Versa Networks Welcomes Wei Wang as Head of Finance Q&A
Wei Wang, Head of Finance, joined Versa Networks in mid-2018 and hit the ground running. Following an outstanding turn as Director of Finance and Accounting at Cohesity, she’s excited to help Versa get to the next stage of emerging-growth company success.
Wei started her career with Hewlett Packard and has held financial leadership positions at PerkinElmer, Oplink Communications, and most recently with Juniper Networks. We sat down with Wei to welcome her to Versa Networks and ask her to share her perspective on what it takes to set up a high performance finance and operations function so that Versa can scale and grow.
Q: What drew you to Versa? How did you decide to make a move and join a newer, younger company?
Wei: I was drawn by the start-up culture, even though we’re fast outgrowing that term — I like knowing everyone’s name. My background is in finance for networking technologies. I spent six years at Juniper supporting the product group that Versa’s founders came from. When I heard that Versa’s leaders had already achieved an SDN product that transcends the traditional networking hardware model, I sensed a great opportunity to help them build a subscription-based recurring revenue model. After all, Juniper had been working on SDN for eight years, so these Juniper veterans, Apurva and Kumar, were already the recognized leaders in their space. I’m excited about Versa’s software solutions, and I know we can build the same momentum we did at Cohesity.
I’m looking forward to building the financial team and helping Versa get to the next stage — serving more customers, grabbing market share. Versa’s goal is to be the new network; we want to be a recognized name in networking like a Juniper or Cisco, but with a disruptive business and go-to-market model. That’s obviously a big challenge, but it’s our team’s vision. Everything has to come together. I’ve seen what it’s like for that to happen at Cohesity. When you reach the tipping point, it’s an avalanche of success and energy. At Versa, we’re building up the momentum to get there. We’re driving to make that critical tipping point happen in the next 12 months.
Q: Do you think that as a female executive in Silicon Valley, your experiences have been fairly typical?
Wei: I’m not sure typical is the right word. Being a female executive in the Valley certainly has its challenges, but I think as long as you have the skills and want to grow, there is always opportunity here. The workforce is more diverse in Silicon Valley than most places. In general, most of my female colleagues are successful — and they aren’t miserable. If they want to grow, they are always able to find avenues for moving up. Sometimes they take themselves out of the running, wanting more balance with raising a family. Being clear in your own mind about you want is a big part of it. Doors will open. If you want more responsibility and leadership, you have to demonstrate it.
I started in big companies and moved into start-ups. I love the culture of younger companies. Many people in big companies, myself included, think of start-ups as cutthroat environments, but that’s not always the case. Versa’s CEO, who came from Cisco, has a very contemporary view about diversity hiring, and that definitely resonated with me. You need to be flexible and know that things may change direction as the company grows. If you have a good idea, everyone is excited. Your product is filling a gap, and everyone has a common goal.
Q: What is it like to work with VC partners? Do you have any advice for women facing their first round of pitching?
Wei: Like in any situation — prepare. It’s not necessarily different for women, but you need to look at things objectively, and carefully consider what investors will focus on. I talk to my CFO mentors, and they help me think about what type of questions and challenges to anticipate. Of course, it helps to be at a company that VCs are eager to invest in, like Versa!
Q: What is uniquely challenging about financial leadership roles?
Wei: To succeed in this role, you need to understand how everything ties together. You need experience in various areas — manufacturing, sales, R&D — it all comes into the mix. You have to build relationships with people across functional areas. I recommend finding opportunities to work in those areas so you can speak their language. It’s important to understand their problems and their requirements for capital, time, cycles, etc. For example, with sales and marketing you have to understand the channels, partners, and incentives, not to mention public relations and tradeshows. Being exposed to these areas and working in them early in your career can be enormously beneficial.
Leading a finance department, you have to see the big picture. The numbers tell a story. You have to dig in and figure it out. Are we investing in the right place, do we have the right sales matrix, where does marketing need support, what is the ROI of a proposed initiative?
The finance role is largely focused on sharing data, the story behind it, and what actions are indicated. Often it is about coming together to solve a problem and assess the possible outcomes based on quality finance data and analysis.
Q: What have you learned as you’ve navigated through challenging situations, or watched other women making their way in Silicon Valley industries?
