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The corporate scientist

SAP president North American region Geraldine McBride finds her zoology background useful as she takes on top roles in global IT companies

Geraldine McBride looks at the technology industry through the lenses of a natural scientist.

There is so much in common in business and ecology, she says.

"Much of our business is about change," says the Kiwi-born McBride, now president, North American region of software company SAP. "You adapt or you die. You evolve or you get left behind."

She adopts the same perspective to what is happening in the tech industry, with ongoing mergers which sometimes lead to extinction of early powerhouse technology brands. "I look at them as habitats, occupied by organisations called companies, one consumed by another."

"When you are acquiring companies you are injecting new DNA to improve your core competencies. You can morph into something else. You are constantly mutating and changing. I use these parallels in transforming the business."

It is not surprising that McBride uses these metaphors: if she had not segued into a career in technology, she would have been working in the natural sciences.

"I am a frog researcher," she says. Having graduated from the Victoria University in Wellington with a degree in zoology, she met her husband Colin Johnson when they were doing research on the native frog Leiopelma Archeyi (Archey's Frog), an endangered species, in the Coromandel Peninsula.

McBride started a career in the technology industry through IBM's graduate programme. She moved to SAP after 10 years, holding a series of executive roles including president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Region and senior vice president and general manager in North America. She moved to Dell as vice president and global head for the Applications and BPO Services business and rejoined SAP in May as president of its North America region.

Her offshore assignments meant McBride has based her family (she has a daughter now in university) in more than five countries.

"I am culturally flexible," she says, and credits this to growing up in New Zealand. "You grow up as a child looking out of your island to the rest of the world with a great deal of interest.

"We are so far away from everybody," she says. This encourages "disobedient thinking" and a "creative way of looking at problems".

"I work partly out of New Zealand," says McBride, who aims to spend four to six weeks across the year working in Aoteaoroa. "Ten years ago there was no way I could contemplate running a business from down here," says McBride whose main local base is Closeburn Station, a high country sheep station five miles outside Queenstown.

"I don't see distances as major issues. I work very well virtually. I interview people for jobs from Chicago from here with Skype technology."

For McBride, what is important is the probing, questioning stance of a scientist. "You are constantly forming hypotheses about the nature of the business," she says. "You think things strategically. You are not just grinding away the quarter and working in the business.

"A lot of executives work in the business quarter to quarter; they hit an iceberg and ask, 'What happened?' Being able to look around that environment, and assess what is changing is important.

"Stay creative and flexible," she further advises. "Find key innovators," enable "innovation to monetisation should occur in a reasonable amount of time. Do not allow processes to rule over creativity."

"Nature is not fixed and flat," she says. "Spot trends and don't get caught in your own paradigm."

She says companies that SAP works with are asking for help to get to customers. "They don't want to be mass marketed to. It is not easy to earn your money anymore," she says. "We have perfected the art of production," she says. "Why are we just producing a bunch of stuff that we are throwing away?"

"You have to give people what they want, when they want it, in the way they want it," she says.

"This is the next revolution, we are going to provide experiences whether goods or services, tailored for the segment of one."

This could be through the use of smart technologies to look at "revenue leakage". Or through "smart retailing" where as a customer walks into the store, and the system knows what you might like to buy but is not stalking you. "You are providing value by putting the consumer in the centre."


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