High-tech transactions, the future of STEM talent, and turning on the turbo-boosters
A conversation with US TMT leader Sandy Shirai
Deloitte recently appointed Sandra Shirai to lead the US technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) practice. Over her 26-year career with Deloitte, Sandy has served as a trusted advisor to many of the technology sector’s most prominent brands and has helped many clients navigate complex acquisitions, integrations and divestitures.
An interview with Sandy Shirai
Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP and US Technology, Media & Telecommunications Leader
Sandy recently sat down to talk about her new role, the industry as a whole, progress in attracting women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions and more.
Vision for Deloitte's TMT practice
Sandy: I am delighted to be the new national industry leader for Deloitte’s TMT practice. This sector has been close to my heart since my days as a computer science major at UC Berkeley. It has been a tremendously busy first month in the role, but also very exciting to think about what’s ahead.
Individually, our businesses offer best-in-class Audit, Consulting, Advisory and Tax services. Together, our breadth and depth create powerful and innovative solutions to complex business issues.
My vision is therefore consistent with that for all of Deloitte: We want to be the undisputed leader in professional services. When we ask our clients which firm they believe delivers the most enduring value, we want them to say, 'Deloitte.'
Q: How has your transition as TMT leader gone so far, and what is your vision for the practice?
Three key focus areas
Sandy: Innovation is central to our vision. To help our clients stay ahead of change, we, too, must continuously evolve—making sure we always deliver impact that matters now along with sustainable competitive advantage for the long term. All our lines of business— Audit, Consulting, Advisory and Tax—are investing in innovation.
Three of my key focus areas involve: new business models, our research centers, and strong alliances through which we can innovate in areas such as cloud and big data analytics.
In particular, many companies are shifting from one business model to another— for example, from hardware to software or from software to services—to accelerate growth. This sounds simple, but it is extremely hard to execute. It involves fundamental change, from how you innovate to how you sell, recruit and measure performance. We have helped many organizations navigate this type of change and are now codifying that experience into playbooks and tools.
Q: What are your top priorities?
Trends in technology, media, and telecommunications
Sandy: For larger companies, it is harder to grow organically and/or build new business models, so we are seeing more—and larger—acquisitions to achieve those goals.
Those transactions also are growing in complexity. At Deloitte, we have a 10-point scale for evaluating the complexity of a deal, and size is just one element. Other factors that are contributing to the complexity of current deals include acquiring a competitor (there may be antitrust implications), buying part of a company and executing a carve-out, and pursuing several deals concurrently.
Q: What other trend(s) are shaping the industry today?
Innovation and innovators
Sandy: I’m personally excited about developments in cognitive computing. Back in my college days as a computer scientist, we called that “artificial intelligence.” The concept of a computer talking to you and understanding natural language was considered science fiction. Today, it’s mainstream, and the advances in areas such as pattern recognition and data storage allow us to do some incredible things that touch everyone and not just the computer scientists working in a basement laboratory.
They [innovators] aren’t afraid to fail. We have a saying: 'Fail often; learn quickly.' When you find a success, be prepared to scale boldly.
Q: You see innovation come to life every day. What particularly excites you? What distinguishes the best innovators?
Keys to staying a step ahead
Sandy: Successful technology companies do several things well: They maintain relentless focus on customers, they continuously reinvent themselves and they can work effectively in an ecosystem. In this business, it’s hard to make it on your own, so there has to be an element of cooperation—“co-opetition” we call it.
They also are highly attuned to their workforce. Our younger generations of engineers fuel innovation—but they do things differently and want different things, such as mobility. Industry leaders know how to keep employees and engineers happy while accomplishing their business goals.
Q: Your clients operate amid continuous and disruptive change. What are some keys to staying a step ahead in such a fast-moving environment?
Successful technology leaders
Sandy: Deloitte is an incubator for exceptional talent and leadership and we are committed to an environment where leaders thrive at every level. I am fortunate to have had great mentors and be part of a firm that’s been so focused on inclusion and development of both men and women leaders.
Successful leaders are passionate about winning and constantly upping the game. They are very thoughtful and purposeful about the decisions they make. They surround themselves with great talent. And they create visions that are aspirational and exciting. I think one of the best ways to test a vision is to share it with your salespeople—the people closest to customers. If they are enthusiastic, you know you have a winner.
Q: What makes a successful technology leader?
Challenges for women in technology
Sandy: Generally speaking, the TMT sectors have fewer women leaders. It’s not unusual to be the only woman in a big meeting. We are continually working to provide our rising women executives with role models, both within our firm and in the market.
Of course, work/life balance is a challenge—for women and men, alike. This is an exciting and fulfilling profession, but it is demanding. I remind others that it is impossible to be “superhuman”; you need to define your priorities and focus your energy and attention on those and not be afraid to let the less important things go.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you hear when mentoring women in technology today?
STEM education for girls
Sandy: I serve on the board of Girl Scouts in Northern California, and we have a STEM task force. Two of our Girl Scout Gold Award winners recently asked middle school and high school girls whether they could imagine themselves in a STEM profession. While three quarters of middle school girls surveyed said they could, just 0.4 percent of high school girls said the same. That was a shocking drop-off! Girls and young women are missing out on some of the fastest growing and most interesting fields of work, and the high-tech industry is missing out on half of the talent field.
That said, I think we will make progress. We have to. The high-tech industry is highly focused on this. There are some technology firms out there with wonderful work/life programs.
We are also seeing more programs in the education sector designed to attract women and girls into these fields. And there are great opportunities for women to be entrepreneurs and to own and operate businesses in this space.
Q: There’s been more focus recently on STEM education for girls. Do you feel we are making progress?
Work and family
Sandy: Professor Myra Strober started this course in 1972. I got involved about 10 years ago and love it! I co-lead a portion of the class about women who choose to have a family and advance in a fast-paced career. Students (a 50/50 mix of women and men) ask whatever is on their minds, and we speak honestly—whether the topic is painful or positive.
In addition to sharing my experiences, I have learned a great deal. For example, someone once asked: If you travel a lot or are not at home much when raising children, how do you develop a great relationship with them?
One of the women with whom I was teaching described how, when traveling, she called home in the evenings and asked her children to tell her about two good things (“ups”) and one bad thing (a “down”) that happened during the day. If you just ask, “How was your day?” the answer is likely to be “fine,” and the discussion ends there.
I started discussing “ups” and “downs” with my daughter when she was three, and we still do so today—ten years later. I’ve found it really creates a rich dialogue that contributes to a healthy work/life balance.
Q: You teach a course on “Work and Family” at Stanford. How did you get involved, and what lesson(s) do you emphasize?
Preparing for success
Sandy: I’ve had a few really extraordinary project opportunities come my way, and when I did, I made sure to give it everything I had to deliver results and delight our clients.
When you get that important project, I say that is the time to 'turn on the turbo boosters.'
Looking back, there are particular times I did so, and those projects were turning points in my career and helped catapult me into exciting new roles like the one I’m beginning now.
Beyond that, even though I have had various management and leadership roles throughout my career, I’ve always stayed at the core of what we do at Deloitte: serving clients. That keeps me close to the marketplace and close to our people.
Given the omnipresence of technology—it is everywhere—and pace of innovation, this is such an amazing industry in which to be a consultant!