Fireside Chat with Maha Pula
Maha Pula, Global VP of Pre-sales at Cloudflare, will share with us the story of her career, and share some insights on leadership.
Welcome Maha. Nice to have you in London. Do you mind just introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your journey?
Oh, how much time do we have? Well, my name is Maha.
I lead the global pre-sales team or solutions engineering team at Cloudflare.
I've been here since June, so coming up June will be a year. My journey here has been interesting but quite lovely as well.
I came here from other organizations.
I generally don't move from organizations and under six years, five to six years is an average I've spent, so only for organizations where I've been prior to coming to Cloudflare and all of them have been in customer-facing roles, customer support and pre-sales and then I've stayed in pre -sales.
I did a short stint in product management and then I found that being in pre-sales is so much more my cup of tea.
That's amazing and time flies by, so you're here one year soon.
What have been some of your highlights at Cloudflare? I've done pre-sales and solutions engineering, so it should be a little bit more of the same and what I found a highlight has been is how different it is.
It's okay if you're in the same function and you've done it, but the way in which we solve the problems, the organizational alignment, what we do, how we do it makes a big difference.
So, this actually has made it so much different from any of the other roles.
It's not like a rinse and repeat stuff. So, I'm learning so much as a part of this role at Cloudflare.
So, I find that actually quite rewarding because sometimes when you do the same thing over and over again, the fun is gone and it just becomes routine almost.
When it gets routine, then it's time to do something else and there's no routine day at Cloudflare.
That's true. That's very, very true.
We're also in this time of change and evolution and a lot of things are shifting in Cloudflare.
You've been in a similar environment at BMC where a lot of things were integral part of the change management there.
So, what are some of the learnings from there and what do you bring to Cloudflare?
I can see that you've read the recommendations on LinkedIn.
Yes. I think that's a key motivator for me is being part of the change.
Even though people like the Monica change leader or leading that change, sometimes it can also have a connotation which is that you're going in there to create change.
It's not if the organization decides that it's time to evolve and be something else or somebody else.
The question is who's going to help be part of that enabler.
So, I look at that as a change enabler and in our own ways, every one of us can be part of that.
So, that's the learning is how not to change as well as how to lead and be part of that change.
I find that the most interesting, like you said, highlights of the role has been how do you bring what you know about change management and then apply not the exact same formulaic approach but how do you apply it and then also get an opportunity to learn from those mistakes.
Yeah. When we spoke, you mentioned something very different in terms of how you make decisions and prioritize things.
So, tell me a little bit more about that.
How has that shaped kind of how you mentor people on your teams and people management?
Prioritization is a daily thing. You know, you start with a to-do list and every day the to-do list has a very different set of components.
One day there are strategic initiatives and the another day it is a tactical and more, you know, practical sort of prioritization.
So, there are the big rocks.
I still go back to that exercise that was drawn, you know, many, many years ago of the bottle and what the professor asked to, you know, put the big rocks in and then he asked if there's more room and put some pebbles in and then he's like, is there more room?
And people say, yeah, maybe a little bit before sand in and then everybody thinks the bottle is full and he's like, no, and he pours a glass of water in it and then, you know.
So, it's just you get the big rocks and it's a good way in which to solve for it.
So, I like to think about prioritization as getting those big ones in.
But then, you know, it takes time for the big ones to start manifesting.
People like the little wins. They like to see, you know, at the end of the day, some sort of an instant gratification about some of the activities that we end up doing during the day.
So, your day, my day is filled with a combination of the things that I feel like I've achieved something at the end of the day in addition to, I may achieve something six months down the line, but I still like to think of those little wins during the day, like little victories and, you know, things that we may have solved for during the day.
So, my prioritization is always being filled like that and that also helps me help my team prioritize in terms of what is important for them, what makes them motivated, and so fill some of their list with that.
And what are some of the big rocks, so to say, since you've come to Cloudflare?
I came to Cloudflare and I think we are on the cusp of that next big jumping the S-curve as an organization.
And I see my people, my team as being the number one priority for me is getting the right people on the bus, right?
It doesn't matter where your destination is, get the right people on the bus.
Your destination may change, it may, you know, take a little bit of a meandering path and nobody's like, if you hire people for an outcome and let's say the outcome or objectives change, then you don't have the luxury to stop and then you get them off because they don't feel aligned and then you get another set of people there so they get more in line.
It's always good to get the right people on the bus and then if your alignments shift, they're adaptable to it.
So for me, that has been sort of my biggest priority has been to get the right people on the bus and build that team up.
