At the MaRS annual Impact conference, held virtually this year in early December, OpenText CEO and CTO Mark Barrenechea talked with MaRS CEO and serial entrepreneur Yung Wu about the war for diverse talent, the challenge of sustaining corporate culture during COVID-19, and the critical importance of ensuring that cyber security becomes job one.
Yung Wu: The question of the day, which we’re going to have a really good chinwag about, is how do you actually hire and build and retain teams during COVID-19, and in the transition from the COVID-19 economy to the new economy. It’s absolutely clear that our future is actually being built on the back of the innovation economy.
Mark J. Barrenechea: It’s culture, mission and talent. They go hand in hand. In a purpose-driven world, you have to lead with mission, with who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. At OpenText, we’re reinventing information management. We’re a very customer-centric organization. It is really hard to build that type of culture now for product-oriented companies or sales-oriented companies. There are companies that have lost their soul along the way. We lead with our purpose and our mission around creating cultures and information platforms. We want to be very intentional about our culture. To achieve that, you need great people. It really is that simple.
Yung Wu: How do you keep investing in your employees? And then how do you live by your culture? It’s so easy to say, but it’s incredibly hard to do, even under normal circumstances. Tell us how you’re doing this in a uniquely Canadian way.
Mark J. Barrenechea: You know, during COVID, every month almost feels like a year. Time is very accelerated. When we made the decision, like many companies, to go 100% virtual in March, this was based on past experiences. I’ve lived and managed through 9/11. I’ve lived and managed through the dot com bust, and through the Great Recession. What you learn through those experiences is that you’ve got be data-driven. You’ve got to follow the facts. And that it’s better to be a bit quicker to respond versus getting to a position where you need to react.
Our view of the data in March was that we’re going to be in this position for a long time, and that this great uncertainty is going to extend into 2021. So we made some very pre-emptive decisions. We’ve really leaned on our culture—camaraderie, trust, customer-centric focus, and being a tech-enabled business. Here we are, seven months later, and we are more productive than we were. We’re not returning to that old state.
Yung Wu: Amazing. There’s a bunch of people to bring along with you on that journey: shareholders, customers, employees as well. How did you bring along all these different stakeholders?
Mark J. Barrenechea: This is the best team we’ve ever had at OpenText. They’ve really been clear thinkers, with great execution through this very unpredictable year. It’s really important to communicate, communicate, communicate, and even over communicate. We’ve defaulted to communications and also we’re good listeners. We brought tough problems to our board, who helped guide us. We’ve had open communications externally. We have the confidence to state what we know and what we’re uncertain about, to get the feedback and process it.
Yung Wu: That’s so important because the pandemic is only one of the things that we’ve all had to navigate. You think about the other societal challenges we’ve seen, especially around racial injustice and the need for diversity. How did you handle the whole reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests and how did you engage with your global workforce?
Mark J. Barrenechea: The pandemic has really exposed chasms in our society and there are multiple crises going on simultaneously. There’s of course a health crisis, and not just physical but mental health for many individuals. An economic crisis. A societal crisis. The environmental crisis is looming out there for our children.
As a company, we’ve always focused on gender diversity, so we wanted to pause for a moment and listen. We created a listening tour internally. I did six town halls to listen to feedback from our Black and Brown communities inside OpenText.
It was a life-changing event. When the pandemic started, I asked all our employees to update their online profiles, post a picture, turn on their video because we’re going to be in this remote position for a while. Part of our community was scared by that. It was not an OpenText issue, but an industry issue. `When I turn on my video, you’ll know I’m Black.’ We’ve hired some employees from the Caribbean who live in Canada today. One said, `I never thought of myself as Black until I was walking down the street in Toronto.’ There were so many stories that really touched us.
We decided we wanted to make sustained change. This is a long term, systemic issue. To drive meaningful change, we’re doubling down on under-represented minorities, with an emphasis on Black and Brown communities. We formed what we call ‘impact teams.’ They are out evaluating training, mentorship, systems and data visibility. We’re going to be publishing new rules for procurement and sustainability. We have another Impact team on health and safety. We’ve expanded our effort beyond gender diversity.
Yung Wu: I love the leadership. Now I know you’re continuing to grow. I believe I heard you’re hiring over 300 people in Toronto and Waterloo right now. You’re a global software company and you can build anywhere you want. Why Toronto? Why Waterloo?
Mark J. Barrenechea: We make intentional choices and we’ve decided to remain a Canadian company in a global market. That’s based on a variety of things. The first has to be access to talent. But we’re looking beyond our traditional centers of excellence, like Waterloo and Richmond Hill and Montreal. We’re going coast to coast to coast. We’re going to experiment a little bit with a virtual workforce and go after every Canadian who’s qualified.
In my experiences over the last decade with OpenText, Canada has the talent. It’s getting better at having access to capital. What Canada hasn’t learned yet is how to grow companies. To some degree, you need to be patient and incentivize growing businesses. OpenText is an example of being a bit patient.
Yung Wu: Just a quick pivot to something related to the challenges to remote work. It has opened up a whole host of risks, cyber security being one. In every boardroom I sit in, that is probably the number one or number two issue. What are you were advising your customers?
Mark J. Barrenechea: It’s an important topic. It’s also very large one. I’ll start with the obvious. Cyber security needs to be job one. It’s not like job seven; it’s not something to outsource to your data center operators.
Cyber security is also evolving very quickly. For example, just two or three years ago, the primary assumption was that the bad actors were outside. Today, you have to assume the bad actors are inside, which means your strategies and your tactics change completely.
CIOs also have to recognize that they own the endpoints for all their employees, regardless of where they are. Attacks are up five times this year. You need to get ready for some very big step changes coming along the way.