“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
-The Red Queen, “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll-
On June 20th, we hosted our third event in partnership with Mercer: Building an Innovation-Driven Tech Workplace, featuring panelists from NVIDIA, Salesforce, Noodle.ai, and Heartflow. We examined the ways in which leading companies are taking an entrepreneurial approach to corporate culture—agile, personalized, and filled with opportunities to grow. We learned that companies can create change within their own workforce, as long as they’re willing to meet the workforce on its own terms.
The world as we know it is connected, plugged in, turned on, Extremely Online: call it what you want, but most of the interactions we have on a daily basis are digital in some way. The modern workforce has followed suit, creating a highly competitive marketplace for tech talent—and enterprise companies have a singular challenge on the table: how do you keep your most talented employees happy? The hyphenated era our parents knew—40-year, 9-5, middle-managed—seems to be drawing to a close, as a generational turnover has introduced a workforce that has actively sought to uproot itself from the confines of the cube farm.
The evening began with a short keynote from Sheela Sukumaran, who provided an overview of Mercer’s ongoing research into the modern workforce, this time focusing on enterprise companies that have thrived because of their outlook on innovation. “Everyone who runs a tech company today struggles with hiring tech talent,” she said. “You’re competing with other industries—all tech talent is up for grabs. So your company’s value proposition needs to work.” Additionally, innovative companies are fast—getting through failures quickly and getting to market quickly.
The modern workforce—tech employees in particular—want a safe environment in which they can innovate. Through a survey of over 260 technology companies and interviews with 25 industry executives, Mercer found that innovation-driven tech workplaces (or ITWs) shared 5 key characteristics:
- Impact-Driven Culture: ITWs have a clear, impact-driven vision, with a focus on customer experience. A consumer-first approach requires agile problem-solving, and a willingness to reorganize quickly to address customer needs instead of putting time and energy into maintaining the status quo.
- Hybrid Skills and Learning Experiences: ITWs create an environment for learning that extends to every person, in every level of the company—investing in skill-building as much as the skills themselves.
- Inclusive People, Programs, and Processes: ITWs are more willing to experiment beyond benchmarks, with personalized processes (and competitive awards) to drive engagement.
- Flexible Architecture: ITWs create an environment that both encourages and rewards innovation—a structure that thrives on problem-solving instead of maintaining hierarchy.
- Digital Workplaces: Innovative work practices pretty much can’t happen without the speed, inclusivity, and agility of a digital work environment. And it’s not just “table stakes” – ITWs are using tech/digital work in innovative ways.
The panel further examined the issues and topics addressed in Sheela’s keynote—their conversation has been captured below. Some comments have been edited for clarity and/or brevity.
- Sheela Sukumaran – Partner, Technology Industry Leader @ Mercer
- Renata Naoumov – Chief People Office @ Heartflow
- Martina Sourada – Senior Director, SWQA @ NVIDIA
- Gaurav Palta – Managing Partner, Enterprise AI @ Noodle.AI
- Bruno Fonzi – Director of Engineering @ Salesforce
How does your company encourage innovation?
Martina Sourada, NVIDIA: Innovation at scale represents an interesting challenge. NVIDIA is a company where innovation was a cornerstone—innovation and intellectual honesty. It goes top to bottom in a company—there always needs to be consistent messaging through an organization from the top to the bottom. Think of it as the “plumbing” of your company.
Bruno Fonzi, Salesforce: If a company has been started with certain values, keeping those values strong over the years is crucial. Innovation needs part of the core of the culture from the very beginning, along with collaboration and transparency.
Renata Naoumov, Heartflow: We have a very young workforce [at Heartflow], so we collaborate a lot, and people share projects and learning. We’ve found that compassion and empathy is key—just the simple act of asking for help and finding that your teammates will step in and give you a hand goes a long way.
Sheela: And as an organization scales, keeping that collaboration is key.
Guarav Palta, noodle.ai: The only way innovation can succeed is for people to understand the dynamics of a smaller group or team—the close-knit culture, really being able to interact closely with a project or problem. The issue is: how do you scale that experience? How do you get an employee to jump out of bed, excited to come to work that day?
Sheela: In Silicon Valley, you can never rest on your laurels—as soon as you get big, you’re watching your back. There’s a magic that happens in a good company culture—people who enjoy working together and feed off each others’ energy. You have to figure out where your innovation is coming from in your company, and what they need in order to thrive.
How do you take care of your most innovative talent?
