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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 2 · Episode 1

From Culture to Cooking: A Masterclass with Cisco’s Group CIO

Jacqueline Guichelaar, Group CIO at Cisco, shares her inspiring story—from being born in Uruguay to living all over the world. She teaches us how to cultivate diverse teams, put customer experience at the forefront of product strategy, and – most notably – to be courageous leaders.

Published March 16th, 2021  |  26:26 Runtime

Episode Guest

Jacqui Guichelaar

Jacqui Guichelaar

SVP & CIO at Cisco

View Bio

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest-growing startups. Hosted by DataStax chairman and CEO, Chet Kapoor, each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves. Jacqueline Guichelaar, group CIO at Cisco has 28 years of IT experience. She previously led teams and spearheaded the introduction of new technologies at IBM, Deutsche Bank, and Reuters. In this episode, you'll hear Jacqui's unique journey from being born in Uruguay and growing up in Australia, to working all over the world and DJ-ing in her spare time. Follow along to find out how she cultivates diverse teams, puts customer experience at the forefront of product strategy and courageously pushes the envelope to spark transformation.

Chet Kapoor: Hi Jacqui. Welcome to the podcast.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Chet Kapoor: Super, super excited to have you on the podcast. You have had an amazing journey, right? Born in Uruguay, and then migrated to Australia, your first job with IBM. Tell us a little bit about the journey.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So the first thing I would say is that even though I sound Australian, Chet, I'm born in Uruguay as you say. So some of my friends or my other half call me a Latina kangaroo. Which is kind of appropriate because I'm probably more Latina (that's why it comes first) and I am kangaroo. But yeah, my parents moved to Australia in 1974 when I was two years old. And actually it's interesting– they were immigrants who moved over when Australia was encouraging immigrants to move to Australia. We moved to Sydney and literally they turned up in a country, not speaking a word of English. And I think that's carried with me for my whole life. Just the thought of my parents moving to the other side of the world, not speaking a word of English, giving up their lives in Uruguay for the future of their children in a country that they didn't even know or understand. I always found it quite inspiring and courageous, if I'm honest.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So, long story short, my parents were cleaners. We came from humble beginnings. I went to school. I struggled with English—believe it or not—because my first language was Spanish. And at the time, I was probably one of the only immigrants in our school. So a lot of blonde girls, a lot of Australian girls. And then there was me, Jacqui, who had a Spanish accent at the time. That was pretty hard to deal with in terms of being accepted because I was definitely different to them at the time, 1974. From there, I went through school, my brother went through school. I knew at a pretty early age that my parents couldn't afford to send my brother and I to university. So knowing that and not really enjoying school at the time for the reasons I described before, I said to my parents, "You know what, how about I go to work?" I was 17 years old. "How about I go work, and you send Daniel, my brother to university, because he's smarter than I am? And I'll go work because I'm actually happy to do that."

Jacqui Guichelaar: And that's how I started in IT, believe it or not. 17 years old, I started as a tape operator on the night shift, moved onto mainframes, monitored the networks for airlines, for manufacturing companies, for television stations, for banks. And the rest is history. 31 years later, here I am wondering what happened, but I have definitely enjoyed the ride. And amongst that, I've lived all over the world. I went from Australia, a little stint in Singapore, to Germany, to London, to New York and Wall Street, back to London, and now I'm in California. So, there's a lot in there, let me tell you.

Chet Kapoor: For sure. Cisco, Thomson Reuters, Lloyds, IBM, right? A lot of great background. What came easy?

Jacqui Guichelaar: What came easy?

Chet Kapoor: As you went through this, right? Different industries, different locations, what was easy for you?

