My Career Path: Interview with Lakshmi Sharma, Chief Product and Strategy Officer, Fastly
- June 27, 2023
- Posted by: Selen Warner
- Category: Blog
This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Lakshmi Sharma, the Chief Product and Strategy Officer of Fastly, about her career path and the decisions that have contributed to her success. Here at Stage 4 Solutions, we are committed to supporting professionals’ career growth, and we believe that one way to enable success is by learning from leaders.
Lakshmi Sharma is an award-winning result-oriented tech executive with decades of hands-on and leadership experience in driving business transformation leveraging people, processes and technologies for successful business and cultural outcomes. Lakshmi is the Chief Product and Strategy Officer of Fastly, leading product programs, product design, developers experience, security research, corporate development and strategic partnerships and the executive co-sponsor of Blackly, the Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Fastly that aims to foster an inclusive environment that builds community, promotes belonging, and increases the career longevity and professional success of Black Employees and allies at Fastly. Prior to joining Fastly, she held leadership roles at Cisco, Brocade, Juniper, RIFT.io, Apcera, Target and Google, applying expertise driving digital transformation and Cloud Adoption for incumbent and Greenfield ventures. She is passionate about building an inclusive and transparent organizational culture where everyone feels supported for their growth and impact and developing KPI driven global teams and organizations.
Can you tell us about your upbringing? Who were your role models?
Lakshmi: I was born and brought up in a very humble family in India, Delhi. My role models have been my parents. My parents believed and taught me that hard work, honesty and education were key to getting an individual or a society to the next level.
My mom is uneducated, and my dad is a high school graduate school pass out, but both of them have invested in my education because they both wanted to study but they couldn’t because of the circumstances. And, one thing that they really fought for me when I was growing up was my education. I was the first one and the first female child to go to high school and college and work across both sides of my family. My parents had to work really hard, fight and advocate for me, to get me to school and to continue to study and go to college because that was not typical for the society we were in. We were poor kids. My mom used to stitch clothes for people at home, so that she could support us. My dad had various kinds of jobs. He was a peon. In India, peon represents the lowest clerical job in government. He put in everything that he could to make sure that we could study. My parents went against the society so that I wouldn’t get married by the age of 15 and I could study and then become a role model for the rest of the people in our society. Even now, there are people in that community who reach out to me because I am still the only person in their entire world who is educated, and that can help them and provide direction and guidance.
When you were in college, what were your career inspirations?
Lakshmi: Growing up, my dad and my grandmother who passed away when I was in fifth grade, wanted me to be a doctor and to go to villages and help people in need. It was meant to be that I was supposed to study and help those who didn’t have access to medicine and medical services in villages in India at that time. So, my goal was to do that. And an alternative path was to pursue Indian Administrative Services which is a government job where you actually are a representative of people and help people in different capacities. But that is not what I ended up doing. I really liked science and physics, and I did my graduation in physics and my master’s in physics and then computer science. This was not planned at all. The situation changed, and I ended up getting a computer science degree and then I got a job in computer science. And at that time, the industry was really growing fast.
I think my goal of helping people, giving back, educating and coaching has stayed with me. While computer science and engineering gave me that path to achieve where I am today, I am still passionate about helping communities and giving back. And that’s what really motivated me to be a people leader. I believe that computer science and the Internet have given me the opportunity to help anyone anywhere in the world and follow the path of helping people. And I feel very fortunate that I am able to coach, sponsor and mentor people around the world.
What factors led you to attend Santa Clara University to pursue a master’s degree?
Lakshmi: One of the most influential figures in my professional journey was a leader who later became my first mentor. This significant experience took place during my tenure at Network Equipment Technology in the early 2000s. At that time, my role required frequent travel to meet with customers, engage with senior leaders, and deliver presentations at prominent forums. It was during these occasions, often finding myself as the only woman presenter in a room of 500 individuals, that my senior director recognized my potential and saw the value in expanding my business acumen.
With my engineering background, he believed that pursuing an MBA would offer me a fresh perspective on business. He expressed his belief in my capabilities and assured me that the company would support my master’s degree financially. I am immensely grateful to him for his vision and idea, as it opened doors of opportunity that I had never imagined. Throughout the process, he served as a coach, mentor, and advocate, actively creating avenues for my growth. My pursuit of an MBA led me to Santa Clara University, nestled in the heart of the Bay Area. It was a transformative experience, introducing me to a diverse array of professionals from various industries. Through my studies, I delved into subjects such as organizational behavior, organizational politics, personal finance, and business finance. The knowledge and insights gained during this period continue to shape my approach to leadership and decision-making. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the privilege of earning an MBA from Santa Clara University. This opportunity was made possible by the unwavering support and guidance of a remarkable individual whom I proudly regard as my first mentor. I am forever grateful for his belief in me and the doors he opened on my professional journey.
How did you decide on your first job?
Lakshmi: My first professional job really came out of college. There were only a few universities in entire India that offered master’s in computer science at that time, and I was pursuing my degree at one of them. So, there was a lot of demand for graduates. There were companies focusing on “campus placement” and I got my first job through a campus placement program.
As you progressed through your career, how did you assess new opportunities?