Gaurav: If you have innovative talent, those are the people you have to worry about the least—they’re already in it. It’s the rest of your workforce. There’s the buy and there’s the build: or, how do you create what you can’t hire? Creating an environment in which it’s okay to fail really just means an environment where it’s okay for people to be themselves. It’s essential for managers and leaders to “bring it” and really set an example.
Renata: At Heartflow, we aim for perfection, but we realize that we aren’t perfect—just getting to the best place you can is enough. We share what we’ve learned, that whole process, with our customers—by bringing them into our world, we can show everyone that failing is not an END, but part of the process.
Bruno: It honestly makes my life easier to keep innovation going within the company—people feel independent and empowered, and everyone is approachable. When you truly value your company culture, it’s hard to hire anyone who won’t fit in—because you don’t just hire them for their skill set.
Martina: NVIDIA has a ton of success stories where we’ve encouraged people to find their fit and explore opportunities within the company—we’re focusing on helping our employees learn and grow their skills as needed. It’s been really, really well-received. We don’t believe in silos—from an organizational standpoint, we’re very flat. We want to be able to “swarm” a problem to solve it quickly, and pull people in when we need them.
Gaurav: In a smaller company, there’s so much cross-pollinating that learning is pretty much part of the job. Being self-directed is helpful for employees on an individual level—even better if you work for a company that encourages it, and provides help.
Renata: When you look for talent, you want to find a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset—you may not have the skills or abilities to do the job right now, but you have the drive to acquire them.
ITWs want people to move around—a conscious effort at scale to move people to facilitate career growth. How do you solve for that in a bigger company?
Bruno: Salesforce has an internal job fair for company projects. Often we’re very busy with our job, with no time to think about anything else—having opportunities to move around helps expand your thinking, perspective, and experiences.
Martina: Agile staffing should never be forced. You want your employees to feel like the opportunity to switch projects or roles is meant as a positive thing, a nod to your career growth. Frame it as “how would you feel about…”
Renata: At Heartflow, titles don’t matter. If you’re the subject matter expert on a particular topic, speak up—you have a seat at the table! We’ve seen people grow less and less attached to company hierarchy.
Gaurav: Letting IT define your organizational structure is a death knell. As soon as you have a project, you need to have the right people emerge from within your ranks to get on it. It’s the Ocean’s 11 approach: bring the right people together to solve a problem, and then let them go back to where they were. The only people who like things the other way are middle managers.
How do you scale your inclusion practices?
Martina: From the pipeline of where you’re bringing people in—your hiring practices—the process now is very different than it used to be. It has to go through an algorithm that’s more gender-friendly and changes the language to solve for disproportionate applications. Blind resumes are another way—you’re stripping out the identifiers and just looking at the skills. Unconscious bias is still a work in progress. When your female workforce is quitting faster than you can bring them in, you still haven’t solved the problem.
Sheela: Inclusion by design means people can come in and find a place.
Gaurav: The leadership has to really, truly believe in the value of diversity—it can’t be lip service. The leadership drives the vision and values for the company.
Renata: The most important part of inclusion really comes down to a sense of belonging. That’s the best way to get buy-in from your employees across the board: focusing on the sense of belonging inspires a feeling of accountability for the success of the company. If you come in to work and you feel that you belong there and that you can make things happen, innovation can thrive.
How do you measure success metrics?
Martina: As the saying goes, if you measure it, it’ll improve—but you want to measure the right thing. In the spirit of intellectual honesty, everyone knows the goals and focus for the company. Focus on two things that really make a difference, rather than a bunch of different things that don’t.
Renata: People respond well to have clear overarching goals. We go through all our metrics once a month with our employees. Culture is a consequence of having strong values—for those values to stick, you have to practice them every day.
How are you using tech in your organization to make things more innovative for employees?
Bruno: The interesting thing about SF is we use our own platform internally—before we ever ship it to customers, we use it ourselves. When your workforce are your first customers, you’re much, much more likely to build a better product and a better staff.
Martina: Same with NVIDIA. We’ve built a lot of technology and we use it to create innovation. AI has been a boon to us to help automate processes that would normally take 35 workdays and four employees to complete. People are a valuable resource, and you want to be able to put them on the hard problems that AI can’t solve.
Renata: It’s such a talent war out there—you have to make it easy to come work for you, and motivating to stay.
Gaurav: The garbage-in, garbage-out workflow method becomes automatic. What you design, designs you back—and it’s the same with your workforce. Curate an intelligent, digital environment, and put the flow back into the workflow. Make sure you understand the impact of the work you’re assigning.
Sheela: Everyone has their responsibilities at every level. Having all these experiences come together is key, and no one group can solve it—everything you touch, touches your employees.
Director of Communications
Silicon Valley Forum