Yes We Can
A recurring series presented by Cloudflare Co-founder, President, and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
This week's guest is Christina Liu — SVP, Chief Accounting Officer at Zendesk. Christina is a seasoned finance executive with a proven track record of leading through sustained high growth from pre-IPO to multi-billion dollar public company, with hands-on IPO experience. She’s worked for over 20 years at Big 4 accounting firms and in the technology industry, responsible for all aspects of accounting, SEC reporting, operations, tax, treasury, procurement, and real estate, and is passionate about building strong teams and scaling for the future.
To watch more episodes of Yes We Can — and submit suggestions for future guests — visit cloudflare.com/yeswecan
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Yes We Can. I'm really excited for this week's segment.
And just some housekeeping items before I introduce this week's guest is if you have any questions or have a suggestion of someone you would love to see on the show, you can email yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv.
And so today, I'm so excited to be here with Christina Liu.
Welcome, Christina. Thanks for joining us. Thank you for having me, Michelle.
First of all, I think I just said pronounced your last name wrong.
So we have to correct this again. In finance, the details matter.
So is it Liu or Lau or I want to make sure I do it properly. It's Liu, Christina Liu.
Thank you. All right. Thanks, Christina Liu. All right. Well, welcome to Christina Liu.
There we go. Perfect. So Christina, you are currently the Chief Accounting Officer at Zendesk.
We are actually a very happy customer of Zendesk here at Cloudflare, but we can save that for another episode.
And you've been at the company for eight years.
It's an amazing growth company. And I'm sure there are some listeners dialing in who have thought, what does a Chief Accounting Officer do?
So maybe we can start there. What do you do all day, Christina? Yeah, sure.
Funny thing is, if you were to ask my eight-year-old son, he would tell you that I'm an email responder and I'm a money counter.
So that's in his description, my job.
On the other hand, I, however, like to think myself as a leader in the finance organization and I'm responsible for the compliance and corporate government side of the finance function so that we can tell our story accurately and maintain the credibility in front of internal and external stakeholders.
I love that. Well, and we're going to get into why this is so important, but I think as you are successful as a company, these sorts of things of accurately being able to tell your story really, really matter.
Yes. Especially as a publicly traded company.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So before we get there, how did you decide to pursue a career in finance and accounting, or as your son would say, email responder and money counter?
Well, that's a long story. I actually have an undergraduate degree in chemistry.
So do I. I don't think I knew that.
I have an undergrad degree in chemistry as well. Now I'm leaning in to hear more.
So you have to tell me your story of why you chose the profession that you did.
For me, in grad school, I had a change of heart and wanted to do something that allows me to have more interaction with people, but also at the same time, continue to leverage my skills in analytical and problem solving.
So that's why I chose finance.
Oh, cool. Okay. Well, I'll quickly add mine. So it's interesting, similar, but slightly different.
So I was also a chemistry major and I loved, one of the things I loved about chemistry and science actually is that there's always an answer almost.
Chemistry explains a lot of things in life.
And so I loved that. And then at some point I thought I was going to go to med school to apply that.
And then I was like, oh, I'm not sure. And I kind of did a little bit of a tour of trying lots of different things.
And the reason why I think I've really fallen in love with technology and building things and being part of teams that help solve problems, because in technology, I feel like it's very similar.
There's always a reason why something works really well or something doesn't work well.
It's not luck. There is literally an explainable reason usually why something's not working on the tech side or is.
And that to me is just incredibly satisfying.
And then you add in being able to work with smart people, solving problems at scale, which was more of the medicine piece than the chemistry piece.
And I agree with you, the practical application. I mean, I used that. I used to go to all my professors on campus and say, I get the theory around chemistry, but where is it being applied?
Show me the practical application. I really was thirsty for the real life applications of it.
And I think in business, if you don't have a real life application, you don't have good metrics to share.
You go out of business.
And so I think the practical nature of business was very appealing to me.
Yeah. Such a great story. Isn't it funny that you can start anywhere and some of the trainings in science and chemistry may not be useful, but a lot of the basic theories and also what drives you, what motivates and excite you transpires across different functions.
I 100% agree. Oh, good. Well, I love that. I love that shared connection.
Great. Okay. So you're in grad school and you thought, oh, I want more human elements.
And you said, I think I'm going to go study finance and accounting.
I mean, people must've looked at you kind of like you're a little what, Christina?
People don't do that. People do not go from grad school, studying chemistry to finance and accounting.
