With over two and a half decades of experience in the high-tech industry, Iliana Quinonez boasts an impressive career trajectory. She has held leadership roles at prominent companies such as Informix Software, BEA Systems, BDNA Corporation, SAP, and, most recently, served as the Vice President of Solutions Engineering at Salesforce. Iliana Quinonez, an industry insider, is acutely aware of the underrepresentation of women and several minority groups in the STEM space. Shockingly, according to the Women’s Representation in Big Tech report by Statista, as of 2023, women hold only 26.7 percent of technology jobs. Moreover, Statista’s report ‘The U.S. Women in Computing-Related Occupations 2007-2020, by Ethnicity’ reveals that Latina women occupy a mere 2 percent of these positions.
Committed to addressing this disparity and empowering women in general, with a particular emphasis on Latinx and underrepresented minorities, Iliana Quinonez founded IQ Accelerate. Leveraging her corporate experience, passion for technology, and personal dedication to coaching and mentoring, she guides and advises startups founded by Latinx, women, and underrepresented communities. Simultaneously, Iliana Quinonez coaches women leaders and high-tech professionals, aiming to empower them on their path to success.
Iliana Quinonez’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is further exemplified by her role as a Board Member at organizations such as Upwardly Global, which assists immigrant professionals in rebuilding their careers in the U.S., and MENTOR California, dedicated to bridging the youth mentoring gap in the state. A frequent guest on radio/podcast shows and a speaker at events, Iliana Quinonez advocates for Women Leadership, Latinas in Tech, Women in STEM, Latinx Startups, and DE&I. Recognized as an award-winning Latin Trailblazer Woman in Engineering and a Developer of Leaders, Iliana Quinonez’s inspiring career journey is a source of pride for us all.
Describe your career progression from the start to where you are and what were pivotal decisions, moves you made, circumstances, and other facts that facilitated your growth.
- Born and raised in Mexico City, I was the eldest of three sisters, poised to follow in my father’s footsteps to become a doctor. However, destiny took an unexpected turn when I was introduced to the magic of Star Wars. It ignited a passion for technology within me that set me on a life-altering journey spanning over two decades and three different continents.
- I earned my BSC in Computer Science in Mexico. I ventured into the world of American companies, where I stumbled upon the transformative role of Solution Engineering and Technical Presales (after a short stint as a systems developer at a financial services company). Taking a leap of faith, I then left the comfort of my family to embark on a new chapter in the United Kingdom, pursuing my MSc in Information Systems at the London School of Economics. As a minority, I was one of the pioneering Latinas in the field of Engineering during a time when diversity was a scarce commodity.
- After completing my Masters, I interviewed with several tech companies and decided to relocate to Silicon Valley with one of them, BEA Systems, as a Presales Engineer. It was a good journey including a successful IPO and several promotions culminating into a corporate leadership role, but it was no easy feat. I lacked the safety nets of support networks or role models in this country. My path was marked by adaptation, the arduous task of building relationships from the ground up, and a resilient spirit. After that and through various roles in Enterprise Software companies, my career evolved from a high-performing individual contributor to a front-line manager to a leader of leaders growing my scope of responsibility both in terms of a number of people managed, book of business size, and geographies covered. Notable companies on my journey included Informix Software, BEA Systems, BDNA Corporation, SAP, and most recently, in my role as Vice President of Solutions Engineering at Salesforce. Each new role represented an opportunity to grow, in most cases taking on additional challenges or working with teams that were new to me. I had to build strong business partnerships, think more strategically, influence others, and learn to negotiate with a win-win mentality. I also relied on coaches, mentors, and sponsors to support my path to success.
- Almost a couple of years ago, life threw a curveball in the form of a significant health challenge, and the subsequent tech industry’s restructuring this year brought about its own set of challenges. However, it was during these trying times that I reframed challenges into opportunities to create a new venture, leveraging all my corporate experience, my love for technology, and my personal passion for coaching and mentoring others.
- So today, I stand as the Founder and CEO of IQ Accelerate. My mission is twofold: to advise and guide startups founded by Latinx, Women, and Underrepresented minorities on their entrepreneurial journeys, and to coach women leaders and high-tech professionals on their path to success.
What are the key skills and qualifications that aspiring tech executives in the tech industry should focus on developing to enhance their career prospects?
In the dynamic landscape of 2023, prospective high-tech executives must prioritize a dual skill set. First and foremost, they must acquire the necessary knowledge or expertise in AI and ML to remain relevant according to their level and future desired roles. Simultaneously, they should hone vital soft skills integral to leadership at higher corporate echelons. These include but are not limited to effective communication, the power of influence, empathetic leadership, adept navigation through ambiguity and uncertainty, and strong negotiation abilities. Moreover, traits like Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Cultural Intelligence (CQ), and resilience are set to remain pivotal in the foreseeable future.
What are some key milestones or achievements that tech executives should aim for at various stages of their career to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles?
