Q&A with Shelagh Glaser, Synopsys CFO, on Glass-Ceiling Breaking and Change Making

Synopsys Editorial Staff

Mar 08, 2023 / 9 min read

Shelagh Glaser, chief financial officer (CFO) at Synopsys, always loved math and the challenge of a good problem to solve. After majoring in economics from the University of Michigan and earning an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, she launched her career at Intel while the company was still considered relatively small—the days when Andy Grove was CEO and Gordon Moore was chairman of the board. It was the first time an under-the-hood tech company acted like a consumer brand, and “Intel Inside” became a household mark.

Shelagh has deep financial and operational experience developed through nearly 30 years at Intel, scaling large businesses while continually driving profitability. Ultimately, she served as corporate vice president, CFO, and COO of Intel’s two largest business units, the Data Platform and Client Computing Groups. After Intel, Shelagh moved on to the software side of the house as CFO of Zendesk, a software-as-a-service CRM company that was acquired by a consortium led by Hellman & Friedman and Permira in 2022. Appointed as Synopsys CFO in November 2022, she is looking forward to helping scale the company’s impact as the industry moves from monolithic chip design toward the new SysMoore era of hyperconvergent integration.

We recently sat down with Shelagh to get her take on breaking the glass ceiling and being a changemaker. In celebration of International Women’s Day today, here’s what Shelagh had to say.

Q. What are some changes you’ve witnessed in the tech industry and why are they significant?

A. After getting my MBA, I started in the Notebook group at Intel. My group was considered the lunatic fringe at the time because we believed people would want to walk around with their computers. Intel’s core business was the desktop business. Our notebooks weighed somewhere around 25 pounds. In those days they were called luggables, which really sounds like an unappealing product.

Although 25 pounds sounds like a lot of weight when today’s laptops can hover around the 3-pound mark, desktops back then could weigh a 100 pounds plus. So, 25 pounds was a big technological achievement. We overcame many hurdles to help untether people from their desks. All the size, weight, and power innovations were happening in a very complex environment. Eventually, Intel’s Centrino platform and WiFi were born. Suddenly our lunatic fringe wasn’t so lunatic or fringe anymore. The notebook market had arrived.

After helping to build the notebook business at Intel, I helped build the data center business and the network business. The thing that I have learned is that it really takes a team of smart people to ask the questions “Why not?” and “What if?” to create completely new businesses. Things seem impossible until you make them possible and turn lunatic fringe ideas into multiple billion-dollar businesses.

Today, Synopsys is helping usher us into an era of silicon design that goes beyond the limitations of Moore’s law to address new levels of systemic complexity. We are now bringing diverse technologies into a single package for new achievements in power, performance, and area. In the old days of design, engineers designed from the silicon up to the workload, and we usually had to make a choice on power, performance, area, or time to revenue. In this new era, it starts with the workload down, defining what the silicon should be, and it is critical to deliver on power, performance, area, and time. It’s a completely different systems-level-type thinking, and I’m excited to bring both my experience with the silicon and the software sides of the business together at Synopsys.

Going through this pandemic, it’s awesome to wonder how we could have survived it without our notebooks, data centers, and networks. I’ve got three daughters, and if the WiFi isn’t functioning, you better just pack everything up and go home. These technologies have become integral to our lives. When I see this generation’s perspective (and anticipate the next) juxtaposed to those early years, it is gratifying to be a tiny part of how silicon has changed the world.

Q. What’s a good strategy for managing through economic downturns?

A. When times are abundant, people often can’t imagine anything else. They think times will always be good. Then, when the economy goes south, like the downturn now, they expect it to continue that way. But cycles are natural. It’s never obvious when you’re in the middle of a downturn that it won’t last forever—and it won’t. In fact, you’ll likely come out of it stronger than you were before because you will have learned a few things.

Gordon Moore always believed in investing into a downturn. The way you come out of a downturn is through better technology and better innovation, the kind of thing that will make things easier for the future. While investing in a downturn can be counterintuitive, it makes sense. If you invest during the downturn, you not only help drive recovery, but you’ll likely be ahead of the curve when you inevitably come out of it.

This is particularly true in technology. R&D has a long lead time. You don’t come in on Monday, have an invention on Tuesday, and the world adopts something they never knew existed on Wednesday. You need time for the trial and error to get it right. You need to invest in the right people to create it and bring it to market.

I left Intel for software where everything moves at a much faster pace. SaaS growth was fueled by innovation and extremely low interest rates and inflation—for a while the formula was growth at any cost. And the development of software is faster, and the learning cycles are accelerated. But there are down cycles, even in software, especially in today’s economy. Whether you’re working in hardware or software or you are working at the bridge of both, like Synopsys, you can never take your foot off the innovation gas to drive improved results for your customers.

