Ilona Simpson

Ilona Simpson is CIO EMEA for Netskope, a world leader in cloud security.

She has over 20 years’ experience leading technology strategies for major global organisations, including Porsche, DHL, Aston Martin and innogy (EON). Ilona is also an active member of a number of technology and industry advisory boards, as well as volunteering as a mentor to early stage start ups. She holds an MBA from IESE Business School, where she is a guest lecturer on technology and business.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I recently took on a new role as Chief Information Officer (CIO) for EMEA at Netskope, one of the top players in cyber security. Without getting too technical, we enable business agility through modern and smart cybersecurity solutions. We protect data, users and applications in the “work anywhere” environment, educating employees on good digital citizenship, and enabling productive collaboration with vendors and partners.

I consider myself a change agent, and for two decades I have worked in – and led – technology functions through all cycles of business from fast growth to downturns, from acquisitions and large scale post merger integrations to carve outs and divestments. Having joined Netskope, I am deepening my roots in technology, learning from brilliant minds, and continuing to contribute to business transformation with our clients.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes at certain periods, but it’s been a mix of fortuitous opportunity and deliberate planning. There were “sliding doors” moments, especially early in my career. As a fresh graduate, I was determined to start a career in consultancy, and wasn’t used to waiting. It just so happened that by the time McKinsey confirmed a date for their graduate Assessment Centre, I already had an offer from Accenture. So there I was, with a Masters degree in Psychology delving into SAP R2/R3 upgrades, learning data migration, tenant customisation and code debugging. Intense, exhilarating, frustrating and rewarding. This technology foundation brought me to Porsche, DHL, Aston Martin, EON and adidas in various leadership roles, including regional, divisional and global CIO. Who knows where my path would have led if I had started off as a Strategy Consultant? One to try out in the next life for sure!

But there have also been some highly planned steps in my career development.  Having spent a number of years in a “learning on the job” mode, and with some leadership experience, I felt hungry to learn more. I was keen to “do” strategy, to shape and to contribute at a larger scale. So I turned to education. And I did the Global Executive MBA at IESE Business school.

And my most recent move into the technology sector was very far from a spontaneous decision. If you ask me why I joined Netskope, I’d definitely say it was the culture, but I had been exploring a move in this direction for about six years. I asked all sorts of big questions of myself; what part of the technology ecosystem do I want to play in? How relevant is the space to the further advancement of society as a whole? What is my sphere of impact, my contribution? My answers led me here.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I once attended an event which brought together a group of female leaders, and after a couple of drinks we started to open up to one another and discovered that every single one of us had a period of our careers when we were hopelessly underpaid.  For me it happened twice, once when I identified an internal promotion I wanted and eagerly (stupidly in hindsight)  said I would do it for the same money, and another time when a recruiter actively pushed down my expectations.  Another CIO present had been handed the role of the Chief Digital Officer to add to her existing job, with no additional remuneration. It was a universal challenge that every woman there had experienced. Looking back on it I would say firstly how important it is to have contacts and relationships that can help you become aware of this when it is happening. But then I would say if you are in that situation, sometimes you need to be philosophical and consciously decide if you are prepared to give before you get.  Those roles didn’t have room to increase my salary, but the experiences led me to opportunities that compensated me both economically and in other ways. The winning situation is one where you are empowered to make the choice to stay or go, with knowledge of both the value you bring and the value you receive.

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What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

To date the coolest, most interesting role I had was as CIO of Aston Martin. There was a new CEO, and as a team we were all working closely on bringing to life the company’s “second century plan”.  It isn’t always the new companies that are the exciting ones. That said, I am hugely excited about my current role too because… if I can pull it off…. we are basically working on a complete reimaging of IT security. That’s huge, and my job is instrumental in delivering success.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Seek mentors and actively build relationships. I dislike the term ‘networking’, but get to know the people within your own organisation and work out how to gain the trust of people who can support you.

In a 121 “farewell coffee chat”, I asked the CEO of a company I worked for (someone I hugely value as a leader) “What’s the recipe for success? What advice would you give me to be successful in the new role?” His answer was; “Your success won’t come from how well you perform in a task alone. But rather from how your success benefits the organisation and its key players, including your subordinates, peers, the board…”

Another old boss of mine once asked me to think about how many other people within the company wanted me to be successful, and I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. Sometimes we can get in the mindset of “it’s me vs the world”, but you are not by yourself and you will get ahead by being of service to others, and by building a support team around you. Your organisation wants you to succeed. One last piece of advice I received from a great boss at my first job at Accenture was “Do great stuff and talk about it”.  A great reminder and truly timeless advice, often we don’t talk enough about the great stuff we do.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

If companies and boards are serious about gender diversity, a quota can be a useful lever. Make sure you have at least three women (or 40%) on your leadership team. Critical mass, and culture change, can’t start until you get to three.

We see lots of initiatives to get women and girls into STEM but I think the problem is more that we cannot keep them, progress them or realise their potential. The real barrier that must be addressed is between middle management and the boardroom.

As a woman whose professional career in technology has been shaped in manufacturing, engineering, supply chain and utilities, and as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, I have a very personal take on diversity. For me, it starts with diversity of thought. How courageous are we as leaders in welcoming critical views that question our approach? How do we create a “safe space” for individuals and teams to speak up? If we address these areas we will find we bring not just more women to the board but also other diverse groups.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

It’s an interesting question, but I am not sure there is one thing… As a female colleague of mine put it, if there was, we would all be doing it. But building on the point I was making earlier about the importance of diversity of thought; I would love to see board mandates for “unconscious bias” training for all leaders.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I definitely recommend WATW in the UK and FidAR initiative in Germany (translated Women into Supervisory Boards), and so far I have found myself amongst like minded women at all major tech events – from London Tech Week to Mobile World Congress… I am looking for partners in crime to get a “Women in Cyber” dinner up and running at the upcoming Cloud & Cyber Security Expo in London on 2-3 March. Anyone interested?