That is a very atypical path. And so how did you, did you have somebody supporting you or giving you these ideas or cheering you on?
Well, my parents definitely supported me. They, you know, of course they know me super well.
And then, you know, once I made up my mind, they knew what to do with that.
And also I, you know, I started by taking maybe just a couple of courses from the business school and trying to get a feel of, you know, is this something I like?
And it really just clicked with me. You know, a lot of common sense, a lot of problem solving skills and a lot of telling the story using numbers at the end of the day, what are you trying to say?
You know, whether that's words or numbers, it has to make common sense.
So I just really loved that aspect or the practical application of it.
And so I just, after that decided to go full speed ahead with that.
Good for you. You know, I really do not think that most people, when they think about finance and accounting, that they think about storytelling, but you're right.
It's like the numbers do tell a story. The numbers are one piece, but being able to piece the story arc together is so incredibly important.
And so you've had this amazing career in finance and accounting.
You first worked at KPMG, which is one of the big four accounting firms.
We're going to learn more about that.
And then you've been at Zendesk for the last eight years in so many roles. You've done SEC reporting, you've been the controller, and now you're the chief accounting officer.
So you've had this amazing career at this really incredible growth company.
As you reflect, and especially as people are trying to understand whether they're partnering with those folks internally, or maybe you want to pursue a career in this, as you reflect, what's been similar between those roles and maybe what's been different?
And then do you have a favorite between all of them?
Do I have a favorite? Actually, no. I think my comfort zone is to be a little uncomfortable.
That is how I get the energy. So I tend to gravitate towards roles that allows me to learn new things and build new things and navigate new areas.
And so if I look at all of the roles I've had, and also the teams that I was fortunate to be part of, I took away from each one of them.
And they all expanded my horizon and perspective.
And I am who I am today from the accumulation of all of the past experiences that people had learned from.
And so it was more of a, to me, I feel like this was an accumulation of different experiences and knowledge and skills and perspectives as well, as opposed to switching from one to another.
I love that. I am a big believer of life is a collection of experiences, and you do learn a lot and gain a lot of perspective.
So that really resonates with me as well.
And so you've been inside Zendesk helping scale a company, build the company for the last eight years.
And again, it's been such a huge success story.
Before that, you worked at KPMG, which is a large accounting firm, and you were on the other side.
You were a service provider to many clients. So you partnered with the Zendesk before it was Zendesk and lots of large organizations.
And so I feel like when you're on that client side, you see a perspective of companies.
And so from a finance and accounting perspective, were those companies all similar?
Were they different?
As you reflect back, how did finance play strategic? Were they important?
Were all those companies equally good telling their stories with the numbers?
Maybe you can share some perspective there. Yeah, that's a great question.
Reflecting back, I may not remember exactly what I did or what the projects were at each of the companies, but I do remember the people and the culture of every company that was reflected through the people I interacted with.
I think that when you culture or the vibe of a company, it's like a heartbeat of a company.
And that's not something that one would forget. And that translates into so many things of that business, whether that's the day-to-day interaction, or it's the decision-making or the leadership style.
So those are the things that thinking back, I remember from each of the companies.
And they're very distinct from company to company.
And so I think my experience at KPMG allowed me an open field to see what kind of culture or type of companies that I gravitate towards.
And I found myself gravitating towards the younger, the startup type of companies, because I just love the energy and the creativity, and sometimes even more the chaoticness of that companies.
And that just gives me a lot of energy. And so it was really a good experience for me to be able to try the culture and the different size and stage of companies.
That's great. And remember when we started Cloudflare, when I looked up to people like Mikkel and others ahead of us, they always said the culture matters so much.
It really does define companies. And when you're in it, you don't really, I think when you're starting, you don't really realize that how important that really is.
And so it's interesting that even as these companies grew up and got bigger and you were one of the, that you could see the differences between the companies.
I actually think it's a good reminder for all of us, whether you're looking for your next job, whether you're going to start a company, whether you work at a company that like what you do and how you act every day really does translate differently depending where you are.
It's actually a good reminder because sometimes you kind of forget, I think.
Hmm. Yeah, for sure.
And it's, you know, maybe it was easier for me as a third party service provider going from one company to another, it's just to be able to, you know, see multiple companies at the same time.
So you get, you definitely get the very distinct vibe of each company and that's culture.
That's culture through every individual employee in that company.
That's good. That's great. Thanks for sharing all that.
And so, you know, when you join Zendesk, you're about to go public, correct?
That's right. That's right. About a year before the IPO. All right.
