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by Paul Esherwood

Cover Story | Interview

Melissa Di Donato dares to be different. And she is daring you to be the same. The new CEO of SUSE is unashamedly taking aim at the issue of gender-bias and diversity while hatching a plan to grow SUSE into a global powerhouse. A former Salesforce and SAP senior executive with an impressive track record of driving value in the highly competitive digital enterprise space, Di Donato is at the helm of a company that is set to play a significant role in the hybrid cloud era.

Melissa Di Donato is the new CEO of SUSE, a $2.5bn business that enables more than 13,000 enterprise customers to run mission critical workloads, anywhere. A wife, mother, mentor and ferocious advocate of diversity, Di Donato has placed a target on her own back and said to the world ‘who says I can’t?’ She is bold, outspoken, passionate and supremely confident. And she’ll need to be. Because there are likely to be just as many people lined up to celebrate her success as there are waiting in the wings to gloat over her failure.

Not that failure is a word Di Donato understands. Everything she has touched throughout her career has turned to gold and EQT (the VC owner of SUSE) don’t appoint CEOs to their investments unless they know they have a winner. But, as Di Donato admits herself – she’s out there, literally – daring to be different and challenging the world to say something about it. She dresses how she wants. She says what she wants. And she gets the job done. And that, as Di Donato points out, is all that should matter.

I’M KIND OF PUTTING A FLASHLIGHT ON MY HEAD AND SAYING ‘PICK ON ME’. BUT DO I NEED TO BE THE WOMAN IN A DARK SUIT WITH MY HAIR SLICKED BACK TO GET THE JOB DONE?

Di Donato’s style is striking and it would be remiss to ignore it or say that it doesn’t matter. Well, ‘matter’ might be the wrong word – that it’s noticed is probably more accurate. But should how a woman dresses have any impact on how seriously she is taken or how able she is to get the job done? Should it matter how any of us dress or present ourselves? We live in a world where we are all equal, right? Where prejudices don’t exist, and everyone is treated on a level-playing field irrespective of gender, age, race, sexuality or style. Sure, we do. If we did Di Donato’s mission would be a lot simpler. But the plain fact is we don’t live in a eutopia and we certainly don’t work in one.

I THINK THAT INTRODUCING QUOTAS OR MANAGING RECRUITMENT AROUND STATISTICS WOULD BE CATASTROPHIC FOR WOMEN.

How far have we really come?

I start the interview by asking Di Donato how far have we really come in tackling gender-bias and her answer is depressingly honest.

“How far have we come? We haven’t come very far at all. To me, the only real difference between when I started 23 years ago as an SAP developer to now is that back then I didn’t realise I was the only woman in the room whereas now I do realise I’m still the only woman in the room. It wasn’t a topic that we acknowledged back then and now it’s one that we talk about. But the distance of time has not really propelled us that much further. What scares me most is that I only realised I was the only woman in the room eight years ago.”

Eight years ago, Di Donato was area VP at Salesforce and says that she had an epiphany when her long-time mentor, Larry Hirst – the former Chairman of IBM – encouraged her to attend a women’s networking event.

“I didn’t usually go to women’s events – I just wanted to get the job done and stay away from all of that but Larry pushed me to go and it was a real turning point for me. I can remember being sat there in a room full of women and I was incredibly moved when I heard all their stories of how hard they had to fight to get to where they were. It was only at that moment I realised; I too had fought my whole career to get where I was. I didn’t know what I had been fighting against – I do know now but I didn’t back then.

“I didn’t realise I was dressing myself down or I wasn’t allowing myself to be me. Now I walk out with a sense of pride and a lot more make-up because I’m eight years older and I love being glamorous. This is what I look like. This is who I am. Can I do the job just as good as my non-make-up self? Yeah, maybe even better, because I’m a little bit more confident – I think that the industry took away my confidence without me realising it.”

