A passion for people and products brought me to Salesforce
Until recently, Aruna Fernando spent her career happily working for the biggest tech players in India. But when offered the opportunity to build the Business Technology engineering team at Salesforce, she knew it was her next home – a place where her passion for people and products are in complete alignment with the company’s vision for the future.
How were you inspired to pursue engineering?
My dad has a telecommunications background and spent his career in the Indian Army and Central Reserve Police Force, so I grew up around a lot of electronic toolkits that he brought home. Instead of having toys, I had motherboards and switchboards. Thus began my passion for technology, which led me to pursue engineering. I completed my Bachelors in Engineering from PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore.
I started my career in 1999 with Satyam Computers (now Tech Mahindra) during the beginning of the dot net era testing communication protocols for Motorola handsets and Microsoft’s enterprise application blocks, which were some of the core components the company was building. This job sparked a passion for Microsoft that would last another 10+ years. I didn’t move directly from Saytam to Microsoft, though. Instead, I landed at Intel Technologies as an engineering manager handling the Intel Learning Network, a suite of 13 applications used to manage employee learning and event management for the Intel global seller community.
You’ve worked at some of the biggest companies in India. Tell us more about your career path from Microsoft to Salesforce.
My previous association and passion for Microsoft and the product luckily landed me a job at their development centre in Hyderabad, where I managed applications for various business processes like talent management, customer support, enterprise integration and sales and marketing.
I spent the next ten years at Microsoft. I really enjoyed the professional growth I experienced and the learning avenues they helped me find. On top of it all, I really loved the job. I moved from one business process to another and was able to mold myself into different aspects of the business and look at the work from a different perspective. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity. During my last three years at the company, I moved into a service line lead role managing the modernisation of the sales and marketing data platform. This domain was something that inspired me in terms of how a company looks at a whole sales pipeline and the strategy behind selling the platform. My team was analysing millions of data points coming from our sales forecasting and pipeline models, and we were responsible for looking at the health of our sales strategy. The impact my team made was huge.
How did your adventure with Salesforce begin?
My experience transforming the sales process at Microsoft inspired me to look for opportunities that would give me more exposure to sales and CRM, which had become a passion of mine. This exploration led me to discover that Salesforce is the industry leader in CRM and business technology. I started following the company in the news and was intrigued by the Ohana culture and the growth of the organisation in India. I started to consider how my career could take off if I moved to Salesforce. One of the managers I had at Microsoft had joined Salesforce to expand the Business Technology app development team and I reached out to him to explore opportunities. My decision to join Salesforce was further solidified during the interview process where I experienced the Ohana culture firsthand by the authentic conversations I had and learned more about the company’s commitment to philanthropy and equality for all.
I have been at Salesforce for five months now as a senior manager for app development for the sales business process.
What are some of the projects your team is working on right now?
It’s been an incredible journey for me so far because I am a part of building my team from the ground up. We are defining a global workforce model, and as part of this, are distributing applications between North America and India. As we expand the team here, we are working on sales planning, opportunity management, commercial legal agreements and order to cash. One of the reasons I jumped on the opportunity is for the challenge to build the team. In my previous experiences, I was tasked with taking an existing team to the next level, but here I get to help set up scrum teams to be successful so they can execute projects out of India and help ensure a strong partnership between our teams and the North America teams.
The values we live by at Salesforce (Trust, Customer Success, Innovation and Equality) have helped me navigate through some of the challenges of setting up my team. During a transition from one geography to another, where collaboration is important and people are so invested, challenging conversations are inevitable. However, when you keep the focus of the conversation on our values, collaboration and working together comes easily.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in leadership in tech, and how have you overcome them?
For most of my career, I’ve been the only woman in the room and at the table. Overcoming this obstacle started with accepting this situation as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage. I had to learn to stand taller, step up, speak up, and work harder so that my perspective was valued and my work was recognised. You learn to speak your mind and share your opinion as your experiences evolve. It also helps to understand the values of the organisation you are a part of. If the core values are inclusive and you make the conscious decision to live those values, it’s easier for your voice to be heard. Luckily, this is easy to do at Salesforce.
I’ve also had to fight the stereotype that assertiveness and confidence in women are deemed aggressive. My advice here is don’t try to please everyone, just be yourself and get things done.
I’ve also been in situations where people doubt my technical capabilities because I am a woman in a male-dominated industry. Above all else, always, always believe in yourself and trust in your abilities. Don’t ever let anyone think you are inferior because you are a woman.
What can we do as an organisation to hire more women in engineering roles?
The Salesforce brand is not yet established in India. We need to expand our brand presence so more women know about our inclusive workplace and our efforts toward closing the gender pay gap. We also need to hire more women in leadership positions who can be role models for others. This is slowly changing. For example, Salesforce will participate in the Grace Hopper conference this year, but there is still a lot of work to be done to attract more female talent in India.
We all need to make a conscious effort to ensure that when we hire, we hire at the right level and we invest in the development and retention of top talent women. We need to build a framework of coaching, mentoring and sponsorship of women talent to support their growth. I am a part of the Salesforce Women’s Network here in Hyderabad and we regularly meet to discuss how we can build this framework in India.
What do you look for when you hire?
I look for passion above all else — passion for the role, the technology, the organisation, and for learning. I believe there is always something new to learn. I feel that if someone is passionate about what they do and have a learning mindset, they will be happy to come to work every day.
How do you stay balanced in mind, body, and spirit?
Things that help me stay balanced include solving jigsaw puzzles, playing snooker and billiards, reading (I love crime fiction and fantasy), cooking, relaxing with family and friends. I also love traveling and experiencing new cultures, cuisines and have a commitment to visit a new place every year.
Three facts about you that others may not know.
- I like getting inked (I have 3 tattoos so far)
- I got married twice (same person, same day). My husband and I are from different religions so we married on the same day twice to accommodate our religions. From morning to evening we were getting married!
- I collect various weaves of sarees from across the country.
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