I think we're in an extremely good place, we're constantly hiring, you know, amazing talent across the globe.
Now the question is, how do we activate that?
So we're on that, actually this week we are meeting, that's why I'm here, is meeting to activate that thing.
How do we all come together?
We're doing this one exercise on strengths, you know, all of our strengths, where are our strengths as a team and then how do we put together like a rubric and get to those outcomes.
So that's going to be, this is going to be the fun part is activation.
Yeah, also because of your role, it's a global resale, I think you have to have a few different hats.
So managing your people and your teams kind of on a micro level and the macro level thinking about the numbers and the ROI and I've noticed that you're very numbers driven and you're very metrics driven.
So how has that come about in your career?
Yeah, my mantra has been, in God I trust, everybody else brings data.
This is not mine, I didn't write this, so it's not, it's attributed to a CEO of a very large services company.
I believe in that, truly, in the sense that it just helps set the stage for having a meaningful conversation.
Data doesn't lie, well, sometimes it does, just depends on who's interpreting the data.
But what I mean by, so don't use data like you said metrics, which is a more appropriate term is measure what matters, identify the patterns, determine if it's directionally, like speed is different from velocity for a reason, velocity has direction.
I love physics, by the way, so it's like, you know, velocity has direction and so it's not enough just to rush at a breakneck speed, it needs to be in the right direction as well.
And even if it's slow, slow paced, it needs to be, you know, showing that you're going in the right direction.
So for me, metrics is really important, but direction is also really important in ensuring we stop and look at that and say, are we heading towards the outcome that we wanted to set for ourselves early on in the year?
And how has that shaped the outcome of whatever you're working on and different projects or different initiatives?
It also helps us identify gaps pretty quickly before it becomes a challenge, right?
And so for example, something that we like we're doing is like a skills assessment.
It's very easy for an organization so innovative, growing at such a rapid pace as Cloudflare, for us to be reacting, always reacting.
Every day we have new challenges, new products, something that we want to get behind.
The question is, who's going to get behind it? We can all chase that, like five-year-olds chasing a soccer ball, or like, you know, there's lots of self goals that happen when something like that happens.
So the question is, how do we align ourselves?
How do we identify who's going to be the, you know, who's going to be in the lead boat versus the ones that are behind?
And so we're running an exercise where we did a skills assessment, we're going to analyze it, we're going to determine where the gaps are, and then we're going to prioritize what do we want to focus on.
Otherwise, organizationally, everybody is trying to get stuff done and we get a lot of, there's a lot of input and influence that comes in, and the question is, how do you, you know, kind of through that noise and say, well, yes, we understand, but here's what our data is saying, and here's how we're going to solve for it.
And so for me, skills assessment is really one of the really critical ways in which we're going to look at gap analysis, identifying the activities that we're going to use to bridge that gap and meaningfully and purposefully drive to the outcomes that we want.
That's one way of, one way of looking at data metrics, and then helping that guide you in the direction we want to take.
But because we are so fast-paced and so innovative, we have to do it at a slightly different pace.
It just has to be faster than, we don't have a year to figure all of this out.
We may have six months to figure it out. Yeah, so the space is different.
Exactly. And how do you approach that as a leader? How do you kind of work with the, work with the people you have and divide the tasks and things like that?
That's why we need business partners, because we also have a job of execution, right?
As pre-sales, our job is to, our primary task is to close business, to help make sure that our customers have the right solution in front of them as quickly as we can, so that we can solve their challenges then.
So that's sort of our primary day-to-day task, but we also need to find the time to do the other things that will help us solve, get ahead of some of the future challenges as well.
So I look at my business partners that help us be successful as an integral part of my team.
So when we're meeting this week, we're also meeting with my HR business partner, my Ops business partner, program management business partner, enablement business partner.
They come into the team and then now we're all collectively solving for it, rather than I solve for it in a silo and then dish out these things and say, you go do this and you go do this, but they're not part of the prioritization or even the analysis of the challenge and so the ownership, right?
So it's like they're dissociated with the challenge.
So they now are hearing it from me rather than being part of the decision -making.
There's a lot of things like the diversity and inclusion is all about like bringing different ideas.
So there's perspectives that they're maybe seeing from the outside that may not be able to, so I'd love to bring them in into the room and be part of that solving.
Speaking of people and diversity inclusion, I think another thing you spoke about briefly was people-oriented leadership and your views on that were a little bit different and something I was really intrigued by.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what your thoughts are and how do you approach it differently?
Yeah, I'm a bit of a contrarian and the leadership initiatives, I'm actually reading a book, actually listening to an article called Unleashed.