Image and gender-bias are two different things but they are linked and the issue of image is much more prevalent for women than it is for men. I can turn up for work in a suit or a pair of jeans without even considering what people think of ‘my image’. That’s not the same for women and its certainly not the same for those women who feel they either need to dress up or down to fit in with a cultural ideal. We may have moved on from the days of ‘sexy secretaries’ and dolly girls but Di Donato isn’t so sure that some of those attitudes are entirely consigned to history. She experienced exactly that type of image-bias in her early career and says she doubts she would have got ahead on talent alone in the early 90s. Was how Di Donato looked an important factor in her career progression? Probably more than it should have been and as unpalatable as it may feel today, Di Donato is very candid in answering if she would have got the breaks she did if she didn’t dress a certain way.

“Probably not. Early career definitely not. There was absolutely a culture of people thinking that if you’re going to hire a woman it must be someone nice to look at. I think that once you get to a level, then maybe that’s not so much how it is, but even when I was promoted at SAP to a position where I was reporting to a senior female board member the rumour around the industry was that it was like Beyoncé reporting to Mariah Carey – and that wasn’t so long ago.”

I ONCE GOT DUMPED BY A BOYFRIEND FOR BEING TOO MASCULINE. IT WASN’T THE WAY I LOOKED, HE JUST SAID YOU’RE TOO MUCH OF A MAN FOR ME, AND THAT WAS THAT.

Gender-bias

The topic of gender-bias has been gently simmering for decades and while many organisations have paid lip-service to the idea of promoting and paying women equally, in reality very little serious effort was put into redressing the imbalance that exists across all organisations in every sector of industry. More recently the topic of gender-bias has been pushed further up the agenda and business leaders are starting to take the issue more seriously – but only because study after study has demonstrated that a diverse workforce is actually better for business. I’m not sure the closed shop of the boardroom was opened up to women for any reason other than that.

Despite the current popularity of promoting women not much has changed when you cut through the very thin veneer of corporate politics and PR. Yes, more women are being promoted to senior positions. And yes, some of the most archaic views are starting to soften. But ask most women, irrespective of age and seniority, what they really think and they will tell you that being a woman in the workplace is tough, especially if you are ambitious.

As recently as six months ago when Di Donato was at a final stage interview for the role of CEO, the first comment from the interviewer was about her appearance. Not a question about how qualified she was to take the role. Not an inquest into her experience. Not a query about how she would grow revenues. A statement about how she looked. When you’re faced with that as a potential CEO imagine the trickle-down effect at other levels of recruiting.

“I purposefully wore a very plain white suit with my hair up in a ponytail and not looking like I usually do – totally dumbing myself down – because I still felt I needed to conform. And this gentleman said to me within 30 seconds of meeting me, ‘I looked you up on the Internet – you looked very glamorous and even more glamorous in person. How are you going to get along with the developers?’” 

As Di Donato pointed out – she is a developer – a coder by trade with a long track record of thriving in a male dominated industry. If anything, the question should have been how would the gentleman interviewer cope with a strong, confident and passionate woman being his boss? But that’s another story.

With a career that started by implementing early SAP products in the 90s, Di Donato’s CV includes stints at Bearing Point, Oracle, PwC and IBM but most notably at Salesforce where she was regional VP for force.com and more latterly at SAP as chief revenue officer for their digital and ERP business. SUSE is her first role as CEO and it’s a big step up in terms of responsibility and profile. However, it’s not just the accountability of leading a global tech company that Di Donato is challenged with; being a female CEO adds a new layer of responsibility that she is taking as seriously as the commitment to EQT and driving shareholder value.

“The biggest job I have right now is to be successful. Not just for EQT and SUSE but for all the women out there who are looking for strong role models. I need to succeed for all of them.”

