What does it take to be a successful tech CEO? Ideally, they’re a person with a firm foothold in both business and engineering and fully conversant in both languages. They need to be effective people managers while also capable of solving business and engineering challenges. They need to be effective listeners and savvy data analysts while possessing strong business instincts. And they need to know their company and industry inside-out.
Agileana CEO Shefali Naik is all that and more. In addition to being an accomplished engineer and a savvy businesswoman, she is also a walking inspiration in an industry where members of her gender are still chronically underrepresented. While in some ways her ascent to CEO status in the tech sector has been typical, having previously worked as a software engineer and project manager, in other ways her path has been unusual, having worked at Agileana for seven years before being promoted to CEO – as opposed to having been parachuted in from elsewhere.
“I think I’m lucky to have gradually moved up the ladder at Agileana,” Shefali contends.
“I think a new CEO first has to learn the business and establish credibility and leadership, and some of those came easier to me because I’ve been here for a while, and I’ve been learning and picking up skills along the way. The change in role wasn’t a stark change for me. Also, having good working relationships with my team already has helped me do my job better. If I had been hired from the outside for the job I think it would have been harder to build those relationships and to understand what’s needed of me in the role.”
Still relatively new in her role, having been selected as CEO in January 2023, she adds that she still has things to learn.
“One area I definitely need to work on is the financial aspect of the role. A CEO needs to understand cash flow and be able to make sure the company has good operating cash margins at all times. That’s not something I’ve done before, but it’s an important responsibility for keeping a company afloat. That’s one area where I need to get more educated.”
As a female CEO of a technology company, Shefali remains a relative rarity. A 2022 study showed that only 17 percent of tech companies had women CEOs in that year, a figure that drops to eight percent for CTOs. Another study found that female CEOs at tech startups earned $20,000 less than their male counterparts. Across the industry, women continue to be paid less than men for the same work, tend to be passed over for promotion, and are more likely to leave the industry due to either layoffs or dissatisfaction.
Shefali contends that numerous forces continue to conspire against gender equality in tech.
“There’s still a widely held view that men are better at development and coding than women,” she says.
“This translates into a lot of imposter syndrome among women in tech. I used to think this was particular to India, but as I’ve traveled and spoken to women across the board, I’ve found that women regardless of geography or social strata constantly question whether they really truly deserve the opportunities that present themselves or if they’ve simply gotten lucky. I do find that men tend to overestimate their capabilities while most women underestimate themselves.”
She further stresses the importance of pay parity in tech while commending Agileana’s approach to the issue.
“I see it happening very often where women are not being paid the same as men for the same job,” she asserts.
“There are several factors to it. Oftentimes women don’t demand equal pay; they sell themselves short. I’m glad that Agileana is really at the forefront of pay parity. I think we do a really good job paying people based on the job and what they bring to it rather than their gender. The fact that we clearly articulate pay ranges gives us an opportunity to be transparent about how much we’re willing to pay for a job, and thereby promote gender wage parity.”
Shefali’s confidence stems in part from her education, which has been an ongoing part of her career trajectory. In addition to a bachelor of engineering degree, which she earned at the University of Mumbai in India, she also holds executive certification from the Wharton School of Business, which she earned while working for Agileana.
Among the many important takeaways from this program was the importance of personal branding – a process that goes far in combating the imposter syndrome that many women in tech suffer from.
“One of my most important learnings is that you should always project yourself like a brand,” says Shefali.
“What is it that you stand for? There should be something synonymous with your name, like professionalism, being organized, intelligence, getting things done. These are the brand characteristics that I aspire to embody.”
Another key confidence builder was the program’s emphasis on networking.
“The importance of networking wasn’t new to me, but it was definitely one of my weaker areas,” she comments.
“They really stressed the fact that you should nurture your network, but not from the standpoint of always getting something back in return. You should nurture it regardless. It’s like planting seeds. Some of them bear fruit, some of them don’t.”
Other soft skills emphasized in the program included how to approach meetings and other responsibilities with mindfulness and focus, with techniques aimed at clearing one’s mind and approaching every meeting and every task with all the qualities that you have. This skill has helped Shefali fine-tune her approach to all her tasks as CEO.
“I put considerable thought into the way I exude leadership or authority in everyday interactions. Before every interaction that I have, I try to be more thoughtful and, in a way, premeditated. I am trying to look within and be more self-aware.”
While her CEO office still has that “new car smell” to it, Shefali is no newcomer when it comes to Agileana, Drupal, and the industry as a whole. In her two decades in the IT industry, she has seen a lot of things change and is mindful of the changes on the horizon – changes she views with an infectious optimism.
Such optimism includes a positive outlook on a trend that scares many within the tech world and beyond.
“The power of AI can be frightening, but I’m more excited than frightened,” she says.
“I know humans can create a mess out of beautiful things, and that this is very powerful, but I think it’s equally powerful in bringing about positive changes in the world. Even if there are some really negative consequences of AI, I think we have the capacity to counterbalance them. You already see AI doing a lot of heavy lifting in education. You see Google developing AI retina scanners that can detect diabetic retinopathy. I think there will be a lot of positive changes and that these will outweigh the negatives.”
As for the future of Drupal, she contends that the platform faces many challenges but also sees promising trends.
“At this year’s DrupalCon, I really got the sense that the Drupal leadership has thought through the pain points of the platform and that they’re doing a better job of marketing Drupal correctly,” she asserts.
“I think the fact that Drupal Core is now object-oriented and trying to take the best of the Symfony core helps it be robust enough for future growth. The migration process has been streamlined and made a lot less painful – of course that’s a mixed blessing for us as it means less work for us as a company on the migration front. There’s still work to be done on marketing Drupal more effectively, starting with Drupal’s own website. Marketing the platform better will help bring more youth into Drupal, which is essential for long-term sustainability.”
She is especially excited about the future of the company she leads.
“I think what excites me the most from our company’s standpoint is also the most challenging aspect right now. Growth brings about a lot of challenges, including how to ensure the quality of your deliverables is not impacted, how to scale teams, how to ensure you onboard people correctly, how to ensure that as you grow you don’t let the culture you’ve developed over the years disappear, how to ensure that you remain the people-first company that you aspire to be despite the growth. These are the main challenges I see for the company.”
She cites the company’s expansion from a 15-person to a 28-person team, its successful adoption of an entrepreneurial operating system (EOS), and its securing of several major contracts in recent years – notably US Courts system and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – as major recent achievements.
Gearing for continued growth, she asserts, remains her focus as CEO.
“As CEO I’m responsible for setting the strategic direction of the company as well as preparing for growth and managing change. We are undergoing a lot of changes, so I need to ensure that those changes do not impact our delivery, our profitability, or the morale of our people. As a leader, my job is to have my finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on and to be able to figure out issues before they become obstacles in our path.”
With Shefali at the helm, Agileana looks to be in good, capable hands for the foreseeable future!