Jacqui Guichelaar: So I think what was easy... I joined IBM when I was 20 years old. My first management job was 21 years old at IBM, just after Lou Gerstner, basically restructured the whole IBM company. And what came easy, which I found quite exciting, was access to education. So, during my eight years at IBM, I must've done 50 to 60 to 70 to 80 online courses—everything from conflict management, to how to build a strategy, to how to code mainframes, how to build a database. And that access to information, I was so hungry for it. That came easy, considering what I said earlier, which is we didn't have enough money for both of us to go and be educated. And I found my way of educating myself through the great companies that I worked for. So to me, the education and the ability to learn every single day, it was easy access. And I just soaked it up.

Chet Kapoor: Constant learning, right?

Jacqui Guichelaar: Constant learning.

Chet Kapoor: Always learning.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Absolutely. That hasn't stopped by the way.

Chet Kapoor: Oh, no, no. That is very clear in the way you talk about this, as well as our prior conversations. That's awesome. What was hard?

Jacqui Guichelaar: What was hard? Look, I think what was hard was understanding the different cultures. And for want of a better word (depending on which company), the fiefdoms, the inner circles. How to navigate and penetrate and be accepted to be part of the team. I think that was hard. And I think actually what really set me up for success is the early parts of my life, where I was different. I wasn't Australian, I sounded different, and I wasn't necessarily readily accepted into the groups at school. I think that really set me up to not take it personally, but actually try to navigate and understand why is it that in companies you see these groups, or all these different cultures. How do you actually disarm people and try to understand their point of view and put yourself in their shoes, so that you can somehow be accepted. Because actually my philosophy is: the more difference of thoughts or thinking that you bring into teams, the better they are.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Diverse teams are absolutely amazing, and I've been lucky enough to build a couple of really diverse teams in my career. And let me tell you, they go at speed. The innovation that they can come up with is just incredible. So yeah, that was hard, but I think I've learned to navigate it and, to some extent, use it as an advantage.

Chet Kapoor: It is really interesting, a lot of people talk about diversity. It can be race, gender, whatever different variations of it. The school of thought has always been, if you ignore it, maybe it doesn't exist. But you have to acknowledge it, and you have to acknowledge it upfront, right? Literally, you have to deal with it. You cannot flank it. You have to acknowledge it up front and create the environment as a leader to actually have that conversation, right? And it seems like having been on the receiving end of it at a very young age, you were equipped to handle more of those situations as you progressed through your career.

Jacqui Guichelaar: If I look at my career and leaders around me and the teams that they build, I would say it's easier to build teams that you've worked with before. So you see people move around the industry, move around with different roles—and they'll usually hire people that worked with them before. Now, if you look at my career, that very rarely happens, because I believe that talent exists everywhere. So I don't need to take it from wherever it was. Now, that may be the case on occasion, but I think learning people, building diverse teams, and trying to form teams which have that different thinking—some of them are strategists, some of them are deep engineers, some of them are really good in terms of understanding how to translate business into technology—I think you need all of the above.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Now, by the way, it's harder to make it work. Because you find that teams that have very different thinking usually take a lot longer to understand each other, a lot longer to respect each other, and a lot longer to actually turn that into action, innovation and strength as an entire team. So it's not an easy thing to do, but I'm a massive believer in it, which is why I try and do it wherever I can.

Chet Kapoor: You're currently responsible for running and transforming the technology infrastructure and application development at Cisco. Tell us a little bit about a day in your life?

Jacqui Guichelaar: A day in my life? Well, a day in my life since February has changed dramatically. I've been talking to a few colleagues of mine, and it's not the case for everyone. So, pre-COVID, I would have started at eight and finished quite late. Since COVID, I'm up at 5:00 AM, and being a Latina, I'm not necessarily an early bird. I've never been an early bird in my entire life, but I work long hours. So I start at 5:00 AM pretty much since February. A couple of reasons for that. One, I have a global team. So out of respect, I don't want the team in the UK or Asia having to stay up late just because the majority of us are in the US. We have to actually acknowledge that we're a global organization. So I do it for that reason.