For tech professionals aiming to fast-track their careers in the current economic and workplace climate, these are some things to consider: in the early stages, focus on excelling as an individual contributor (IC). This showcases your performance and potential as future management material if that’s your goal. Afterward, transition into a front-line managerial role, whether as a coach or a player-coach. This leverages your IC experience and nurtures leadership skills. Once you’ve mastered this role, gained confidence, and demonstrated you can manage and lead teams, set your sights on becoming a higher-level leader (level 2+), responsible for leading and developing other leaders or leaders of leaders. At this stage, the emphasis shifts to refining the softer skills of advanced leadership. Sharpen communication, elevate business partnership and collaboration, master negotiation, expand your sphere of influence, and actively seek or be nominated for projects and initiatives that offer visibility and growth opportunities, even when it stretch your comfort zone. Simultaneously, commit to ongoing education relevant to your industry and role. Aspire to be a thought leader in your niche, and cultivate a network of coaches, mentors, and sponsors to support your journey.
How important is it for tech executives to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities to advance their careers? What benefits can they derive from such relationships?
It’s very important for any executive to count as part of their own “board of directors” with coaches, mentors, sponsors, and “cheerleaders”. Each of them can play a significant role in the personal and professional development of the executive. However, it’s important to note that not all of them are/would be always required. While coaches can help us get better at certain skills we need to polish at a particular point in time, once we get to the level we want, maybe it’s time for another coach to work with or another skill to work on. With mentors, the focus should be on the potential for growth, usually these are great people to consult and seek guidance from when we’re facing key decisions, meeting key milestones, or when the path is not so clear and we need someone to help us bring clarity to the picture or when we need to have someone in the role of our accountability partner, someone who knows us today but who also knows our potential for tomorrow. Lastly, with sponsors, we need to always keep in mind that these are the people that will best advocate for us when we’re not in the room when opportunities become available that we may not even have visibility into. With this group, it’s less about the people we know and more about those who are aware of our work and achievements. This means that even if we haven’t met them personally, they will be familiar with our capabilities. This makes it more likely for them to leverage their social and corporate influence to support our careers.
In your experience, what role does professional networking play in the career progression of tech executives? How can tech executives effectively build and leverage their networks?
Networking, especially, “Intentional Networking” is a very powerful tool and something an executive must adopt and even convert into a habit. Networking allows us to connect with people that can add value to our daily lives whether personally or professionally while giving us the opportunity to also give back to them or even pay it forward. By networking with intent, with purpose, we make use of our time and energy more efficiently and we often can make more progress towards our goals: having visibility or access to job opportunities, interesting engagements, connecting with thought leaders, amplifying our/our company’s brands, helping others achieve their own goals, building bridges between people, companies and even countries.
Are there any specific certifications, advanced degrees, or executive education programs that can significantly enhance the career prospects of tech executives in the tech industry? Which ones would you recommend?
I would suggest looking at what the gaps are in your toolbox, brand, or scope of influence and then find specific resources that can help bridge those gaps. Do this with a lens for the future not just the current moment. In other words, prepare or educate yourself in the areas you know you need to grow for your NEXT role and not just for the current one.
Can you share any examples of notable tech executives who have successfully transitioned from one role (e.g., CIO) to another (e.g., CEO) within the same organization or industry? What factors contributed to their success?
Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook):
Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 as its Chief Operating Officer (COO) after working at Google as VP Global Online Sales and Operations. Her transition was marked by her ability to bring her expertise in online advertising and her book “Lean In,” which advocated for women’s leadership in the workplace. She played a pivotal role in Facebook’s growth, thanks to her strong leadership, strategic vision, and focus on expanding the company’s global reach.
Satya Nadella (Microsoft):
Satya Nadella’s journey at Microsoft is a remarkable example of an executive’s transition within the same organization. He started at Microsoft in 1992 and held various roles before becoming CEO in 2014. Key factors that contributed to his success were his ability to adapt the company’s focus from software to cloud services and AI, his customer-centric approach, and his willingness to embrace a growth mindset.
In both cases, we can highlight the importance of adaptability, a clear strategic vision, the ability to lead through change, and a commitment to personal and professional growth as key elements in successfully transitioning within or across organizations in the high-tech industry.
How important is it for tech executives to cultivate a personal brand and establish thought leadership within the industry? What are some effective ways for tech executives to showcase their expertise and gain visibility?
Cultivating a strong personal brand is paramount in the high-tech industry, as it can significantly impact one’s career and influence. For instance, my extensive experience as an IT executive and my work empowering women leaders and underrepresented minorities positions me as a thought leader and advocate in this space. To build a personal brand effectively, consider these steps:
- Define Your Niche and your Target Audience: Identify your unique strengths and your unique value proposition for your target audience.
- Create Content: Share your insights through blogs, social media, and speaking engagements, showcasing your expertise and positioning you as a thought leader.
- Network Strategically: Leverage your networking skills to connect with industry peers, key organizations, government bodies, and potential mentees.
- Be Consistent: Maintain a consistent online presence and messaging that aligns with your brand.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring tech executives who are looking to accelerate their career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry?
Always continue to educate yourself and remain relevant in your industry, build and nurture strong networks, leverage platforms for visibility, cultivate mentors and sponsors, engage coaches when needed, and give back to your communities.
Read more CXO Ladder articles:
Massimo Marchi: Right Decisions Elevate Career Trajectory
Dean Lane: Remarkable Career Journey of a Veteran, a Mentor, and a CIO