Anyone who has spent time with Di Donato knows that’s not a token soundbite. Like a modern-day Emmeline Pankhurst (only with much better shoes) she is on an unwavering mission to redress gender-bias across the tech industry through the creation of strong role models, supportive mentoring programmes and an environment that provides the tools women need to prosper. It’s a big task because these endemic issues don’t have a single source of origin and there isn’t a magic wand solution to solving them. Just like all discriminatory behaviour and beliefs, gender-bias manifests itself in both conscious and unconscious ways. Even the most measured and benevolent person can succumb to unconsciously allowing predispositions to affect their thinking.

“I’d rather be on the cover of a tech magazine talking to you about the SUSE business model and why we’re the best company in the world but the problem with that is there is a bigger agenda.”

And that agenda is simple; get more women into tech and give them the tools and support they need to stay in the industry. Di Donato says that the issues with gender inequality and a lack of diversity has many root causes; poor induction of young women into STEM industries, a lack of suitable role models, and a trap door that sees nearly half of women leave the tech world after joining it.

“We’ve got five issues – there’s a pipeline problem for sure. We don’t have enough girls getting into STEM at an early age; we’ve got a trap door problem with 40 per cent leaving the industry; we have women not sticking around because they are not ascending at the same rate as their male colleagues. And most fundamentally, women knowing they’re going to have to prove themselves more than the men and feeling beat down.”

That’s only four issues – what’s the fifth? As Di Donato goes on to say, the contention isn’t just related to historic views driven by male leaders and a culture that has been geared towards the male agenda. Women play their part in the problem too.

“We’ve definitely got a female problem too. Madame Albright, the former US secretary of state once said, ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,’ and I couldn’t agree more. I think some women are a big part of our problem, and that a lot of women look at me and say, ‘get off your soap box we’re really good being alone.’ It has definitely suited some women to be in the minority because they have almost become untouchable and we need to change that.”

I DIDN’T REALISE I WAS DRESSING MYSELF DOWN OR I WASN’T ALLOWING MYSELF TO BE ME – I THINK THAT THE INDUSTRY TOOK AWAY MY CONFIDENCE WITHOUT ME REALISING IT.

SUSE and open source culture

Di Donato finds herself at the helm of a company operating in the most exciting space within enterprise technology. As the cloud infrastructure market starts to mature there is an unprecedented opportunity to position SUSE as the go-to player for flexible open source software that delivers agile potency to post-modern enterprise architecture.

Whether its enterprise servers, clustering for physical and virtual machines or open-source solutions on public or private cloud environments, SUSE (and the broader open-source community) will be at the forefront of the next wave of digital enterprise technology. Red Hat and IBM may have stolen the open source headlines recently but that is only testament to the importance that this second wave of infrastructure architecture is going to have on the enterprise technology sector.

SUSE is the operating system that powers SAP (and other) workloads globally. It is the platform that provides edge to core potential delivering new hybrid and multi-cloud capabilities that help customers transform their digital infrastructures.

In addition to the multi-model Linux operating system (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server), SUSE is expanding into adjacent open source solutions such as container management and storage allowing new levels of agility and digital transformation while harnessing the nimbleness of DevOps. Its delivery solutions include SUSE CaaS Platform, an enterprise-ready container management solution based on Kubernetes, and SUSE Cloud Application Platform, which runs on top of Kubernetes and helps enterprises achieve their cloud native application delivery goals more quickly and cost effectively. DevOps teams can take advantage of the CaasS Platform to manage a wide range of workloads, including traditional, transitional and cloud native workloads while the Cloud Application Platform solution adds ready-made workflow automation that enables DevOps teams to deliver cloud native applications rapidly, at scale and in multi-cloud environments.

I am keen to find out more about Di Donato’s plans for SUSE and a selection of questions and answers from our interview are set out below;

PE: This is your first gig as a CEO and a big step up in terms of responsibility and profile; are you the right person for the job of CEO?

MDD: I know I’m the right person for the job. I have complete faith I can do it, but I can’t believe they knew I could do it. There’s a very big difference.