It's a new, it's just a fairly recent one, but leadership is being set with a very, very different concept.
So when you say leader, the imagery that comes to mind is a commander, you know, a general, someone who's leading from the front and talks about a lot of like power and, you know, like the art of war is like the go-to book for sales, right?
So it's all about like leading and getting out there and just charging forward and then, you know, breaking through the barriers.
Like these are all the terms and connotations that we talk about it, but now there's a lot of conversations around empathy and emotional leadership and all of that stuff and I find that until we change what leadership and the connotation that it brings and, you know, I may be biased, but I probably am, but women have all of that.
Women are built for it, like as mothers and as in the roles that they play to bring a lot of empathy and listening skills to it.
They are the people that, you know, I would go to my mom if I need to really, like if I'm running into a challenge of the day and she'd want to look at my face like, would you like some tea?
She's not going to ask, what's going on? Like, yeah, what can I do to help?
Can I give you some tea? It's just the way that they respond to things are so different and so unless we change how we define leadership, it's going to, you know, then there'll be recognition that leadership is a one-on-one communication, it's empathy, it's listening and then using that to have a, to be an organization towards the change that needs to be rather than just charging forward and being strong, you know, sometimes being vulnerable is also a side of leadership, so we need to change the definition.
Someday, hopefully, we will look at leadership books that are, that focus not just on charging and leading and fighting from the front but also being there, right, alongside.
Yeah, yeah, and you touched upon a really good point.
Women are a natural impact, so the leadership that women tend to lead is quite different to what we're used to seeing with men being in leadership, so how has your identity shaped your style of leadership and how do you think, or what do you think the impact is that leaves behind, what is the legacy, you think, as a woman leader in this day and age?
You know, it's unfortunate but sometimes we do have to walk down the path that's been set for us before you change direction.
An HR business partner told me once when I was, when I was going as an expat outside the U .S.
and she said, Maha, you're coming in but you would probably need to walk in the same direction that the team is going for some time before you change direction, right, and so sometimes you do have to lead and build that confidence and gain the trust before you show that there's another side to being a strong leader and yet be strong and confident and self -assured in that style, so it's a, you know, one leadership role at a time.
I hope someday to be able to influence what leadership means for an organization.
And what about some of the principles that you've stepped by in order to shape this type of leadership style that you have today?
Collaboration, right, it just means you bring all of your team and your business partners into the room and ask that, you know, put a problem out there and say how do we solve for it?
It's really important because definitely two minds, three minds, five minds are better than one.
Sometimes you do have to, I'm not saying every problem has to be, you know, it has to be put in the middle and out there and then and solve for it as a consensus but there are some that where you have a lot at stake and there it is really important to get a different perspective.
Why? Because each of them could be an influencer in their own way and I live by the mantra that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
It's just systems thinking, right? Systems thinking says that you can have brilliance in pockets, in silos, but if they're not collectively working together then the whole machinery is broken.
It is only as strong as the weakest link but when you have, even if you have a slightly above average silos and pockets of brilliance and yet if they're all working seamlessly together, that result, the result of that system is much better.
I mean, in racing cars and race cars, if you like look at the history of race cars, like there are examples of how it's not important, like you can have the best and the best car maker but there's another one that just comes from behind but they are working so seamlessly and they're passionate about working together that just like outlines and outplaces a brilliant car company.
I will not take names. So that's just, it's just how it is done and so I believe in that systems thinking and I really want to bring that, I know, I want to bring that style to how we manage and how we deliver on some of the outcomes that we have to be driving day to day.
That's really good. It's really, really important insights from you but I want to go back to kind of somebody who's a few years into their career.
What kind of advice would you give to them and what's there for, let's say, an individual contributor to learn from your learnings and how you operate?
Each of us are different. So, I mean, I mentor a lot of folks and what I find being the most productive is when they're not trying to be like me.
I've had mentors and I, you know, I can't be like them. They're different, they're unique, they are, they're distinct, they come with a very different setup.
They are unique like a fingerprint. They are very unique in their own way and so they formed based on a whole lot of factors and data points that may not apply to me at all but the thing that I find common across is what my mentor told me in my first ever role and he said, Maham, be the best one to identify those one or two things and be the very best that you can be at that and that for me, I found, I said, Maham, Bob, I mean, I want to be good at everything and he said, well, you can try but you're only going to have so many hours in a day and so be good at it and it took me a while.