So you were working at the big four accounting firm. You went to this private growth company and there are many private growth companies right now that are currently going public or thinking about it.
And both while you're at KPMG, you helped a lot of those companies go public and then you've actually gone through that experience yourself at Zendesk.
And so when you think about those companies who are thinking about going public, what kind of advice or words of wisdom would you have to offer them?
Well, that's a big question. I have 18 minutes, Christina, so you can take a couple of minutes to go through it because I really do think, I mean, it is a busy time.
The window is open for IPOs right now, I guess it is. So it's a very topical topic.
Yeah, it's definitely a lot of work. Everyone knows that.
And years later, you know, a lot of the employees will remember distinctly what they did on the day of IPO.
You know, that's what I still hear from my friends at Zendesk.
But one thing I will say is as significant as the IPO event is, it is only one of the many milestones in a company's journey to achieve greatness.
You know, the IPO itself is neither the beginning nor the end.
And there's so much to build and to scale post the IPO.
So I would say, you know, be prepared for a marathon, this is not a sprint.
Have a plan and have focus, have priorities, and constantly, you know, remind yourself of those and, you know, enjoy the IPO process.
It's hectic, it can be nerve wracking, at least for me in finance. But, you know, looking back, you're going to have only good memories and the camaraderie that you've built through that process.
But it is a process. And there's so much more building that will happen after that.
I think that those are, you know, well, I was gonna say we went public many years later, but about a year and a half ago, and so much of what you're saying really resonates with me, I remember exactly what I was doing that day.
I, it was a lot of work, like a lot of work from the finance and legal team and marketing team.
I mean, it is really it is a we kind of we had 70 people work on it internally before we're going public.
We are 1100 people at the time. And so it was that and, but it is, as you said, just one of many milestones, it's you should celebrate it, but it's certainly not the end at all.
So those really resonate with me, too. You know, I think that one of those words that come up a lot, and founders call me all the time, and they say, I heard going public is a lot of work.
What do you mean by that? And so maybe you could give some examples to the audience of just when we say it's a lot of work to get ready, maybe an example, or even posts going public, examples of maybe what will have changed within your organization from a finance and accounting standpoint?
Yeah, I think from a finance and accounting perspective, the IPO process, you know, at least it's speaking from my experience at Zendesk started maybe a year before the actual IPO, it included, you know, cleaning up all the historical transactions, you know, of course, when, when you're a really young startup, finance and accounting is not where you spend a lot of effort on.
And so not necessarily all the historical transactions were clearly, you know, recorded, you know, based on the requirement of US GAAP.
So there's a lot of cleaning up work to do.
But in addition to that, you want to over time, work towards a cadence that is required for a publicly traded company, because, you know, keep in mind, after the IPO, there will be the first earnings release, there will be the first 10Q filing and the first proxy and 10K, you know, you don't want to, you know, go public and then figure out what you need to do to sustain that infrastructure.
So you need to build out that infrastructure and have some dry runs ahead of time so that you work out the kinks, hopefully, and be prepared for, for, you know, what's to come as a public traded company.
And also the IPO process, it's a forcing function for you, again, to tell your story in a succinct way, because, you know, as you know, you need to go talk to the investors and pitch your story.
So not only the numbers, but also the business strategies and the growth drivers and all of the future plans, all of those things need to come together in a consistent and succinct way so that you can do your elevator pitch in front of the investors again, and again, and again, you have plenty of opportunities to polish that.
But getting to that point, it took a lot of effort as well as the whole company effort to get to that point.
And then after you go public, it's as you know, Michelle, you're, you're going through, you know, that that motion, you live your life in a somewhat public way.
And every quarter, you have to report your results, you have to give guidance for the next quarter or the next year.
And so that's a new muscle that, you know, that needs to, to grow as an organization, and that requires some maturity, and that requires consistency.
And also there's the, you know, there will be the SOX compliance effort that's needed and the corporate governance so that you can sustain, you know, the trust of the stakeholders, including your investors.
So anyways, that's, that's where the work comes from. That's a lot.
Well, you know, yeah, no, you, you know, Christina, I, as someone who's literally just lived through this as a founder, and did not know very much what you just described, and now as a public company, see it, I think you did an excellent job laying the groundwork of what, when we say it's a lot of work, what that means, you did an extremely good, good job, used one acronym SOX, which was a word that I, an acronym that I think a lot of people don't know what that is.
So maybe I could just give you a chance, because you're doing an amazing job explaining all this.