This holds true, even when it comes to investing in yourself. The Wall Street Journal reported that 2023 is the year of investment in yourself. From my perspective every year is the year for investment. How do you make sure you are a little bit better every day than you were yesterday?

Q. What are some key challenges for women in tech that are seeking to be glass-ceiling breakers?

A. I have a very strong opinion on this. Traditionally, women are coached on leadership behavior and not on the business. I don’t care how straight you sit at the table. The people that get ahead in life are people that change and drive the business impact. Be that person.

As you look to advance your career, think about exactly what is propelling the conversation forward from a business perspective. What are you working on? Does anybody care about it? Does the thing you work on help propel the company forward? If not, why not? How can you better position yourself to elevate your value?

It’s important to get out and expand your awareness beyond your core competency. Network across the company and learn about other areas of the business. If you’re just in one discipline, your aperture is small. You may become a deep technical expert, but beyond that, you may be forgotten or left behind. Building your broader network is important to keep your options open and so people see your value when opportunities arise.

If you stay in your bubble, decisions up top might seem arbitrary to you. If you don’t have your aperture open to other parts of the business and industry, it will be hard for you to propel yourself forward in a meaningful way.

If you’re an engineer who’s in charge of an engineering team, understand that you are running a small business. That body of work that your team delivers, whether it directly gets shipped to a customer or helps make sure somebody can make a product for the customer, is your business.

One mentor of mine was Andy Bryant, who was the CFO of Intel, then the CAO, then the chairman of the board. When people would come to his meetings and catalog all the problems, he’d counter with, “What would you do if you were king?” If you want to be a glass-ceiling breaker you need to embrace that perspective—what would you do?

On top of embracing a kingly perspective in your profession as a glass-ceiling breaker, let’s face it, most of us have 10 jobs. We’ve got kids, we’ve got parents, we’ve got community volunteer obligations. We probably are redoing the house at the same time. We have to be a part-time restaurant and a part-time chauffeur. It all stacks up. And oh, by the way, the other thing we do at work is that we often run the diversity groups. Figuring out how to be judicious with your time and boundaries is paramount.

Q. Is mentorship important?

A. It’s an aha moment when you realize that you’re not in the room when the most important conversations happen about you at work. Maybe you didn’t even know there was a room. Conversations are happening all the time about developing individuals like you. More than mentorship, sponsorship is critical if you are looking to grow your career. You need sponsors—those people who will advocate for you during those key conversations when you aren’t in the room.

Sponsor relationships are more often informal than formal, although they can be formal. Cultivating them is like planting your garden. You need to be constantly refreshing your relationships because people retire. They move to new companies. They change careers.

Today, I stand on the shoulders of people who came before me. All of the women in my family, for instance, who helped pave the way. People like my mother who bucked the expectations of becoming a nun to be a nurse instead. My sister, who was one of the first women to graduate in business at her school, because until that time, it was the purview of men. My grandmother, who worked as a bookkeeper at General Motors for 40 years. Earlier in her career, she had been asked to train the new plant manager (who were always men) and the breadwinner for his family. As evidenced by this request, my grandmother was more than capable of running the plant herself. She was also the breadwinner of her family, a single mother with two small children, but in those days, the opportunity wasn’t open to her because of her gender. Now, it’s my turn to help those that come after me—to train and develop them and to help others understand the need to tear down the molds that hold people back.

Q. Is there a right way to challenge the system?

A. The easiest way is a sort of judo, using the weight of the system against itself. You can use the innovation cycles and the processes inside the company to help drive change. If you are in the midst of change, it’s an opportunity to look at the scope of needed shifts, and ask: why aren’t we putting this person in the role to bring fresh perspectives? Why don’t we take this approach instead of the same way we’ve always done things? In technology, there are expiration dates. What we built five years ago likely is obsolete. This provides an opportunity and a path to move the diversity and inclusion ball forward faster as a part of the change cycle that is already happening inside your company.

Be careful of pigeonholing someone by their past roles. We all start as a baby. Babies don’t know how to talk when they start out. They don’t know how to walk, and yet we invest in them because we know they can learn it all with our support. If we only base personnel decisions on the jobs that people already know how to do, our organizational strength would never grow. Hire people for their potential and provide support.

As an employee, seek to demonstrate your skills in new ways as proof points to be given new opportunities. Be open to those short-term, out-of-your-wheel-house assignments. The more “at bats” you get, the more people see you “at bat,” the better your escape velocity.

We have solved some of the most difficult, mind-bending technological problems. When I see surveys that say it’s going to take 208 years for women to reach parity in the United States alone, it is unacceptable. We’ve solved much harder, seemingly impossible problems. And this is not a hard problem to solve. It’s an opportunity. In an area fueled by innovation and experimentation, we must break through those numbers. Like any technical hard problem that we put in front of really smart people in this valley, it’s entirely possible. We owe it to the next generation to get it done.

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