PE: Why the doubt that others thought you could do it?

MDD: It’s not so much a doubt but I still have to pinch myself when I look at my business card and see CEO on it. I’m married to a CEO and he takes it all in his stride but for me, having to work so hard to get where I am now, it just feels like such a long journey that had so many obstacles. But now I am here. Now I am finally a CEO. It still sounds crazy when I say it but I know I can do the job and I’ve had amazing backing from the chairman and EQT. They have faith in me and that’s all I need to spur me on and prove to everyone I can grow SUSE into the best company in the world.”

PE: You don’t come from an open source background – you’ve been in proprietary software for your whole career – is that a problem for the new CEO of SUSE?

MDD: For me, no, but I do get a lot of people asking me ‘why are you in open source when you know nothing about the business?’ I’ve been in proprietary software for 23 years. What gives me the right to be in this business? I know how to put an SAP business on top of a Linux operating system better than anybody. I know what’s important for a highly available, mission critical system – whether it’s SAP or anything else. And that’s a hell of a lot more than most other people.

PE: Why is an open source environment right for someone like you with such a strong agenda focussed on diversity and promoting women?

MDD: The beauty of open source is that a lot of our workforce, in fact a third of our people, operate from home in remote locations and that means you can be whoever you want. You could be a man, a woman, you could be in the middle… the beauty of open source is that you can be whoever you want to be. But the problem is that we need to move away from the idea that coding and open source is just for boys and men. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to address the gender imbalance at SUSE but we are already making progress; we’ve launched a mentoring programme which gives every employee, male or female, access to a role model; we’ve launched a charity and volunteering initiative which gives all employees the chance to give back and pay forward by taking paid leave to do something for charity – whatever charity or good cause they like; we’re introducing schemes to help women in the workplace get access to the things they need like childcare, support for homeworking; and we are looking closely at our recruitment model so we can make it more attractive for women of all ages to join us at SUSE.

PE: What have you achieved in your first 100 days as CEO of SUSE?

MDD: 100 customers in 100 days. I want to be in every major office that SUSE has, which is five around the world, so places like Utah, Bracknell, Germany, China, Taiwan. I’m living on the road and getting in front of as many employees as I can to hear their voice – and I’ve found pockets of absolutely brilliance. Pockets of employees that have these amazing ideas and this amazing sense of passion. They just needed a voice in which to be heard. SUSE’s done well. It’s done very well, but the ability for us to do better is tremendous and the more customers and employees I meet the more I realise what an amazing opportunity we all have.

PE: What’s your message to the CIOs reading this article?

MDD: I think to the CIOs it’s probably going to be the SUSE you knew before and the SUSE you know now is going to be different. It’s not because of me and the way I look. It’s really going to be much more about the fact that we’re pivoting to really focus on building solutions rather than products. We’re going to be raising the game and demand more from SUSE.

PE: And a final comment to our readers…

MDD: I want every woman that picks up this copy of ERP Today to see me and say to themselves – I can be anything I want to be. If I can achieve that. If I can inspire women, whether they come and work for SUSE or not, to be who they want to be, to be the best that they can be and to believe that they can really do it – then I will have succeeded.”   

The story behind the cover

What better way to depict the issues that many women face than to shine a spotlight on how Melissa used to dress and how she dresses now. It may be easier to be who you want to be when you have the keys to your own $2.5bn business but surely all women, and men, should be able to express themselves without fear of prejudice and reprisals? Surely the clothes we wear and the image we portray has no bearing on our ability to get the job done? Yes we played up the glamour and played down the masculinity – but not by much. Melissa used to dress how she thought the world wanted her to dress and there will be millions of women out there who either dress up or down to fit what they think is the corporate and social norm. It goes without saying that there are some boundaries for personal expression but no-one should ever feel that they can’t be themselves. Melissa, and others like her, are spearheading a movement that will liberate workforces and bring our working environments in-line with modern forward thinking culture.