When, when people, when they hear the word SOX, you don't mean the Boston Red Sox, what do you mean by SOX?
Oh, that's a good reminder. I've lived in this world for too long that it just becomes my vocabulary.
I should test that on my kids, see if they know, maybe they know.
Let me know what you're saying. Exactly.
Well, actually, well, you know, security is part of what we do. And there's a lot of acronyms and security and people are like, I have no idea what you're saying.
So anyway, anyway, just... Yeah, so that's a short name for Sarbanes -Oxley Act.
It was a piece of legislation that was passed, you know, years ago that requires public traded companies to have a set of internal controls to, to give the, you know, the assurance to investors that you have the right process in place to generate accurate financial results, which is being relied upon by a lot of stakeholders, including your investors.
And so what it, what it does is it requires the companies to, you know, go through your risk assessments from all of your key financial processes, you know, such as, you know, your, your, your, your deals task all the way to your revenue recording and reporting or your financial close, just to give a couple of examples.
And then, and then from there, identify, you know, what could go wrong in each of the steps.
And for those, what could go wrong, then design internal controls, whether it's, you know, a review or, you know, kind of reconciliation, or it's kind of systems, the type of checking to, to, to ensure that you have the right controls in place to make sure after, you know, the transaction goes through your entire, you know, machine, the correct results come out on the other side, and can be presented to the stakeholders that rely on them to make their investment decisions.
So that's what the SOPS process, the objective is, is to make sure that you have the right, you know, machine to produce the right results.
I love it. It's back to your storytelling. You got to make sure that the information is correct for the story and replicable, and that there's lots of checks and balance along the way.
You, you do a very good job, obviously, on the analytical side, but also bridging the story side.
And that's a huge, I think, a huge skill set as a leader.
So thanks, Christina, for sharing all that. And so maybe switching gears.
You know, you've been at Zendesk, you have, you are part of a large organization, you've hired a lot of people, you have a big team, you've just seen, there's a lot of people who want to go work at the next Zendesk, or maybe they even want to come work at Zendesk, especially after hearing you speak.
I mean, when you think about the most successful people on your team, what kind of, what characteristics do they share?
Yeah, that's a good question. You know, three things comes to mind, I would say curiosity, agility, and resilience.
You know, curiosity, it makes you ask good questions.
And you know, good questions always lead to great and meaningful conversation that opens doors to so many possibilities.
And so for me, having that intellectual curiosity, always asking questions, it's something that I've seen consistently in people who have been successful, not at Zendesk, but in a lot of, you know, organizations.
Agility is just a must have in a high growth company, where you have a lot of, you know, things happening in real time, and also changing as well.
Resilience, on the other hand, allows you to take calculated risks and course correct, and also learn from the mistakes that you have and do it better the next time.
So you know, there are many other characteristics that are important.
But you know, from my experience in the last few years, I would call those three out as the top ones.
I love that. I love that.
You know, one of the things being as part of a high growth company, is how when you're growing quickly, the organization changes, like every 18 months to two years, it's almost like you're a new company.
Has that been your experience at Zendesk, where it's just like, as you've grown, it's almost you have to rethink your processes and your systems.
And has that come naturally to the organization? Yes, of course, you know, you're, it's a whole company motion.
It's, you know, the company strategies and directions continues to evolve over time.
And so are the employees and the work structures that enables, you know, the new priorities to happen and empowers people.
And so, you know, how, what I've felt, you know, over the last few years is this almost requirement to continue to reinvent myself to upskill myself asking myself the question, what do I need to learn?
What do I need to do for the next stage of the company?
Otherwise, you know, the growth, the speed growth curve could become overwhelming and, you know, you could be left behind.
Right? You know, you just, it takes a lot of effort and also being mindful of, you know, where the company is going and what do I need to do?
How can I continue to develop myself and also develop my team in order to keep up with the growth and hopefully trying to stay ahead a little bit to not run out of the runway.
I'm sure you're experiencing that as well. And it's very true in any high growth organization.
No, definitely. Again, this is something where I feel like so much of you said, I just find myself nodding along.
So it resonates. And so, you know, the natural, I think for a lot of listeners, this is a question I hear a lot.
How do you, how do you keep up? How do you grow into the role? How do you make sure you don't run on a runway?
And so I guess, give any advice of what you did personally to help grow with the role.
Because again, you've been incredibly successful.
You're the chief accounting officer. You've obviously been able to do it.
So congratulations, but any, any words of advice of what, maybe what you did or what others should be thinking about to be able to, as you said, up level, maybe their skills.
