A Day in the Life: Cheryan Jacob (Senior Vice President and Head of Data, Infra, and Intelligence Platforms, Salesforce Marketing Cloud)
Cheryan talks about his leadership journey and the transition from an engineer to a manager, sharing his tips on accomodating into new roles, building peer relationships and successfully managing teams.
What has been your journey in tech so far?
I didn’t originally think of tech or software as a career path; I wanted to go into teaching. My educational background was in computer architecture, but I started my career in research, doing data analysis for embryonic stem cell research and environmental sciences in grad school. I ended up working as an engineer at a medical informatics company called Epic for about five years where I got much deeper into data, data analysis, and data platforms.
That led me eventually to Microsoft where I worked with the SQL server team doing cloud computing and data at scale. Next I helped build Bing’s client and server infrastructure services for application platforms. I then set up site reliability engineering and cluster administration and deployment platforms at a startup but came back to Microsoft and took on a role in customer success engineering, where I led a team of 1,500 technical engineers who helped our customers adopt and get the best out of Microsoft’s data platforms.
Salesforce then offered me an incredible opportunity I couldn’t refuse to lead the Data, Infra, and Intelligence Platforms for Marketing cloud, where I have worked now for two years.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced moving into your current role?
One of the biggest challenges I face as a leader is acquiring adequate company knowledge and context for business decisions. Coming into a senior role as a new employee, I needed to develop an understanding of Salesforce as a company quickly. I have overcome this challenge by engaging in Salesforce events and conferences and by talking to peers who have a longer history with the company and deeper contextual knowledge about the business. I’m an engineer at heart, and technology is the easiest for me to grasp, so I’ve spent more time learning the business context within Salesforce.
Every time I’ve moved into a new role in my career, I’ve tried to be sensitive to changes in team and company cultures, asking myself, “How can I adapt the culture and influence it positively? How can my team make the company culture our own?” To achieve this, I focus on building a relationship of trust with my peers, teams, and other stakeholders. This takes time and work to build.
I believe that vulnerability is important as it sets the expectation to my engineers that I do not have all of the answers and there are things that I would like to learn from them as well. I believe human beings are a package and, as humans, we come with our own strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to ask for help and feedback from your peers, managers, and even your direct reports to help you move past areas that are holding you back. Having a diverse and inclusive set of peers and teams allows us to be much more than the sum of our parts.
Briefly describe your stack and workflow
This question is exciting and very close to my heart! We have one of the largest SQL estates on the planet and constantly push the limits of our infrastructure with the amount of the data that we ingest and the amount of workflows that we support. Salesforce Marketing Cloud supports our customers to send everything from abandoned shopping cart emails to banking notifications and promotional offers.
Running the Infra and Data platform, with the multitude of technologies underneath it, at enterprise scale, and with the trust and safety requirements necessary, is a hugely exciting and complex task. By adding data insights, anomaly detection, AI, and learning patterns, we support both our infrastructure and our customer’s needs. We are constantly modernizing it to newer, better, and more performant stacks. Our team continuously releases and upgrades as the product engineering teams focus on Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s five major releases per year, which ensures that our infrastructure is always ready.
We’re always looking at our capacity plan and at security. Trust is not just security in my mind. Our customers trust our platform when it is secure, reliable, available, and performing. This is my key focus and top of mind for me always.
What does your typical day look like?
My team is mostly engineers and I believe that engineers work best together when solving problems. Usually I engage on a one-on-one basis to problem solve and see what I can offer in terms of mentoring, guidance, or technical help. I do this as often as I can, given the large size of my organization, along with having regular one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, skip levels, peers, and managers where we touch base and keep in sync. We also have a rhythm of business that includes weekly service health reviews where we look at fundamentals like capacity plans and availability metrics that are crucial to review regularly.
In strategy meetings, we discuss longer term plans. I try to spend time weekly on a handful of incidents where I can deeply engage technically and work with an engineer to build relationships, better understand their challenges, and identify where I can help. This is important for me as it keeps me honest and grounded and keeps me abreast of both the technology and the challenges that our engineers are facing.
As for how I keep myself organized, I find the many tools and processes a large company like Salesforce provides have helped me scale. I have some perfectionist tendencies which initially made it challenging for me to delegate meetings, but now I look at my meetings and assess where I am critical and which ones I can delegate to my peers or team.
Discipline is critical to managing my time and getting the most important things done while focusing on my health, family, and well-being, too. This is a continuous learning process for me and something I see evolving with the requirements of the roles I do.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the ability to have an impact; not just technological impact but also the impact on the lives of others — Salesforce’s customers as well as our engineers. As a result of what we are building in Salesforce and Marketing Cloud, employees learn and grow and are inspired to take on larger roles.
From a technology perspective, the industry is so fast-moving and I am constantly amazed at the amount of cool things that my former team members have built over the last 10 years. The impact that we as leaders can have on our teams in terms of mentorship, growth, career opportunity, and access has left an indelible mark on me and makes me remember my own mentors and how they helped me to grow. I feel this is truly the most gratifying part of the job.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice that I have learned is that sometimes it is okay to let go. Everything does not need to be perfect. In general, I am a perfectionist and letting go is hard.
This advice was particularly important for me in my transition from an engineer into a manager. I have learned that to be a good manager does not mean having my team members do things my way but instead to explore a challenge from many perspectives. I had to learn to let go of how I may approach the same problem and instead keep the perspective on the larger outcome in mind.
This also means it’s not about being right but about pulling together as a team to drive the right outcomes. This also implies constantly learning new things with a growth mindset and not being fixed in what I know and can do.
So letting go and being willing to learn, experiment, and take on new perspectives to drive better outcomes is probably the best piece of advice that I got. I’ve adapted that piece of advice to challenges at different stages of my career to enable me to have a positive impact and overcome challenges that I initially felt were insurmountable.
What is your most useful resource (book, blog, newsletter)?
From a book perspective, I am more of a romantic. I love fantasy literature! I feel that fantasy, myth, and science fiction literature allows for us as humans to dream big, and it inspires me personally to approach life with vision and perspective for all that is possible. I have some fun arguments with my eight-year-old on DC comics versus Marvel and which superhero is better!
As for blogs, I listen to Simon Sinek a lot on how he thinks about management and leadership. His perspectives have certainly influenced my own leadership philosophy.
What’s one thing you’d like to learn, develop or work on in 2020- 2021?
One aspect that is top of mind for me, especially given the current state of the world, is how can I engage more with our communities and people and how can I have more influence on diversity and inclusion efforts. I would like to better use my own platform, role, and opportunity at Salesforce to set a better example. When approaching engineering challenges, I know how to solve them. I have a mental roadmap of how to approach the issue, break it down into parts, and tackle it accordingly.
However, societal issues like these are much more complex and do not offer just one solution. This is definitely a learning opportunity for me on how to better influence, engage, and speak up. How can we encourage, grow, and sponsor more diverse and inclusive voices inside our companies and communities and provide the support needed? And before doing this, how can we be vulnerable, learn, and understand?
As I grow as an executive and senior leader, I want to look beyond my role as an engineer and see what else I can do to have a greater impact. I have begun this process by using our Trailhead learning platform that offers equality trainings, along with engaging with an external executive coach to gain guidance on how best to start by admitting that I have a lot to learn.
I need to make diversity and inclusion part of my goals, and use my platform to have an impact that goes beyond the technology. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunities life has presented me, and for the mentors, teachers, and managers who have helped me along the way. I feel it is imperative for us as leaders to see how we can be role models and use our positions to effect positive change in the world.