10 questions for Virtual Instruments CFO George Harrington

Name: George Harrington

Age: 60

Time with company: 7 months

Education: Bachelor of Arts and MBA at Brigham Young University

Company headquarters: San Jose, California

Number of countries: U.S., Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland

Number of employees total: About 150

Number of employees the CFO oversees: 9

About the company: Virtual Instruments develops monitoring and analysis solutions for IT infrastructure optimization. Its flagship VirtualWisdom hardware and software products provide real-time insight into the performance, availability and utilization of the servers, networks and storage systems that run business-critical applications for Global 2000 enterprises. By analyzing actual SAN I/O traffic data in real time, VirtualWisdom improves the performance of private cloud and virtualized applications, decreases application response time, increases availability, and improves SAN and storage utilization.

1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?

I started as a newly minted MBA at big ol' IBM but it was at a semiconductor facility that basically put tops and bottoms on semiconductors. The reason I chose that was because I got to do a lot of finance and different roles. I didn't have to go through two years in this area and two years in that area. I was able to package it and get a lot of experience almost like a startup because we only had 400 people at that site. I was number 12 [hired] in the finance group and it had only been going for less than a year when I got there. I was able to get more experience in that area.

Why did I do that, you might ask. Well, I was older when I got started -- I was 29 and I was basically starting over. What that did was it actually helped me to learn to be flexible and to really rely on teamwork. Being at a startup like Virtual Instruments, that's key. Teamwork is key, and at IBM, which is such a huge company, you really had to rely on the value of networking. As my career progressed, I was able to say I really need to be a good networking guy. You have to network at divisions and between divisions. It gave me the ability to early in my career get a lot of experience and to leverage that experience to get a good network, and demonstrate that I was really flexible and good at teamwork.

Part of being successful in a career at an international company is international experience. No one is responsible for your career path but you, so I targeted jobs so that I could have a valid overseas experience. Six years after I was hired, I was sitting in a worldwide pricing job in a laboratory in the south of France. How's that for career management? So, three years in France and a couple of years after I returned to the U.S., I wound up going to Tokyo for four years, so I got two very different perspectives. In France, they were developing worldwide products and I was the pricer on those jobs and in Tokyo, I was a financial planner for the sales and marketing unit there for all of Asia.

The idea is to get a variety of experience so you could be in the position to be a CFO. I understood early on that there are many ways to have a valid career path, but one thing you need to understand is what credentials do you need to have to have a successful career path. I'm not an accountant by training, but I went from pricing to planning jobs to accounting. That's how you do it. And you have to have the stripe of being a people person and so after four or five years, I had all those stripes on my uniform. Those are the experiences that led me to where I am now.

2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?

Being in the high-tech business for 30 years, I've had a few, but there's one that stands out. His name is John Thompson and he is our CEO at Virtual Instruments. I worked for John at IBM and I worked for John at Symantec a couple of years after IBM. There's a pattern there. He's a great leader and he teaches you how to be a great leader. He's true to his ideals. He's true to his values. He's a fantastic listener and key to having leadership skills is to be a good listener. I think the biggest thing is that he really knows how to create an environment of trust. You trust the guy, you would go into battle with him. So I want to create that same atmosphere of trust. He also lets his managers manage their own organizations and demand accountability. To me, he's the perfect combination of leadership and a good manager. Those are two different things, but if you put the both of them in your kit for what you bring to the table, you'll be great at your job.

3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?

I think about this in two ways. There are the technical challenges, meaning how do you navigate through the regulatory environment and how do you get everybody lined up to potentially do an initial public offering? Those are specific challenges to a company such as Virtual Instruments, including making sure you've got enough cash to run the business -- cash is king -- but in broader terms, I'm thinking that CFOs these days are constantly being driven to do more with less. It's not old times. And it's not just the finance function -- finance has to guide the rest of the organization to do more with less. You might have to live in a world where you have a tight management of costs and tight margins because your business isn't growing, but in our case business is growing and that's great.

Also, the CFO has to be an effective communicator. The CFO can't just sit in his office with the door shut. We're communicating with a lot of different groups -- the board, analysts and your peers. A big challenge for any CFO is to be a proactive communicator. No matter where you are, the pace of business is changing, the regulatory environment is constantly changing, so you have to be a great communicator. Otherwise, you have people angry at you because they're surprised by things that are going on.

4. What is a good day at work like for you?

I love that question. I got to thinking about that specifically here at Virtual Instruments -- a good day would include some interaction with our sales teams, say, to craft a deal or talk about our specific situation. Given my past, I also like to have discussions with our R&D folks. What specific projects do they have going and what can we do to help with finance. With my own team, a good day would include some discussion about improving process. I'm a process guy. I like to think about how we do what we do and is there a more efficient and productive way to do what we do. So I like to talk to my team about what is hanging you up, what is hanging you up with other teams and what can we do to improve that. Of course, we love winning. Love winning. We have a gong, a big Asian gong, down our hall, and we like to have the gong going when we have a big deal come in. We try to have fun with it.

