to take a chance at a start-up and take a leadership role early on, so that you can get as much experience as possible. What is so amazing about the tech industry is that there is something democratic about it. Traditionally, in other industries, it would be difficult to secure a senior role in a large corporation without years of experience and specific educational background. I recall an executive telling me in my first job that she would not hire anyone on her team unless they had 10 years of experience and an MBA from an Ivy league university in the US. Most start-ups are different. No one cares where you got your MBA from, but rather they focus on capabilities and relevant work experience. The playing field is now very different compared with 10 or 20 years ago.