Jacqui Guichelaar: And secondly, I've just found that I can now think clearer in the morning, whereas before I'd do a lot of my strategic thinking in the evening. A lot of my habits have changed, and that's not the case for everyone. So I don't know if I'm unique in that regard. What I do now, which I find a little easier than before, is I just make sure I challenge myself every single day to spend 50% of my working time thinking about strategy, innovation, industry, talent. And then the other 50% worrying about people. How are people doing from a mental health perspective, from a support perspective— because everyone has a different experience now. And I think we can't underestimate how difficult it is on people in terms of their mental health. So to me, that's a very front-of-mind thing. And of course, yeah, somewhere in-between there, Chet, I run the business.

Chet Kapoor: So talking about the business, you're one of the key voices in the company's Customer Zero initiative at Cisco. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So Customer Zero—it's all about how do we, in Cisco IT, use and leverage the Cisco products. So, I was a customer of Cisco before I joined Cisco for many decades. When I was at Deutsche Bank, I was a customer of Cisco. When I was at Lloyds Bank, I was a customer of Cisco. At Thomson Reuters, I was a customer of Cisco. And in my time, I would have said that Cisco had amazing products, but I would challenge Cisco and say, "Look, how can you make your products easier to integrate? How can you give me a platform that gives me networking solutions or security solutions, as opposed to more product-based solutions?" And I think that's what CIOs are looking for. When I joined Cisco and I was talking to the leadership team, what was great about the role that I've taken is I'm not just here to transform Cisco IT. I'm also here to transform Cisco and I'm also here to transform the way that we build and use the products for our customers. Because by the way, I am customer zero, right? I'm the first customer.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So if I can get closer to the engineering organization and tell them how I want Webex to be integrated with my incident management process and the way that I do my workflows, so it's fully automated. So that when I have an incident, I can go from ServiceNow, which triggers Webex to call the people who can resolve the network incident, and I'm responding to something within seconds. And I've got everyone online and they've got access to the documentation. Then I've actually changed the entire experience. So you're not just talking about one product or two, but you're talking about a fully integrated platform that allows you to do incident response in a way that you haven't done before.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So the more smarts that we can bring to the table in the way that we sell products to our customers, because we are using them internally, I think the more successful we'll be as a company. It's exciting because if you think about it, yes, we're here to run the applications and the infrastructure and all the rest of it for Cisco. But now we're also on the front end. So my team get quite excited thinking about how can we improve the products and how can we integrate them so that our customers are even more delighted with the experiences we give them. And we're a big part of that.

Chet Kapoor: We talk about dogfooding, right? I'm sure you've used that internally, but I think it's-

Jacqui Guichelaar: Drink your own champagne is what we prefer.

Chet Kapoor: Yeah, for sure. It is a phenomenal way to actually talk about, "we are the users, we have a very large company, and we're going to use our products. And we're going to make them better for you." I think that is great. Given the discussion earlier about COVID and how people are making changes and all the personal issues that are happening in their lives, how do you get the teams to execute thoughtfully with speed while obsessing over customers during these times?

Jacqui Guichelaar: It's a great question. One of the things that we have been very conscious about doing is dividing and conquering. That's probably how I would put it. The one thing that I've always been very, very passionate about is, we in IT, even though some would say we're in the back office— we're only here because of our customers. And we need to move from what's traditionally a spend-and-operate function to one that is about investing to innovate for impact. So, why do I say that? Because the clearer the accountabilities are internally, I think in IT organizations and the more dedicated teams that you have, my belief is that you can accelerate, right? So first of all, we have to obsess about our customers because we're here for them. But to your point about executing at speed, that is the biggest challenge that faces CIOs today. How do you do it quick enough?

Jacqui Guichelaar: So at Cisco, we're moving to new business models because our customers demand it. We have to rebuild all of our internal platforms, Chet. That means that I've got to figure out, how do I free up 500 people and millions of dollars to go at this at pace so that we can compete in an industry that's changing. So, we've done a couple of things. We've done the structural changes. I've now got clear accountabilities. Half of my leadership team are going to focus on what I call running and changing of our IT operation, which is critical, right? We have to keep Cisco as a company running. We have to keep posting the 50 billion revenue per year on our platforms. But the other half of the team are dedicated to acceleration on our biggest new business model opportunities for our customers.