Wei: Networking is an especially engineer-centric industry. There are simply not as many women in certain STEM fields like network engineering — university and pipeline diversity might be improving, but it will take time for the workplace to reflect that. In addition to biased hiring practices and unwelcoming graduate programs and workplaces, another thing that can hold women back is a lack of interest in pursuing high-tech skills. A good CFO still has to be able to talk product. You need to understand the customer and market in order to put the financials behind it and build credibility.
Bottom line: as a leader in high tech, you have to be engaged and immersed. You can’t evolve and improve without being up-to-speed with technology trends related to your company’s products and services. I understand that showing what you don’t know is a tricky position for women to be in. Don’t be intimidated. It’s okay to not understand everything, that’s not the expectation. Even engineers don’t understand everything outside their area of specialty. It’s okay to make mistakes, just make them quickly — and learn quickly.
Because I have a good network, I can call on resources and find answers, and that’s also how I hear about opportunities. Make the time — it’s far too easy to get busy. Pick up the phone and ask a question; it helps keep a relationship active. Surveying my colleagues about vendors is especially helpful when I am setting up systems from scratch. Their feedback about benefits brokers and payroll systems helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the industry. Likewise, when I help others form strategies for presenting financial scenarios, I broaden my knowledge, experience and network.
Q: Have you seen a significant shift in Silicon Valley culture during your career?
Wei: Now is a good time to look at (and pursue!) leadership roles in Silicon Valley, as well as other industries. We have more female role models and leaders than we’ve had before. I think about leaders like Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg — her book inspired a lot of women to lean in and take that role. Be aware of times you start to doubt yourself and your capabilities. I think my career accelerated after I decided everything else was secondary and I really wanted to go for it.
There are many programs to encourage the hiring of women. The team at Versa Networks is definitely focused on this issue and actively working to bring more women in. I don’t see glass ceilings in startups. The prevailing attitude is, “just get it done”.
I hope to see more women pursuing high-level work in fields like networking. Be sure to look past what you think you know — emerging paradigms are disrupting every area of high tech. From individuals to corporations, we all use the Internet differently now than we did 10 or 20 years ago. That means, for example, that we have to look at security differently, and build it into the network in new ways. There are so many factors converging to force big changes in terms of the problems we’re working on, and that makes the whole field more exciting and challenging. There are a lot of areas of overlap and synergy, and fresh perspectives are always welcome in an innovation-driven industry.
Q: What do you think is missing? What should companies and executives be in order to recruit and support women?
Wei: Almost every woman in this type of career is juggling. In the US, more of the burden still falls to women when it comes to childcare, elder care and household labor. This country also doesn’t do a good job with paid family leave or supporting the career development of women when they return from maternity leave or step out for a few years to raise children. Simple benefit programs that help with nanny referrals or emergency relief are enormously helpful. Onsite childcare would relieve a lot of logistical and financial pressure for parents. These programs are not a huge cost to the company, but they significantly improve retention, especially for women.
Q: What do young women at the start of their Silicon Valley careers need to keep in mind as they work toward their goals?
Wei: Get broad experience and don’t pigeonhole yourself into one role. If there is a project, step up. If you end up failing, learn from it and move on. It’s better to embrace the challenge and fail than not try at all. Challenge yourself — you don’t know what you’re capable of until you go there.
If you find yourself in an unsupportive or toxic workplace, remember you can always change the situation. Give yourself time to shift people or policies in a positive direction, but if you can’t make it better, move on. If you feel stuck, seek out better mentors, co-workers and roles. Find an organization where you can spread your wings. Don’t assume all workplaces are unhealthy. Don’t wait to be handed success or opportunities.
Sometimes in meetings, everyone else in the room is a man. You must operate on the belief that you belong there. Ask questions. Don’t just listen. Don’t be a potted plant. I’ve been fortunate to have really good mentors and develop a resourceful network. I started my career in large multinational companies. In that type of environment, there are a lot of people on the same career path. It’s important to ask others to mentor you, and to ask for advice. Most people want to help you out.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self, given what you have learned along the way?
Wei: Be more patient with yourself. We are our own worst critics. Give yourself more credit.
Q: If you could only give one brief piece of advice to young women working toward leadership positions in Silicon Valley, what would it be?
Wei: Make sure you are always learning. Never stop.
Look it up — Google is your friend. Keep your mind open. Ask your friends, mentors, and network for help and learn new things. Keep up with what’s going on.
Q: What’s the most helpful or inspiring piece of advice that a mentor or colleague shared with you?
Wei: Always tell the story behind the numbers. People want you to make the numbers come alive.