49% of employees have made a total career change, according to a survey by Indeed. While not everyone may do a complete 180 when it comes to their job, this statistic highlights how common it is to reevaluate and reroute your career path. I met up (virtually) with Simon Zelazo, Director of IT Business Solutions at Biobridge, to chat about his personal experience as one of the 49% of professionals who has changed industries, what mentorship means to him, and his thoughts on the changing IT landscape. Here’s what he had to say:
Mary Hodges: Can you tell me a little about your current role and responsibilities?
Simon Zelazo: I’m the Director of IT Business Solutions for a midsize biotech company called Biobridge. My role is pretty broad—you know biotech is very unique in terms of the startup space because you’re close to a lot of the science. From a business standpoint, what’s unique about it is that a lot of the work and use cases for people in the community are very focused on revenue recognition and customer onboarding processes. In the biotech space, it’s more focused on science, so in some cases you can go 10 years without revenue. You’ve got a long-term view and trajectory toward growth and helping people, and in some cases, helping kids walk again or curing cancer or something similar, so I enjoy what I work on on a day-to-day basis because it’s a bridge between science and IT. Most of the types of systems that we work on are finance systems and HR systems that are relatable to anybody in pretty much any industry and then there’s a subset of systems that are non-G&A related that are specific to clinical systems, R&D systems, and commercial sales systems.
MH: What is your top priority right now?
SZ: So organizationally, I think the top priority is finding ways to work as efficiently as possible in a remote environment, particularly in the IT space because I sit on the IT side of the house figuring out ways to onboard people as efficiently as possible. Also identifying trends and behaviors of various employees before it becomes an issue since the remote work environment is challenging. I think the other big thing is that we’re getting ready for a big ramp-up—the FDA recently approved one of our medications, and so from a company standpoint, that’s by far the biggest priority.
MH: I saw that you initially went to school for finance and accounting and started your career as an accountant and financial analyst before going into IT. Can you tell me about that change?
SZ: So, first of all, it’s obvious based on my LinkedIn profile that I love exciting industries, heading from finance and accounting into IT. One of the biggest drivers for me was to be on the business systems side and the application side as opposed to the traditional legacy side where it’s tech-heavy. So you start on the business side, trying to solve business problems and finding ways to make things work with technology. I think for a lot of people who have an affinity for technology that there’s a natural path into IT. You’re the person in the room who understands how to leverage technology to solve business problems, so you’re sitting on the business side of the IT house.
MH: What was the biggest challenge when you made your career change?
SZ: The biggest challenge was the cultural nuances involved in a technology organization because every department has its own culture, and generally technology departments have a unique culture as opposed to finance.
MH: We are seeing a larger trend of IT transitioning over to Business Technology. Coming from the business side and transitioning over to the tech side, do you see this movement as a better marriage between the two departments?
SZ: Without a doubt. I believe in 10 years almost all “IT” will be partnering with the business side and sitting more within business functions as opposed to a true technology organization. It’s much more efficient to have somebody who understands the business function to be solving business problems. That’s part of the uniqueness of Workato—the closer you can get to having the person who’s experiencing the business problem actually solving the business problem, the more efficient you’ll be as an organization.
MH: When in your career did you experience the biggest shift in responsibility? How did you adapt?
SZ: I think it came during the first role where I was managing people. It was very impactful in the sense that you realize there’s a very different type of stress that comes with managing people versus being an individual contributor. I value still trying to be hands-on: I try to take half an hour a day and just reserve it to get inside of Workato and do some more work. I feel like that’s important, even at a director level, to still find one or two areas where you’re interacting with the people that report to you in a way that’s much more connected to what they’re experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
MH: What are some skills you needed to grow to handle the change?
SZ: There’s a management consultant named Simon Sinek. He’s got this great line from an engineering standpoint that most things break in the middle. Meaning that if you’ve got a stick and you’re trying to break it and you put tension on it, it’s normally going to break in the middle. Organizations are the same way—middle management is usually where things break because you’ve got a vision and an overarching business strategy at the top, then you have people executing on it and a set of people who are sitting in the middle who are trying to translate very high-level strategic objectives into something very tangible tactically. One of one the big things that I took from the sports that I played is that you need to find the right role for the right person. You might have somebody who’s a great resource, but if they’re in the wrong role or they’re not set up for success with the people that they’re interacting with or the project that they’re on, they’re either going to do a bad job or they’re going to hate the project.
The other thing is learning how to navigate conversations where you realize very quickly that the actual success or failure of something is very much outside of your hands and then learning how to influence effectively. For example, if you continue a conversation for an hour with somebody who’s not getting it and try to just bang your head against the wall, that’s not going to work. There’s this really interesting concept of success strategies in the business. It’s the idea that you get to a certain point in your career through certain strengths that you have as a person or a technologist. So, if you’re an engineer, maybe the the the thing that got you to that certain point is you’re willing to put in an incredible amount of time to solve a problem and never give up. That success strategy might falter once you reach a certain level in the organization because there are times where you need to say, “this is not the hill I’m going to die on,” and just let it go. Learning the success strategies that I’ve had early in my career and then trying to in some cases tweak them or recognize that this might be a strategy that’s going to work for me for a decade, but in this role, it’s not going to work and it’s not going to work if I want to grow.
MH: Who helped you along in your career? Did you have a mentor/manager/colleague who helped you along the way?
SZ: There was a gentleman who was the head of finance at the wholesale grocer that I worked for, who took me under his wing. In a very roundabout way, he told me that I’d be perfectly fine in finance, but I’d get bored and that having more of a technology role was probably a better fit for my personality. He’s the CFO over at Cisco now, and I still chat with him—he was and still is a really pivotal guy for me.
MH: So, what’s next? You’ve been in the director role at your company for a year now, where do you see yourself going? What are the biggest challenges for you to move into your next role?
SZ: I would say this about my last few roles, that now it’s about finding roles that feel as rewarding from a cultural and societal benefit standpoint as possible.
MH: What books or resources would you recommend that have helped you in your career?
SZ: There’s this book by Bill Bryson, it’s called A Short History of Nearly Everything. The reason why it popped into my head is that so many things in life are connected, and the way that so much innovation happens is through really interesting connections. The book was a reminder of just how serendipitous things can be that drive success in business or innovation.
MH: Awesome, do you have any last words of advice for people starting their career?
SZ: There are some very standard answers like, “work hard” and “if you find something that you enjoy doing then you’ll never work a day in your life,” and I think that all of those are true. Another piece of advice that I don’t hear often is never forget what business problems you are trying to solve. You can be great at your job and you can sell yourself really well, but if you’re not solving business problems, then there will not be the same value to you as a colleague.
Looking to connect with other business systems professionals and ask questions, get advice and network? Join the discussion at the Systematic!