Chet Kapoor: So diversity and inclusion is a critical part of our values. And you and I have talked about it before, and you've cautioned against hiring quarters, encouraging organizations to focus on diversity of thought. Tell us a little bit about that, or just your general approach to diversity and inclusion.

Jacqui Guichelaar:  My view is if you change your culture to be one where you're looking for diverse skills, right? So when you interview, you shouldn't be looking just for, "have they got the technical skills to build a SAS platform?" You need to be looking for, "Have they got proven ability to work with teams? Can they break down complex problems? How customer-obsessed are they? Do they value other ways of architecting and solutioning or are they just going to do it the way they've done it before?" I think there are so many lenses to how we should interview people. And I think if you look for all of those elements, in my experience, what you find is that you end up selecting a very diverse set of individuals to work in your team, as opposed to just looking for what you've seen before.

Jacqui Guichelaar: So I constantly challenge myself and my team to look for different skills, to look for different ways of thinking, to look for people who've done things and push the boundaries. So that we can bring in some of those unknown or new ways of working. I constantly think about how do I do it different again, and how do I push the boundaries and how do I discover what I haven't even thought about? And I think the best way of doing that is to build diverse teams. So I think if you do that, it should naturally help you move the quota in the right direction.

Chet Kapoor: It's really interesting because I think almost all of us have gotten to a point where skills are table stakes, right? Teamwork, IQ, integrity, work ethic—all those things are table stakes, right? How can we get to a point where we're looking for two or three other things where, yes, you're looking for diversity. But I love this diversity of thought because I can actually look for somebody who has worked in a non-IT role to come in and be in the IT world as long as they have the skills, right?

Jacqui Guichelaar: Spot on. Spot on.

Chet Kapoor: That's phenomenal. Let me...

Jacqui Guichelaar: And also, another big one for me, hire people better than you all the time. The quicker you do that, the quicker they take on your role, the quicker you can move to the next one.

Chet Kapoor: Yeah, that's for sure. I'm going to come back to you on the diversity of thought as I think about what we can do in our micro-world at DataStax. It is something that we wrestle with quite a bit. And so, I might come back to you and get some additional thoughts.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Sure. It will be a pleasure.

Chet Kapoor: I love CIO.com's article heading which was like, "Leaning in with Cisco's ‘Disco’ CIO."

Jacqui Guichelaar: Oh, my goodness. Don't embarrass me. And then on top of that, it was great because they actually found the right hairstyle to go with the actual article. So yeah, I had to have a chuckle with it, but he was a lovely guy actually from CIO Australia. But yes, yes. "Cisco's Disco CIO."

Chet Kapoor: I love the fact that we can still do this. We don't take each other too seriously and they can actually pick things like this and we can have some fun with it.

Jacqui Guichelaar:  Exactly, exactly. By the way, did I tell you that I'm actually going to start learning to DJ professionally. I've finally decided to take the plunge.

Chet Kapoor: Great. Let us know when you want to experiment. We'll have you join one of our all-hands because we actually have what we call the pregame show. We DJ the first 15 minutes before the weekly all-hands start. So, whenever you're ready, please let us know if you can do a cameo appearance.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Let's see how courageous I'm feeling.

Chet Kapoor: So it's very clear, you're constantly learning. You use all these different ways of changing things, moving things, learning new ways of doing things, teaching. One of the things that you've recently done is you have a mini cooking show for your team. What's your best dish and how do you think it actually impacts the team?