5. How would you characterize your management style?

First and foremost, I would say I love to manage by walking around. That's how I get to talk to the R&D teams, that's how I get to talk to the sales teams. I really enjoy getting to know people. I love teams. I love working collaboratively, so that's part of my management stye. In terms of values that I try to turn into actions, a firm value is one of synergy. What I mean by that is that when people work together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I really believe that, so I try to have opportunities to have collaboration not only with my team but with my team and other functions so we can work well together. I avoid micromanaging. I think that's a waste of time. In fact, I think that's a negative. But I expect my employees to make well thought-out and thought-through recommendations, so when they come to me, we can have a discussion about that. But I want them to come up with those ideas.

Similarly, I don't like to approach tasks as one-off fire drills. If you keep doing one-off fire drills you'll never get any traction for being an effective organization. So, when that happens I want to talk to my team about why it happened. Part of my management style is to try to keep people focused on being effective in their jobs.

One pet peeve I have is that I insist that meetings start on time and don't drag on. All our time is valuable.

Most important is I really like to get to know people and build trust with the team, so I'm out there walking around a lot.

6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?

I've done a lot of interviewing in my day. I do assume that the vetting process will find who is capable for the job, so I try to look for how intuitive people are, to get a sense of are they bright, can they think on their feet, can they thrive in a team environment. To do that I try to get them to open up.

I look for candidates who have actually led cross-functional teams. I don't want people who have worked in silos. I want people who have led different things. But have they been successful in leading a cross-functional team.

I also look for fit. I think everybody probably says that, but every environment is different, and especially in a startup you really need to find people who would be a good fit. And, of course, I look for people who are flexible in what they can do. That brings me back to my first comment in the first question. When I went into that 400-person job as the 12th finance guy, I had to be flexible, so I'm looking for that sort of person too. Some people are just averse to change and when you're looking for a job candidate, at least in this kind of environment, you have to be looking for people who can be nimble.

7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?

Consistent with my management style and consistent with trying to determine strengths and weaknesses, I try to loosen up a candidate and get them to talk openly about successes and failures. I try to get them to talk openly so I can really assess fit, personality, that type of thing. One thing I really like to do -- I know that candidates have all their rehearsed answers -- I like to turn it around and have them ask me questions. It shows me how much research they've done about the company and whether they'd be a good fit. It also helps me to see what concerns they have, why are they looking for a job, and it gives me a glimpse into their personality, so I like them to have questions for me. It's amazing -- they'll look at you like a deer in the headlights [when you ask them to ask questions].

There are certain types who just want to go through their rA(c)sumA(c) point by point by point, and I don't want to do that. I want them to assume that I've read it. I want to test whether they're a good fit here. And I don't like those folks who try to steer you to talking about just what they're comfortable talking about.

8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?

Well, given my background, most of my career has been at large organizations and what I find that really sets this place apart is how satisfying it is to work here, where you can play a role in building a company rather than just trying to manage one or fix one. It runs the gamut between processes and working with business partners. But the bottom line is that you really get to build it. When I talk to people about process re-engineering here they say it's process engineering -- we've got to build it and that includes the culture. We have an opportunity to actually build a corporate culture. We're small enough that the top managers get to actually interact with all the teams. I don't want to develop a passive culture, I want to build an active culture.

Small companies have this ability because most people, if not all people, in a successful small company have the same goals and they'd actually personalize those goals for themselves. It's not just showing up and putting in your 40 hours, but you want to succeed, and we have that at Virtual Instruments. Everyone from the board to the lowest level has it as an interest to succeed here. That erases silos. You don't have that when everybody is going in the same direction. I love it.

9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?

I'm taking hectic to mean not a bad day. First and foremost, I focus on my relationship with my family. That's a completely different dimension. I'm an empty nester at this point. My wife and I have been married for 38 years and she's my best friend. So going home and just completely flipping my brain to other topics of discussion -- that's great. I love that. She and I share a love of music, history, politics. So we get to have a discussion that is completely different from business. With my job at IBM, I was a commuter, so an hour or longer every day in a car. It's not quite that way here, but part of the commute is that it allows you to unwind, catch up on news of the day and listen to music.

10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?

That's what I was alluding to earlier -- I can answer that question in one word. It's called retirement. I was actually pulled out of retirement to go do this job. I'm sure you don't get too many CFOs who can say that and that relates back to John Thompson. John asked me to look at his opportunity. So [if I weren't doing this job] I'd go back to doing exactly what I was doing -- doing things with my family, my other passions, such as historical research. And I've got five grandkids, I'm a part of their lives and I will continue to do that.

I'm from Vermont and New England and my ancestors have been here for a long time, so I like to do genealogical research and tie that into specific historical events. So, for instance, I have tried to find out if I had ancestors in the Revolutionary War and I found some. It's really cool.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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