Lakshmi: In general, I have a natural inclination towards appreciating and admiring people, particularly those who are accomplishing remarkable things. I hold immense respect for individuals who work diligently, showcasing their unique work styles and achieving significant outcomes. Witnessing the positive impact someone can have on others and their lives is truly a blessing. It brings me great joy to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of others.
When it comes to seeking inspiration, my focus has never been solely on renowned figures in the industry. Rather, my goal has always been to continually aspire towards my next step, learning from those around me who are doing amazing things. I firmly believe that every person I interact with has the potential to teach me something valuable. It is this insatiable desire to learn from a diverse range of individuals that has propelled me to new levels of personal and professional growth.
Presently, I find myself working at a company dedicated to protecting the Internet, an endeavor that fills me with awe and excitement. The founder of this organization is an incredible individual who conceived the idea and built this company from the ground up. Each day, I am eager to learn from their entrepreneurial journey and the wisdom they possess.
Moreover, our CEO brings a wealth of experience from their previous roles in air defense companies, as well as their time at Meraki and Cisco. Their impressive business background and innovative ideas have greatly influenced our company’s trajectory. Through our collective efforts, we are not only creating more job opportunities but also making a meaningful impact on a larger scale.
In summary, my passion for learning and my appreciation for the remarkable individuals around me have been instrumental in propelling me forward. The opportunity to glean knowledge from diverse sources and work alongside visionary leaders fills me with excitement and fuels my personal and professional growth.
What has surprised you the most in your career?
Lakshmi: When I take on a new role, one of my core beliefs is that everyone has good intentions. This perspective was instilled in me by my parents, and it has become an integral part of my personal values. From a young age, my parents would often say, “Oh, God, help everyone else before you help us!” I used to question their reasoning, and they would explain that when the people around you are happy, it brings happiness to you as well. And it’s true, isn’t it? When our friends, neighbors, and community are content, it naturally brings joy to our own lives. This approach has stuck with me over the years.
I witnessed the embodiment of this belief in my father, who, even when he earned just a small amount, would allocate 10% of his earnings to help those in need. As a child, I struggled to comprehend this act of giving, especially when we ourselves had limited financial resources. But my father would tell me, “Because there is always someone else who is less fortunate than us.”
These two principles – giving before receiving and considering others’ happiness before my own – have become the cornerstone of my personal values. I strive to avoid causing harm to anyone, not even inadvertently. I enter every interaction with the assumption that everyone, like me, wants to do the right thing and prioritizes the well-being of others.
Most of the time, this approach proves fruitful because, in the end, I realize that I am trying to understand people’s intentions, and their intentions are usually well-intentioned. However, there have been instances where individuals prioritize their own interests above the company’s. It surprises me when people prioritize their personal careers and circumstances without considering how their actions might impact the organization. The company, after all, is much larger—it consists of people, provides employment opportunities, and affects families. This behavior has been an eye-opener for me.
In such situations, I take the time to understand whether these actions are intentional or simply a result of different perspectives. Nonetheless, I still hold on to the belief that most individuals have good intentions. Each person comes from a unique background, upbringing, and set of circumstances.
It fascinates me to explore this perspective and understand why some individuals may not prioritize the company’s interests first, considering the broader and greater goals. I firmly believe that by doing what is best for the company, one ultimately creates a positive outcome for themselves as well.
Can you tell us about your involvement in DEI Groups and Blackly, the Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Fastly?
Lakshmi: Being passionate about supporting marginalized communities, particularly people of color, women of color, and women in business, has always been a driving force for me. When I join a new organization, my immediate instinct is to seek out ways to help and mentor these specific groups. For instance, when I joined Google, I actively searched for the women’s group to provide support and guidance. At Google Cloud, I co-founded and joined the DEI community, focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Similarly, at Fastly, I became involved in Blackly, a community dedicated to uplifting black individuals.
As a minority woman of color in a leadership position, I have firsthand experience and understanding of the challenges faced by women of color. However, as a people leader, I wanted to gain insights into the experiences of other minority groups, their unique obstacles, and shared experiences. Through my involvement in Google’s gain community, which encompasses American Indian and black professionals, I had the opportunity to learn about their specific challenges and gain different perspectives. I also took on the role of mentoring two individuals from this community. Furthermore, by engaging with my team members, I learned about the experiences of LatinX and Asian communities.
While I already had a deep understanding of the challenges faced by women of color, I wanted to expand my knowledge and support to other communities as well. This led me to become the sponsor for the Black community. Through this experience, I have been able to not only continue learning about women of color in technology and business but also gain a broader understanding of the black community. Learning about different minority groups allows for increased empathy towards others’ needs and opens up opportunities to connect with diverse individuals.
By actively engaging with and supporting various communities, I aim to foster an inclusive and empowering environment for all individuals, recognizing the value of diverse perspectives and experiences.
Can you tell us about an important career risk you took?