Jacqui Guichelaar: So, my favorite dish as in the one I like to cook and the one I like to eat a lot is lamb vindaloo. So I like spicy food. I love Indian food. Now, basically, I can cook pretty much anything. I can cook Thai food, Uruguayan food, Spanish food, Italian food, French, different dishes. And my mum is probably one of the best cooks in the world. Of course, I would say that, but obviously, a lot of people say she's an amazing cook. And I remember as a young girl always wanted to get into the kitchen. She finally allowed me in one day, and I made a complete mess of trying to make pizzas from scratch with the flour and the yeast and everything else. But yeah, look, I just like it. I love cooking because it's my way of releasing. It's when I switch off. If I'm cooking or dancing is when I can stop thinking about work and life and worries, and just clear my head.

Jacqui Guichelaar: And so, yeah, I started recording them. I just started recording these little snippets—one-minute videos, two-minute videos—and circulated a few just to a few people. And then, of course, more people wanted to see them. And I think it sparked a couple of things. One, I think this COVID thing has helped us enter each other's homes in a way that we haven't before. So, I think it's bringing people closer together, funnily enough, even though it's on the screen. But yeah, I think it's just inspired the team to do versions of the same themselves, right? Whether it's cooking or other things, and just sharing.

Chet Kapoor: Yeah. There's definitely a humanizing effect, right, we are all naturally doing. Because we're not going from back-to-back meetings. And like you said, people are coming into the house now and that's where we're having the meetings from. That's a great point. Who inspires you?

Jacqui Guichelaar: So many people. Without naming names, I think people who push boundaries, people who change the world, people who believe in the out of the possible. People who take on scary things. There are so many people who say, "Let's not do that, it's risky. Let's not do that. I don't think I'm ready for that." I think people that inspire me are the ones that really face the hard and difficult challenges, whether it's in work or whether it's in personal life. That really inspires me. And I've met people in my career that looked like that. If you talk about Mandela, one example. There are so many other examples. Yeah. Of artists or singers who've gone through their life journeys. Tina Turner, look at her life story. Look at what she went through as a girl in her relationship and she still came out on the other end fighting. I think it's those kinds of people that really inspire me—the fighters, the ones that never give up.

Chet Kapoor: I affectionately call them wackos because they don't actually see how high the cliff is or how deep the water is, but yet they take a leap.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Yeah, a lot of the people who have known me for a while say that I'm the one that usually runs into the fire with a grenade.

Chet Kapoor: That's a great way to put it. By the way, it's a great visual as well. So from now on, in every conversation we have, I'll start with that visual. There is Jacqui, running into the fire, and she has a grenade.

Jacqui Guichelaar: That's it. There you go.

Chet Kapoor: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

Jacqui Guichelaar: Younger version of myself? I would say a couple of things. Trust your instincts more. That's probably the first one. The second one would be, take time to enjoy the journey. I think that's one of the things that I wish I'd done more of. Major success, big programs, life events, moving to other parts of the world. I don't know whether I stopped enough to enjoy the ride, so to speak. So, take time to enjoy the journey. Never stop learning from those around you, probably the third one. The fourth one I'd say is it's okay not to know everything. Confidence comes from strength. It comes from having the smarts to have great people in your life, personal and professional, around you that can challenge you. And then the fifth one I would say is the bad things in your life don't define you. It's how you use them that defines you.

Chet Kapoor: Jacqui, this has been phenomenal. I had a blast doing this with you. I hope you had fun because our listeners are going to absolutely love listening to this episode.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Excellent. Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure.

Chet Kapoor: Thank you. Talk to you soon.

Jacqui Guichelaar: Okay. See you later. Bye.

Narrator: Building a team with a diverse skillset greatly increases the speed at which you can operate and the innovations you create. And by truly putting yourself in the customer's shoes, you'll transform the way you build products and solutions. It's all about asking the right questions and thinking outside the box. Jacqui reminds us that sometimes running headfirst into the fire—in work or life—is the best way to spark transformation and inspire those around you.

Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple Podcasts listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. Feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at inspiredexecution@datastax.com.