Yeah. I think these, first of all, being mindful that, that, that effort is needed to keep up with the growth that, you know, having that awareness is important.
And then, you know, periodically ask yourself the question, what you should stop doing so that you can start doing something else.
And, you know, maybe set a calendar reminder for yourself every quarter, you know, or every month, set aside some time to, to really, you know, take, take a moment for yourself and think about those questions.
Because as you know, day to day, there are so many things to, to deal with, so many fire drills to live through.
And so it's important to set aside some time to reflect on what has happened maybe in the last quarter, you know, personally for yourself and also for your team and maybe for the overall company as well.
And reflect on that and think about, you know, am I doing the right things?
Of all the things I am spending time on, am I spending time on the most critical things?
And, and so that hopefully will lead you to look at maybe your calendars and the meetings that you go to and maybe remove yourself from some of that and, you know, and stop doing some of that, or maybe delegating, you know, some of that to, to, to others or the teams, or even ask the questions, is there a better way of doing this?
Why are, why are we spending so much calories on this particular thing, right?
That, you know, so spending some time to reflect on the past, for me, at least always led to, you know, new ideas of, you know, maybe things can be done in a different way, in a better way, or maybe things that we should just stop doing altogether, because it's not adding value anymore.
So just, you know, allowing some space in your calendar to reflect and think about that, you know, I think that would be a tip I give to everyone.
You know, I think that that's really wise.
And again, it makes me want to go back and look at how maybe I'm spending some of my time, I think it's something that never stops.
And, you know, you're, what are you going to stop doing? So you can start doing other things?
We use a really similar framework of start, stop, keep, what should we keep doing?
What should we stop doing? What should we start doing? And it sounds simple, but it's actually incredibly helpful.
You just make a list under each and, and all of a sudden, you're like, actually, that was a productive conversation with in a team or yourself or as a management team.
And so I agree.
Thanks for sharing that. There's a lot of good, wise words there. Okay, so we have about three minutes left, and it is Female Empowerment Month, Women Empowerment Month.
And so it's so great to, to be doing Guess We Can with you during this month.
And, you know, there's, we've given a lot of voice advice and words, words of wisdom, but there's also a lot of women out there who probably are like, wow, Christine's amazing.
I'm looking up to you. So what, if you could go back to, to give yourself advice as a college student or to those women listening, tuning in maybe earlier in their career, what, what advice would you have for them?
Well, I, you know, first off, I think there are, you know, many stereotypes against women out there.
And the truth is that it may take more than a generation to correct, you know, some of that.
But instead of, you know, maybe either ignoring or, or, or being resentful or trying to fit in, I think we want to embrace our authentic self.
And in the meantime, just be aware of, you know, maybe a few things that you want to work on in order to make your career more fulfilling and also, you know, your life more fulfilling as well as a woman or as a person.
You know, I'll give you an example. I, I have a tendency of being over critical to myself.
I, I remember the, my mistakes, you know, from five years ago or maybe 10 years ago, you know, but.
Me too. I totally, we are kindred spirits, Christine.
I don't know if it's what, I mean, there's so many, I, yes, yes.
Tell me your secret. Okay. Go ahead. Sorry. I don't mean to interrupt, yes. You know, so I think the first step is being aware.
And so, you know, sound like you and I are both aware that we have that tendency.
And so, you know, there's no, I have no other tricks than just from time to time, remind myself to not dwell on the past and, and to cut myself some slack because no one else will really remember.
And so that allows me to, to continue to move forward and also have a gross mindset that every mistake I made is going to make me so much better next time.
So just, that's an example of something that I, I, I became aware of and worked on to, to, to try to either correct or at least to be mindful that at that tendency.
That's great. Well, I, this has been such a pleasure, Christina. I mean, I, from chemistry to finance, the chief accounting officer of an amazing company that is admired and beloved by many of your customers and, and, and people and other founders in the industry.
Thank you so much for sharing all your insights today.
You'll have to go back to your son and, and see if he knows what socks is and, and make sure that he adds to email responder and money counter incredible storyteller, because again, I really, you, you are an amazing storyteller.
And so I've really enjoyed hearing all your stories today.
Thank you, Michelle. Thank you for the opportunity to share and to learn from each other.
I enjoyed it. Oh, amazing.
All right. Well, thanks everyone for tuning in. We'll be back here next week with another episode of yes, we can.
And if you have ideas, please email yes, we can at Cloudflare.tv.
And with that, we'll pass it on to the next segment. Thanks so much.