I mean, I try to be good at everything and, you know, you just not enough hours in a day or days in a week to be good at everything and you kill yourself sometimes, you burn out and I've been through that cycle as well and then eventually, I identified what are those one or two things that I know that I'm very good at and then I build on those and happen that I add value to it.
Yeah, so that's what it means. I identified one or two things.
I would say, I would say the same. That can be done. That can be done whatever stage in your in your career you are, whatever it is that you want to be.
Your school, I mean, we get, we get to pick our major.
Yeah, it's not the easiest one.
It's the one that you're good at. Yeah, it's on and you can lean into. Yeah, so building on your strengths and leveraging that.
Whatever you want to be like, when I first started my role as an SE, my job, I wanted to be the best in my product.
I wanted to be the SME in my product and it got really, really good at it.
I became the go-to person and that was really good but as a manager and leader, I shifted and what is it that I wanted to lean in and then that's when I really arrived at operational and operationally driven leader and data-driven leader.
So, it took me a while to get there but eventually, I got there.
So, it shifts. Yeah, what is it that you want to be the very best at?
And you know, you spoke about mentorship and the fact that you mentor a lot of people today.
What are some of the things that you've learned from your mentees?
That was definitely one that I take away and the second one is one of my earlier leaders mentioned that you have great ideas which you hesitate to speak of and I'd always have great ideas but I let them know outside, not in the room and I hesitated because I was worried about how it would be perceived and he'd always say, you know, forget that.
Well, he used more colorful tone.
All right, you know, forget that but you know, your voice has to be heard and his response to, oh, what if it's not the right one or what if I'm speaking out of turn and he'd always say, there are only two outcomes.
There are only two ways people are going to perceive when you don't speak up.
He'd say, one is they think you don't care enough and that part I think is going to be the most damaging one is they think you don't care if you're not passionate about what you're doing, why are you even in the room in the first place.
So, I find that I was like, no, I do care or you're afraid and you don't want to be consider that you're afraid of speaking up.
So, neither one of those perceptions are something that I want to be planning.
So, I've learned to definitely speak up.
You learned to speak up, work on your strengths and prioritize. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with us today about kind of your mantras or your top things that are going to do what you want today?
It helps bridge the gap and also broaden your understanding of how people think.
Because there's a lot of leaders that spend a lot of time in one-to-many conversations but it doesn't really reveal a lot about an individual.
So, I love spending one-on-one time.
I think I have 45 one-on-ones a week or something like that.
I'm sure it's more or less fewer take a few but they energize me. So, they're spread throughout my week and they help me learn and understand the things that I'm missing out.
But I also love to spend time with customers and how they think about things.
So, one-on-one, it doesn't matter customers or my team or my peers and in the organization, you learn so much from one-on-one interactions.
So, for me, it's really important.
Yeah, I think with one-on-ones, you can also learn from other people's experiences and from people who come from different backgrounds and what their learnings are.
It's one way to have a contribute to a common idea or a project but also just to learn what their background is so that you can think of that person and you have something relevant for them.
And they're representative of somebody within your own team and organization that you are looking to influence and or bring together with you.
It's really great to say, well, how would that person think?
Well, I understand how Jessica thinks as well. I'm sure that it must be the same for somebody else as well.
Yeah. That may come from what demography they're not against.
It is either demographic or it could be other aspects of it but it'd be a great way in which to learn and get some input.
Yeah, for sure.
I think we're running out of time here but I wanted to ask you one last question.
What is one book you recommend everybody to read? Oh, God. It's so difficult because everyone has their own sort of go-to.
Actually, I learn by listening and watching less about reading because sometimes I get tired.
For me, I like books that help me delve a little deeper into areas that in a day-to-day, I don't get to.
But I also like books that influence how I think. I'm a very positive thinker and the joke at home is always that mama's going to write a helicopter and throw it over the wall and go buy herself a helicopter.
That's how she's going to get one.
And the joke is about the book, The Secret. The Power of Manifestation.
The Power of Manifestation. So, for me, out of all of the books that I've read, I think that book always pops up and I once in a while go back and look through it again just to say in case I'm happy now.
I don't know. I don't think we're going to change.
We will manifest this. We will make it happen. I'll go buy myself that helicopter when I want to.
Yeah. So, I find that, I know, it's not a management goal for a philosophical one, but I think that the power of manifesting, I believe in it, truly.
Great. Thank you so much for talking to us today. Are there any questions from the audience?
No? Well, thank you so much, Maha, for your time and it was really a pleasure talking to you.
I hope people watching can learn from some of your highlights and some of the ways that you think and adapt that into their life.
Thank you. Thank you for having me. Yeah. Thank you so much.