Lakshmi: An important career risk I have taken 3 times is moving into leadership roles where I did not know the existing leadership team and the company well. You become comfortable in a workplace when you are doing well and know everyone, and everyone knows you in that workplace. So, every time I moved on to a new leadership role, I left that comfortable situation and took on something new which was not so comfortable where I needed to stretch myself out. Also, the way I’ve always moved on was a risk too. Executive recruiters have convinced me that it was the right time to move and take on a new challenge, and I have followed their advice. In the last 3 senior roles I’ve held, I did not know anyone in the leadership team. Many believe that it’s difficult to transition into a leadership position without prior connections within the company, particularly at the senior level. During these transitions, I did not know what the companies were really like, but I just went into those roles because I was convinced there was potential and I thought I was getting a next-level opportunity to expand myself.
Taking a leadership role where you don’t know the leadership team and you only have an understanding of the company from the outside and then coming in and getting support and respect for yourself while delivering outcomes is a risk. I’ve done that 3 times already, and to be honest, I’m really proud of that.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Lakshmi: Throughout my career, I have often found myself in the position of being the first Brown leader, whether as the only Brown woman on the leadership team at Google Cloud or as the first women director in my team at Target. Embracing a leadership role while fully representing my identity as a technologist, a woman leader, and a diverse candidate has its challenges. It requires continuous validation of my capabilities. I often share that as a Brown female leader, I constantly need to prove myself to my own team. When your team members are not accustomed to seeing a C-level or director-level leader who is a Brown woman, they may challenge your authority, while others observe your journey to success. I feel the weight of representing not only myself but also the Brown community, and I have faced challenges because each time I stepped into these leadership positions, I had no existing connections or support. Building mutual trust has demanded hard work from both sides. When starting a new role, I position myself as a leader who trusts the team, having accepted their offer. Thus, I strive to prove myself as not only a people leader but also a business leader, earning the recognition and acceptance of my teams and management. It is important to acknowledge that if I were a white male or even a white female leader, the dynamics would likely be different. Being a Brown female leader inherently invites ongoing challenges from the team and peers. Managing these challenges has become a continuous effort in my daily work.
To overcome these obstacles, I actively seek and embrace feedback. I approach situations with objectivity, recognizing that it is not about me personally but about the circumstances at hand. When someone questions my actions or statements, I consider their perspective and the importance of their role within the company. This helps me filter out any biases and assess the situation from the company’s standpoint. Over time, I have trained myself to maintain objectivity even in challenging situations. I have found great support and guidance from books that have provided insights on remaining objective, and I consider them my trusted companions, referring to them whenever I face new circumstances.
How do you balance your professional and personal goals?
Lakshmi: As I’ve said before, I am a product of education, I am here because of education. No one in my family went to college before me and my parents were undereducated. Education has helped my family tremendously and it has become my personal goal in life. I always think how I can continue to spread my knowledge, and share it with people who don’t have resources. My personal goal in life is really to share knowledge with people. Even at work, I believe in continuous feedback. I don’t wait until 3 or 6 months for performance reviews. I don’t believe that you have to write something at the end of the year, and that’s when your team should know your feedback. I want to continue to help people in each community.
Personally, I am in a nonprofit for a high school, a board member for a university, and involved in many other educational initiatives. Being engaged in the community that I am contributing to every day, and my kids are part of it, is something that I am passionate about. When it comes to personal life and family life, you have to prioritize one at a time. I have an amazing and supportive husband who has always taken care of the pickups and drop-offs of all our kids. Bringing the whole family into this community contribution through education and giving back makes me happy. My kids are involved in coaching soccer, writing skills and coding skills to contribute to the community. Contributing back is my life’s goal, and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do this at both professional and personal levels.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Younger professionals?
Lakshmi: I genuinely believe that every decision I’ve made in my life, regardless of how it may sound, was the right choice at that specific time, given the circumstances. I attribute this perspective to my spiritual practices, such as morning meditation and my connection with nature. When making decisions, I consider the impact they will have on my family, neighbors, friends, and the broader context of everything around me. Therefore, I trust that I have consistently made the right choices in each situation, and I wouldn’t change anything, despite the inevitable ups and downs. On a personal note, one thing I do wish for is to have my parents and in-laws living in the same neighborhood, as they are currently in India.
A piece of advice I often share with my children and younger professionals is to prioritize relationships in everything they do. While there may be a temptation to seek immediate advancement and quick gains in the short term, I emphasize the importance of sustainability. I encourage them not to rush for instant gratification but rather focus on putting in genuine effort, with good intentions and consideration for others. Being a good person and prioritizing relationships ultimately leads to long-term success. Sometimes, seeking instant gains can damage bridges with people and hinder progress. It’s crucial to think of the bigger picture. Today’s workforce, especially in the post-Covid era, may not have experienced the power and energy that emerges when people come together in one room, whiteboarding ideas or brainstorming. I believe they may be overlooking the significance of building strong relationships. By focusing on doing good for everyone and putting forth their best effort, they will be amazed by the opportunities that come their way.
When we consider the context of the “company,” it aligns with the importance of relationships. Just as we prioritize relationships, we should also prioritize the success of the company and support our peers in their endeavors. By assisting and empowering others, we contribute to the broader success of the company as a whole. In turn, we will receive returns and benefits. By bringing the community together, fostering strong relationships, and helping one another, we create a collective success where everyone can thrive.